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Bijan Robinson: Why Draft?
Reasons that Robinson could make sense, if the Seahawks make a trade: Seaside Joe 1498
I distinctly remember that going into the 2015 NFL Draft, I had long been indoctrinated into the “Running Backs Don’t Matter” cult, which with hindsight is surprising given that many of us hadn’t finished screaming the exclamation point in the sentence, “Just hand the ball to Marshawn!” yet.
During that draft, I was doing a live stream with Joe McAtee, who is a Rams fan/writer, and we both expressed an emotion when then-St. Louis selected running back Todd Gurley with the 10th overall pick. Joe: Disappointment (He was also indoctrinated to some degree). Me: Joy.
With more hindsight though, should Seahawks fans have been gleeful that the Rams picked a running back in the top-10? That’s not how I remember feeling during his nine career games against Seattle (12 touchowns, 694 rushing yards, and the Rams won six of those contests) and “What might have been?” was never the case with Gurley until after his second contract, not because of where he was drafted.
Focusing on Gurley’s rookie contract value from 2015-2018: Offensive Rookie of the Year, 2017 Offensive Player of the Year, two-time first-team All-Pro, most rushing yards (500 more than second-place, at least 1,000 more than all but five players) in the league, most receiving yards among running backs, nearly 1,200 more total yards than second-place Ezekiel Elliott.
The Rams didn’t just draft a running back, right? They drafted the best running back in the NFL and saw an immediate return. The only missing keystroke to make Gurley a perfect draft pick was the fact that L.A. general manager Les Snead gave him a contract extension after the Super Bowl. Oh right yeah…the Rams picked Gurley and then he played a pivotal role in helping Sean McVay reach his first Super Bowl. That too.
But if we’re just talking about whether or not a running back is “fair value” as a first round pick—meaning that if a team selects a running back in the top-10 picks, he immediately becomes a top-10 paid player at his position before his first game—I’d now argue that he could be, so long as he’s not mediocre. Which is true of ANY PLAYER at ANY POSITION.
I will keep reminding people of this because I know that I can get confused by these one-sided narratives like “don’t ever draft running backs in the first round” as they are being argued over and over again every draft season as if it’s a new discovery: It’s important to ignore what’s being said and to focus on what’s being left out of the argument.
“Running back is a bad value in the first round, look at all the underwhelming picks in the first round at running back, just look at these running backs—running backs—running backs—first round—top-50—running backs—look at running backs….”
Geez, seems like someone is OBSESSED with running backs!
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Okay, here’s a different list of first round picks for you from the last five years: Jarrad Davis, Reuben Foster, Rashaan Evans, Tremaine Edmunds, Roquan Smith, Devin Bush, Devin White, Patrick Queen, Jordyn Brooks, Kenneth Murray, Isaiah Simmons, Jamin Davis, Zaven Collins, Micah Parsons, Devin Lloyd, and Quay Walker.
Hmmm, do we think that maybe linebackers don’t matter?
This is what I’m saying with regards to narratives: ‘Analytics’ provides less value than its potential because there is not even an effort to examine opposing viewpoints. Using the most famous example of ‘running back value’ I ask, to what degree has anyone in that camp ever looked at the value of another position and asked if it is overrated?
And yes, I see Parsons, Roquan, White. Do they see Gurley, Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey? But is Devin White worth the fifth overall pick in the draft? Where was all the outrage for Devin Bush not only going five picks later, but the Steelers trading up to get him? Where are all the articles eviscerating the Cardinals for selecting Simmons with a top-10 pick? He didn’t even have a position!
Do positionless players matter?
Parsons wouldn’t get credit for being a fantastic draft pick by the Cowboys if not for the fact that he has transcended inside linebacker and become something totally unique by disrupting the quarterback in the pocket. In the same way, McCaffrey is unique in that he can catch 80-120 passes in addition to being a dangerous runner.
When I use the word “narrative” that’s me saying, “This is an argument of conveniently ignoring all facts and examples that would make it weaker.”
It was about five years after the Todd Gurley moment that I began to separate from the anti-RB cult; call it my “NXIVM moment”. It started with a desire to try and prove my beliefs wrong, to see if running backs were being undervalued because the narratives had pushed way too far into the other direction, and ultimately I came to the conclusion that “running backs don’t matter” had gone off the deep end. This has been the challenge I’ve put forth to Ben Baldwin and all those in that cult: Are you willing to use those big brains of yours to try and prove yourselves wrong? What do you stand to lose?
