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

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INDIANAPOLIS – Alabama running back Will Anderson, who may be the best defensive player in this year’s NFL draft, said Texas running back Bijan Robinson was the toughest player he’s ever faced. ever faced in college. He lamented how difficult it was to even “deal with it.”

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

“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,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “He’s elite.”

For a runner, however, being “elite” might not be enough.

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

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

“If you’re in the top 10, it’s hard to get them there,” Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones told reporters at the NFL scouting combine this week. “If you take a player in the upper half (of the first round), you hope you have a player who’s going to be here 10 years. And it’s hard for running backs to last 10 years. There’s not a lot of Emmitt. Smiths or guys who play that much time”.

There is plenty of recent evidence of this. The last running back in the top 10 was Saquon Barkley, who was drafted second overall by the Giants in 2018, and 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 past five years.

Last year, Breece Hall was the first running back selected: 36th overall by the Jets in the second round. He played in seven games before tearing his ACL. 2021 tight end 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’ leading rusher 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 he’s only missed 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. It’s a lot to invest in a single player in a position that many GMs believe is better handled by more than one man.

“I think you need a lot of it,” Seahawks GM John Schneider said. “Especially if you’re a team committed to football, I don’t think you can rely on just one man with the beating these guys take, everything they put into it.”

This approach limits what teams are willing to invest. That’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 his 1,269 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns he had last season for the NFC Champions. For better or worse, 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 looked like he was worth the investment in 2020, but not just because he rushed 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 Offensive Rookie of the Year. Christian McCaffrey was a dazzling, two-way tight end who didn’t miss a game in his first three seasons after being the eighth overall pick in 2017.

“I think if you’re a guy who can do all three things 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 open up the offense, I think that’s a high value that everyone should look at.”

They certainly will, especially as teams look to avoid paying running backs big money, wary of deals like the four-year, $64 million contract McCaffrey signed in Carolina in 2020, after which he played just 10 games during the next two seasons. . Jones and the Cowboys selected Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall over Jalen Ramsey and gave him a six-year, $90 million contract extension. He will either be released or renegotiate his deal for a much lower salary this offseason. Compared to those numbers, using a top pick on a running back looks 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,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said. “There are guys I’ve talked about before (that are worth it): Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey. Those types 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 drives in and breaks free for a 32-yard touchdown run untouched, his fourth score of the game against Kansas.

This might be Robinson’s best argument for being 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 it was a good and reliable one. And he also proved to be explosive, averaging 16.5 yards per catch last year.

“I think you’re seeing the impact running backs can have in the passing game,” Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said. “Playing the quarterback position is very difficult, so any time you can have a down type of breath where you’re handing the football off, turning the football over to somebody, throwing the football to a screen on the perimeter, and that becomes an explosive yardage. , that makes everybody’s job a lot easier.”

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

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

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

“But I have no idea where it’s 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 on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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