Should Bijan Robinson – or any running back

Simultaneously, Bijan Robinson is both one of the least controversial and most controversial prospects in the 2023 NFL draft. After a sterling career at Texas, just about everybody agrees Robinson is an excellent running back and one of the best players, independent of position, in this class. He ranks No. 9 overall on Mel Kiper’s Big Board and is No. 4 in Todd McShay’s list of the top 32 prospects.

The controversy comes in because of the position Robinson plays. If this were 40 years ago, he might be a candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick. Now, there are questions about whether NFL teams should even consider taking him at any point in the first round. A league that averaged more than four running backs in Round 1 each year in the 1980s and 1990s has used 12 first-round picks on backs in the past 10 drafts. Draft capital used on running backs on the whole has collapsed.

What’s with the disconnect? Should teams be skeptical of taking any running back in Round 1? Is Robinson an exception to whatever rules teams might hold about drafting backs as high as he’s expected to go in Kansas City, Missouri, later this month?

Let’s take a deep dive into the issues facing running backs and how teams scout and value those backs. I’m also going to look into how teams are built and how often premium backs turn into championship winners for the organizations that drafted them. If Robinson is a top-10 talent, should he go in the top 10? Or should teams let him fall to Round 2?

Jump to a section:
Problem No. 1: The value of RBs
Problem No. 2: The draft is hard
Problem No. 3: The opportunity cost
Should Robinson be a Round 1 pick?

How good is Robinson as a prospect?

By just about every measure I can find, Robinson should be considered one of the best backs to come out of college in recent memory. He finished his final college season with 1,580 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground.

Over the past two seasons, Robinson evaded 17.4% of tackle attempts, the second-best rate in the country among backs with at least 200 carries. He ranked fifth in broken tackle rate and 10th in yards per carry gained after first contact. In an era in which backs need to be a part of the passing game, he caught 45 balls for 609 yards and six more touchdowns over the past two seasons, which ranked 13th in yards per route run among those 200-plus-carry backs.

Other advanced analytics are happy to peg Robinson at the top of the class. Football Outsiders’ BackCAST metric has Robinson at No. 1 in this class, albeit not on a level with Jonathan Taylor (2020) or Saquon Barkley (2018) coming out of college. The NFL Next Gen Stats model grades Robinson as a 96th-percentile prospect, with elite production in school and an excellent performance at the NFL combine.

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ESPN’s scouts and evaluators rave about Robinson’s physical traits. All four of our draft analysts — Kiper, McShay, Matt Miller and Jordan Reid — rank him as a top-10 prospect. Miller said he is the best running back prospect since Barkley. Reid called him “the total package” and a “special player” after the combine.

Robinson had a significant workload by modern standards last season, carrying the ball at least 20 times in a game nine different times. His 2021 season was ended prematurely because of a dislocated right elbow, and he was able to walk away from a scary hurdle attempt in 2020 with a back strain.

You can poke the tiniest possible holes or raise small concerns, but let’s be realistic: Robinson is an excellent prospect. The question is whether even an excellent running back is likely to produce a great first-round pick. There’s a series of problems we need to address before we can get a better sense of whether that’s true — or if a team should take him in Round 1.

Problem No. 1: The value of running backs

There’s a major misconception I hear often when fans discuss draft picks. In comparing a veteran option with NFL experience to the possibility of landing a player at the same position in the draft, I’ll invariably read someone suggest the draft pick is overrated because he isn’t guaranteed to be successful. On one level, those arguments are right, because we know being selected in the draft is no guarantee of future success.

Thinking about the league this way ignores two things, though. One is veterans don’t pan out as often as we would like to believe, either. Plenty of free agents and trade acquisitions fail to deliver on expectations. When the Dolphins were building their roster last spring, they gave former Cowboys wideout Cedrick Wilson Jr. a three-year, $22.1 million deal with $12.75 million guaranteed. The 26-year-old was coming off a 602-yard, six-touchdown season and was projected to have upside.

