Bijan Robinson is the GOAT… right?

by | Feb 17, 2022

Bijan Robinson GOAT

Texas’ Bijan Robinson is as close to a consensus 1.01 in devy leagues as you’ll see in any given year. The former 5-star recruit is certainly deserving of that first selection. I’m on board with the sentiment that dynasty gamers should move mountains to acquire 2023 first round rookie picks.

And Bijan Robinson is the crown jewel of that class.

In diving into the profile of the running back that people are calling the next Saquon Barkley, I figured I was just taking a fun detour into the college ranks to give myself a quick break from analyzing rushing efficiency numbers for this year’s rookie runners. However, I was surprised to come away from that venture with some of the enthusiasm I entered with; replaced by just a bit of cautious skepticism regarding the heir apparent.

2023’s best? Duh. The prince that was promised? Let’s find out.

The Introduction

We’ll start with the good stuff, and there’s a lot of it. Based on my research, we should expect Robinson to be around 6-0 and weigh 219-pounds at his eventual Combine weigh-in. That would mean that he easily surpasses thresholds for workhorse running back size; while being proportionally built like Marshawn Lynch, Alvin Kamara, Devonta Freeman, and other runners who aren’t quite in the Ezekiel Elliott or Le’Veon Bellrange as far as density goes.

It’s also likely that Robinson is a fantastic athlete when he eventually tests for NFL scouts. While he wasn’t especially fast in high school testing (4.77 in the 40-yard dash), he was plenty explosive. His 36.8-inch vertical leap ranks in the 79th- percentile. A quick spin in the Google machine also uncovers self-reported 40-yard dash times of 4.59 and 4.48 circa 2017 and 2018, when he would’ve been a sophomore or junior in high school. Dubious legitimacy of those times aside, all you really need to convince yourself of his open-field juice is about 15 seconds of his highlight compilations. Dude can blaze.  

AND He Can Catch

The part of Bijan Robinson‘s on-field game that sets him apart most is his ability as a pass-catcher. Through just 19 career games, he’s already hauled in 41 passes. An 86th-percentile per-game rate putting him in three-down stud range with players like Todd Gurley, Dalvin Cook, and Le’Veon Bell. He’s also not just catching dump-offs. Per PFF, he’s lined up in the slot or out wide on 13.5-percent of passing plays (76th-percentile) and sees an average depth of target of 0.7 yards (64th-percentile). He’s being asked to run actual routes. And he’s doing a good job of securing the ball consistently while doing so.

Robinson’s 85.4-percent Catch Rate is an 86th-percentile number among backs with aDOTs above the 0.5 mark. Upon securing those balls, Robinson is turning upfield and making things happen at an elite level. His 12.1 YAC per reception is an 88th-percentile mark.

If he were able to declare for the NFL Draft right now, the historical prospects who my model identifies as having the most similar receiving profiles to Robinson are the following:

All the quoted percentile ranks give context to Robinson’s career numbers relative to those of every back drafted since 2007. He’s only played two years in college, and I haven’t age-adjusted anything. So his to-date YAC/reception numbers as an underclassman are in the 88th-percentile among backs whose YAC/reception numbers come from their entire careers, with all the advantages of physical and skill development that come with being older and more experienced players.  

The Production

On top of three-down capabilities, a workhorse frame, and an advanced receiving profile, Bijan Robinson has been an excellent producer. He attends the University of Texas, which is obviously a big-time program; though perhaps a tier or two below the true powerhouses of the current day. And he broke out there as an 18-year-old true freshman. I do age-adjust production numbers. Considering the quality of the teams he played on, as well as the share of total offense that he produced on those teams, he has posted yearly production scores of 62.9 in 2020 and 74.9 in 2021, both out of 100.

The most similar true freshman seasons to Robinson’s 2020 include Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman, and James Conner. All are at least 90-percent matches. For Robinson’s second season, the close production comps are even better; boasting names like Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Jonathan Taylor, Darren McFadden, Adrian Peterson, and Christian McCaffrey.

