April 10, 2023
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.
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.
|Rhamondre Stevenson||Patriots||25.1 (median)|
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:
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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 $18 million.
Even when running backs "pan out" initially, it's a major risk to keep them after their rookie contracts are complete. That's no doubt why Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, and Tony Pollard were franchise tagged this offseason instead of signed to contract extensions.
The following is a list of running backs who changed teams during free agency this offseason, with their rushing yardage and TDs in 2022, and the average annual value of their new contracts:
|RB||2022 rushing yardage / TDs||$ 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 — a position that has never been very lucrative — 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 — some of which were disasters — 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.
Robinson has been commonly projected to the Eagles in mock drafts, mainly for two reasons:
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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