What happened next? The Dolphins traded for Tyreek Hill, and Wilson barely saw the field. He played 237 offensive snaps last season, with Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Trent Sherfield, pseudo-tight end Mike Gesicki and even River Cracraft playing ahead of him. The Dolphins still owe Wilson $5 million guaranteed as part of a $7 million base salary, and he might not even make their roster.

More notably, fans and even analysts ignore the economic impact a draft pick can have relative to veteran players. While picks have uncertain outcomes, the price teams pay to acquire those players is both certain and much cheaper. Wilson’s deal will likely pay him $14.75 million over two years. Chris Olave, the No. 11 overall pick in last year’s draft and a budding star for the Saints, will take home just under $16 million for the first three years of his contract. He’ll make less than Wilson over the first two seasons of that deal.

Since the league moved to its slotted system in 2012, draft picks have been bargains, even accounting for the chances of landing on a bust. Take the Vikings and Justin Jefferson. Jefferson, who has been a superstar from the moment he entered the league as the 22nd pick in 2020, has made $10.7 million over the first three years of his deal. The top of the wide receiver market when he entered the league was Amari Cooper’s $20 million per season; now, it’s Hill at $30 million per year.

Split the difference and a player with Jefferson’s ability might have been worth $25 million per season to the Vikings. The team instead paid him just over $3.5 million per year instead, with no ability for him to renegotiate until the end of his third season in the league. Minnesota has generated more than $64 million in surplus value over the past three seasons by nailing that pick.

By saving all that money — the Vikings landed a star receiver for $3.5 million per year! — teams are left with the ability to spend money elsewhere on the roster. Keep this difference in mind when comparing a rookie contract to a veteran’s.

The difference between quarterback Joe Burrow, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft who has made $10 million per year over the past three seasons, and Dak Prescott, a veteran who has made just under $50 million per year in the same time frame, isn’t just saving money in a vacuum. It’s $40 million a team is free to use to try to improve other positions. Comparing their performance is one thing, but the Bengals have been able to have Burrow, Trey Hendrickson, DJ Reader, Chidobe Awuzie and some money left over on their roster over the past two years for what the Cowboys have paid Prescott. You can see the power of landing a star rookie.

This goes down through the entire draft. Wilson making $14.75 million over two years to be a third or fourth wideout is an exorbitant figure. The Vikings have gotten more production over the past two seasons out of K.J. Osborn, who was making $1.7 million between 2021 and 2022 as a fifth-round pick to play the same role. Not all fifth-round picks turn into useful players, but even if they don’t develop into superstars, the upside when a player becomes a contributor is extremely valuable.

There’s one other key factor with those rookie contracts that doesn’t get discussed anywhere near as much as it should. That’s because it dramatically impacts the types of players teams should be drafting. The market for veteran deals differs dramatically from position to position based on how the league values each spot in the lineup. The top of the quarterback market is north of $50 million per season, but Christian McCaffrey’s market-setting running back contract was only $16 million per year.

Bijan Robinson put up 1,894 yards from scrimmage last season with 20 total touchdowns. Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire

Draft picks, on the other hand, are predetermined and slotted in regardless of position. Per Spotrac, the No. 10 overall pick is projected to sign a four-year, $22.3 million deal, regardless of whether he’s a quarterback, tight end or long-snapper.

There’s a meaningful difference here. A team can’t draft a quarterback every year, but if it lands a star quarterback with the No. 10 pick, it’s going to generate about $45 million per year in surplus value. If it lands a star running back, it’ll make only about $10 million per year versus what a top-of-the-line back gets on the open market. That difference informs how confident teams need to be about players at each position to justify drafting them.

First-round picks have four guaranteed seasons on their deals, but many talented young players sign an extension after their third season. We can look at the money they’ll make over the first three years of their deal and compare that to the money veterans on multiyear pacts make on the first three years of their deals at the same position to get an estimate of how confident teams need to be to justify making the selection.

