Why Bijan Robinson could break the NFL draft’s running back bias
IT’S LATE MARCH, one month until the 2023 NFL draft, and Bijan Robinson is in South Philadelphia, tucked into an office in the Eagles’ practice facility with one of his potential future bosses: Howie Roseman, the team’s general manager. Robinson is the best running back in this year’s draft — the space between the former Longhorn and his peers is, conservatively, Texas-sized — but Roseman has one request:
Pitch me, he says. Why do I need to take you at No. 10?
The question is expected; Robinson’s rejoinder is not.
“You’re not going to get a running back,” says the most lauded running back prospect in years. “You’re going to get a difference-maker.”
It’s clear Robinson has read the writing on the wall. It isn’t so much writing as it is a billboard. A billboard with pulsating neon lights.
Robinson isn’t just the premier (whispers) running back in this draft; he might be the best athlete in this draft, period. He isn’t just the most electric (hushed tones again) running back in 2023; he is the most tantalizing prospect at the position since Saquon Barkley. Or is it Adrian Peterson? No matter, NFL brass and analysts and fanatics on message boards are name-dropping Robinson, at 21 years old, among the sport’s heavyweights before he has even joined the league.
He is the best the draft has to offer — this year, but in most years, too. He just won’t be drafted like he is. No. 1 overall? Out of the question. Top 5? Slim-to-none odds. Top 20? Getting warmer. Out of the first round entirely? Unlikely, but not inconceivable, either. (Since the common draft era began in 1967, three drafts have featured zero running backs in the first round — all in the past 10 years.)
Robinson offers no inkling that he’s vexed by his lot in NFL life. He smiles easily — so big it looks like he might pull a cheek muscle; so often he once earned the nickname “Smiley” on his youth football team, for goodness’ sake. Whatever the opposite of Bill Belichick’s default grimace is, Bijan Robinson has that.
“If you have me as the best player in the draft,” he says, “then that’s a cool thing.” (Smile.)
You could forgive Robinson if he were to bemoan his rotten timing. Some team, at some time, most likely on Day 1, will snag Robinson. He’ll still be selected higher than some 90% of his peers. He’ll still earn the millions coming his way. He’s doing great. But the chasm between the caliber of his athletic prowess and his commensurate draft prospects as a running back has never been wider.
There was a day, in the not-all-that-distant past, when Robinson wouldn’t have had to lobby hard for a spot at the top of the draft. “A lot of people tell me that,” he says. “‘Bro! If this was 2006, you would be the No. 1 overall pick. It wouldn’t even be a question. You would be the guy.’” (Smile bigger.)
But in 2023, lobby he must. So Robinson, the Longhorns’ fourth unanimous All-American running back, gives Roseman the hard sell.
He’s a guy who can create mismatches. He can line up in the backfield, sure, but also on the outside. He can field a handoff, but he can run a route like a receiver and catch like one too. And he’ll make a difference, he vows. In football, but outside of the game, to boot.
That’s one hell of a pitch, Roseman says.
Robinson is heartened by Roseman’s effusiveness, but not starry-eyed about it either. “You can make the best pitch ever,” he says. “And it’s still, like, ‘All right, we’ll see you on draft day.’” It’s not quite don’t call us, we’ll call you. But it’s not not.
For here’s the Gordian knot — and conventional NFL wisdom — he cannot unravel: Bijan Robinson is a generational talent, arriving on the scene in the wrong generation.
TWO WEEKS BEFORE the draft and that faceoff with conventional NFL wisdom, Robinson sits in a lounge high up in an Austin apartment complex. Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium sits off in the distance, as does the state capitol. It’s peaceful up here, and Robinson says he is at peace.
He has done what needed doing. He has advocated for himself. He has put together game film that thrills.
To wit: Time was winding down in the first half against Oklahoma last October when Robinson took a handoff, ran to his left, came to a dead stop, dropped into a literal squat, basically levitated an inch over the grass, then sprang up from his stance to try to bounce to the outside. The play was an abject failure — minus-3 yards on the carry — but it makes Tashard Choice, the Longhorns’ running backs coach, downright giddy.
“He gets so low that his butt cheeks about touch the ground,” he says. “I watched it on tape and I had to go over it again and again. It was unbelievable.”
