AUSTIN, Texas — The running back position in the NFL is diluted. If you earn a second contract, then you’re doing something.
For Bijan Robinson, just getting the first contract is the goal. The Texas product should be the first running back taken off the board when the NFL draft starts in late April.
If Robinson is drafted in the first round, it will be the first time since 2021 that a running back has gone in the first round. That year, Najee Harris (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Travis Etienne (Jacksonville Jaguars) went back-to-back at No. 24 and No. 25, respectively. But since 2019, only four running backs have gone on the first day of the draft.
It’s a trend that’s affected the value of the position, as NFL teams seek to use the passing game more with the hope of keeping running backs healthy and sustainable for a full regular season.
As an example, the Cowboys’ two lead running backs — Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott — each missed games with health issues in 2023. Pollard’s second contract is the franchise tag for $10.09 million. Elliott, one of the highest paid at his position, is facing the possibility of a pay cut or being released.
Yes, the reality of the running back position is grim.
Robinson’s future, however, is bright.
On Thursday, he didn’t need to work out at Texas’ pro day. He let his work at the NFL scouting combine make his statement. He ran a 4.46 40-yard dash and produced a 37-inch vertical.
He didn’t lift at the combine, but there’s no doubt about his strength and speed.
In 28 starts over three seasons, Robinson rushed for 3,410 yards with 33 touchdowns. In his junior season, Robinson scored 18 touchdowns on 258 attempts while picking up 1,580 yards. He was named the Doak Walker Award winner as the nation’s best running back for the 2022 season. He was also a unanimous All-American selection.
Robinson cemented his status as the best running back in the draft.
Now will that translate to a team selecting him in the first round? The versatility in his game, including the ability to catch out of the backfield, makes his case strong.
“Word’s been going around that my pro comparison is Saquon [Barkley],” Robinson said at the combine, referring to the Giants running back who was the second overall pick in 2018.
“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, so I’m just trying to enjoy this process. I know people have compared me a lot [to Barkley], but’s it’s just me trying to be myself and to be the man God blessed me to be.”
The Texas football program is down when it comes to NFL talent. At some point, Texas expects to have a fury of NFL head coaches back in their practice bubble watching prospects. The best prospect at its pro day this year, Robinson, didn’t even work out.
His backup, Roschon Johnson, had to work out to show teams he’s recovered from a broken left hand suffered during a pass blocking drill at the Senior Bowl.
“I was bummed,” Johnson said of missing the Senior Bowl game. “That was definitely a heartbreaker. Obviously it’s in a weird spot — not only did I miss the rest of those [Senior Bowl] practices, it was in the middle of my training, getting ready for the combine. It was a mental block I had to overcome, but God does that for a reason and I took that approach.”
When it comes to the best Texas running backs, there’s Earl Campbell and everybody else. The standard he set by becoming the first player taken No. 1 overall in 1978 hasn’t been touched.
Sure Eric Metcalf, Cedric Benson and Ricky Williams were drafted in the first round years after Campbell finished playing. But how do you compare to a Hall of Fame career like Campbell’s?
Now it is Robinson’s time, and he hopes to become the first Texas running back taken in the first round since Benson in 2005.
It seems like a long time ago, but Robinson should end that drought.
“God has a plan for wherever I want to be at, personally,” he said. “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 me, I’m just trying to keep staying positive and always know the blessings are here and keep having fun.”