To keep things simple, I’ll work with one first-round pick here — let’s go with the Cowboys’ selection at No. 26. Using the Spotrac projections and the rate at which teams pay base salaries in this range, we can estimate the 26th pick will make $11.3 million over the first three years of his deal. I’ll compare that to veterans on multiyear pacts and possible returns there.

Since no team wants to use a first-round pick to land a backup, I’ll use two other numbers. I’ll estimate a star to be the fifth-largest three-year value and an above-average player to be the 10th-largest three-year value for a veteran deal. At running back, that’s Nick Chubb and David Montgomery, respectively. For positions in which teams use two players who are roughly paid about as much — such as cornerback and guard — I’ll use the 10th- and 20th-highest-paid players instead.

Here’s what the break-even rate looks like at the No. 26 pick. If a team can turn that pick into a star or an above-average player this often, it can consider drafting that position at 26:

Break-even rate for a late first-round pick

Position Star Above-Average Position Star Above-Average
QB 9.4% 12.4% TE 31.5% 37.7%
LT 18.9% 24.7% S 34.0% 51.5%
WR 19.4% 25.7% G 34.3% 50.3%
EDGE 21.6% 25.7% LB 36.5% 62.9%
DT 23.7% 41.9% C 37.6% 62.9%
CB 25.2% 37.7% RB 40.5% 62.9%
RT 27.0% 38.7%

You can see the value in taking a swing on quarterbacks, even as high as the bottom of the first round. If a signal-caller has even a 10% chance of turning into a star, it’s worth considering taking a shot on him at No. 26. We know the league values blindside tackles, edge rushers and wide receivers, and that shows up in the salary evidence.

You can also see where a running back ends up. The league simply doesn’t value star running backs the way it does other positions. Chubb is making as much on the first three years of his extension as guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai, defensive end John Franklin-Myers and cornerback Michael Davis did on theirs, and none of those three is considered close to top-five talent at their respective positions.

An NFL team has to be more than five times as confident about a running back turning into an above-average starter than it does about a quarterback to justify taking a back in Round 1. And, of course, even if a team finds a running back it thinks has more than a 41% chance of becoming a star, there’s a decent chance it will have someone else on its board who has a better chance of exceeding the breakeven rate at their position.

That table is a simplified version of what a team should be looking at with its picks. The contract data can be adjusted for when each deal was signed and for where the market is expected to go over the next three years as the cap rises. It might be better to consider a wider range of possible outcomes. The numbers change as the pick changes. Analyst Kevin Cole took a longer look at surplus value in the draft by position and round, which is worth a read for more context.

What’s important to take away is the idea. NFL teams have to be more confident about a running back’s chances of succeeding as a first-round pick than it does for a player at any other position to justify drafting him, because the reward is the least compelling. Even if you believe Robinson is going to be the best running back in football, the league sees that being worth about as much as cornerback Charvarius Ward or wide receiver Allen Robinson got in free agency a year ago.

Now, there’s another question to ask: How confident can we be that Bijan Robinson will turn into one of the NFL’s best backs?

Problem No. 2: We’re not any good at drafting

There’s no doubt about Robinson as a prospect, but any smart, self-aware franchise would have doubts about its ability to judge prospects on the whole. Virtually every piece of public research on the NFL draft has found organizations simply aren’t any good at picking players after adjusting where those players come off the board.

The famous anecdote is about the Steelers drafting four Hall of Famers in the first five rounds of the 1974 draft and then players who made a grand total of two Pro Bowl appearances across their next five drafts. In 2003, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome traded up for Kyle Boller in Round 1. Eagles general manager Howie Roseman, who just built two Super Bowl teams in a decade, moved up for offensive tackle Andre Dillard in 2019 and drafted wide receiver Jalen Reagor in 2020 over Jefferson in consecutive first rounds. Given enough chances, even the smartest guys in the room will prove they can make conspicuous mistakes.

