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NFL free agency 2023: Who is new Patriots running back James Robinson?

Robinson signed a reported two-year contract to join the Patriots.

NFL: NOV 06 Bills at Jets Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots made some investments in their offense on Wednesday. They signed wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to a three-year contract, added offensive tackle Riley Reiff on a one-year pact, and placed the third-round restricted free agent tender on fellow OT Yodny Cajuste.

Their final move to wrap up the first official day of the 2023 league year was signing running back James Robinson. Let’s take a closer look at him.

Hard facts

Name: James Robinson

Position: Running back

Opening day age: 25

Size: 5-foot-9, 219 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2024 (2025 UFA)


Before entering the NFL as an undrafted rookie in 2020, Robinson played some productive career at Illinois State. A three-year starter, he finished his career with the Redbirds ranked second in school history in rushing yards (4,444), rushing touchdowns (44), total touchdowns (46), and all-purpose yards (5,218). A physical workhorse-type running back, he was a first-team all-conference selection in the MVFC in each of his three seasons as a starter, and named consensus first-team All-American as a senior.

Nonetheless, he did not hear his name called in the draft and had to join the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent. Nonetheless, he burst onto the scene right away and finished his rookie season with 1,414 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns. His workload decreased a bit in Year 2, but he still gained 989 yards with eight scores before a season-ending achilles tear. Robinson was unable to reach his prior levels of play post-injury, and in October 2022 was traded to the New York Jets. In four games as a Jet, he touched the ball just 31 times.

Patriots preview

What is his projected role in New England? Robinson has some experience as a receiver and is joining New England after having caught 91 passes for 617 yards and five touchdowns over the first three seasons of his NFL career. While not the most positionally-flexible back, he might have the upside to serve as a change-of-pace option reminiscent of former Patriot Rex Burkhead — a player whose primary value lies as a between-the-tackles runner and potential short-yardage back, but who also can contribute a bit in the passing game. As such, he projects as a RB2-type player to back up lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson.

Does he have positional versatility? Robinson’s primary value lies as a backfield option: 1,339 of his 1,441 career snaps between the Jaguars and Jets (92.9%) have come at a traditional running back alignment. For comparison he has only rarely been split out wide (76; 5.3%) or moved into the slot (25; 1.7%). Interestingly enough, he also has one solitary snap on his résumé as a wildcat quarterback.

What is his special teams value? Unless the Patriots decide to give him a role he has no prior experience in, Robinson will not contribute on special teams. Over his first three years in the NFL, he has neither played any kicking game snaps in the regular season nor in preseason. He does have some return-game experience stemming from his time in college, though: he returned 15 kickoffs for an average of 23.2 yards at Illinois State. All but one of his runbacks came as a freshman in 2016, however.

What does it mean for New England’s salary cap? The full details of Robinson’s contract have yet to be reported, but based on the initial figure of two years for $8 million it appears his deal will not hit the team’s books too much. It is more likely that that number has been inflated a bit via the inclusion of incentives considered not likely to be earned. Robinson’s actual salary cap impact being significantly below that figure would not be a surprise.

What does it mean for New England’s draft outlook? With Robinson potentially replacing free agent Damien Harris on the roster, the Patriots’ running back room remains a deep one. That said, the team might still see potential to add upgrades especially in the receiving department: 30-year-old Ty Montgomery is coming off season-ending injury, with youngster Pierre Strong Jr. relatively unproven after a quiet rookie season. Adding Robinson to the mix does not change any of this, meaning New England could still go after another back in the draft.

One-sentence verdict: Robinson was a very good player earlier in his career, and getting him back to that level would be a coup for the Patriots.

Instant grade: B


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