If we filter for guys who entered the NFL at 210-plus pounds, had a positive receiving profile (above the 50.0 mark in my model), and whose first two college seasons each had at least 85-percent similarity to Robinson’s from a production standpoint (and for fun, I won’t filter out the pre-2007 guys here), we get the following list of names:

If you have workhorse size, catch the ball well, and produce like Robinson has through two years, it’s a near guarantee you’ll be a beast in the NFL. Don’t look now, but Breece Hall is eligible for this list pending his weighing at least 210-pounds at the Combine.

The Efficiency Metrics

From a rushing efficiency perspective, Bijan Robinson was tremendous as a first-year player. There are four key metrics I like to look at when evaluating rushing performance. Most of them are centered around the idea that we should want our running back prospects to be more effective than the other players operating within the same environment.

First is Yards Per Carry+, a particular player’s per-carry output minus the collective per-carry output of the team’s other RBs.

Second is Chunk Rate+, the rate which a player produces chunk gains of at least 10 yards minus the collective rate at which his teammates produce those chunk gains.

Third is Breakaway Conversion Rate, which is not a team-relative metric. Rather, it’s a measure of a player’s open-field ability. It looks at the rate which a runner turns 10-yard chunk gains into breakaway runs of at least 20 yards.

Last is Box-Adjusted Efficiency (or BAE) Rating. This improves upon YPC+ by accounting for the amount of defenders in the box that a running back faces on his carries relative to what his teammates face on theirs. BAE Rating is conveyed in the form of a percentage. A 100-percent score indicates a player producing exactly the same box count-relative output of his teammates on a per-carry basis. Anything above 100-percent shows that he’s outperforming the other guys on his team, and vice-versa for a score below 100-percent.

These team-relative numbers are then contextualized with the quality of teammates that a guy is playing with, and therefore being compared to, using the weighted average of their star-ratings as high school recruits as a proxy for talent.

Year 1 Efficiency

As a true freshman, Bijan Robinson outdid a group of running back teammates that boasted 3.21 recruiting stars (a 48th-percentile backfield) by an incredible 3.20 yards per carry. That YPC+ mark is on par with the degree to which Chase Edmonds blew away his FCS teammates during his career at Fordham, or the level to which Denard Robinson was outpacing the running backs on his team during his Heisman-contending run as Michigan’s quarterback. If it were a career mark, that 3.20 YPC+ would land in the 98th-percentile.

In that same season, Robinson produced a Chunk Rate exceeding that of his backfield mates by 6.61-percent. This number that would qualify for the 89th-percentile were it his career rate. He then converted 55.6-percent of those frequent trips to the secondary into breakaway gains. Good for a Breakaway Conversion Rate that would best even Jahvid Best‘s ridiculous career 99th-percentile mark.

In adjusting for box counts, we uncover that while Bijan was enjoying lighter fronts than those his teammates were seeing (his average box was 0.12 defenders lighter than the ones other Texas backs faced), his plus efficiency was not simply fueled by ease of passage. The only box count against which Robinson lagged behind his compatriots was the 4-man box, where his 2 carries for 10 yards didn’t quite measure up to the collective 2 carries for 36 yards that other Longhorn runners produced. Outside of that, Robinson smashed, and the 169.7-percent BAE Rating that he put on wax as a first-year player is higher than the career mark of any player that I’ve compiled a BAE Rating for so far (which includes the 2022 class as well as much of the 2021 and 2020 classes).

Year 2 Efficiency

Bijan Robinson‘s freshman year score in my running back model’s Rushing Efficiency composite would be 82.7 out of 100. It’s the relatively low volume he handled during that season (86 carries) keeping the score from climbing into the 90s. As it stands, that 82.7 would be the 9th-highest score among the career marks of RBs drafted since 2007.

We must now end our foray into the freshman season to end all freshman seasons. And unfortunately, our gushing must remain in 2020 since Robinson’s numbers took a precipitous dive in his sophomore 2021.

Sophomore Robinson coincidentally again played with a group of RB teammates averaging 3.21 stars as high school recruits. The use of “coincidentally” here is earnest. While he stayed at Texas, the rest of the RB room was quite different than it was the year prior. But he did not reach nearly the same heights as a ballcarrier relative to their collective output as he did 12 months earlier.

