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NFL Draft 2023: Let’s have the Bijan Robinson conversation

The Patriots could have a unique opportunity if Bijan Robinson is still on the board at pick 14. Let’s pro/con the situation.

Baylor v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

With great power comes great responsibility.

Want to feel old? That quote from Uncle Ben is old enough to buy a beer now (if you’re going by the movie version) and if you want to date it back to the comics, it dropped at approximately the same time the New England Patriots were serving as somewhere between a JV scrimmage and target practice for for the now-immortal 1985 Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX.

All the annual hyperbole about this being an absolutely crucial draft for the Patriots, while occasionally annoying, is correct. On one hand, the team is coming off a losing campaign, and arguably is the favorite to finish last in their own division for the first time since the days of Total Request Live on MTV. On the other hand, the Patriots are bringing back a capital-E Elite defense (sans future Patriots Hall of Famer Devin McCourty, but otherwise mostly intact), and have their highest draft pick since 2008, when Bill Belichick and the Patriots had the ace in the hole of the seventh overall pick (courtesy of the then-woeful San Francisco 49ers). An offensive shot in the arm is exactly what the doctor ordered for the 2023 season, and the draft is by far the best one-stop shop to get good in a hurry.

Funny enough, if you were making a list of positions the Patriots could target in the first round that would actually shock you, running back may be the entirety of the list after Rhamondre Stevenson went absolutely berserk in 2022. For some fun Rhamondre facts that may have gotten lost in all the Mean Girls sniping last year, Stevenson finished with a tidy 5.0 yards per carry (tied with Nick Chubb and a hair below Dallas Cowboys new crush Tony Pollard), logged the 13th-most rushing yards in the NFL despite barely cracking 200 carries, and also ended the season with the sixth-most receiving yards among running backs. If he had ended up with just had one less receiving yard, he could have achieved the Beavis & Butthead award for 420 receiving yards on 69 catches. The nicest of nice.

Not only that, but the Patriots also, as they often do, added some fresh blood to the running back room in last year’s draft, spending a Day 2 pick on South Dakota State’s blazer Pierre Strong Jr. and taking a Day 3 flyer on South Carolina’s rocked-up Kevin Harris. If you’ve been watching this team for more than a year or two, you know: this is the way. Bill Belichick likes keeping the running backs room full almost as much as he loves throwing darts at Day 2 quarterbacks and ignoring our mock drafts.

That brings us, in a roundabout way, to Bijan Robinson.

If for no other reason than Bill Belichick may be the only general manager in the entire NFL who is still, despite 20-whatever years of precedent, truly unpredictable. Other voices like director of player personnel Matt Groh may be getting a bigger role in the draft process, but when it comes to sending in the card, it’s still Bill’s show. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned by now, it’s that if he thinks you can play football, he’s more than comfy spending a premium draft pick to acquire your services.

If you’re already chafing at the idea of taking a first-round running back, this may not be the blog for you, because the goal here is to pro-con selecting Robinson in the first round from two angles — one, would it be a good football move, and two, would it be a wise team-building move? One of these is going to be significantly easier than the other.

So let’s start there. The question of “Does Bijan Robinson improve your football team?” is thankfully a simple one, because even in today’s everything-is-either-the-GOAT-or-it-sucks sports discourse, everyone from Longhorns lifers to draft dorks can agree:

Bijan Robinson is really, REALLY freakin’ good at football.

And not just running the ball, either. If a handful of players in the early 2010s hadn’t ruined the term, “offensive weapon” is probably way more accurate to describe Bijan’s game.

For example, here’s our old friend Evan Lazar’s assessment from his big board on, where Robinson checks in early on Evan’s Best Fits:

There are rumblings that the Patriots have fallen in love with Robinson, which could be a smoke screen or an acknowledgment that he’s a tremendous football player without any intention of drafting him. Robinson is a generational talent and the best rookie running back since Saquon Barkley. The Texas star has unbelievable contact balance, power, and lateral agility for a bigger back, leading to an otherworldly 104 forced missed tackles and 1,071 yards after contact last season. Robinson is also a legit vertical threat out of the backfield and can hold up in pass protection. There’s no denying the talent, but the Pats should consider the positional value of taking a running back in the first round (pro comparison: Saquon Barkley).

