Can you name the last running back taken with a top-10 pick in the NFL Draft who did not finish as a top-12 guy on a per-game basis as a rookie?

It's not a trick question. There have actually been running backs taken with top-10 picks, just not many of them. Bijan Robinson is only the eighth-such man to get that nod in the past 15 years.

You already know luminaries like Saquon Barkley (23.4 PPR points per game) and Ezekiel Elliott (20.8) flourished as rookies. They each finished top three on a per-game average.

Leonard Fournette (16.8), Todd Gurley (15.1) and Trent Richardson (15.9) finished as top 10 running backs as rookies.

You'll get the answer later in this deep dive. Until then, assume that when it comes to drafting running backs, the NFL's coaches and executives know what they're doing. They're the ones who have devalued the position EXCEPT when faced with really good talents, and in those cases the talents have (mostly) delivered.

That credit should be extended to coach Arthur Smith and the Falcons

A flock worth running with

Under his playcalling last year, Smith's running backs ranked first, second or third in the entire NFL in rush attempts, rushing yards, rushing average, Rush EPA (expected points added, a measure of how a team does related to expectations), yards after contact per rush, rushing first downs and rate of runs of 5-plus yards (42.2%!). As for yards before contact per attempt, they were 10th best at 1.54 yards. That's pretty good.

Atlanta was not nearly as prolific the year prior, Smith's first year as head coach, but his offense looked much different then. Smith was also the playcaller for Derrick Henry in 2019 and 2020, when Henry averaged 22 carries and 115.1 rush yards per game with 33 touchdowns in 31 games.

Point being, running backs have absolutely thrived under Smith. Not just rare-trait talents like Derrick Henry but even 30-plus ex-receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and 2022 fifth-round pick Tyler Allgeier.

Here's to you, Mr. Robinson

That brings us to Robinson, who has been described as a "faster and quicker version of Marshawn Lynch," according to my trusted colleague Dan Schneier. 

For two years, Robinson tore up Big-12 competition at Texas. Forget about the simpler stats like 5.97-yard rushing average or the 35 total touchdowns -- this man had three games out of 22 where he DIDN'T total 110 yards. He averaged 4.07 yards after contact per rush over two years. He avoided a tackle on 40.5% of his carries. He scored once every 15.6 carries in 2021 and 2022. He's pals with Matthew McConaughey, loves chiweenies and is a crazy soccer fan. OK fine, I made those up. Or did I?! 

As a runner, Robinson particularly won with vision and balance, something you saw constantly from him on edge runs in 2022, averaging 6.96 yards on those types of totes with 56 avoided tackles over 153 attempts with 14 touchdowns (out of his 18). This was actually a specific area he improved upon from 2021 when he averaged "only" 5.6 yards per carry.

(Don't worry, he's strong between the tackles too, though Texas' so-so O-line was part of the reason for his 104-509-4 stat line solely on inside runs, a 4.9-yard average. Note that he had more carries to the edge than in the A and B gaps.)

The Falcons dialed up outside runs on 162 of 455 (35.6%) RB runs for 5.6 yards per carry in 2022 and 127 of 347 (36.6%) RB runs for 4.5 yards per carry in 2021. I would expect all of these numbers to rise in 2023 as it suits Robinson's strengths.

A few more rushing data points that probably helped win the Falcons over on him:

  • Only had six carries from the 1-yard line last year. He scored on four of them. From 3 yards or closer he scored on 8 of 15 tries. That's definitely not bad.
  • From outside the red zone Robinson averaged 6.6 yards per carry, ran for 12-plus yards on 13.7% of his carries and avoided a tackle on 38.3% of his carries with 4.47 yards after contact per rush. All of these numbers are top-9 among 37 qualifying FBS running backs with at least 200 carries. This feels like a purer version of what he is as a runner because it eliminates all of his shorter-field carries in the red zone.

What about Robinson as a pass-catcher? If you watched him play, you know it's part of what he can do. On 29 targets in 2022 he pulled in 19 balls for 314 yards and two touchdowns. That's a 65.5% catch rate, 16.5 yards per catch on a 6.79 ADOT (average depth of target, a measure of how downfield a player averages) and a 42.1% avoided tackle rate on receptions with zero drops. He's especially familiar with flare, pivot and wheel routes, which makes Robinson a little more well-rounded than the average pass-catching back who only runs easy routes out of the backfield near the line of scrimmage.

Atlanta's running backs saw a cumulative 16.5% target share in 2022, down from an inflated 26.2% in 2021 when Matt Ryan was getting the ball out as fast as possible behind a leaky O-line. That ranked eighth-worst in the league, yet it's notably higher than what Smith ordered from the Titans' backs in 2019 and 2020. This is another area where Robinson's strengths should lead to a modest bump.

Final projection

When Smith got comfortable with Tyler Allgeier in four games late last year, all with Desmond Ridder starting, he dialed up 19.8 carries per game for him. Allgeier was good with that workload, averaging 107.8 rush yards per game. Some of that was because Allgeier is actually a good back, but some of that is because the Falcons offensive line stepped up and blocked well against some of the league's tougher run defenses in New Orleans, Baltimore and Tampa Bay. That O-line will work for Robinson now, and most of those carries will go to the rookie, too.

A conservative projection is 15 carries per game for Robinson. With the hope he stays on the field for 15 games, that means 225 carries on the year. Again, that's conservative -- the Falcons have no reason to pile gobs of carries on Robinson when they can spell him with Allgeier for as many as six carries per game.

Between Robinson's talents -- vision, balance, ability to juke and power through defenders for extra yards -- and a good offensive line that's capable of clearing some space before contact, it's reasonable to expect a good rushing average in 2023. Let's call it a conservative 4.6 yards per carry for Robinson. At 225 carries, that comes out to 1,035 yards.

Robinson should immediately work as the goal-line back for the Falcons. You already know he was better than 50% on his carries inside the 3. Atlanta did not have a lot of carries from 3 yards or closer -- only 15 -- and six of them went to the quarterback. That'll change in 2023. I would expect at least five short-yardage/goal-line touchdowns from Robinson with another six touchdowns from four yards or longer. That's 11 rushing touchdowns.

In Ridder's four starts last year he targeted his RBs on 24.5% of his attempts. That was the fourth-highest among all quarterbacks regardless of playing time. That's worth getting excited about, but I'd caution that those games came without Kyle Pitts on the field. I'd squash that rate considerably, not only because Pitts will play with Ridder, but also because Smith's tendency is not to pepper his backs with targets. If Ridder's target rate to running backs is 19%, and if the Falcons average around 30 passes per game, that's about six targets per game to the running backs. I would guess that five of those six would go to Robinson. At 15 games, that's a conservative 75 targets. At the catch rate Robinson had in 2022 (65.5%), that's 49 receptions. And given his successes, an 8.0 receiving average is fair game. That's 392 receiving yards. I'd expect a couple of touchdowns with that.

That brings Robinson's conservative projection to 1,427 total yards and 13 touchdowns. In non-PPR that's 14.7 points per game. Add the 49 receptions in and it's 18.0 PPR points per game. Last year those averages would have ranked sixth-highest in non-PPR and fifth-best in PPR.

I believe that's the running back you should expect in 2023. It's why I would encourage anyone to take him in Round 1, potentially as soon as fifth overall in non-PPR and seventh overall in PPR.  

And that's way better than the last top-10-picked rookie RB to not finish as an RB1. That would of course be ... Christian McCaffrey, who averaged 13.3 PPR points per game, good for RB13.