The body control. The balance. It’s the stuff of general managers’ wildest fantasies, but that’s not the play Bijan Robinson wants those GMs to see. Have a look at this one instead:
One week later at home against Iowa State. Lined up at slot. Going on a post route — a real post, mind you, that running backs don’t usually run. He broke off the safety, then corralled an overthrown ball, one-handed, midair. He loves this one because Texas coach Steve Sarkisian trusted him to be the main receiver on the play; and his quarterback, Quinn Ewers, trusted him enough to throw a contested ball his way; and he trusted himself to come down with a circus catch.
“That’s when I feel like your value is so much greater than just being a running back,” he says.
Take note: The fact that he elevates this moment is as illuminating as the moment itself. What Robinson is saying without really saying it, is that yes, he is hyperaware of the reality he’s rushing into. If you are a running back in 2023, even an elite one, and all you bring to the table is the ability to mow down or blaze by defenders for yards on the ground, you are a relic.
Of course, if anyone could say, “Hey! No! Counterpoint!” Robinson, on paper, is the man most up to the task.
By just about every measure, Robinson has been a marvel. A sampling: He forced 91 missed tackles last season, more than any other player in college football. He ripped off eight runs of 30-plus yards, second among Power 5 running backs. And he averaged 3.9 rush yards after contact — a number so productive that if he averaged that total at the next level, he’d be a pretty solid NFL rusher. (Alvin Kamara, for reference, ran for 4.0 total yards per carry last year.)
“His floor, probably, in the NFL is a 7 out of 10,” says Eric Eager, the vice president of consumer strategy for SumerSports, a network of executives and data analysts that helps NFL teams optimize their roster building. “His ceiling’s a 10 out of 10. And that distinction still doesn’t overcome the structural imbalances of the way the league’s put together.”
A 7! That’s a basement with some sweeping views, and a penthouse for a ceiling, and it still might not be enough to convince NFL decision-makers to touch the third rail of modern draft thinking: selecting a running back high in the first round. Why? Pick your poison:
Economics: Paychecks for the league’s top running backs have stagnated; those at other premier positions have ballooned, and the NFL’s slotted draft system — the higher the pick, the higher the payday — means that if your favorite NFL team selects Robinson in the top 10, he will instantly become one of the highest paid at his position before ever taking a snap. But if you tap a wide receiver and he hits? Hoo boy, that’s when you get a $30 million asset (Ja’Marr Chase! Justin Jefferson!) for the bargain price of single-digit millions.
Evolution: We’ve come to understand just how much running backs don’t really control their own destinies on the field. They need help — that is to say, blocking — and are often tasked with making something out of nothing. Or they get to capitalize on everyone managing a job well done, and a lot of running backs — first-round picks or otherwise; Bijan Robinson-level or not — can do that capitalizing.
Strategy: The variance between a very, very good passing game and a very, very bad one is so much steeper than the gap between their running counterparts. (Kansas City, the best passing offense in EPA per dropback in 2022, won the Super Bowl and was 0.36 points better than the league-worst Colts. The gap between the best and worst rushing attacks, in terms of EPA per designed rush, and accounting for running backs only, was a swing of just 0.19 points — nearly half as big.) And that matters. Mike Giddings, owner and president of Proscout Inc., which offers its counsel to a dozen NFL teams, color codes NFL prospects. Blues are your can’t-miss guys, and a survey of the past 20 Super Bowl winners reveals: Every team had a blue quarterback. Every team had a blue wide receiver. Eleven had a blue running back in the fold.
You see? It’s bleak out there for a running back. Even one like Bijan Robinson. He either will be drafted well below where his talent, in a vacuum, merits … or will be drafted that high and then will face an onslaught of outlandish demands. What would Robinson have to do to make a top-10 nod look like a pick well spent?
“He probably has to be the best running back in the league, at minimum, right?” proposes one NFL staffer.
“He’d have to have Christian McCaffrey’s career with no injuries,” Eager says. “So, like, 1,000 yards in both rushing and receiving every year.” (That is, achieve every year what only three players have done in the history of the NFL: McCaffrey in 2019; Marshall Faulk in 1999; Roger Craig in 1985.)
In other words: a running back? In this economy?
Except, a running back is all Robinson has ever wanted to be.
WHEN ROBINSON WAS 10 or 11, his grandfather, Cleo, thought his grandson should consider switching to quarterback.
