JACKSONVILLE – There's good news in the coming weeks for NFL general managers seeking immediate help at running back.
"This is a stacked class," CBSSports.com NFL Draft analyst Ryan Wilson said.
The better news for NFL general managers?
They needn't burn an early first-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft – or even a first-round selection at all – to get a very good running back.
The last sentence reflects the current NFL climate, in which teams have become increasingly reluctant to spend big free-agent money or premium draft capital on running backs. Because of that reluctance, what analysts considered a very good – and deep – running back class won't necessarily mean a lot of players at the position selected early.
But it may mean a lot of good backs who can contribute quickly being available on Day 2 and early on Day 3 of the draft.
"There are a lot of players who can pop," NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks said.
What this means for the Jaguars in the '20 draft is anyone's guess. Running back Leonard Fournette has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in two of his first three seasons, and backup Ryquell Armstead appears capable of a similar punishing running style to Fournette. So, the Jaguars are capable at the spot.
But could the Jaguars seek a change-of-pace back under new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden? That seems possible.
Opinions vary on where running backs could begin coming off draft boards. But many believe D'Andre Swift of Georgia the best available back – and many believe him a late first-round selection.
"He's the most natural running back in the class," Brooks said, with Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN adding of Swift: "What sets him apart is the completeness. It's as a runner, receiver, receiver, blocker and ball security … all four areas, he comes out on top."
In his multiple '20 mock drafts to date, Wilson said less than 10 percent featured a first-round running back – and that that was typically in the round's final selection. He added that where you ranked different running backs in this draft "depends on what you like."
Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins also is considered by many a late first- or second-round selection – "He's got the right stuff," Brooks said – with Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin also considered a likely early-round selection. Taylor is a two-time Doak Walker Award winner for the best running back in college football.
Also mentioned prominently by most analysts: Florida State running back Cam Akers, who twice rushed for more than 1,000 yards in three collegiate seasons despite the program struggling during his career there.
"If you told me four years from now that Cam Akers ended up being the first or second best back in this draft, I would not be surprised at all," NFL Network draft analyst Jeremiah said. "I think he's really talented. Sometimes when you're a player that's on a team and a program that's in a place that that program was at last year … he had all the reason in the world to shut it down and he didn't do it, which told me a lot about him as a competitive kid.
"I think teams like him as well. I think he's a really good football player."
Wilson: "Even on Day Three, you can get guys [at running back in this draft). You can get deep into Day Three and find guys to contribute right away."
PROJECTED FIRST-ROUND RUNNING BACKS
D'Andre Swift, Georgia; Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin.
CHANCES JAGUARS TAKE A RUNNING BACK IN ROUND 1
Very, very slim.
JAGUARS AT RUNNING BACK
Leonard Fournette (projected starter), Ryquell Armstead, Devine Ozigbo, Taj McGowan, Jeremy McNichols.
The question probably isn't whether the Jaguars will take a running back in the '20 draft, but where they will do so – and what will they want from the player. They likely will draft a change-of-pace, third-down option; an effective player in that role is critical to Gruden's offensive approach. Worth watching, too: whether the Jaguars draft a back capable of an every-down or feature-back role. The team must decide whether to pick up Fournette's fifth-year option later this offseason. If they're looking to draft an eventual replacement, they could focus on a player such as Akers if he slips past the second round.
Running back should be a position of strength headed into the draft. Fournette is coming off a season in which he produced 1,674 yards from scrimmage; his 76 receptions were more than his first two years combined. More importantly, he showed the ability to stay healthy; he wasn't even on the injury report until the final week of the season and started the first 15 games. His long-term future in Jacksonville might be uncertain but he's a dependable, productive player who still has plenty of upside to his game. Armstead barely got a look last season in part because Fournette was on the field but also because the Jaguars didn't possess the ball enough or have a lead long enough to create enough opportunities for him. He's a big back in the Fournette mold with an angry running style, so it seems the Jaguars are set in the backfield – though you might see a late-round pick who can play a specific role, perhaps a change-of-pace sort of runner.