So, how confident can we be that a first-round pick at running back — or a player at any position — will pan out? Success can be in the eye of the beholder, but one logical way to look at this is to consider how often those first-round picks have been successful enough to justify their teams picking up their fifth-year options. There has been a change in that system — fifth-year options have gone from being guaranteed for injury to fully guaranteed at the time of the pickup since the 2020 CBA — but only a handful of players under the old system saw their options picked up before being released after Year 4, with Robert Griffin, Leonard Floyd and Adoree’ Jackson as the most notable examples.



Bijan Robinson is ‘built different,’ and these plays show it

Check out some of RB Bijan Robinson’s most exciting plays from his career as a Texas Longhorn.

From 2011 to ’19, 177 of the 287 first-round picks either had their fifth-year options picked up or signed an extension before their team had to make a decision. That’s a hit rate of just under 62%. Defensive backs had the best hit rate, as 68% of the first-round corners or safeties justified a fifth-year option pickup.

Running backs weren’t as promising. Just five of the 13 first-round running backs garnered a fifth-year option or a contract extension before their fourth season began. The resulting 38.5% success rate for those picks was the worst of any position. Every other position group had their fifth-year option picked up more than 50% of the time.

While Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley and Christian McCaffrey all had their options picked up and/or signed extensions after their third seasons, other backs with first-round statuses disappointed. Trent Richardson was cut before the end of his rookie deal, while David Wilson fumbled five times on 121 touches before suffering a career-ending neck injury. Leonard Fournette, Mark Ingram, Josh Jacobs, Doug Martin, Sony Michel and Rashaad Penny all had their fifth-year options declined.

This isn’t a perfect measure. Obviously, we’re dealing with a group of 13 backs. Ingram went on to have a lengthy career with the Saints and Ravens, playing much better from his fourth season onward. Jacobs and Martin both had breakout seasons in Year 4. Martin earned a significant deal from the Buccaneers, while Jacobs is likely to get one from the Raiders this offseason.

At the same time, Barkley’s fifth-year option and the subsequent successful season was really just his second above-average campaign in five years, sandwiched around three years battling injuries. Gurley was excellent through four seasons and then fell off so quickly that he was out of football two years later. McCaffrey signed his extension after Year 3 and then missed most of the next two seasons with various injuries. Fournette’s best season came on the Buccaneers after he was cut by Jacksonville. Some of the players who didn’t get their fifth-year options were better than that measure would indicate, but others marked as successes weren’t as consistently impactful as their teams would have hoped.

We have to go back further to consider things differently. One broad measure of performance is Pro Football Reference’s approximate value (AV) metric, which divides each team’s offensive and defensive performance each season among its players. Jacobs, the most productive running back by the metric in 2022, generated 15 points of AV. When Adrian Peterson won the MVP award in 2012, his 19 AV ranked second in the league behind cornerback Richard Sherman.

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Let’s go back a decade to players who have completed (or mostly completed) their careers to get a sense of how often players at different positions produce significant AV. To use round numbers, I’m looking to see how often a first-round pick produced 50 AV or more. For reference, just looking at backs regardless of where they were drafted, Latavius Murray (51), Austin Ekeler (52) and Jamal Anderson (53) are players with different sorts of career arcs who all narrowly top the 50 AV threshold. Ryan Mathews (49), Ronnie Brown (48) and Ahmad Bradshaw (47) fell just short.

From 1980 to 2010, about 39% of first-round picks produced 50 or more AV points over the course of their careers, either for their own team or another. In an era in which teams were more aggressive in valuing running backs with first-round grades, 117 running backs were selected in the first round, the fourth most out of the seven positional groups.

Just 32.5% of those backs generated 50 or more AV. Again, this was the worst mark for any positional group. There’s not a huge range between the worst positional group and the best (quarterbacks at 46.2%), but this isn’t exactly strong evidence that teams were right to draft running backs in the first round more often in years past.

