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NFL combine: How elite draft prospect Bijan Robinson represents league's running back ‘conundrum’

INDIANAPOLIS — At first, the comparison checks out.

NFL Network draft expert Daniel Jeremiah projects the No. 1 player on his top-50 draft board to be drafted well, No. 1 overall.

Jeremiah projects his second overall graded player to leave the board fifth and his third overall grade to go to a team second.

But after Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter, Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. and Alabama quarterback Bryce Young find new homes, Jeremiah’s fourth-highest-graded player seems to be in for a lengthier wait — not until the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 19th.

Similarly, Yahoo Sports draft expert Charles McDonald has Bijan Robinson going 30th overall to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Behold, the conundrum of valuing a running back in today’s NFL.

“Everybody says that Bijan Robinson is not only the best running back in this class, he is one of the five best players in this class,” Jeremiah said of the Texas Longhorns prospect who will be in town for this week's NFL combine. “He is elite. Then you transition to, OK, where does he go? All of them say, ‘I have no idea.’

“I just don’t know where to put him.”

Over the last decade, NFL offenses have favored passing attacks more heavily than strong ground games. Second contracts for running backs have troubled teams, scheme and career lifespan concerns both prompting hesitation on contracts that, like all positions, have risen in cost alongside the salary cap.

Then came a season like 2022, where NFL teams rushed for more yards per game (121.6) than they had in 35 years (1987, 123.9). Is the pendulum swinging back? And if so, how heavily will teams factor that into free agency and draft decisions?

‘Top 10, he would not get laughs’

Thirty-five picks elapsed before a team drafted a running back last year. Twenty-three slots went by before the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Najee Harris in 2021. No running back has been drafted top 20 since the New York Giants selected Saquon Barkley second overall in 2018.

Barkley’s situation then and now, as an impending free agent who has been highly productive, demonstrates some of the questions teams are weighing.

If teams hope their top draft picks are talents worth playing a decade-plus, does the shorter lifespan of a running back taking punishing blows argue against that selection? If a running back is more likely to peak earlier in his career, does a team that’s not yet ready to contend risk misaligning the peak value years of its top talent?

Even teams like the Dallas Cowboys, who drafted running back Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall in 2016, now balk at the suggestion of allocating a top-10 draft pick to the position.

“If you're up there in the top 10, I mean, it's hard to take them there,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said on Tuesday from Indianapolis. “Zeke obviously did an amazing job for us and came in right away and was dominant and helped us win a lot of football games. So I don't second-guess that one.

“But it is hard for these guys to play 10 years at a real high level.”

And yet, Jeremiah thinks Robinson could be worth the top-10 pick.

“Some people think, oh, analytics will kill him,” Jeremiah said. “If he were to go in the top 10, he would not get laughs around the league because people know how good this guy is.

“I don't mind taking a running back in the first round as long as your team is ready to win right now. … That’s the conundrum.”

NFL teams don't value running backs like they used to, which is tough news for elite NFL Draft prospect Bijan Robinson out of Texas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)
NFL teams don't value running backs like they used to, which is tough news for elite NFL Draft prospect Bijan Robinson out of Texas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

One team personnel department member, speaking to Yahoo Sports on condition of anonymity, wondered about the Philadelphia Eagles drafting a top running back like Robinson with the 10th overall pick. Top back Miles Sanders is among a long list of Eagles set to hit free agency, with the number of contracts the team faces outpacing the salary cap. A team coming off a Super Bowl appearance, with a dual-threat quarterback and talented pass-game options, could shore up yet another dimension of an already-unstoppable-on-multiple-fronts attack. Another elite weapon could give a team that sound an edge.

“I don’t want to waste carries on a crappy team,” Jeremiah said. “I want to have all of his carries over that five-year period count and help push towards a championship. [But] if you take into account the guy has four or five, six years of elite production, I don't mind getting him in the first round because you get the extra year on the contract. It's easy to control it.”

‘We’ve got to draw a line in the sand’

Free agency decisions at the position will heavily shape the draft market for running back.

The Cowboys will “more than likely” use their franchise tag, Stephen Jones said Tuesday, with Pro Bowl back Tony Pollard as a potential candidate. Pollard posted his most productive and explosive season in 2022 before suffering a leg fracture and high ankle sprain in the Cowboys’ divisional-round playoff loss. If Pollard doesn’t return, running back becomes a key need.

The Giants, similarly, must decide whether to designate quarterback Daniel Jones, running back Saquon Barkley, or neither with their tag. Giants general manager Joe Schoen said Tuesday that he’s “cautiously optimistic” both players can remain in New York, as “productive” Barkley negotiations began in November. Still, Schoen knows it’s no guarantee both players return.

“If someone has to walk, then that’s unfortunate, but that’s part of the business,” Schoen said. “Got to look at production, durability, games played, production versus other comps throughout the league, and that's usually where they land from a financial standpoint. We've got to draw a line in the sand, like we're not going any further, and if it goes past this, all right, let's shift to Plan B.

“Hopefully we don't get to that but we went through all those plans.”

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley will become a free agent this offseason unless the Giants reach a new deal. Will they pay the price to keep their star? (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley will become a free agent this offseason unless the Giants reach a new deal. Will they pay the price to keep their star? (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The Las Vegas Raiders and Detroit Lions will consider their own scenarios with the expiring contracts of Josh Jacobs and Jamaal Williams, respectively. Jacobs was the NFL’s defending rushing champ with 1,653 yards, and Williams is coming off an NFL-high 17 rushing touchdowns in 2022.

Decisions on each of those players won’t only indicate which teams’ rosters most lack running backs. They will also illuminate how NFL teams individually and collectively value a shifting position, in turn impacting the relative value of a rookie running back contract.

In what Jeremiah describes as a deep draft class for running backs, top-end talent like Robinson will be watching.

Teams eyeing for depth will be, too.

“If you need tight ends and running backs, to me the sweet spot is the third, fourth round because I think you're getting a second-round type player in a traditional year,” Jeremiah said. “They're really, really good.”