Over the last five drafts, only one running back (Barkley) has been picked in the top-23. At 24th overall, we’ve seen Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris, followed in the 25-32 range by Travis Etienne, Rashaad Penny, Sony Michel, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Barkley was on the Gurley path in 2018, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year with an NFL-best 2,028 yards from scrimmage, and his first two games of 2019 were off in that same direction prior to a Week 3 injury that put him on a course to be forgotten about until 2022.
There is no question that when a position is tasked with running into contact and violence that the risk of a lower body injury is increased. It is also true that every position is in danger: It’s not “Running backs get hurt all the time and other positions carry no risk.” If running back risk is a 7 out of 10, many other positions would be 6 or 6.5 out of 10.
I’m also certain that I didn’t imagine the careers of Barry Sanders, LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, and Derrick Henry. How some running backs manage to stay healthy and some don’t, I have no answers. When you’re a running back and you get hurt, it’s “because you’re a running back”. When you’re Jamal Adams, it’s “because you’re Jamal Adams”.
We don’t know yet if Barkley could play 10 more seasons in the NFL and make us forget about his early-career troubles or if he could get hurt in Week 1. Jacobs led the NFL in rushing yards (1,653, 12 TDs) in and total yards (2,053) last season. He and Barkley will play on the franchise tag; imagine if you could get Lamar Jackson to play on the franchise tag!
Harris and Etienne have been good-to-very-good, with Etienne missing his rookie season. And if you’re only looking at them in the first round of the 2021 draft, then you don’t have to answer for Alex Leatherwood (17th), Jamin Davis (19th), Kadarius Toney (20th), Caleb Farley (22nd), Rashod Bateman (27th), or Payton Turner (28th). Going into next year, I think I would rather have Harris or Etienne than Leatherwood, Davis, or Toney.
And I know that I’m happier that the Seahawks have Ken Walker III than almost any other player drafted in the second round last year.
By the way, Walker played in 15 games last season, 16 including playoffs. The next six players drafted after him (Andrew Booth, Wan’Dale Robinson, John Metchie, David Ojabo, Josh Paschal, and Phidarian Mathis) COMBINED to play in 25 games, and 10 of those were from Paschal. Tyler Lockett is happier too.
All of which is a longwinded way of saying that Seaside Joe is probably the only place on the Internet where Seahawks fans will be allowed to say that they think Bijan Robinson would be a good first round pick without being chastised, ridiculed, and slammed for it.
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Expected to be the first since Barkley to be selected in the top-20, Robinson is one of those rare prospects at the position who has managed to get talking heads to stop worrying if ‘analytics’ will trash them on social media for showing their support for a running back. We don’t know yet where Robinson will be selected and I’m sure that if he goes to the Detroit Lions at #6 for example that Twitter will have a meltdown, but for the most part it seems like he’s expected to get a pass from the cult—because this is where ‘Xs and Os’ experts seem to have an advantage over the numbers people.
Cited as the type of running back who could legitimately be an All-Pro in 2023, the team that drafts Robinson will have to manage whether they’re comfortable with a contract that is only a “slight discount” instead of a “major discount” in the rare event that they could have gotten a star at quarterback, edge, receiver, or tackle. Robinson carries a high floor and a high ceiling, but he doesn’t throw the ball or protect the quarterback or sack the quarterback.
I’m not going to be willfully ignorant and say that running backs are as valuable today as they were when Jim Brown was playing. But at a certain point football fans need to stop being accountants and remember to be football fans.
Why should the Seahawks draft Bijan Robinson? I’ll lay out a few reasons and assure you that if it does happen, you can celebrate at Seaside Joe. We did it for Walker and we’ll do it again.
Bijan Robinson-Marshawn Lynch comparisons
(For the record: 35.5/37/40.5 is vertical jump; 124 and 125, those are broad jump. Bijan didn’t run 3-cone or short shuttle.)
I’m not going to say that just because Robinson, Tomlinson, and Lynch are all the same size and all ran a 4.46 that it means that Bijan is destined for the Hall of Fame. But does it hurt?
It does not.
There are definitely examples of players with similar measurements who didn’t succeed, like Donald Brown or Julius Jones. Rashaad Penny is a perfect example, as he is also 5’11, 220 lbs, 4.46 in the 40. But Penny is also one of the fastest and most gifted players in the NFL, he just couldn’t stay healthy. At this time, we have no reason to pre-determine that Bijan will get hurt.
As far as “types” though, with Pete Carroll acquiring Lynch, Penny, and Julius Jones, Robinson is certainly one of his types of guys at the position.