With a legitimate lead-back workload of 195 carries, Robinson averaged 0.45 fewer YPC than his teammates in 2021. This is a 16th-percentile mark finding itself in Michael Warren/Qadree Ollison territory. Similarly, Robinson produced a Chunk Rate 0.19-percent lower than that at which other Texas backs ripped off 10-yard gains; a David Cobb-esque display ranking in the 38th-percentile. As an open-field runner, he managed a respectable 33.3-percent Breakaway Conversion Rate; a number in the 63rd-percentile, though still a big step back from 2020. He was no longer reaching the second level at a clip greater than his teammates were. And he was no longer producing like a superhuman when he got there.

Was He Actually Bad in Year 2?

Ok, so Bijan Robinson‘s efficiency dipped when he took over RB1 duties. Perhaps that’s to be expected. Ignoring that his efficiency didn’t simply dip into a less impressive range, but rather nosedived into “actively bad” territory, maybe defenses saw what he did to them a year before and decided to pack the box to stop him in 2021. The box count data says not that’s not quite the case.

He did see heavier fronts as a sophomore; they jumped from a 6.14 average to a 6.24 average. And while he was no longer running against boxes that were lighter than those his teammates faced, he was going up against boxes that averaged exactly as many defenders as the ones that other Texas backs were running into. Considering the philosophical premise behind my use of team-relative efficiency numbers (that as long as guys are operating under generally the same conditions, we should expect good backs to do more with what they’re given than lesser backs), Robinson contributing less per carry than the other backs on his team, while operating under conditions that virtually couldn’t be more identical than the ones they were operating, under is not a good look.

Let me not be misunderstood. I’m not suggesting that he’s no better than whoever else the Longhorns trotted out to carry the ball last season. I’m suggesting that he may not the faultless, absolute, no-doubt, surely-the-best-since-whoever prospect that he is often made out to be. His 97.6-percent BAE Rating from 2021 is a 12th-percentile number, still better than Isaiah Spiller though. While his score in my model’s Rushing Efficiency composite would be a 40.3 out 100. He was not just worse as a sophomore than he was the year before. He was plain bad.

The Crossroads

Thus, we find ourselves on the precipice of an enormous crossroads. A tale of two seasons, either a knockout or a dog, not unlike Jerry Seinfeld’s infamous “two-face” girlfriend. On one hand, there’s a freshman campaign that looks like prime Bryce Love was resurrected with hands and an extra 20-pounds of muscle.

On the other, we have a Trent Richardson-ian display of near-complete domination ruined by a failure to contribute anything of value in the running game.

I now ask for the real Bijan Robinson to please stand up. Do I think that guy is the Mr. Hyde we saw in 2021? Probably not. Do I then think that the genius Dr. Jekyll that we creamed ourselves over in 2020 is walking through that door again? Also probably not. It seems a bit of a cop-out to say that the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. But the odds that he is inherently a terrible runner of the football seems as improbable as does his being the second coming of Walter Payton like we all assumed he was following his freshman season.

Pure Runner Score and Comps

Based on his to-date career numbers, Bijan Robinson currently holds a 0.67 YPC+, a 1.89-percent Chunk Rate+, a 42.2-percent Breakaway Conversion Rate, and a 116.7-percent BAE Rating. That BCR is a 92nd-percentile number, while the team-relative figures all fall between the 52nd and 60th-percentiles. And they combine to produce a Rushing Efficiency composite Score of 55.6 out of 100. Using the same efficiency metrics that make up that composite, my model also generates similarity scores between players. Based on the assumption that Robinson runs a 4.40 40-yard dash at 6-0 and 219-pounds, here are his closest comps in the “pure runner” category:

If all of his composite scores were to hold through next season (after which he would presumably declare for the NFL Draft), my model would rate his overall profile as a 71.6 out of 100. Such a number would make him not the undisputed GOAT. It would make him a strong prospect in the Marshawn Lynch/Le’Veon Bell/Derrick Henry/Matt Forte range; as well as relative misses like Trent Richardson, Steve Slaton, Beanie Wells, and Royce Freeman.

From here, it’s appropriate to attempt to uncover why Robinson’s efficiency took a dip this past season. Did he have a hard time managing a larger workload? Was he used in a manner not befitting his skillset? Let’s see.

What The Heck Happened in 2021?

