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April 10, 2023

Drafting Bijan Robinson at 10th overall would be a bad use of resources for the Eagles

Eagles NFL
040823BijanRobinson Aaron E. Martinez/USA TODAY NETWORK

Bijan Robinson is a great running back, but, no.

Bijan Robinson is awesome. Let's first be clear about that. 

He is a big, powerful back who gets tough yards between the tackles, but who also has speed and explosiveness to be a home run hitter. He is a complete, three-down type of back who can run inside and outside, and catch passes out of the backfield.

Many of Robinson's highlight reel plays look effortless. On inside runs, he executes subtle, but shifty moves that do not slow down his forward movement. On outside runs, he runs patiently until a hole opens up, and then he hits it with sudden acceleration. His cuts in the open field have little wasted motion and often leave defenders with "broken ankles." Even his stiff arm seems almost nonchalant, but puts defenders on the ground. And he's a hands catcher.

Over a three-year career at Texas, Robinson had 539 carries for 3,410 yards (6.3 YPC) and 33 TDs. He had 60 catches for 805 yards (an outstanding 13.4 YPC for a RB), and 8 TDs. Every reputable draft expert out there views him as a top 10 type of prospect, and in some cases top 5.

So, you know, the above is a pretty good argument for why the Eagles should pick him at 10th overall. The argument against it is that running back has become a devalued position in the NFL, and for good reason. 

It's been a while since we've done the whole "take a running back with a top 10 pick" debate (Ezekiel Elliott at eighth overall in 2016), so let's re-review.

Running backs have extremely short shelf lives (but, like, more than you already probably think)

The fact that running backs have short shelf lives in the NFL is widely accepted by now, but I don't think that the degree to which that's true is fully appreciated. There is only one projected starting running back heading into 2023 who is 30 years of age or older. Can you name that player?

(Jeopardy music playing)...

It's Raheem Mostert of the Dolphins, who was undrafted in 2015, has been on seven NFL rosters, and only has 465 career carries. He's an outlier. Otherwise, there isn't a single projected starting NFL running back who is even 29 years old as of this publish date.

Player Team Age 
Raheem Mostert Dolphins 30.9 
Derrick Henry Titans 28.7 
Aaron Jones Packers 28.3 
James Conner Cardinals 27.9 
Austin Ekeler Chargers 27.8 
Alvin Kamara Saints 27.7 
Dalvin Cook Vikings 27.6 
Nick Chubb Browns 27.2 
Rashaad Penny Eagles 27.1 
Christian McCaffrey 49ers 26.8 
Joe Mixon Bengals 26.7 
Saquon Barkley Giants 26.1 
Tony Pollard Cowboys 25.9 
Miles Sanders Panthers 25.9 
Josh Jacobs Raiders 25.1 
Rhamondre Stevenson Patriots 25.1 (median)
Najee Harris Steelers 25.0 
Khalil Herbert Bears 24.9 
J.K. Dobbins Ravens 24.3 
Rachaad White Buccaneers 24.2 
D'Andre Swift Lions 24.2 
Jonathan Taylor Colts 24.2 
Travis Etienne Jaguars 24.1 
Brian Robinson Commanders 24.0 
Cam Akers Rams 23.7 
James Cook Bills 23.5 
Dameon Pierce Texans 23.1 
Isiah Pacheco Chiefs 23.0 
Tyler Allgeier Falcons 22.9 
Javonte Williams Broncos 22.9 
Kenneth Walker Seahawks 22.4 
Breece Hall Jets 21.8 
Average age  25.3 

If you look back at the last 20 drafts, 30 running backs were selected in the first round. Below is a look at the number of years each of those first-round backs remained with the team that drafted them:

