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Are These Rookie Running Backs Overrated?

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

On the first night of the 2023 NFL draft, something happened that had not happened in an NFL draft for the past six years: two running backs were drafted in the first 12 picks. The Atlanta Falcons selected former Texas RB Bijan Robinson with the 8th pick, and the Detroit Lions selected former Alabama and Georgia Tech RB Jahmyr Gibbs with the 12th pick.



Before this year, that happened only once in the past 12 years, when both Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey were drafted in the top 8 of the 2017 NFL draft. Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs are both very talented running backs, but will they pay off their draft capital?


Fantasy football drafters think it will happen quickly. Bijan Robinson currently has the 3rd highest average fantasy football draft position among all running backs, and Jahmyr Gibbs has the 14th-highest fantasy football average draft position based on ESPN PPR drafts (as of August 2023). Bijan Robinson is currently drafted ahead of several running backs who finished in the top 7 last year in PPR fantasy points, including studs like Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, and Saquon Barkley.


Jahmyr Gibbs is also drafted ahead of some running backs who finished in the top 12 last year, including Rhamondre Stevenson, Dalvin Cook, and Miles Sanders. As rookies, will Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs actually outscore all of those running backs this year? Let’s take a deeper look at the numbers.


Atlanta Falcons RB Bijan Robinson, 8th Overall Draft Pick

Bijan Robinson was rated the top high school football player in the state of Arizona at Salpointe Catholic in Tucson, where he broke the state high school career rushing record with 7,036 yards and 114 career rushing touchdowns. He was a five-star recruit and he quickly emerged as a top weapon for the Texas Longhorns offense with 899 scrimmage yards and 6 touchdowns as a true freshman.


Robinson finished his career at Texas with the 4th-most rushing yards (3,410 on 539 rushing attempts) and 3rd most rushing touchdowns (33) in school history after only three years, which earned him the Doak Walker Award in 2022 as the best college football running back in the nation. He also had 60 receptions for 805 yards and 8 touchdowns. Robinson’s PFF rushing grade of 95.1 was the 2nd best ever for a Power 5 running back, behind only Jonathan Taylor (97.5).


Bijan Robinson shined at the NFL Combine with a 4.46s 40-yard dash (85th percentile), 37” vertical jump (82nd percentile), and 10’4” broad jump (80th percentile). One area where Robinson does not stand out among other running backs is his size. Robinson is 5’ 11” and 215 lbs, which are 57th and 56th percentile, respectively, compared to other running backs.


His size may not be elite, but his high school and college production along with his agility measurements clearly put him in an elite category and the Atlanta Falcons are counting on him to perform at an elite level in the NFL.


Detroit Lions RB Jahmyr Gibbs, 12th Overall Draft Pick

Jahmyr Gibbs also had a prolific high school football career, setting state records for career rushing yards (4,882) and career rushing touchdowns (70) at Dalton High School in Georgia. In the opening game of his senior season, he rushed for a mind-boggling 420 yards and 8 touchdowns on only 23 carries to lead his team to a 62-10 victory.


He started his college career at Georgia Tech where he quickly became a key player on offense, leading the team with 763 scrimmage yards and 7 scrimmage touchdowns (4 rushing and 3 receiving) as a true freshman.


After two years at Georgia Tech, he transferred to Alabama for his final collegiate season, where he averaged over 6 yards per carry (3rd best in the SEC) with a team-high 1,370 scrimmage yards and 10 scrimmage touchdowns (7 rushing and 3 receiving). He declared for the NFL draft after only three collegiate seasons, finishing with an excellent overall PFF grade of 88.3 and an elite PFF receiving grade of 92.6 (1st in college football).


Jahmyr Gibbs excelled at the NFL Combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds (98th percentile and 2nd fastest among all rookie running backs in 2023 behind only former Texas A&M running back Devon Achane). Like Bijan Robinson, size is one area where Jahmyr Gibbs is less impressive compared to other running backs.