In 2020, under head coach Tom Herman and an offensive coordinators Mike Yurcich and Herb Hand, Bijan Robinson had 86 total carries; with 72 of those (82.4-percent of the total) coming on inside zone, stretch, or outside zone schemes. On no other run type did he have more than four carries. So we’ll look at those three as the bread-and-butter of his rushing usage as a freshman. Here’s how his efficiency on those plays stacked up to that of his teammates:

Robinson’s otherworldly team-relative efficiency in 2020 was almost entirely fueled by his performance on stretch plays. He actually lagged behind the other Longhorn backs on inside and outside zone runs that made up over half of his total attempts. Interesting. Let’s see what changed in 2021.

Under a new regime with HC Steve Sarkisian and OC Kyle Flood, Robinson logged 195 carries as a sophomore. And along with inside zone, outside zone, and stretch, he added power to his repertoire of meal-ticket running plays. Here are his numbers on those run types (which accounted for 85.1-percent of his total carries) next to how his teammates fared:

Robinson actually improved both his raw and his team-relative per-carry output on inside zone plays from 2020 to 2021. And while he didn’t go quite as bonkers as his teammates did, he also averaged more yards per carry on outside zone as a sophomore than he did the year prior. Notably, his ridiculous efficiency on stretch plays came back down to earth. But he did continue to outdo the other Texas runners to a slight degree. He was not more efficient than the other backs on power runs.

Not All Doom And Gloom?

At this point, I’m too deep in this shit to know what I’m doing, but there’s no turning back. Though I’m encouraged by the numbers that I’m seeing from the 2021 version of Bijan Robinson. While his team-relative metrics took a step back, he seems (maybe) to have improved his overall consistency.

Robinson’s Success Rate numbers speaks well to that hypothesis. In 2020, while his per-carry average was 3.20 yards higher than his teammates’, Robinson was (according to data from Sports Info Solutions) actually creating positive plays on just 39.1-percent of his rushing attempts. This compared to a collective 46.5-percent from the other Longhorn backs. As defined by Pro Football Outsiders, these Success Rates are: “measure[s] of running back consistency based on the percentage of carries where the player gains 40-percent of needed yards on first down, 60-percent of needed yards on second down, or 100-percent of needed yards on third or fourth down.”

As a freshman, Robinson’s high YPC average concealed per-play output that was relatively boom-or-bust. His Success Rate that year ranked No. 164 in the country among running backs with at least 50 carries.

As a sophomore, while his per-carry average dropped by over two full yards, his Success Rate rose to 49.2-percent. With a collective 53.5-percent Success Rate, the other Texas runners still offered more consistency than Robinson did,. While, according to his -0.19-percent Chunk Rate+, also producing big plays at a greater rate. Among backs with at least 100 carries, his 2021 Success Rate ranked No. 42 in the country.

Last Word

Phew. The picture we now have of Bijan Robinson is of an excellent pass-catcher with good size and quality production; whose ridiculous efficiency as a freshman was propped up by big plays, and who then improved his per-touch consistency at the expense of splash plays as a sophomore.

The question now is whether he simply lost the juice or if a combination of growing pains, usage, non-linear skill development, and randomness contributed to his lack of both big plays and positive team-relative efficiency last season. I certainly don’t think he lost the juice. And while he may never again reach the ridiculous heights he touched in 2020 from a homerun-hitting perspective, I think the improved consistency he showed in 2021 is more encouraging than the efficiency dip we saw him take relative to the other runners at Texas.

It’s not a foregone conclusion that he is the greatest thing since Todd Gurley or Saquon Barkley, or even Jonathan Taylor. And I know that he’s not the flawless prospect that the devy and dynasty communities at large would have you believe. He’s simply not quite there as a runner yet, and that’s probably ok. The athleticism, size, production, and pass-catching are all still there, and they’re enough to make him the 2023 1.01. He simply might have some of the same all-or-nothing that Barkley had (and still has) to him as a runner, which was a flaw in Barkley’s profile that existed but didn’t keep him from being a very effective player. Hopefully we’ll see Robinson continue to grow in that area as a junior.

Carry on with Bijan Robinson as the crown jewel of a stellar 2023 running back class, but let’s not pretend we’ve seen the perfect running back prospect yet.

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