NFL training camp 2020: Breaking down 8 rookie vs. veteran running back battles

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NFL training camp is here for 2020 rookies. They will soon be joined by their veteran competition when all camps open in full on Tuesday.

The most intriguing camp competitions to watch — for both reality and fantasy football — involve running backs. For the first eight backs drafted into the league in April, they will need to battle some veterans old and young to earn immediate significant touches.

MORE: NFL running back rankings for 2020

Although there's less true competing because of several teams' situational committee approaches to the position, it's still critical to consider how workloads will be split to determine how big of a role each rookie will have.

Going in the order they were drafted by their teams, here's breaking down 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 splurged on Edwards-Helaire out of LSU in the first round. There's no doubt that coach Andy Reid has an affinity for backs with special, dynamic receiving skills (see Brian Westbrook) and that is Edwards-Helaire's calling card. But the team appreciates Williams' versatile contribution and shouldn't want to thrust the 5-7, 207-pound rookie into an early-down power role.

The Chiefs value Williams for doing all the little things right, including extra pass protection for Patrick Mahomes, so Edwards-Helaire must clear that hurdle to cut into his work. Edwards-Helaire has too much big-play ability not to deploy often in a third-down and change-of-pace role. For now, it looks like both are headed to 12 to 15 touches per game with Edwards-Helaire gradually seeing an increase in preparation to be featured 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 have simply not cooperated in making him available. When healthy, he's shown a dash of explosiveness on both 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 committed to getting its running game right with Darrell Bevell and Swift has workhorse potential.

Johnson will be motivated to return at full speed and contribute, but he can't suddenly match the pedigree and talent of Swift. The Lions should see Swift out-run Johnson as a better fit for their offense. Johnson would be ideal in a relief role to not overwork Swift, but the latter has a good chance to carve out near feature-like status out of camp.

Indianapolis Colts: Jonathan Taylor vs. Marlon Mack vs. Nyheim Hines

Taylor steps into a situation that's a hybrid of what Edwards-Helaire and Swift are facing. From Wisconsin, he comes with complete production and pedigree like Swift, but he's battling an established back the team loves like Edwards-Helaire. Mack is only 24 and has powered to some good chunk yards in a effective run-heavy attack. But he provides little as a receiver and hasn't needed to do so because Hines is proficient and prolific in that role. 

Coach Frank Reich likes the potential of Taylor and Mack both pounding away on early downs and Hines remaining a reliable outlet for new starting QB Philip Rivers. Taylor, however, is more explosive than Mack and more powerful than Hines, making him the only three-down candidate of the three. In terms of percentage of touches, this looks like a messy 40-35-25 split to begin, but at some point, Taylor is too talented to deny 15-plus touches per game across situations.

Los Angeles Rams: Cam Akers vs. Darrell Henderson vs. Malcolm Brown

Sean McVay has pretty much declared his backfield to be a wide-open position as the team tries to replace long-time workhorse Todd Gurley. But based on who's available for him in 2020, he is forced to consider a three-man committee foremost. Akers, the second-rounder, is the most talented with the best feature qualities, but he's also a rookie who needs to earn the trust within a complex offense. Henderson had some technical and ankle injury issues that limited his rookie chances a year ago, while Brown was the far more reliable veteran fill-in for Gurley.

Henderson, when healthy, is looked at as a change of pace with some zip as a receiver. Brown doesn't have any exceptional skills, but he grinds to get what yards are there and was a good drive-finisher in place of Gurley last season. Akers has the most complete upside after not getting much help to produce as much as he should have at Florida State.

Akers, if he can get pass protection down, can emerge as a favorite to out-touch Henderson and Brown. But Henderson's speed advantage and Brown's experience edge over him may push McVay and new offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell to initially stick with something strictly situational.

MORE: NFL GM rankings: Who are the best, worst decision-makers?

Baltimore Ravens: J.K. Dobbins vs. Mark Ingram vs. Gus Edwards

The Ravens ended up with a can't-miss steal when they grabbed a falling Dobbins at No. 55 overall. Since he was drafted, Dobbins as been hyped up as a rookie who can do everything on every down. What he did in Ohio State's dominant rushing attack was plenty proof of that. Dobbins now steps into the NFL's best running game with those powerful, explosive skills.

Ingram, 30, was very effective in 2019, pounding out 5.0 yards per carry and averaging 15 touches. When factoring in Lamar Jackson averaging nearly 12 rushes per game from QB, Ingram was a relative workhorse ahead of Edwards and Justice Hill. Dobbins' presence allows Ingram to phase into a more limited two-down role. Dobbins also has a combination of receiving skills and speed that neither Edwards nor Hill can come close to offering. Look for the Ravens' luxury pick to soon earn top running mate status with Jackson.

Green Bay Packers: A.J. Dillon vs. Jamaal Williams

Aaron Jones is coming off a breakout season and going into a contract year as the unquestioned lead back in Matt LaFleur's offense. But Williams, who served as a good all-around supplement to Jones' production, should be worried about his No. 2 status and roster spot.

With the team needing to spend long term to keep Jones, Williams won't be back as a free agent in 2021. That explains the surprise second-round drafting of Dillon. 

At Boston College, Dillon was a three-year starter known for his physical running, but he has rare speed and athleticism for that style of back. He can't sub for Jones in the passing game the way Williams could, but his early-down explosiveness is a far superior asset. They also don't need to carry Williams' receiving ability should diminutive dasher Tyler Ervin pan out as a No. 3 change of pace. Without Williams, the Packers can push Jones to average 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' backfield soon after he was drafted out of Vanderbilt, but it looks like for now that they are content with young veterans Jones (early downs) and Dare Ogunbowale (passing downs) as the complementary committee for Tom Brady. Vaughn does have some good attributes as both a power runner and receiver, but at the same time, may be not ready for a regular role in either capacity. 

As a rookie without the usual offseason, that puts Vaughn's status in limbo, short of being able to fully compete for significant work. That can change with a stellar camp where he shows the best of his complete skills while Jones and Ogunbowale show more of their limitations in trying to support Brady.

Buffalo Bills: Zack Moss vs. Devin Singletary

The Bills got a fine rookie season from Singletary, their third-rounder from 2019, as he was an explosive runner and very adept receiver to complement Frank Gore. But with Gore gone, they used another third-rounder to land Moss in 2020. The early indication is that Moss and Singletary are headed to a power-speed split, essentially being the new Gore and Singletary. 

Singletary, through an injury-curbed '19, still hit a healthy 15 touches per game, while Gore, through a full 16 games, was right at 11 touches per game with negligible duties as a receiver. Moss comes in with fresh legs and more burst than Gore and showed some receiving promise at Utah.

The Bills seem to have clear definitions of how they would like to use each of their young backs. Because of a bump in his passing game work, there's a good bet for Singletary to retain at least 55 percent of the workload, with Moss maxing out at 45 percent with short-yardage and deep red zone situations working out in his favor.

Tagged: camp Breaking NFL

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