It’s fair to wonder whether Robinson is a typical first-round prospect. He might have more in common with truly elite backs such as prime Elliott and Peterson than he does with Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who was drafted at the bottom of the first round in 2020. The reservations about Round 1 backs might still stand, but Robinson is unique. The best running back prospect in years is different than a prospect who might be a borderline first-rounder. I get that. What I would point out, though, is even smart people are comfortable throwing out that tag about prospects and end up with egg on their faces.

Richardson, drafted No. 4 overall in 2012, was regarded by some as “the greatest running back prospect of all time.” Fournette was a back unlike any other and a “generational” talent. Darren McFadden, drafted No. 4 overall in 2008, was a combination of Peterson and LaDainian Tomlinson. McFadden was a solid pro, but he ended up as the sixth-most productive back in his own class.

I’m not bringing up those examples to try to embarrass anyone. (In 2021, I picked the Jaguars to win the division with coach Urban Meyer, so I have no room to take shots at anybody.) Those players each went in the top five, so it’s clear at least one team felt the same way. Richardson was a replacement-level back, Fournette’s best stretch came after his team cut him in Year 4 and McFadden didn’t make it to a Pro Bowl. They were every bit as well regarded as prospects as Robinson is now, and they didn’t become superstars. We’re overconfident about our ability to project top prospects into becoming pro stars at all positions, let alone running back.

What’s even more difficult with the Robinson conversation is seeing what happens when teams move on from first-round picks or star backs. More often than with other positions, they thrive. Last season, McCaffrey generated 9 rush yards over expectation (RYOE) on 85 carries with Carolina, per NFL Next Gen Stats. After he was traded to San Francisco, the Panthers replaced him with the relatively anonymous trio of draftees Chuba Hubbard and Raheem Blackshear and free agent addition D’Onta Foreman, who combined to make a quarter of McCaffrey’s contract. Those three then generated 229 RYOE on 303 combined carries over the rest of the season. McCaffrey offered more as a receiver and did great work with the 49ers, but it seems telling the Panthers traded him away and got better running the football.

The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Bijan Robinson ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in March. Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Several years ago, Gurley’s role with the Rams led many to position him as the exception to many rules about backs. When he missed time in the second half of 2018, the Rams turned to street free agent C.J. Anderson, who averaged 7.0 yards per carry during the regular season and then went for 123 yards and two scores in a playoff win over the Cowboys.

The Chiefs might be the most recent example of a team going with the less notable option and thriving. After years of being frustrated by the struggles of Edwards-Helaire, coach Andy Reid benched him last season. Reid turned over the position to the combination of free agent addition Jerick McKinnon (making $1.2 million) and rookie seventh-round pick Isiah Pacheco, who was the 22nd running back taken in last year’s draft.

I can give you numbers, but you probably don’t need them. McKinnon became an unlikely red zone threat and scored eight receiving touchdowns over the final six games of the season. Pacheco’s power punished teams that played light boxes against the pass-happy Chiefs, as he averaged nearly 5.0 yards per carry during the regular season. He then carried the ball 37 times for 197 yards and a touchdown during the postseason, including a 15-carry, 76-yard performance against the stout Eagles defensive line in Super Bowl LVII.

If you didn’t know anything about the players and had to watch them play, which one would you peg as the first-round pick? It would be Pacheco, not Edwards-Helaire. The Kansas City offense looked fundamentally better with one back on the field as opposed to another, which suggests it can’t just plug any random back into the offense and thrive. That’s true. If the Chiefs do a better job of finding that back in the seventh round than they did in the first round, though, what does it say about our ability to identify the right backs to prioritize in the draft?

Problem No. 3: Do great teams often have an expensive running back?

The answer is no. Teams that win Super Bowls, at least in the modern era, typically don’t have extremely expensive backs. The Chiefs were primarily using Pacheco and McKinnon. The Eagles had a rotation built around two guys on rookie deals — Miles Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell — and low-cost third option Boston Scott. The 49ers and Bengals, who lost in the conference title games, have more invested at the position, but this isn’t a one-year trend.

