Replacing Zeke, Melvin Gordon? An Early Look at 2020 NFL Draft's Top RB Options

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterJuly 16, 2019

Clemson's Travis Etienne celebrates his touchdown run during the first half the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Alabama, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Two of the NFL's best running backs—Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys and Melvin Gordon of the Los Angeles Chargers—may hold out in 2019 if they're not given new contracts.

After the saga of Le'Veon Bell with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018, the best running backs are looking at the landscape and realizing they must work together to raise the value of their position on second contracts. Elliott and Gordon are the right guys to make the push.

There is a chance the Cowboys and Chargers will call their bluffs, though. The Steelers, facing a potential Bell holdout, drafted James Conner in the third round in 2017. Conner was asked to replace Bell in 2018 and responded with almost 1,500 yards from scrimmage, and he did so on a contract that paid him $578,000—quite a bit less than the $15 million that was reportedly offered to Bell.

The blueprint has been set: If you don't want to pay a running back on a second contract, you franchise-tag him for multiple seasons and then draft a successor. If the Cowboys and Chargers opt to go this route, the 2020 draft is a good one to look for a new running back.


Travis Etienne, Clemson

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The breakout season from quarterback Trevor Lawrence overshadowed the Heisman-worthy season that Etienne put together for the Tigers as he went for 1,658 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns in his first year as a starter. He picked up tough yards and also showcased a second gear to pull away from defenders.

Etienne (5'10", 200 lbs) does need to show more as a receiver this year after only logging 12 catches in 2018, but when Clemson has future first-rounders at wide receiver in Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, it's easy to see why he didn't factor much into the passing game.

The Cowboys would value his speed and vision, though Etienne is more of a cutback runner than Elliott, so it would be an adjustment for the offensive line.

In Los Angeles, the Chargers have seen Gordon become a big part of the passing game, which is where Etienne has the most question marks. If he can improve his game on third downs, both clubs could want to add him as a plug-and-play back with home run ability right out of the gate.


Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin

The Chargers hit the last time they drafted a first-round running back out of Wisconsin, and they may go back to that well when looking to replace Gordon.

True junior Jonathan Taylor is among the most productive backs in college after logging 2,194 rushing yards in 2018 and amassing an FBS freshman-record 1,977 rushing yards in his first year in Madison. He has also produced in the red zone, notching 16 rushing touchdowns last season.

His 5'11", 219-pound frame is perfect for between-the-tackles running, and NFL scouts expect the former New Jersey track star to run a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash at the combine.

WEST LAFAYETTE, INDIANA - NOVEMBER 17:  Jonathan Taylor #23 of the Wisconsin Badgers runs with the ball in the first quarter against the Purdue Boilermakers at Ross-Ade Stadium on November 17, 2018 in West Lafayette, Indiana. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty I
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

He may sound too good to be true with his power, vision and speed, which is why his fumbles must be addressed. Taylor, who carries a heavy workload for the Badgers, must clean up his form after putting 12 balls on the ground over the last two seasons. The good news is he went from eight in 2017 to four last season, but teams will be aware of this.

Taylor fits the Cowboys' and Chargers' offensive schemes thanks to his combination of skills and hard-nosed running. The only question is whether the potential top-10 pick will be available when they draft.


D'Andre Swift, Georgia

Swift is too often forgotten, as he shared carries with so many great Georgia running backs over the last two seasons.

Elijah Holyfield, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb were all mixed into the backfield rotation with him during that time. Because of this, he doesn't have the stats that those mentioned before him do, but he also doesn't have the wear and tear.

Swift carried the ball just 163 times in 2018 but went over 1,000 yards and had 10 touchdowns while the Bulldogs' attack become more diversified. Flashing back to his true freshman season of 2017, there were times when he looked like the best ball-carrier on the field when competing with a first-rounder (Michel) and rookie starter (Chubb).

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 01:  D'Andre Swift #7 of the Georgia Bulldogs runs with the ball in the first half against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the 2018 SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 1, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by S
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

The Cowboys need an inside runner with zone vision and someone who can catch, and Swift has awareness and inside power at 5'9", 215 pounds. He has also proved to be a receiving threat after catching 32 passes for 297 yards and three touchdowns last season.

The Chargers want much of the same: someone who can handle a heavy workload and also be a fixture in the passing game. Swift answers that call easily, and he could also find himself available late in Round 1, where the team is likely to be drafting.


Honorable Mentions

There could always be another James Conner, who is drafted in the third round and becomes a team's go-to back. Alabama's Najee Harris will finally get his chance after waiting his turn behind Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris.

Ohio State sensation J.K. Dobbins could shoot up draft boards following a big season. The same goes for Florida State's Cam Akers, who fell off some in 2018 as the Seminoles struggled to field a competitive team. Still, he showed enough in his freshman season to be considered a future early-round selection.

Eno Benjamin (Arizona State), Ke'Shawn Vaughn (Vanderbilt) and Kennedy Brooks (Oklahoma) are others who could become fan favorites in the scouting community. Each figures to be available outside of Round 1 and perhaps later than Round 2.

If the Chargers and Cowboys opt to play hardball and refuse to extend their star running backs, there are options in the 2020 draft to ease the loss of a major part of their offensive identities.


Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.