He’s one of NFL draft’s best players. Will his position drag him down?

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Twenty years ago – or maybe even five – Bijan Robinson would have been a lock to be a top-five pick in the NFL draft.

In 2023, it’s hard to imagine the former Texas Longhorns running back being selected within the first 15 names called – even if the number of players who are more talented than him could be counted on one hand.

‘I’ve got him as one of the top-five players in the draft class just based on the skill and the football player,’ said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. 

The issue, as NFL offenses have evolved over the decades from being rooted in the ground game to centered on the aerial attack, is his position. Regardless, there isn’t much argument the Doak Walker Award winner and unanimous first-team All-American is the best running back prospect since Saquon Barkley, who went No. 2 overall to the New York Giants in 2018.

Almost certainly, Robinson will not be selected that high.

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‘It’s tricky trying to marry those two factors,’ NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. ‘You got to look at him as more than ‘just a running back.”

Bijan Robinson, Saquon Barkley comparisons 

As a do-it-all back who was prolific at the collegiate level, Robinson has long been tied to Barkley for his distinct, multidimensional offensive contributions.

‘I would make the argument that he is slightly – not significantly – but maybe slightly better as a prospect than Saquon Barkley was,’ McShay said last month on a conference call.

Barkley is one inch taller and has about 15 pounds on Robinson, who measures in at 5-11 and 215 pounds. Nevertheless, Robinson says he can run through defenders or elude them in space. 

‘Word’s been going around that my pro comp is Saquon,’ Robinson said at the combine last month. ‘I want to be myself. There are so many great running backs out there. In a year, we’re both going to be competitors and try to go after the same things.’ 

Shining in the Lone Star State 

In 2022, his third season at Texas, Robinson rushed for 1,580 yards and finished his Longhorns career with 3,410 rushing yards and 41 total touchdowns (33 rushing). 

Robinson said he can be a difference-maker as a receiving option. The idea of a player running routes on one play and dashing between the tackles on the next puts a strain on the defense, he said. 

‘I just feel like at the size I’m at and doing the things I can do on the field whether it’s pass catch, line up at receiver or in the slot – pretty much line up anywhere you need me to be,’ he said.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said Robinson projects as a 20-plus carry per game back who can run, catch and block. His balance while running through traffic and dropping his pad level sticks out, Kiper said. 

‘He’s just a natural-born runner,’ Kiper said.

Diminishing value of running backs

In the modern NFL, teams have largely shied away from using top picks on running backs amid the proliferation of mid-round ball carriers who become starters.

Jeremiah said he would never advocate taking a running back before a similarly graded player at a premium position, such as a defensive end, offensive tackle or corner.

At the combine, Robinson did not appear fazed by projections that he might need to wait until the middle-to-late first round to hear his name called.

‘I don’t want to say it’s unfair,’ Robinson said. ‘God has a plan for wherever I want to be at, personally. You never know on that day where you’re going to go. For me, it’s important to keep enjoying the moment because we might get to draft day and some surprise could happen. We never know.’

For Kiper Jr. – who has proselyted against taking a running back in the first round – has considered putting Robinson in the top 10 of his mock draft. Robinson has been ranked anywhere from six to eight on Kiper’s big board in recent months, but Kiper acknowledged his landing spot could be in the 20s. 

‘Bijan is a potential special player,’ Kiper Jr. said. ‘Are you OK with decent? Solid? Or do you want great?

‘Todd said he thinks that he’s Saquon Barkley. I think he’s a shade below Saquon, but even that is pretty doggone good.’

Some teams’ philosophies may be to approach the running back conundrum inversely, McShay said. Teams can have low-cost assets during what is typically the most productive part of their careers and then pass on paying ball carriers a bloated second contract. 

‘I think if there’s an elite talent, you draft him in the first round, you get him at a cheap price,’ McShay said, ‘you bring him in for the first five years when he still has tread on his tires.

‘We’ll find out a lot about the running back position, how it’s viewed, by teams in NFL.’ 

Potential landing spots for Bijan Robinson 

Robinson’s sweet spot on the board might be in the teens or early 20s, according to several draft analysts. 

‘To me, the gap between him and his ability level versus the other players you’re going to be comparing him to, I think that’s going to still lead to him being a top-15 pick when it’s all said and done in this draft,’ said Jeremiah, who rated Robinson fourth on his list of top 50 players. 

USA TODAY Sports’ draft experts have projected Robinson being selected as high as No. 8 by the Atlanta Falcons or No. 10 by the Philadelphia Eagles. In the latest mock drafts by McShay and Kiper, the Detroit Lions took Robinson with their second choice of the first round, No. 18 overall.

‘It’s hard to draft a guy that you have a late-first, early-second-round grade on over a guy that’s a top-five prospect on just about every team’s board that I’ve talked to,’ McShay said.

McShay added that his evaluation of Robinson revealed an energetic prospect with high character and a love of the game.

‘He’s the kind of guy that you want in the building,’ McShay said. ‘It’s hard to find many weaknesses in his game. That’s why I think he’s going to be so special at the next level.’

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY