NFL training camp is here for 2020 rookies. They will soon be joined by their veteran league when all camps open fully on Tuesday.
The most intriguing camp matches to watch – for both reality and fantasy football – are running. For the first eight backs lined up in April in the league, they’ll have to face some veterans, old and young, to immediately earn important details.
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While it is less true to compete because of the approach to the position of the teams of different teams, it is still crucial to consider how the workload is distributed to determine how big each rookie’s role will be.
In the order in which they were lined up by their teams, here’s what to expect from the rookies in their upcoming battles:
Kansas City Chiefs: Clyde Edwards-Helaire vs. Damien Williams
The chiefs turned heads when they jumped out of the LSU in the first round Edwards-Helaire. There’s no doubt that coach Andy Reid has an affinity for backs with special, dynamic reception skills (see Brian Westbrook) and that’s Edwards-Helaire’s calling card. But the team appreciates Williams’ versatile contribution and wouldn’t want to push the 5-7, 207-pound rookie into an early down-power role.
The Chiefs appreciate Williams for doing all the little things well, including extra pass protection for Patrick Mahomes, so Edwards-Helaire must take that hurdle to cut his job. Edwards-Helaire has too much big-play capacity not to bet often in a third down-and-tempo-changing role. For the time being, it appears that both are heading 12 to 15 times per game, with Edwards-Helaire gradually seeing an increase in preparation to appear in 2021, when Williams will be a free agent.
Detroit Lions: D’Andre Swift vs. Kerryon Johnson
The Lions like Johnson, their second round pick from 2018, but his knees simply didn’t cooperate to make it available. When healthy, he has shown a touch of explosiveness both in the early downs and as a receiver. Unfortunately for Johnson, Swift is the stronger, more compact back and also carries extra juice in all facets. Detroit is determined to get its running game right with Darrell Bevell, and Swift has potential for workhorses.
Johnson will be motivated to return and contribute at full speed, but he can’t suddenly match Swift’s pedigree and talent. The Lions should view Swift out-run Johnson as a better match for their attack. Johnson would be ideal in a relief role so as not to overtime Swift, but the latter has a good chance of getting an almost signature status from the camp.
Indianapolis Colts: Jonathan Taylor vs. Marlon Mack vs. Nyheim Hines
Taylor enters a situation that is a hybrid of what Edwards-Helaire and Swift face. He comes from Wisconsin with full production and pedigree like Swift, but he fights against an established value that the team loves like Edwards-Helaire. Mack is only 24 and has bottled up some big chunks in an effective run-heavy attack. But he doesn’t give much as a recipient and doesn’t have to because Hines is skilled and productive in that role.
Coach Frank Reich loves the potential of Taylor and Mack, who both bang on early downs and Hines remains a reliable outlet for new starting QB Philip Rivers. However, Taylor is more explosive than Mack and more powerful than Hines, making him the only three-down candidate out of the three. In terms of percentage touches, this looks like a messy 40-35-25 split to start, but at one point Taylor is too talented to deny more than 15 touches per game in different situations.
Los Angeles Rams: Cam Akers vs. Darrell Henderson vs. Malcolm Brown
Sean McVay has declared his backfield as wide open as the team attempts to replace longtime workhorse Todd Gurley. But based on who will be available to him in 2020, he must first consider a three-man committee. The second-rounder, Akers is the most talented with the best traits, but he is also a rookie who must gain confidence in a complex offense. Henderson had some technical and ankle injuries that limited his rookie chances a year ago, while Brown was the much more reliable veteran fill for Gurley.
When Henderson is healthy, it’s seen as a change of pace with a zipper as the receiver. Brown has no exceptional skills, but he grinds to see what yards there are and was a good drive finisher over Gurley last season. Akers has the most complete advantage after not getting much help producing as much as he should in the state of Florida.
Akers, if he can take down pass protection, could become a favorite to hit Henderson and Brown. But Henderson’s speed advantage and Brown’s experience above him may prompt McVay and new offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell to stick with something strictly situational initially.
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Baltimore Ravens: JK Dobbins vs. Mark Ingram vs. Gus Edwards
The Ravens ended up with unmissable steals when they caught a falling Dobbins at number 55 overall. Ever since he was drafted, Dobbins have been thrilled as a rookie who can do anything on any layer. What he did during Ohio’s dominant, hasty attack was sufficient evidence of this. Dobbins now steps into the NFL’s best running game with those powerful, explosive abilities.
Ingram, 30, was very effective in 2019, with 5.0 yards per carry and an average of 15 touches. In charging Lamar Jackson with an average of nearly 12 rushes per QB game, Ingram was a relative workhorse for Edwards and Justice Hill. Due to the presence of Dobbins, Ingram can gradually play a more limited role of two players. Dobbins also has a combination of reception skills and speed that neither Edwards nor Hill can come close to. Look for the luxury choice of the Ravens to quickly achieve best running mate status with Jackson.
Green Bay Packers: AJ Dillon vs. Jamaal Williams
Aaron Jones comes out of a breakout season and enters a contract year as the undisputed lead back in Matt LaFleur’s attack. But Williams, who was a good all-round addition to Jones’s production, should be concerned about his No. 2 status and roster position.
With the team taking a long time to keep Jones, Williams won’t be back as a free agent in 2021. That explains the surprising second round of Dillon.
At Boston College, Dillon was a three-year-old starter known for his physical running, but he has a rare speed and athleticism for that style of back. He can’t beat Jones in passing like Williams could, but his early explosiveness is a much better asset. They also don’t have to wear Williams’s receiving ability when diminutive dasher Tyler Ervin comes out as a number 3 tempo change. Without Williams, the Packers can push Jones to an average of 20 touches per game, with Dillon seeing 8-10 as his backup.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ke’Shawn Vaughn vs. Ronald Jones II
Vaughn looked like a strong candidate to lead the Bucs hinterland shortly after he was taken out of Vanderbilt, but it seems they are happy with young veterans Jones (early downs) and Dare Ogunbowale (passing downs) as the complementary for now committee for Tom Brady. Vaughn has some good features as both a powerrunner and a receiver, but may not be ready for a regular role in either capacity.
As a rookie without the usual off-season, that puts Vaughn’s status in the dark, rather than being able to fully compete for important work. That can change with a star camp where he shows the best of his full abilities, while Jones and Ogunbowale show more of their limitations in trying to support Brady.
Buffalo Bills: Zack Moss vs. Devin Singletary
The Bills had a great rookie season from Singletary, their third rounder from 2019, as he was an explosive runner and a very adept receiver to complete Frank Gore. But when Gore was gone, they used another third-rounder to land Moss in 2020. The first indication is that Moss and Singletary are moving towards a power-speed split, essentially the new Gore and Singletary.
Singletary, injured in a ’19, still hit a healthy 15 touch per game, while Gore was right through a full 16 games with 11 touch per game with negligible receiver duties. Moss comes in with fresh legs and more cracked than Gore and showed some promises in Utah.
The accounts seem to have clear definitions on how they would like to use each of their young backs. Due to a bump in his passing game work, there is a good bet for Singletary to keep at least 55 percent of the workload, with Moss achieving up to 45 percent with short-yardage and scarlet zones working to his advantage.