When was the last time a team with an expensive running back won the Super Bowl? You have to go back to the Seahawks with Marshawn Lynch in 2013. Across the ensuing 10 Super Bowls, five teams used a primary back on a rookie deal, while the other five signed free agents to modest deals and plugged them into a rotation.

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The Patriots, who have dominated much of the past two decades, were perfectly content to rotate midround picks and veterans acquired on the cheap in free agency mixed in with the very occasional big-ticket item. Corey Dillon took a pay cut upon arriving in New England in 2004, had a great season, got paid and then struggled. Coach Bill Belichick used first-round picks on Laurence Maroney and Sony Michel with disappointing results. Michel had a heavy workload during the playoff run to the Super Bowl in 2018, although he was about a league-average back in those situations. The Patriots took him a pick before Lamar Jackson and four before Nick Chubb. Michel is now a free agent after finishing his fifth NFL season with his third team.

Organizations have grown wary of using top-10 picks on running backs, in part because they haven’t seen many other teams throwing victory parades with their highly drafted backs. Backs taken at the bottom of the first round are one thing, but since 1980, backs have been drafted in the top 10 45 times. Just three of those picks have won a Super Bowl with the teams that drafted them. Marcus Allen did it with the Raiders in the 1980s. Jamal Lewis finished an excellent rookie season with a Super Bowl for the Ravens in 2000. The other player was Reggie Bush, who won the Super Bowl with the Saints in a 2009 playoff run in which he touched the ball 27 times in three games. Fournette, Jerome Bettis and Marshall Faulk won titles, but they had to go to other teams to get there.

Let’s think about this another way. For each of the league’s 14 playoff teams in 2022, I broke down their 10 most prominent starters on offense and defense and how each player joined their organization. I tried to look at what a team’s plan was heading into the season as my baseline and adjusted for major changes as the season went along. As an example, the 49ers didn’t plan to go into the year with McCaffrey as their starting back, but by the end of the season, he was a key part of their organizational philosophy. Quarterback Brock Purdy was more of a fallback plan because of injuries.

I split these rosters into categories by position based on how they were acquired, with groups for first-round picks, second-to-fourth-round picks, fifth-to-seventh-round picks and undrafted free agents, free agents with multiyear guarantees, free agents with single-year guarantees, players acquired for significant capital via trade and players acquired at a modest cost on the trade market. I also threw in a percentage for “premium” acquisitions, which I considered to be first-round picks, free agents with multiyear guarantees and players who cost significant draft capital in trades. We can get a sense of how the league’s playoff teams were built philosophically by seeing how they were formed:

Premium Players on the 2022 NFL Playoff Rosters

Position 2+
QB 2 1 1 0 8 2 0 78.6%
RB 0 2 1 0 3 6 2 28.6%
WR 1 4 3 0 9 9 2 46.4%
TE 0 3 1 1 0 7 2 7.1%
T 3 1 1 0 12 8 3 57.1%
G 6 2 0 3 3 13 1 31.1%
C 3 4 0 0 2 3 2 35.7%
EDGE 6 3 3 0 10 5 1 67.9%
DT 9 2 1 2 7 6 1 60.7%
LB 1 6 1 0 6 11 3 28.6%
CB 6 3 1 1 4 11 2 39.3%
S 6 5 1 2 3 10 1 35.7%

Acknowledging tight end, in which the only significant investment was the trade value invested in acquiring T.J. Hockenson for the Vikings, successful teams simply weren’t investing premium assets at running back. (Remember that Travis Kelce, George Kittle and Mark Andrews were acquired as midround picks.) Our exceptions here were McCaffrey and three first-round picks in Barkley, Elliott and Travis Etienne. Elliott narrowly qualified over Tony Pollard, who split the work with his more expensive counterpart at close to a 50-50 clip.

This could be a one-year fluke. In a slightly different universe, maybe the 49ers and Bengals are in the Super Bowl and we’re talking about how a…

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