Then there’s Danny Kelly from The Ringer, who has Bijan as his No. 4 overall prospect and, while I won’t CTRL-V the whole thing, well, here’s the good stuff:

Robinson runs with rare balance and body control, showing the uncanny ability to hop, skip, and jump away from tackle attempts and make defenders miss. He’s rarely squared up by defenders and is slippery when contacted, making sudden jukes and jump cuts to avoid hits and shake off tackles. He is patient to let blocks set up in front of him, and shows excellent vision to pick the right spot to hit the gas pedal and go. He runs with his pads low, and when he needs to, he’ll lower his shoulder and run through a defender. Robinson has a gliding, almost effortless-looking gait in the open field and seems to surprise defenders in his ability to destroy pursuit angles and run to daylight. On stretch runs to the edge, he shows good vision and feel for when to plant his foot and cut downhill. He may not possess elite speed, but he is more than capable of turning a short gain into a house call. In the passing game, Robinson’s a natural; he doesn’t fight the ball at the catch point and can run vertical routes and pluck the ball away from his frame. He can scan the line to pick up blitzes and stymie rushers.

You get the idea. Pick your analyst of choice, and in terms of playing college football like a man among boys, Bijan is a capital-E elite talent. The potential All-Pro kind.

In terms of pro comps, it seems like 9 out of 10 analysts agree Robinson is the best all-around RB prospect they’ve seen since Saquon Barkley, and that’s usually the stylistic comp they land on, too. That’s the kind of talent you can’t teach, and while Bill’s traditionally liked to keep his backs specialized in either early-down work or third-down duties, the idea of adding the kind of All-Guns-Infinite-Ammo RB that’s tormented us in the past, a la Le’Veon Bell or Ladanian Tomlinson, must have him salivating.

Actually, you like highlights? I love highlights. Roll it!

So, yeah, we’ll call the part where Bijan Robinson is a potential game-wrecking talent who’s outstanding in pretty much every way you could want settled science at this point.

Now we have to get into it from the, “Is this a smart way to use our resources and build a winning football team?” angle, which, as you can imagine, gets a lot trickier.

There’s two sub-topics we should probably break down here; one, the money, which we already know since the rookie wage scale dictates pretty much exactly what these guys are getting paid, and two, the opportunity cost. Not just “well, we coulda had Jaxon Smith-Njigba” opportunity cost, but how the return spending a premium draft pick on a running back stacks up next to, say, a pass-rusher or an offensive lineman (assuming that the prospect turns out to be, y’know, good).

We already know that if the Patriots stay put at pick 14, the player they draft is going to be locked in with a four-year deal with a fifth-year option, and the total contract value of $17,584,256.00. The 2023 cap hit? A quite reasonable $3.2 million.

For a fun Let’s Remember A Guy comparison, James White’s cap hit his last few seasons with the Patriots was usually around $2.5 million a year, after making $4 million a year after he achieved legendary status in the Super Bowl. If math’s not your thing, all we need to agree on is that $3.2 million, and the cap hits for the next few seasons, are basically a rounding error when the salary cap is a whopping $224.8 million and figures to keep climbing into infinity.

That’s also relative peanuts compared to what the kind of RBs you’re picking in the first round of your fantasy drafts make. Carolina Pan... er, San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey signed his extension three seasons ago, and he’s still making a cool $16 million a year in average annual salary. The New Orleans Saints are paying Alvin Kamara $15 million a season for his services, and the Minnesota Vikings’ Dalvin Cook barely edges the Tennessee Titans’ future Hall of Famer Derrick Henry at $12.6 and $12.5 million a year, respectively.

Sounds like a decent pitch so far, right? With the all-important caveat of, “Well, assuming he’s actually good”, Robinson could be a top-5/10/however you want to define elite talent, making relative peanuts compared to the league’s best rushers. Who wouldn’t want to ride that gravy train all the way to Mashed Potato Town?

If we roll with the premise that all draft picks are good values relative to their second-contract peers in the league, though, then the same is true for every other position on the field, and often exponentially so. Well, maybe exponentially is a bit of an exaggeration, but the scale is like... if it stands to reason that getting a Mustang for a Corolla price is good, wouldn’t getting a Benz or a Lexus for Corolla prices be that much sweeter?

Consider edge rusher, for example. Defensive end, outside linebacker, whatever you want to call ‘em. We don’t have to look any further than New England’s own best player on the team.

Matthew Judon signed with the Patriots during our YOLOSWAG free-agent spending spree of 2021, and that contract was for a cool $56 million over four years. That’s an average of $14 million per year, and the Patriots have already done one salary-to-bonus conversion on Judon’s deal to play the salary-cap gymnastics casual fans love to say Bill Belichick refuses to do.

