History supports Bijan Robinson as a first-round pick in 2023 fantasy drafts

AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

When it's increasingly argued, year after year, how unwise it is to spend a first-round NFL draft pick on a running back, we as fantasy football managers sometimes develop irrational fear of spending such a lofty pick on a rookie back in our own drafts.

But when a generational running back talent like Bijan Robinson comes along, we need to just take the plunge.

You might've noticed we've ranked Robinson as a clear first-round fantasy football selection. It's a generous valuation, but it's not one dished out blindly considering his impressive skill set, prospective role and status as the No. 8 overall selection from this year's draft, the earliest a running back has been picked in five years and only the eighth time in the past 15 drafts that a running back was selected among the NFL draft's top 10 players.

Robinson brings one of the most complete packages any rookie running back has had at the time of his NFL debut. In three seasons for the Texas Longhorns, he totaled 4,215 yards from scrimmage and 41 touchdowns, averaging 6.3 yards per rush. Pro Football Focus credited him with a single-season-record 104 missed tackles forced in 2022. Robinson has it all: size, speed, agility, elite chops in the receiving game and he's tremendous at making quick cuts on runs. The Atlanta Falcons selected him with the clear intent of making him their starting, every-down running back from day one, regardless of the presence of Tyler Allgeier. You don't make a draft pick investment like this and then limit the player's opportunity.

Even more encouraging, history supports Robinson's first-round fantasy candidacy and fully backs his likelihood to make that level of an impact.

In the past 10 seasons, seven running backs were selected in the first round of the NFL draft and the first 35 selections (and first 15 running backs) on average in ESPN fantasy drafts during their rookie seasons. These criteria were carefully selected to mirror Robinson's path entering 2023 -- that of highly touted prospects who were drafted by a team that immediately gave them the opportunity to lead its backfield.

Five of these seven running backs delivered a fantasy point total that ranked higher at the position than their ADP ranking. The group was selected ninth on average among running backs (9.4, to be exact) and finished 10th on average (9.7) in fantasy points scored. Three of them, Saquon Barkley (385.8) in 2018, Ezekiel Elliott (325.4) in 2016 and Najee Harris (300.7) in 2021, exceeded the 300-point threshold, one that has been reached by only 14 rookie running backs in history and is generally regarded the benchmark for "elite" positional status. Additionally, four of these six rookies totaled more than 300 touches as rookies, with the group averaging 296.7, further backing up their leading-man status.

Here is the full group:

Barkley and Elliott were similarly heralded first-round picks, each going sixth overall in the NFL draft, and both serve as ideal comparison points for Robinson. Barkley, in fact, might be the ideal comp, particularly in terms of receiving ability, and it's important to point out that some scouts hailed Robinson either as good as or potentially an even better prospect at the time of their selections.

Fantasy managers might be hesitant to invest in Robinson after hearing Barkley's name as a reference point, recalling instead his 2019-21 injury issues, but it must be stressed how phenomenal Barkley was as a rookie. Barkley finished only 6.4 PPR fantasy points shy of Eric Dickerson's rookie record and his 385.8 points from that season rank 19th among running backs in history. He managed 352 touches, a number Robinson could certainly reach, and he did so for a 5-11 New York Giants team that had Eli Manning playing in his final full season as a starter. The Giants' below-average offense that season didn't hamper Barkley's fantasy prospects, just as the 2023 Falcons' offense shouldn't be much of a hindrance to Robinson's.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire is the most notable disappointment on the list. He got off to a good start, scoring 19.8 PPR points in Week 1 of 2020 and was 11th among RBs in scoring through Week 6, only to cool thereafter. His season would be cut short after 13 games due to hip and ankle injuries. From a scouting standpoint, however, Edwards-Helaire was not the prospect that Robinson is, as he lacked Robinson's size and faced questions about his ability in short-yardage and goal-line situations.

Josh Jacobs was hardly the letdown that it might seem from a quick glance at the chart. A shoulder injury cut his rookie season short by three games, but through 15 weeks of that season, he was 12th in fantasy points among running backs, right on pace to be profitable. Jacobs also entered the NFL not quite as highly regarded as Robinson is, nor was he drafted in fantasy as early as Robinson will be.

Robinson might, in fact, be headed for the highest ADP by any rookie running back this century, beating Barkley's and Ezekiel Elliott's No. 6 overall. It's not an absurd notion to select him among the top five picks, considering the other names from within that group include a pair of players with injury histories (Christian McCaffrey and Barkley) and one coming off a disappointing, also injury-affected 2022 (Jonathan Taylor). In an era where most any first-round running back comes with some risk, Robinson as a brand new player is no greater risk than that of any of his positional brethren.

So if you're still sweating the prospect of spending that critical first-round pick on Robinson, having heard all that chatter at the NFL level ... don't! History -- along with Robinson's skill set and prospective role -- certainly supports his value.