Bijan Robinson is an elite prospect. But NFL execs remain iffy on drafting RBs high


INDIANAPOLIS — Will Anderson, the Alabama edge rusher who may be the best defensive player in this year’s NFL draft, said Texas running back Bijan Robinson was the toughest player he ever faced in college. He lamented how tough it was to even “gang tackle” him. 

And that’s if defenders could even catch him. Not many could.

“Everybody says that Bijan Robinson is not only the best running back in this class, he is one of the five best players in this class,” said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. “He is elite.”

For a running back, though, being “elite” might not be enough.

That’s the reality Robinson faces here at the NFL scouting combine. He may be a top-five talent coming off a spectacular junior season. He may even be the “difference-maker” he said he is. But he’s entering a league that is still wrestling with how to value the position he plays. Teams are wowed by his talent, impressed by his 1,580 rushing yards on 6.1 yards per carry last season and awed by his electric game film. Jeremiah said “If he were to go in the top 10, he would not get laughs around the league because people know how good this guy is.”

But not everybody believes a running back belongs in the first round anymore, let alone the top 10.

“If you’re up there in the top 10, it’s hard to take them there,” Cowboys VP Stephen Jones told reporters at the NFL scouting combine this week. “If you’re taking a player in the top half (of the first round), you’re hoping you got a player that’s going to be here 10 years. And it’s tough for running backs to last 10 years. There’s not many Emmitt Smiths or guys that play that long.”

There’s plenty of recent proof of that. The last running back taken in the top 10 was Saquon Barkley, who was selected second overall by the Giants in 2018, and he just played a full NFL season for the first time since his rookie year. He’s had multiple ankle injuries and a torn ACL that essentially ruined two full seasons. And the Giants paid him a total of $38.4 million over the last five years. 

Last year, Breece Hall was the first running back selected — 36th overall by the Jets in the second round. He played seven games before he tore his ACL. In 2021, Travis Etienne (25th overall) didn’t make it out of the preseason in Jacksonville before tearing a ligament in his foot. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (32nd in 2020) played in just 13 games as a rookie due to hip and ankle injuries before knee injuries forced him to miss 14 more games over the next two years. A seventh-round rookie, Isaiah Pacheco, was the Chiefs’ primary running back in this year’s Super Bowl.

Yes, there are first-round success stories, too, like Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris (24th overall in 2021) who hasn’t missed a game in his two seasons and Las Vegas’ Josh Jacobs (24th overall in 2019) who has missed just six games in four seasons. But there are enough horror stories to at least make most general managers and coaches pause at the running back position.

Being a top-10 pick would guarantee Robinson at least $22 million over the next four seasons. That’s a lot to invest in just one player at a position that many GMs believe is better handled by more than one guy.

“I think you need a whole slew of them,” said Seahawks GM John Schneider. “Especially if you’re a team that’s committed to running the football, I don’t think you can just rely on one guy with the beating these guys take, everything they put their bodies through.”

That approach limits what teams are willing to invest. It’s why the Giants might end up not re-signing Barkley when free agency begins, and why the Eagles are likely to let running back Miles Sanders leave in free agency despite the career-high 1,269 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns he had last season for the NFC champions. Right or wrong, some teams — like the Eagles — would rather invest in the offensive line and then use a committee of backs behind it.

Of course, there are exceptions — which is what Robinson is counting on. Barkley, as a rookie, seemed to be worth the investment way back in 2020, but not just because he ran for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 91 passes for 721 yards and four touchdowns on his way to becoming the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. Christian McCaffrey was a dazzling, two-way back who didn’t miss a game his first three seasons after he was the eighth overall pick in 2017.

“I feel that if you’re a guy that can do all three on the football field (receiver, slot receiver and running back), I think that’s a very special quality in a player,” Robinson said Saturday morning. “Just creating mismatches for defenders all over the field and being able to create space for yourself and opening up the offense, I think that’s a high value that everybody should look at.”

Surely they will, especially as teams look to avoid paying big free agent money to running backs, wary of deals like the four-year, $64 million contract McCaffrey signed in Carolina in 2020 — after which he played just 10 games over the next two seasons. Jones and the Cowboys drafted Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall over Jalen Ramsey and gave him a six-year, $90 million contract extension. He’ll either be released or renegotiate his deal down to a much lower salary this offseason. Matched against those numbers, using a top pick on a running back seems like a bargain — at least if it’s used on a back who is truly a dual threat.

“Yes, you can still take a running back in the first round,” said Bills GM Brandon Beane. “There’s guys out there I’ve talked about before (who are worth it) — Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey. Those type(s of) guys are clearly weapons.” 

Texas RB Bijan Robinson breaks free for a 32-yard touchdown run

Texas RB Bijan Robinson breaks free for a 32-yard touchdown run

Texas’ Bijan Robinson cuts inside and breaks free for a 32-yard touchdown untouched, his fourth score of the game against Kansas.

That might be Robinson’s best argument to be a top-10 pick. He wasn’t a prolific receiver at Texas, with just 60 catches for 805 yards and eight touchdowns in three seasons. But he was a good and reliable one. And he proved to be explosive too, averaging 16.5 yards per catch last year. 

“I think you’re seeing the impact that running backs can have on the pass game,” said Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell. “Playing the quarterback position is really hard, so anytime you can have a breather type down where you’re handing off the football, flipping the football to somebody, throwing the football to a screen out on the perimeter, and that turns into explosive yardage, that makes everyone’s job a lot easier.”

Robinson is the kind of running back who can do that. He has good hands, blazing speed, and an incredible ability to make tacklers miss in the open field. If he’s used the right way and in the right offense, he could definitely be worth a very high pick.

But that’s only if some team has the guts to pick him high.

“That’s the conundrum there with Bijan Robinson,” Jeremiah said. “He is one of the premier, premier players in the draft. He is a special, special player. One of the best backs we’ve seen in the last several years.

“But I have no clue where he is going to go.”

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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