Year RB, team Pick Years with original team 
2021 Najee Harris, Steelers 24 2 and counting 
2021 Travis Etienne, Jaguars 25 2 and counting 
2020 Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chiefs 32 3 and counting 
2019 Josh Jacobs, Raiders 24 4 and counting 
2018 Saquon Barkley, Giants 2 5 and counting 
2018 Rashaad Penny, Seahawks 27 5 
2018 Sony Michel, Patriots 31 3 
2017 Leonard Fournette, Jaguars 4 3 
2017 Christian McCaffrey, Panthers 8 5.5 
2016 Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys 4 7 
2015 Todd Gurley, Rams 10 5 
2012 Trent Richardson, Browns 3 1.5 
2011 Mark Ingram, Saints 28 8 
2010 C.J. Spiller, Bills 8 5 
2010 Ryan Mathews, Chargers 12 5 
2010 Jahvid Best, Lions 30 2 
2009 Knowshon Moreno, Broncos 12 5 
2009 Donald Brown, Colts 27 5 
2009 Beanie Wells, Cardinals 31 4 
2008 Darren McFadden, Raiders 4 7 
2008 Jonathan Stewart, Panthers 13 10 
2008 Felix Jones, Cowboys 22 5 
2008 Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers 23 5 
2008 Chris Johnson, Titans 24 6 
2007 Adrian Peterson, Vikings 7 10 
2007 Marshawn Lynch, Bills 12 3.5 
2006 Reggie Bush, Saints 2 5 
2005 Ronnie Brown, Dolphins 2 6 
2005 Cedric Benson, Bears 4 3 
2005 Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers 5 6 

There is whole lot more buyer's remorse in that list than there are success stories. Of the 30 first-round running backs drafted in the first round, only five remain with their original team, with Saquon Barkley being the most tenured of that group with just five accrued NFL seasons. Those five backs:

‚ÄĘ Najee Harris: Career 3.9 average yards per carry. If his production doesn't improve drastically, it is doubtful that the Steelers will exercise his fifth-year option next offseason.

‚ÄĘ Travis Etienne: Very good season in 2022, but he missed his entire rookie season in 2021 with a Lisfranc injury suffered in a preseason game.

‚ÄĘ Clyde Edwards-Helaire: Backup to a guy the Chiefs since drafted in the seventh round. The Chiefs almost certainly will not pick up his fifth-year option by the May 1 deadline.

‚ÄĘ Josh Jacobs: Bigtime breakout season in 2022 after a couple of down years. Durability will be tested in 2023 after accumulating 393 touches in 2022.

‚ÄĘ Saquon Barkley: Star player as a rookie, tailed off a bit in Year 2, torn ACL Year 3, bad Year 4, comeback season of sorts Year 5, franchise-tagged this offseason.

The average tenure of the rest of the players with their original teams on the list above? 5.2 years! That is simply a horrendous average long-term return on investment.

Recent second contracts for running backs have gone very badly

‚ÄĘ Devonta Freeman signed a five-year, $41.25 million contract extension in 2017. He missed 18 games over the next three seasons, and averaged 4.0 yards per carry when he played. The Falcons cut him in 2020.

‚ÄĘ David Johnson signed a three-year, $39 million contract extension in 2018. He averaged 3.7 yards per carry over the next two seasons, and the Cardinals traded him to Houston.¬†

‚ÄĘ Todd Gurley signed a four-year, $60 million contract extension in 2018. Over the next two seasons, he averaged 3.7 yards per carry, and the Rams cut him in 2020.

‚ÄĘ Ezekiel Elliott signed a six-year, $90 million contract extension in 2019. He had a good season in 2019, but in the three subsequent seasons he averaged 4.0 yards per carry. The Cowboys cut him this offseason, taking on a dead money hit of¬†$11.86 million.

‚ÄĘ Christian McCaffrey signed a four-year, $64 million contract extension in 2020. He missed 13 games in 2020, and 10 games in 2021. The Panthers were at least able to recoup some draft pick value in return for McCaffrey in 2022, but he will count on their 2023 cap for over $18 million.

Even when running backs "pan out" initially, it's a major risk to keep them after their rookie contracts are complete. That's no doubt why Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, and Tony Pollard were franchise tagged this offseason instead of signed to contract extensions.