Want to appreciate Judon’s value a little more, though? $14 million a year in average annual value sounds like our parents telling us they paid for college flipping burgers over summer break when it comes to the All-Pro-caliber edge rushers and the paychecks they’re bringing home these days. Check out the top five as of this past season (all in average annual value, of course):

  1. T.J. Watt (Steelers), $28 million per year
  2. Joey Bosa (Chargers), $27 million per year
  3. Myles Garrett (Browns), $25 million per year
  4. Khalil Mack (Chargers), $23.5 million per year
  5. Maxx Crosby (Raiders), $23.5 million per year

We could do this all day. You get the idea.

The best offensive linemen in the game on second contracts, which we really only have to include the “linemen” qualifier because the category is “best left tackles + Quenton Nelson” are all hauling in $20+ million a year in average annual value.

The same applies for New England’s most lusted-after position, the (First Take voice) TRUE No. 1 Wide Receiver, where game-wreckers like Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp and, yes, DeAndre Hopkins, are cashing checks for $30 million a year (in Tyreek’s case) and the other tthree are pulling between $26-28 million. Meanwhile on Year 3 of his rookie deal, Justin Jefferson, who already has a strong case for the best wide receiver in all of football, is making an average of $3.3 million a year. Put another way, Jefferson’s contract shakes out to roughly a quarter on the dollar of what Jakobi Meyers just (deservedly) got paid from the Las Vegas Raiders.

The value a first-round pick that actually pans out in spades at pretty much any other position besides running back provides, where you have the production of a true baller that you’re paying 10-20 percent, maybe 30 percent tops of market value for would give the Patriots so much flexibility to either build the crucial depth that anchored the dynasties, or handle the salary requirements of the kind of players the Patriots could only afford in our Madden franchises, like, um, DeAndre Hopkins.

Or, as more teams go (deep breath, L.A. Rams voice) “F Them Picks” All-In, there’ll be rebuilds galore in the next few years where Bill Belichick and friends can go yard sale shopping and do the same thing my dad does: either find an incredible bargain on something nobody can afford anymore, or do the, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this, but buy it know, figure it out later”.

And that’s the most crucial aspect of this convo for the Patriots, in terms of, “Are we trying to rebuild a perennial contender, or win the offseason?”

While it’s comforting in a “at least you tried” kind of way to tell yourself that New England is sitting on a projected $100+ million in 2024 cap space, we just saw how that 2021 offseason panned out in terms of assessing roster deficiencies and throwing money at the problem(s). Plus, a lot of that space could already be spoken for if 2023 actually goes well and there are contract extensions for Michael Onwenu, Josh Uche, Kyle Dugger, Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, and the aforementioned Rhamondre Stevenson that need taking care of before the team even looks at the free agency class.

Without players at the game-flipping positions that create turnovers and, you know, score points, on contracts that don’t cost 10-25 percent of the salary cap on their own, winning playoff games shakes out to playing Call of Duty with a peashooter and hoping to still end the match with more kills than deaths. Or for the old people out there like me, playing every Goldeneye level with just the PP7.

It’s just making winning at a high level that much harder on yourself (although, to be fair, I do love The Ringer’s Benjamin Solak’s analogy of Tom Brady going for the all-time high score, whereas Bill Belichick is trying to complete all the hidden challenges in the game).

Back to Bijan Robinson, finally; considering where the Patriots are, both as a franchise and in the draft order, and Rhamondre Stevenson still existing, it just doesn’t make much sense to spend that kind of draft capital for a (hopeful) upgrade at a roster spot that’s already pretty inarguably one of the strong points of the team, and one that, by virtue of the contract discrepancies we just talked about, can’t generate much surplus value for the team even in the absolute best-case scenario.

You don’t have to be a RUNNING BACKS DON’T MATTER hater/dork to believe this, just a believer in, “Well, we can only improve so much at running the ball, but we can either get way better at scoring touchdowns or getting pressure and turnovers pretty much immediately” to understand the stakes here. And not only the stakes, but the potential edge the Patriots stand to gain if they strike gold on, well, almost any other position besides running back.

If this winds up on Freezing Cold Takes because Bijan Robinson actually fulfills his destiny as the next LaDanian Tomlinson/Jamaal Charles/dare-I-say Barry Sanders, then that’s a Golden Corral of crow I’ll be happy to eat when the time comes. I just played poker with the guys last week, and even the most hammered guy wins the biggest hand every once in a while.

Anomalies aside, though, the Patriots, if they fancy being contenders anytime soon instead of slogging past Don Shula’s record in supremely anticlimactic fashion, need to focus on the draft targets that will make the team better in a hurry. And unfortunately for the position that made us love guys like Curtis Martin back in the day, running back’s just not that anymore.