His height (5’9”) and weight (199 lbs) are in the 25th and 14th percentile, respectively, among all NFL running backs, which may have contributed to his lower vertical jump measurement (33.5”, 41st percentile) at the NFL Combine. Despite his smaller size, his high school and college production, along with his impressive speed, put him in a position to be an elite contributor in the Detroit Lions offense.


Historic Trends Of Rookie Running Backs

There is no doubt that Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs are highly talented running backs who could succeed at the NFL level, but will their past success translate to the NFL level in their rookie season? Historic trends provide some insights into what we can expect from Robinson and Gibbs this season.


Since 2012, only six other running backs have been drafted in the first 12 picks: Saquon Barkley (drafted #2 by the New York Giants in 2018), Leonard Fournette (drafted #4 by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017), Christian McCaffrey (drafted #8 by the Carolina Panthers in 2017), Ezekiel Elliott (drafted #4 by the Dallas Cowboys in 2016), Todd Gurley (drafted #10 by the St. Louis Rams in 2015), and Trent Richardson (drafted #3 by the Cleveland Browns in 2012).


Did these players perform well in their rookie seasons? In fact, all six players finished their rookie season in the top 10 for PPR fantasy points by running backs, but only two finished in the top 3. Saquon Barkley exploded onto the scene in his rookie season and finished #1 in PPR fantasy points in 2018.


Ezekiel Elliott was also impressive as a rookie and finished #2 in PPR fantasy points in 2016. The other four running backs finished in the bottom half of the top 10 (Fournette was #9 in 2017, McCaffrey was #10 in 2017, Gurley was #9 in 2015, and Richardson was #8 in 2012).

Will Bijan Robinson have a rookie season similar to Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott? Or will his rookie season be similar to Fournette, McCaffrey, and Richardson?


It should be noted that Barkley and Elliott were both selected in the top 4 overall draft picks (#2 and #4, respectively), while Robinson was not drafted until the #8 overall draft pick, matching Christian McCaffrey. Gibbs was the first running back drafted as the #12 overall pick since the San Diego Chargers selected Ryan Matthews in 2010. Matthews finished outside the top 20 as a rookie but he missed several games due to an ankle sprain, so comparing his rookie season is not very useful.


If Gibbs stays healthy, it’s very possible that he could finish as a top-12 running back in fantasy points, similar to other players drafted in the same range such as Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, and Todd Gurley who all finished in the top 12 as rookies.


Running Backs Drafted In The Top 12 Overall Picks Since 2012

Player Name

NFL Team

College Team

Year Drafted

Draft Pick

Rookie Year PPR Fantasy Rank

Rookie Year PPR Fantasy Pts

Saquon Barkley

New York Giants

Penn State

2018

2nd pick

386

Trent Richardson

Cleveland Browns

Alabama

2012

3rd pick

239

Ezekiel Elliott

Dallas Cowboys

Ohio State

2016

4th pick

325

Leonard Fournette

Jacksonville Jaguars

LSU

2017

4th pick

230

Christian McCaffrey

Carolina Panthers

Stanford

2017

8th pick

229

Bijan Robinson

Atlanta Falcons

Texas

2023

8th pick

?

?

Todd Gurley

St. Louis Rams

Georgia

2015

10th pick

209

Jahmyr Gibbs

Detroit Lions

Alabama

2023

12th pick

?

?


The average PPR fantasy points ranking for running backs drafted in the top 12 over the past 10 years has been #6 among all NFL running backs. These trends suggest that Bijan Robinson will be a very productive running back this season, but he may be more likely to finish in the bottom half of the top 10 running backs in PPR fantasy points this season instead of matching or exceeding his average fantasy draft position of #3.


Jahmyr Gibbs may not be at the same level as Bijan Robinson, but historical trends suggest that he has an excellent chance of finishing in the top 12 among NFL running backs this season.



Are Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs overrated? Probably not, but fantasy football owners may be disappointed if they draft Robinson as the #3 running back off the board this season, while Gibbs is more likely to eclipse his #14 ranking among running backs in fantasy football drafts. Even if they do not meet fantasy football expectations this year, Robinson and Gibbs will likely be elite NFL running backs for the foreseeable future.

 

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