Running backs are easy to find, and they're cheap

The following is a list of running backs who changed teams during free agency this offseason, with their rushing yardage and TDs in 2022, and the average annual value of their new contracts:

RB2022 rushing yardage / TDs$ Average annual value $
Miles Sanders, Panthers 1269, 11 TDs$6.35 million 
David Montgomery, Lions 801, 5 TDs$6 million 
Jamaal Williams, Saints 1066 yards, 17 TDs $4 million 
Devin Singletary, Texans 819 yards, 5 TDs $2.75 million 
D'Onta Foreman, Bears 914 yards, 5 TDs $2 million 
Damien Harris, Bills 462 yards, 3 TDs $1.77 million 
Rashaad Penny, Eagles 346 yards, 2 TDs $1.35 million 

The above players were all starters at some point in 2022. Sanders is making a little more than half of what low end starting receivers like Jakobi Meyers ($11 million) and Allen Lazard (also $11 million) fetched this offseason.

The running back position has become so devalued that even tight ends ‚ÄĒ a position that has never been very lucrative ‚ÄĒ are making way more these days. Guys like Hayden Hurst (414 receiving yards, 2 TDs in 2022) and someone named Josh Oliver (230 receiving yards, 2 TDs in four NFL seasons) each signed for at least $7 million per year, which of course was more than Sanders, a Pro Bowl player.

When you start looking at the positions where guys get paid, the difference is even more jarring.

At offensive tackle, you have a guy like Andre Dillard, who in four NFL seasons has nine starts ‚ÄĒ some of which were disasters ‚ÄĒ got a three-year deal worth $29 million. At defensive tackle, a whopping 10 players switching teams made more money than any running back who switched teams. A rotational guy like Shy Tuttle (four sacks in four NFL seasons) made more money than any running back who changing teams.

If you don't have a running back, it's very easy to sign one in free agency for very little money. If you have holes at offensive tackle, edge rusher, or defensive tackle, you're either backing up the Brinks truck for a rare good player who might be available, or still paying good money for a hope and a prayer like Dillard.

In other words, you either draft players in the trenches, or you wildly overpay for them. At running back, there's always someone decent enough available at a low cost.  

The argument that 'the Eagles can win now' misses the big picture

Robinson has been commonly projected to the Eagles in mock drafts, mainly for two reasons:

  1. The Eagles lost Miles Sanders in free agency, and replaced him with the talented but oft-injured Rashaad Penny. They could use a running back.
  2. "OMG imagine an offense with Bijan Robinson, Jalen Hurts, A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, Dallas Goedert, and that offensive line! So what if Robinson will have a short shelf life? Win now!"

The first reason has some validity to it, as running back is indeed an Eagles need. It's the second argument, however, that really misses the mark.

There's an argument to be made that Robinson can make the Eagles' already unstoppable offense a little more unstoppable. And sure, he might be fun to watch for a while. If the Eagles had a quarterback deep into his 30s and they had a window of a year or two to get back to the Super Bowl, then OK, I'd still disagree with the value of that position in the top 10 but it would at least be a more reasonable argument.

That's not where the Eagles are at. Jalen Hurts is still only 24 years old, and he's highly likely to get a long-term contract extension within the next few months. The Eagles think that Hurts can be a star player for the next decade-plus. If they're right, they will be competing for Super Bowls for the next dozen or so years, not just for the length of a running back's rookie contract. 

It makes more sense to shoot for a foundational player whose longevity can more closely mirror Hurts', not a player at a position who will provide instant gratification, but is unlikely to ever see a second contract with the team. Good organizations are willing to patiently wait for the second marshmallow. Bad ones go, "Screw it, (nom nom nom)."

Of course, the Eagles realize all of the above, so if you're a Bijan fan, don't get your hopes up. It's far, faaaar more likely that some 300-pounder in an Eagles hat will be bro-hugging Roger Goodell on the stage in Vegas later this month. If he's there at 30? Sure. (He won't be.)

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