Robinson also ran a near-elite 1.52 in the 10-yard split, which bests Marshawn (1.57) by a good measure. In fact, Robinson appears high on Marshawn’s similarity score at NFLCombineResults.com. Tomlinson also ran a 1.52 in the 10-yard split. There was almost a “Oh okay” feeling about Robinson’s combine results despite these comparisons, which I think says more about our need to see players “blow us away” by breaking records instead of accepting that he tested as well as two of the best running backs in history.
But Bijan Robinson did not need to run a 4.35 and a 1.48 in order to blow teams away. He went into the combine as the top-ranked player at the position and he left as the only running back near his size to break a 4.5 other than Tulsa’s Deneric Prince.
Robinson could thrive in Seahawks offense
In his first two years with Sean McVay, Gurley was on a 17-game pace of 1,500 rushing yards, 18 rushing touchdowns, and 800 receiving yards from 2017-2018. The Rams averaged 30 points per game in 2017 and 33 points per game in 2018, dominating teams at the line of scrimmage and reaching the Super Bowl by the end—at which point, Gurley had been hurt and run out of steam.
But prior to then, Gurley was a 2,300-yard player with LaDainian numbers.
McVay’s passing game coordinator that season was Shane Waldron, who is now Seattle’s offensive coordinator. Waldron implemented some of those zone running concepts in the Seahawks offense beginning in 2021 and we saw at times with Penny just how explosive that team could be when Seattle scored 89 points with 467 rushing yards in their final two games of that season.
In his profile at TheDraftNetwork, Bijan Robinson is described to best fit in zone run concepts.
From the handoff, Robinson does a great job of scanning the line of scrimmage from the frontside to the backside of the play, not letting early penetration speed up his process to find any developing holes—he has the whole line of scrimmage available to him. Robinson also showed the advanced ability to set up blocks and set up second-level defenders by presenting himself in one hole just to be able to move the defender and get to another hole.
In the hole, Robinson’s lateral agility and elusiveness are special. Robinson plays with great tempo and balance and can consistently make defenders miss in tight, confined spaces. Robinson’s balance plays a huge part in his success because even when defenders are able to make contact with him, he bonuses right off of them and continues to work up the field to pick up positive yardage. Working to third-level defenders, Robinson has shown to be able to run through smaller defenders and make an explosive lateral cut by putting his foot in the ground or using his plus-level speed to simply outrun defenders. Robinson has special ability as a runner and is a threat to take a run the distance on any given handoff.
Ken Walker III is one type of running back. Bijan Robinson is another type of running back. It is true that the Seahawks will look for a running back to replace Travis Homer, but they also lost Rashaad Penny this year and if Pete gets the opportunity to draft Robinson with good value, then he’s in the exact right mold—only better.
Robinson and Walker help each other
It is en vogue to not have one, but two number one receivers. A.J. Brown/DeVonta Smith. Ja’Marr Chase/Tee Higgins. Tyler Lockett/DK Metcalf. Bucky Brooks recently described the receiver group like being a basketball team and that you need a point guard, a center, a power forward, etc. Each to fill different roles.
Running back is not so different and Seattle has been the ultimate example of this, mixing in at least three—usually four—types going into each season.
Since adding Kareem Hunt next to Nick Chubb in 2019, the Browns have ranked fourth, fifth, first, and 11th in yards per carry. Hunt is not of the same caliber as Chubb and we’re seeing that play out with his cold free agent market, but look what he’s done for Chubb: a player who came into the league with injury concerns, Chubb has stayed mostly-healthy and made each of the last four Pro Bowls.
At 27, Chubb is coming off of his best career season, rushing for 1,525 yards and 12 touchdowns with 5.0 YPC in 2022.
DeeJay Dallas is a good teammate, but he ain’t “that” guy. He has 102 career rushing attempts through three seasons. He’s not there to spell Ken Walker III. Walker had 228 rushing attempts last season, which is probably in the wheelhouse of the max output the Seahawks wanted to get from him during his rookie campaign. There is no desire to see Walker get 300-350 carries next season, but as of now his only backups are Dallas and Darwin Thompson.
Seattle definitely does not need to draft Bijan Robinson to take care of this need—I’m not trying to argue that the Seahawks NEED to draft Bijan, I’m only attempting to rationalize why it would make sense—but the two of them together makes more sense than each of them as workhorse backs on separate teams. I love Ken Walker, but he is not as good of a prospect as Bijan Robinson.
This is like saying that Higgins is not as good of a prospect as Chase. Why not both?
