With the NFL free agency and draft both in the rear-view mirror, and the second phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are officially “on to 2023.”
At the moment, the Patriots have a full 90-man roster. Only 53 of those players will be able to survive roster cutdowns and ultimately make the active team, with others competing for practice squad spots. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take an in-depth look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping New England rebound from a disappointing 2022 season.
Today, the series continues with fourth-year running back James Robinson.
Name: James Robinson
Position: Running back
Opening day age: 25 (8/9/1998)
Size: 5’9”, 219 lbs
Jersey number: 3
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 joined 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.
Stats (Jacksonville): 7 games (5 starts) | 214 offensive snaps (45.2%) | 81 carries, 340 yards, 3 TDs, 1 fumble | 11 targets, 9 catches, 46 yards, 1 TD
Stats (New York): 4 games (0 starts) | 57 offensive snaps (8.9%) | 29 carries, 85 yards | 2 targets, 2 catches, 5 yards, 1 TD
Season recap: The story of Robinson’s 2022 cannot be told without looking back further, to Week 16 of the 2021 regular season. That week, Robinson suffered a torn achilles tendon to cut short what had been a second straight productive season. The injury had an impact on his preparation for his third year in the NFL (and, in fact, changed his career trajectory): Robinson was forced to spend the offseason rehabilitating, and was limited entering training camp despite avoiding the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
Robinson gradually built up toward the regular season, and by Week 1 was back as the Jaguars’ lead running back. In a 28-22 loss against Washington, he touched the ball 12 times for 69 yards and two touchdowns.
Last season, Urban Meyer preferred Carlos Hyde because... well, Urban Meyer.— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) September 12, 2022
This season, let's give it to Travis Etienne... until that doesn't really work, so let's make 25 the focal point.
James Robinson just gets it done. pic.twitter.com/1pMupzNgrD
Starting the first five games of the season, Robinson continued to play some productive football. However, by Week 6 his spot in the starting lineup had gone to sophomore Travis Etienne Jr., a former first-round draft pick. One week later, Robinson had his lowest playing-time share of the season up until that point and did not touch the ball once in 12 offensive snaps (Etienne Jr., for comparison, played 57).
That game against the New York Giants was a sign of things to come: just two days later, Robinson was traded to the Jets in exchange for a conditional sixth-round selection in the 2023 draft. He left Jacksonville having played 214 of 473 offensive snaps (45.2%), touching the ball 92 times for 386 yards and four touchdowns.
Needless to say, Robinson did not come anywhere close to duplicating those numbers in New York. He saw action in just four games as a Jet, playing just 57 of 639 possible snaps (8.9%) and closing out the year with five straight inactivities. In total, he carried the ball 29 times for 85 yards and added five yards and a touchdown on two receptions.
From his recovery, to playing under a new coaching staff in Jacksonville, to his trade to the Jets, the circumstances did not do Robinson any favors in 2022. That being said, the season as a whole still cannot be called anything but a disappointment: he was replaced by one team, and underused by another, and never able to return to the levels of play he had shown before his season-ending injury in December 2021.
What will be his role? 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 be able to serve as a change-of-pace option reminiscent of former Patriot Rex Burkhead — a between-the-tackles runner and potential short-yardage back, who also can contribute a bit in the passing game. As such, he projects as a RB2-type player to spell lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson in select situations.
What is his growth potential? Robinson’s 2022 season was a disappointment, especially after he was traded to the Jets. From that point of view, the only way is up. If he can return to his rookie form, when he had 1,414 yards from scrimmage and scored 10 touchdowns, the Patriots will obviously have gotten themselves a legitimate weapon. But even if he does not it might not be a problem: as long as he can show some improvement compared to last season, he should be able to become a contributor as an RB2-type player.
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%). He also has one solitary snap on his résumé as a wildcat quarterback. As far as special teams is concerned, he will likely not be a factor after not playing a single snap in the game’s third phase in three regular seasons.
What is his salary cap situation? Robinson signed a two-year, $4 million contract with the Patriots in free agency and will count $1.76 million against their salary cap this season. That number does not tell the whole story, however: it includes only $150,000 in guarantees, which means that releasing Robinson would create a minimal dead cap as opposed to $1.61 million in gross savings.
How safe is his roster spot? Judged by his contract, Robinson appears to stand on shaky ground; the Patriots can easily move on from him without any major financial ramifications. That said, the current depth chart at running back suggests he will have a good chance at making the team: behind Rhamondre Stevenson, the team as receiving/change-of-pace options Ty Montgomery, Pierre Strong Jr. and J.J. Taylor, as well as early-down/between-the-tackles back Kevin Harris. There is a good chance Robinson will beat out one, if not both, of Taylor and Harris to earn himself a spot in the rotation.
One-sentence projection: James Robinson will not put up the same numbers he had as a rookie, but still fill a valuable role as a replacement for free agency departee Damien Harris.