6 Divisive Early-Round Running Backs, and When to Draft Them

6 early-round running back situations where our experts have a wide-range of opinions, and how you should handle them on draft day.

You don't need us to tell you Christian McCaffrey is the No. 1 running back, everyone agrees. Even if we made a case for another tailback (and we're not going to), it wouldn't matter -- McCaffrey is the 1st player drafted in nearly every draft.

But what about those running backs where there isn't a consensus view? At Footballguys, unlike many sites, we allow all of our staff to share their rankings. In fact, we encourage it. But the reality is most subscribers focus on the consensus of all of our disparate viewpoints. With someone like McCaffrey, where 15 of 15 rankers have him No. 1, our individual opinions don’t matter much. But what about the players you’re targeting who we see quite differently?

Those are the picks that can make or break your draft. In the first three rounds of a 12-team draft, 18 to 20 running backs will come off the board. Two or three rankings spots may not seem like much, but in the early rounds, it's the difference between passing on someone or targeting them.

With the draft season underway, here are the highest-variance early-round running backs and how you should handle them.


Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs

Rank Name Avg Median St Dev Min Rank Max Rank Difference bw Min Max
8 Clyde Edwards-Helaire 9.7 9.0 3.89 5 17 12

The Details: On average, 15 staff members rank Edwards-Helaire 9.7, although that slots as RB8. The median ranking is 9th, but there's a wide range of expected outcomes. Everyone on staff sees Edwards-Helaire as a top-20 back, but some see him as high as RB5 -- which justifies an early first-round pick, while some see him as low as RB17 -- which would mean a late second-round pick. The mode ranking is RB6, with four staffers ranking him there. At least one staff ranks him RB5, RB6, RB7, RB8, RB9, RB11, RB13, RB14, RB15, and RB17, which explains his 3.89 standard deviation. Edwards-Helaire has an average draft position of RB7, which means our staff is nearly three ranking spots lower than ADP. Six of fifteen rankers have Edwards-Helaire at or higher than ADP, while nine have him lower.

The Upside Case by Phil Alexander: If you're afraid to draft Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the top half of the first round, you're overthinking it. The only thing ever standing between Edwards-Helaire and elite fantasy production in year-one was Damien Williams. Williams removed himself from the equation, and none of Darrel Williams, Darwin Thompson, or DeAndre Washington, are good enough reasons to fade Edwards-Helaire as a rookie. Not enough people seem to realize pass protection won't impact Edwards-Helaire's opportunities to fill up the box scores. Kareem Hunt played on 65% of Kansas City's offensive snaps as a rookie despite pass-blocking on only 11% of those snaps. He was too busy carrying the ball, running routes, and scoring fantasy points when he was on the field for pass-blocking to matter. Why won't the same be true of Edwards-Helaire? His competition is too weak, the training camp buzz too loud, and Patrick Mahomes II II' endorsement too meaningful to manufacture reasons to doubt him.

The Downside Case by Jordan McNamara: I would not take Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round. While the narrative is Kansas City is a high level running back landing spot, the Mahomes-era has been different for the Andy Reid offense. In the past two seasons, Kansas City ranks 19th in halfback targets, 16th in halfback receptions, and 28th in halfback carries. Combined in the past two seasons, Kansas City ranks 28th in halfback touches. In 2019, the top two running backs in touches, Damien Williams and LeSean McCoy, combined for 270 touches. To warrant a pick in the first round, Clyde Edwards-Helaire would need to virtually consolidate that entire workload and I'm skeptical that happens, particularly with others like DeAndre Washington and Darrel Williams as committee backs in a condensed offseason for a rookie. Otherwise, Edwards-Helaire needs Kansas City to expand the running back volume. With Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Mecole Hardman all back in 2020, I'm struggling to see Kansas City take a big shift in offensive construct.

Conclusion: He's A First-Rounder, but Don't Get Caught Up in the Momentum

Edwards-Helaire was a popular rookie pick by being the only running back drafted in the first round of the NFL draft, but his fantasy stock skyrocketed once presumptive starter Damien Williams opted out because of Covid-19 concerns. Our staff is a house divided on whether his popularity has grown too far, too fast. Six (40%) of our rankers think he'll justify his ADP, while 60% believe there are at least one or two more attractive running backs to target in the second half of the first round. Given his situation, it's entirely justifiable to use a first-round pick on him, but don't overlook players like Michael Thomas, Davante Adams, or Derrick Henry for him.


Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

Rank Name Avg Median St Dev Min Rank Max Rank Difference bw Min Max
12 Nick Chubb 10.9 11.0 3.58 5 18 13

The Details: On average, Nick Chubb slots 10.9 in our rankings, with a median of 11. Both the average of staff consensus and the median are in line with his ADP of RB11, but there's a 3.58 standard deviation among the group. The most bullish analyst sees Chubb as a top-5 back, while the most bearish sees him as RB18, which means they wouldn't consider drafting him given how far away that is from ADP. Eleven of fifteen rankers have Chubb as a top-12 back, and eight of them rank him at or higher than his ADP. Only four staff see Chubb falling short of his draft price, and only one ranker puts him outside the Top 15.

The Upside Case by Matt Waldman: I think most of my peers are going to say he's overvalued due to the presence of Kareem Hunt. I think this is a misguided notion based on Hunt's talent, box score production in last year's scheme, and ignorance about the new scheme under Kevin Stefanski. The first point is understandable: Hunt is a top-12 RB talent with elite production potential. It's hard people to grasp that Chubb is the clearly better back unless you really study the position with a fine eye. Chubb is a better tackle breaker, faster, and more accomplished with a variety of run schemes. He's also a better receiver than characterized. Hunt's stretch-run was under a different coaching regime and scheme that failed miserably with a cohesive and strategic approach to offense. This year, Stefanski brings Gary Kubiak's' run game from Minnesota that features ONE back and only one back on the field a vast majority of the time and uses a ton of fullback, H-Back, and tight end looks to lead the way for that runner. Hunt will get enough touches to maybe earn fantasy RB3 production. Chubb's floor is low-end RB1 production with Hunt. Without Hunt, Chubb is the best back and fantasy back in football.

The Downside Case by Justin Howe: Over the past five seasons, we've seen 32 seasons of 250+ PPR points from a running back. Only four of those were achieved with fewer than 40 receptions, and Chubb doesn't have a prayer of reaching that mark, so he's at a huge disadvantage among the RB1 crowd. Kareem Hunt is the Browns' preferred receiving back; he's the main reason Chubb only caught 11 balls over the final 8 weeks last year. Those drafting Chubb as an RB1 are banking heavily on long runs and big touchdown numbers, which isn't a shrewd move in the second and third rounds.

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