What would happen if the Seahawks made the playoffs and then found themselves playing in the divisional round, the NFC Championship, and the Super Bowl? Well, hey, they made the Super Bowl! But that’s also now 17 games…18 games…19 games…20 games…and the 21st game! These guys who go from college to the NFL, many of them have never experienced a 14th game, let alone a 20th. Bijan played in nine games, 10 games, and 12 games over his three years at Texas.
These things do matter, so if Pete Carroll has two starting running backs in 2023, he has two players who can be fresh in December and January. To Pete Carroll, that matters.
The contract thing is overrated
Here’s a comment I wrote on Friday (edited down):
5th overall pick gets a 4-year, $34 million contract. The AAV of $8.5 puts him 11th in RB salary, but 12th is James Conner at $7 million. Essentially, there's the "don't touch this" tier of McCaffrey and Kamara ($15m+) and then there's the "Pro Bowl" tier of like $10-$12m for eight guys, including 3 of those guys are on the franchise tag. So we're really looking at it almost like a $6 million 2023 rookie salary is that he's still a couple steps below the franchist tag players, but just as far above Ken Walker's ($2m) salary. Austin Ekeler is set to have a $7.75m cap hit and is holding out for a new contract. RB is such a strange position because most people agree that before he gets into the NFL, Robinson is already a better RB than Ekeler.
Unlike any other prospect in this draft, there's a good chance Robinson is a top-tier player in Week 1 of this season. You might get Robinson for four years and $34 million and he gives you 4 really great seasons and then let's just say for arguments sake that he gets hurt. If he doesn't, then the 5th year option becomes nice, but most RBs have not gotten the fifth year option. So let's be conservative and say he doesn't. What if Bijan "only" gives the Seahawks four great years for $34 million.
Conversely, say the Seahawks draft Tyree Wilson because "if he becomes a good defensive lineman, he will give the Seahawks a good surplus value." Same 4 year, $34 million contract with the 5th year option. An $8.5 million AAV ranks 29th among edge rusher. Clearly an advantage over RB! But conveniently, Chase Young has an AAV of $8.6 million. I ask: Has Chase Young been a bargain? In fact, Young has been a financial anchor and he's not worth $2 million based on the last two years. What if Tyree Wilson takes 3 years to become a quality player? Then you've gone right from "he's only $8.5m AAV" to having a breakout season in year 4 to okay, now you have to give him a contract extension.
The really short explanation: If Bijan Robinson ‘only’ gives a team four great seasons, that’s better than the majority of first rounders for their entire careers.
And that’s just being really dramatic and using the fifth overall pick. What if the Seahawks managed to get Robinson with the 20th pick? That’s a four-year, $15 million contract and a $2.7 million cap hit in 2023. That’s when I think it becomes really apparent that Bijan Robinson is not going to go outside of the top-14 picks: He’s WAY TOO GOOD of a value at $3 million. That’s what Jeff Wilson makes!!!
Where will Bijan Robinson go?
What makes Robinson’s draft value difficult to project isn’t necessarily his position, it’s the fact that he’s scheme/system/fit independent and if you can make the argument to put him next to Walker then you can make the argument to place him anywhere in the league. And that’s what we’re seeing play out, there are fans for every team that think, “Why not Bijan?”
Why not Bijan on the Lions, a team that loves just drafting the best player available and would give Dan Campbell an old school throwback football playing footballer? Why not the Falcons, where head coach Arthur Smith could go back to the Derrick Henry days in Tennessee that helped him get a job in Atlanta? Why not the Bears to help Justin Fields? Why not the Eagles, to replace Miles Sanders? Why not the Texans for a dangerous backfield next to Dameon Pierce? Why not the Patriots, a team losing its identity and falling behind in the AFC East for the first time in over two decades?
The Seahawks will get trashed for picking Robinson fifth overall and I could understand why because Seattle does have a list of opportunities with that pick that should not include taking a running back. If the top-four picks just ruin John and Pete’s night and then nobody is calling to trade up, is there maybe a three-percent chance that they decide to take Robinson as “best player available”? We know that Pete and John care not for what the grades say about their draft decisions, so I won’t rule it out entirely.
But if they’re going to go off-book, could the Seahawks take Jalen Carter (who I expect) and then if Robinson is available at #13, call the New York Jets (a team potentially looking for more draft capital depending on the outcome of the Aaron Rodgers trade) to get ahead of the Patriots? I would not expect that, I really wouldn’t…
I also wouldn’t be mad.
Maybe we’re always in a cult somewhere at any given time and we just don’t know it. Put me in the cult that enjoys watching football, leaving accounting to the suits and ties.