Part 4, RB: 'There’s nothing he can’t do'
Bijan Robinson headlines a deep running back class and draws HOF comparisons. History also tells us late-rounders will be starting, so who are the hidden gems? Scouts dissect them all right here.
This is the 39th year that Bob McGinn has written an NFL Draft Series. Previously, it appeared in the Green Bay Press-Gazette (1985-’91), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (1992-’17), BobMcGinn Football (2018-’19), The Athletic (2020-’21) and, now, GoLongTD.com (2022-’23). Until 2014, many personnel people were quoted by name. The series reluctantly adopted an all-anonymous format in 2015 at the request of most scouts. The 12-minute, 50-question Wonderlic test no longer is administered at the NFL combine. Players generally took the test at spring 2022 timing days, all-star games and at pro days in March and April. The NFL average score is about 19.
Out of the woodwork they come, running backs from here, there and everywhere seeking fame and fortune in an industry that often turns a cold shoulder.
Since the drafts of 2013 and ’14, when nary a ball career earned a first-round call, running backs of all sizes and pedigrees have enjoyed the egalitarian approach. With teams hesitant to draft running backs early and, later, open the spigot on second contracts, the players at least can bank on a best-man-plays approach in training camp and beyond.
Bijan Robinson appears to be what NFL teams used to label a franchise back. Maybe the last of those was Adrian Peterson in 2007, a top-10 pick with speed and stature who conceivably could swing the balance of power within a division almost by himself. Some other top10ers in the last 40-plus years were LaDainian Tomlinson in 2001, Jamal Lewis in ’00, Edgerrin James in ‘00, Marshall Faulk in ‘94, Jerome Bettis in ‘93, Barry Sanders in ‘89, Bo Jackson in ‘86, Eric Dickerson in ‘83, Marcus Allen in ’82, George Rogers in ‘81 and Billy Sims in ‘80.
A Texas Longhorn, Robinson’s dominance in this draft was reflected by the results of my poll surveying 16 evaluators this month. He drew 15 first-place votes, and the outlier gave him a second.
Equally as dominant in the runner-up position was Jahmyr Gibbs with 15 second’s and one first.
As much as the scouts agreed that Robinson (79 points) was the best back and Gibbs was second best (65), they were all over the gridiron when it came to the rest of their 1-2-3-4-5 ballots. Twelve other runners gained at least one mention, testimony of the woodwork theory that teams just aren’t sure who might advance from nowhere to notoriety – and how long they might stay there.
Zach Charbonnet finished third with 24 points, followed by Kendre Miller (20), Devon Achane (17), Tyjae Spears (13 ½), Roschon Johnson (nine), Eric Gray (three), DeWayne McBride (three), Israel Abanikanda (two), Tank Bigsby (two), Kenny McIntosh (one), Deuce Vaughn (one) and Sean Tucker (one-half).
A scouting executive offered this glum assessment: “I feel like after the first two there’s a pretty big drop-off.”
Bring it on, many of his colleagues say. If a back really is a back is a back, the running back picture in the Age of Devaluation shows intruders from all nooks and crannies just cocky enough to think they might forge better careers than Robinson and Gibbs.
“Every time I watched a back I wasn’t disappointed,” an executive in personnel said. “This is a deep class of runners. I would say it’s 15 deep. You can get one in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds. You don’t have to take one early unless you’re in love with one.”
Playing well early is the blueprint for running backs. “You don’t want to overcoach them,” an AFC personnel man said. “Just get them the ball and roll.”
One personnel man said running back probably was the easy position to play other than defensive tackle and defensive end. The ball is handed to them. The opponent isn’t right next to them. There is time to react before contact.
“Pass pro sometimes holds guys up,” one scout said. “Those guys are coming from spread teams where they aren’t asked to pass pro. It’s the easiest to transition to, just running the ball. That (pass blocking) is where the transition becomes tough.”
But, when a running back proves his chops toting the leather, deficiencies on third down often can be massaged. “If he can’t protect the passer or doesn’t know what to do, they get somebody else in there on third down,” said another executive.
The top 10 running backs this year could need more reps than some of the past lead groups. Their average score on the Wonderlic test was 12.1.
Football people know full well what has entered the league from under the cracks. Recent history adds urgency to their evaluations. Last season, nine of the 26 running backs (35%) that gained at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage entered the league either drafted after the first three rounds or as a free agent. Three of the nine were free agents. The Chargers’ Austin Ekeler was signed in 2017 after 29 backs were drafted. The Dolphins’ Raheem Mostert was signed in 2015 after 23 backs were drafted. The Dolphins’ Jeff Wilson was signed in 2018 after 22 backs were drafted.
Six of the nine were drafted beyond the third round, including the Patriots’ Rhamondre Stevenson, the Cowboys’ Tony Pollard, the Lions’ Jamaal Williams (now with the Saints) and the Texans’ Dameon Pierce in the fourth, and the Packers’ Aaron Jones and the Falcons’ Tyler Allgeier in the fifth.
Ten of the 25 leading rushers in 2022 weren’t drafted in the first three rounds. That list included the Chiefs’ Isiah Pacheco, a seventh-round choice.
“Everybody looks at it a little bit different,” an AFC evaluator said. “Height-weight-speed stuff is easy to determine. Third-down ability is definitely part of it. I really like guys, and it’s hard to find in college, that will press bodies on inside zone. Get in there tight. But so many of these kids in college are running through these massive holes because there’s so much air.
“With running backs and receivers, you can have five different guys look at them and get five completely different orders.”
Using my records from combine and pro days, the average height-weight-speed of the aforementioned nine unheralded players that gained 1,000 or more yards from scrimmage last season was 5-10 ½, 212, 4.54.
In the last decade, five backs that entered the league after the third round or as free agents have been voted to the Pro Bowl; injury replacements were not considered. The list includes the Texans’ Arian Foster (6-0 ½, 224, 4.71), a four-time selection; the Falcons’ Devonta Freeman (5-8, 205, 4.54), a two-time selection; the Broncos’ Phillip Lindsay (5-7, 184, 4.48), the Packers’ Jones (5-9 ½, 208, 4.58) and the Cowboys’ Pollard (5-11 ½, 209, 4.42).
Suspects fitting those descriptions are out there in this draft. That we know. And the best scouts working for the best teams will uncover them.
Below are the extensive scouting reports and rankings from McGinn — packed with analysis from scouts and personnel men across the NFL. Miss a prior post? They’re also linked here.
1. BIJAN ROBINSON, Texas (5-11, 215, 4.45, 1): Third-year junior. “That would be blasphemy to put him in the same class as Barry Sanders and all that,” one scout said. “He is definitely in the top percentile of running backs that I’ve seen because he’s big and he has sprinter speed and he can catch. I feel confident saying he’s as good as Todd Gurley. (Same) for Edgerrin James. Saquon Barkley would be more recent. I’m not saying he’s Bo Jackson but think that size, that explosiveness but yet that speed. He’s not as fast as Bo but he’s in that class of a speed back that’s not finesse. He can run it up in there and be a power back when it’s needed, and also juke you out of your shoes.”