RSP Top-Five Pre-Draft RB Rankings from 2015-2021

Matt Waldman shares the top running backs in his pre-draft rankings from 2015-2021 and some thoughts about these classes. 

A longtime reader asked me about my past top-five running backs from previous draft classes tonight. After sharing them with him and then on Twitter, I thought it would make a fun post for an expanded discussion.

Here are my past pre-draft rankings (top of the board only) in order by year and ranking.

  • 2015: Todd Gurley, Ameer Abdullah, Duke Johnson, Melvin Gordon, T.J. Yeldon, Mike Davis, Malcolm Brown
  • 2016: Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry, Kenneth Dixon, Peyton Barber, Keith Marshall
  • 2017: Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook, Samaje Perine
  • 2018: Nick Chubb, Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice, Kerryon Johnson, Sony Michel
  • 2019: Josh Jacobs, David Montgomery, Damien Harris, Rodney Anderson, Alexander Mattison
  • 2020: J.K. Dobbins, Jonathan Taylor, DeAndre Swift, A.J. Dillon, Zack Moss,  Cam Akers, CEH
  • 2021: Trey Sermon, Najee Harris,  Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Travis Etienne

As a reader said on Twitter, “Pretty solid.” Here are thoughts about each class.

2015: David Johnson was my ninth back, but in the pre-draft publication, I noted that if he landed in a gap-heavy scheme like Arizona or Indianapolis, he could deliver Pro-Bowl production. That happened. I was lower on Tevin Coleman, Matt Jones, and Jeremy Langford. All three had flashes but didn’t sustain their standing. While Gordon deserved top-two status for that year, Abdullah, Davis, and Brown have outlasted a lot of backs some rated ahead of them. Even so, Abdullah and Duke Johnson did not perform to their potential.

2016: Elliott and Henry have performed as advertised. Dixon got hurt and suspended and never delivered to expectation. Barber has had a much better career than most of the backs the consensus rated ahead of him: C.J. Prosise, Tyler Ervin, Devontae Booker, DeAndre Washington, Paul Perkins, and Jonathan Williams. While Kenyan Drake has had more highs than Barber, he’s also disappointed relative to the high expectations others had. I was much lower on Drake (28th)  than the consensus. I was also lower on Prosise (10th) Booker (6th) and Williams (12th). I was higher on Alex Collins (7th) than most.

2017: McCaffrey is the most talented, but one could argue that McCaffrey and Fournette need specific fits to maximize their skills and Fournette’s fit was more commonly found in NFL than McCaffrey’s. Either way, a solid 1-2 ranking. There was much to be made of Cook’s pre-draft metrics relative to many starters but as I analyzed during that time, Cook’s running style didn’t match the way many apply these workout drills. Cook has been excellent. Mixon has been good.

I was lower on Alvin Kamara, James Conner,  Kareem Hunt than I would have liked. I underestimated Kamara’s decision-making and ball security although I have been told Sean Payton had issues with Kamara’s decision-making early on as well. Conner’s film was strong and I noted in my rankings that he had starter upside if he could get quicker–and he did.  I had questions about Hunt’s burst, but he proved explosive enough. I was higher on Jamaal Williams (6th) and Aaron Jones (10th) than

2018: Chubb over Barkley by a hair and both scored extremely high for running backs. A lot of folks cite this call.

It’s not the first time I’ve had these types of calls. Isaiah Crowell, a UDFA was my No.1 back in 2014. Carlos Hyde, Bishop Sankey, Terrence West, and Jeremy Hill were top names in this 2014 class. The best back from 2014? Devonta Freeman. You could probably put Freeman, James White, and Crowell in the top five in the outcome. Still, I had warnings about Sankey, Andre Williams, West, and Hill.

Back to the 2018 class, Guice showed the talent but off-field behavior and injury derailed his career. Injury derailed the promising start for Johnson and rendered him a part-time reserve talent. Michel has been ok when healthy. I had Ronald Jones, Royce Freeman, Justin Jackson, Chase Edmonds, and Boston Scott as notables in the next two tiers.

2019: I was lower on Miles Sanders, Devin Singletary, Bryce Love, and Trayveon Williams. Henderson was just outside my top five. I loved Anderson’s talent and in the briefest moment during his rookie preseason, he looked the part before another injury killed his career. Still, the pre-draft rankings are about talent and the injuries were notable issues in his report. Overall, Jacobs, Montgomery, and Harris have stood out when healthy.

2020: I avoided the CEH hype–solid back, but not special. Taylor and Dobbins were the special backs and my assessments were accurate. Hopefully, Dobbins returns to form, but his health is a big question mark right now. Swift wasn’t my fave, but I knew the fit would help him and it has. I was higher on Dillon and Moss than Akers. Moss proved to be the inconsistent decision-maker whereas Akers has shored up his game. Dillon has looked like a starter and all-around back I profiled when given a chance.

2021: San Francisco was my pre-draft analysis’ worst fit for Sermon. I should have dropped him more than I did post-draft, but the team trading up to get Sermon and the depth chart were reasons I didn’t. I still believe he’s an excellent talent but needs a team that has a different offensive scheme that doesn’t emphasize perimeter speed above all else. Harris is as advertised thus far despite a struggling offensive line. Williams and Carter also showed their promise. Khalil Herbert and Rhamondre Stevenson were players I was higher on who have flashed their potential so far.

For the most in-depth analysis of offensive skill players available (QB, RB, WR, and TE), download the 2022 Rookie Scouting Portfolio for $21.95. 

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If you’re a fantasy owner and interested in purchasing past publications for $9.95 each, the 2012-2020 RSPs also have a Post-Draft Add-on that’s included at no additional charge.  

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