How Texas RB Bijan Robinson Represents NFL’s Running ‘Conundrum’

INDIANAPOLIS — At first, the comparison checks out.

NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah projects the No. 1 player on his top-50 draft board to be drafted well, No. 1 overall, in his latest mock draft.

Jeremiah projects his second overall graded player to leave the board fifth and his third overall grade to go to a number two team.

But after Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter, Will Anderson Jr. and Alabama quarterback Bryce Young finds new homes, Jeremiah’s fourth-highest rated player appears to have waited longer.

Not until the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 19th? Yahoo Sports draft expert Charles McDonald has Robinson 30th overall to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Behold, the conundrum of valuing a running back in today’s NFL.

“Everybody says Bijan Robinson is not only the best running back in this class, he’s one of the top five players in this class,” Jeremiah said of the Texas Longhorns prospect who will be in town for this week’s NFL game. “He is elite. Then you transition to, OK, where does he go? Everyone says, ‘I have no idea.’

“I just don’t know where to put him.”

Over the past decade, NFL offenses have favored passing attacks more heavily than strong ground games. Other contracts for running backs have troubled teams, scheme concerns and career longevity, leading to hesitancy on contracts that, like all positions, have increased in cost along with the salary cap.

Then came a season like 2022, in which NFL teams rushed for more yards per game (121.6) than they had in 35 years (1987, 123.9). Is the pendulum swinging back? And if so, how heavily will teams take this into free agency and draft decisions?

“Top 10, he wouldn’t get a laugh”

It took thirty-five picks before a team drafted a running back last year. Twenty-three slots passed before the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Najee Harris in 2021. No running back has been drafted in the top 20 since the New York Giants selected Saquon Barkley second overall in 2018.

Barkley’s situation then and now, as an impending free agent who has been highly productive, demonstrates some of the questions teams are weighing.

If teams are hoping their top draft picks are talents worth playing a decade-plus, does the shorter lifespan of a back who takes punishing hits argue against this pick? If a running back is more likely to peak earlier in his career, does a team not yet ready to contend risk misaligning the peak value years of its top talent?

Even teams like the Dallas Cowboys, who drafted running back Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall in 2016, are now rejecting the suggestion of assigning a top-10 draft pick to the position.

“If you’re in the top 10, I mean, it’s hard to take them there,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said Tuesday from Indianapolis. “Obviously Zeke did a fantastic job for us and came in right away and was dominant and helped us win a lot of football games. So I guess not.

“But it’s hard for these guys to play 10 years at a really high level.”

And yet, Jeremiah believes Robinson could be worth a top-10 pick.

“Some people think, oh, analytics will kill him,” Jeremiah said. “If he were to go in the top 10, he wouldn’t be laughed at around the league because people know how good this guy is.

“I don’t mind taking a running back in the first round as long as your team is ready to win right now. … That is the conundrum.”

NFL teams don't value running backs like they used to, which is tough news for elite NFL Draft prospect Bijan Robinson of Texas.  (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

NFL teams don’t value running backs like they used to, which is tough news for elite NFL Draft prospect Bijan Robinson of Texas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

A member of the team’s personnel department, who spoke to Yahoo Sports on condition of anonymity, wondered if the Philadelphia Eagles drafted a top runner like Robinson with the 10th overall pick. Up top running back Miles Sanders is among a long list of Eagles set to hit free agency, with the number of contracts facing the team exceeding the salary cap. A team coming off a Super Bowl appearance, with a dual-threat quarterback and talented passing game options, could add another dimension to an already unstoppable multi-front offense. Another elite weapon can give a team that sounds an advantage.

“I don’t want to waste carries on a crappy team,” Jeremiah said. “I want to make all his carries over that five-year period count and help push for a championship. (But) if you consider the guy has four or five, six years of elite production, I don’t mind getting him in the first round because you get the extra year on the contract. It’s easy to control it.”

“We have to draw a line in the sand”

Free agency decisions at the position will greatly shape the draft market for running backs.

The Cowboys will “more than likely” use their franchise tag, Stephen Jones said Tuesday, with Pro Bowl running back Tony Pollard a potential candidate. Pollard posted his most productive and explosive season in 2022 before suffering a broken leg and high ankle sprain in the Cowboys’ divisional-round playoff loss. If Pollard doesn’t return, running back becomes a key need.

The Giants must likewise decide whether to designate quarterback Daniel Jones, running back Saquon Barkley, or neither with their tag. Giants general manager Joe Schoen said Tuesday that he is “cautiously optimistic” that both players can remain in New York, as “productive” Barkley negotiations began in November. Still, Schoen knows there’s no guarantee both players will return.

“If somebody has to go, that’s unfortunate, but it’s part of the business,” Schoen said. “Got to look at production, durability, games played, production versus other lineups throughout the league, and that’s usually where they land from a financial standpoint. We’ve got to draw a line in the sand, like we’re not going to anymore, and if it goes past this, ok let’s move on to plan B.

“Hopefully we won’t come to that, but we went through all these plans.”

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley will become a free agent this offseason unless the Giants strike a new deal.  Will they pay the price to keep their star?  (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley will become a free agent this offseason unless the Giants strike a new deal. Will they pay the price to keep their star? (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The Las Vegas Raiders and Detroit Lions will consider their own scenarios with the expiring contracts of Josh Jacobs and Jamaal Williams, respectively. Jacobs was the NFL’s defending rushing champion with 1,653 yards, and Williams is coming off an NFL-high 17 rushing touchdowns in 2022.

Decisions on each of these players will not only indicate which teams’ rosters lack running backs. They will also shed light on how NFL teams individually and collectively value a changing position, which in turn affects the relative value of a rookie contract.

In what Jeremiah describes as a deep draft class for running backs, top talent like Robinson will be watching.

Teams looking for depth will be too.

“If you need tight ends and running backs, to me the sweet spot is the third, fourth round because I think you get a second-round type of player in a traditional year,” Jeremiah said. “They are really, really good.”

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