Cleo was more father than grandfather — as a kid Robinson called him dad — and the man chiefly responsible for bringing football into his life. He was also Robinson’s person. Robinson lived in his grandparents’ home in Tucson, Arizona, growing up, with his mother, LaMore Sauls, and his aunt, Cleyrissa; he stayed in that home even when his mother got married and moved out. Now he walks like his grandfather (according to his grandmother, Gerri) and is slow to speak up like his grandfather (according to everyone) and loves football like his grandfather, who spent three decades as a referee in the Pac-12. Cleo once brought home three of Reggie Bush’s game tapes, and LaMore would slide them into the VCR before bedtime.
“It would either be that or SpongeBob,” Robinson says.
Practically every birthday gift Robinson ever wanted or received was a football, and Cleo would often settle into the sofa only to find a ball hurtling toward him. They played so much catch indoors that Gerri wound up with two boxes full of all the glassware they shattered with errant throws. Vases. Picture frames. A lamp. She saved those boxes and rescued them from storage recently because she’s sending the shards to an artist who will create a collage. Gerri intends to have Robinson hang the recycled artwork, which she’s already christened “All the Broken Pieces,” in his new home once he’s drafted.
By the time Robinson was in fifth grade, those throws became less errant and his skill had skyrocketed to the point where Cleo — who had seen the likes of Andrew Luck and Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer pick apart his conference — told him, “I think you need to work out at quarterback.”
Robinson, Cleo says, was insulted. Wounded at the mere idea. “Nooo way,” he told him. “I am a running back. Period.”
He has always, it seems, been the position’s fiercest ambassador.
Back then, Cleo says, Robinson was set on staying a running back because a quarterback gets rid of the ball and he wanted that ball in his hands; all these years later, he’s still committed because he’s so good at having the ball in his hands, he can’t imagine doing anything else.
And so a running back he remained. He ran for 2,000 yards in three straight seasons in high school, which brought out the heaviest hitters in college football — Jim Harbaugh and Ryan Day visited; so did Brian Kelly and Lincoln Riley. But when Texas came calling and he met Stan Drayton, the running backs coach at the time, he couldn’t imagine going anywhere but Austin. Even at a time when the Texas brand had lost some of its luster. That was part of the draw: He wanted to help return Texas to greatness. Now he’ll set out to do the same for running backs — or at least their brand.
“I would love to be in that position to make the position as valued as it used to be,” he says.
There are a lot of smart people who would call that a fool’s errand. That he’s wading into a debate that he became the face of but had no hand in creating.
Can he do it? Should he do it? Is there room for a running back at the top of the draft, even if he’s the absolute best the position has to offer? Like so much else about the NFL, the two sides are decidedly not understated.
“Short of your team literally having no needs other than running back, I don’t see a point,” Eager says.
“Sometimes you can’t pass up those guys,” counters Tashard Choice. “You can’t pass up Barry Sanders if he’s sitting there.”
Wedged in the middle is Robinson, who will leave the discourse to everyone else and keep that ball for himself.
AND WHAT IF they do pass him up? What if the camera pans to Robinson and his family in Kansas City on Thursday night as one team, then the next team, then the one after that, neglects to call his name?
“The thing about me is, whatever happens, it’s just … going to happen,” he says. “I’m going to still be smiling.”
If they pass up Bijan Robinson, the question will live on for another day, another draft. Will we ever see another running back taken in the top 10?
Does it matter?
“It’s hard to quit running backs,” says the same NFL staffer who deemed rushers worth top-10 capital only if they wind up the best in the league. But rationality can’t always compete with romanticism, and he admits there’s something nostalgic and gauzy about running backs. They feel like quintessential football.
Maybe that’s why, on an otherwise unremarkable day in late March, a segment of the Eagles fan base took to the airport. When Robinson touched down and stepped off the plane, he walked out to applause from fans in his path and a message: “We need you out here.”
For a moment, the debate and the conventional NFL wisdom and all that noise gave way to a different kind of clamor: appreciation. For this moment, at least, he was a running back who was very much valued.
He has finished his pitch. Roseman is either sold or not. Other GMs are either sold or they are not. But that applause and that message were Robinson’s reminder. Some team at some point is going to pick him and that will be the place where he belongs. He’s sure of it.
“This is the right timing for everything,” he says.
Even if it’s the wrong time.