Every fantasy football player is looking for the next big thing. The NFL Draft is everyone’s first chance to stroll through the parking lot. Rookies are unknown commodities. That unknown nature works in their favor when it comes to being values in fantasy drafts. Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs are the best of the bunch at the running back position. With both being drafted in Round 1 of the NFL Draft, let’s take a look at what both bring to the table, and where they factor in to our 2023 dynasty rookie rankings.
A Quick Recap: Bijan Robinson
This is not going to be a lengthy scouting report on Bijan Robinson because it doesn’t need to be. All you have to do is literally watch a single game of Robinson’s and you’ll get it. The Kansas game is a great place to start. He only had: 25 carries, 243 yards, and four touchdowns.
Not 1, not 2, not 3, but FOUR touchdowns for Bijan Robinson today! pic.twitter.com/nqRMuqy9TS
— PlayerProfiler College (@Profiler_CFB) November 19, 2022
Patience, vision, speed, shiftiness, breaking tackles, you name it, Bijan Robinson has it all. The stats back it up. According to PFF, Robinson finished with the most yards after contact (1,066) and most broken tackles (106) in college football last season. Tej Seth of Sumer Sports pointed out that Robinson boasted a 7.7-percent explosive run rate, trailing only Tulane’s Tyjae Spears and Texas A&M’s Devon Achane.
On top of that, Robinson is one of the better receivers in this class. Per Dwain McFarland of Fantasy Life, Robinson’s usage as a receiver is right there with any running back in this class. He’s a legit weapon out of the passing game too and not just a dump-off guy.
McFarland has more stats on Robinson’s pass-catching prowess. Robinson’s explosive target rate came in at 30-percent. His average depth of target for his career came in at three yards. Robinson’s 10-percent college target share ranks in the 77th-percentile of running back prospects according to PlayerProfiler’s database. To make a long story short: Robinson is as great a running back prospect as you’re ever going to find.
A Quick Recap: Jahmyr Gibbs
The fantasy community isn’t in as much agreement with Gibbs as they are with Bijan Robinson. That’s to be expected with how great a prospect Robinson is, but Gibbs’ 5-9 199-pound build does warrant some conversation. According to JJ Zachariason in one of his Late Round Fantasy Football newsletter drops, since 2011, only three running backs have been drafted on Day 2, let alone Day 1, of the NFL Draft while entering that draft weighing between 190 and 199 pounds. Only three of the 16 running backs drafted in the first round entered the draft below 210 pounds: David Wilson in 2011 (206-pounds), Christian McCaffrey in 2017 (202-pounds), and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (207-pounds) in 2020.
Outside of McCaffrey, that isn’t the best company for Jahmyr Gibbs to be in. He’ll have questions about whether or not he can grind carries in between the tackles and churn yardage. I found him to be at least adequate in this regard. But what helps his cause is that he is an absolutely exceptional receiver out of the backfield. If you get him the ball in space, good things will happen.
The numbers back it up too. Per Dwain McFarland, Gibbs ranks No. 1 in this class in target rate on a per route basis (30-percent) and yards per route run (2.47). Additionally, he ranks No. 4 in explosive target rate (20-percent). His 14.7-percent college target share ranks in the 93rd-percentile of all running back prospects in PlayerProfiler’s database.
Gibbs is not as ironclad as Robinson is as a prospect (not many are) with some size concerns. However, he is an awesome receiver out of the backfield. This ability will mitigate some of those concerns, especially for fantasy purposes.
First-Round RBs Over the Past Decade
NFL teams have recently begun to realize that investing in running backs in the first round is not the wisest allocation of resources. From 2011 to 2022, only 16 running backs have been drafted in the first round, and only four have been drafted in Round 1 since 2019. But that number isn’t zero, which means that running backs are still getting drafted in that range here and there. I extracted data on how these running backs have fared in their rookie season to get a glimpse of what is possible to expect for Robinson and Gibbs this season.
Running backs drafted in the Round 1 of the NFL Draft have combined to average 12.74 points per game in half PPR scoring. That number shoots up to 14.54 points per game for those who registered at least 150 opportunities (carries plus targets) in their rookie season. I wanted to include that caveat because the three that didn’t meet that threshold (Mark Ingram, David Wilson, and Rashaad Penny) were used as backups.
Analyzing the Numbers
If we throw those guys’ numbers out the window, then rookie running backs, in our albeit small sample of 13, have averaged roughly 240 carries and 57 targets. Only nine running backs accumulated more carries last season and 14 had more targets. Each running back’s workload will look different, but the bottom line is that first-round picks get the rock.
That’s especially the case with running backs drafted in the top half of the first round. Since 2011, there have been seven running backs to get drafted in the top-12 of Round 1 (picks 1-16): Trent Richardson, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, and Saquon Barkley. Of that group, only McCaffrey failed to post a point-per-game average that would’ve finished inside the top seven of last year’s point-per-game leaders. McCaffrey was no slouch either. His 12.4-half PPR points per game would’ve been the RB16 last season.
We got the best-case scenario for both Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs. Robinson landing at No. 8 to the Falcons was reasonably expected, and that happened to a tee. It’s a great landing spot that got a bit better after the Falcons drafted Syracuse guard Matthew Bergeron in Round 2. Atlanta ran the most in the NFL last season, and head coach Arthur Smith also has a history of feeding a workhorse back. However, unlike Derrick Henry, Robinson is an electric and outstanding receiver out of the backfield.
Robinson should have chances to flash that skill too. Though Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson combined for just 48 targets in 2023, 22 of those came in Desmond Ridder‘s four starts. Patterson had 15 of those, which was good for a 13-percent target share. If you gave Bijan Robinson a 13-percent target share (Aaron Jones territory in terms of running back target share) to the 415 passes Atlanta attempted last season, you’d get roughly 54 targets. Now, I’ll let our projection experts Billy Muzio and Dario Offstein handle target expectations for Bijan Robinson, but the point is, Robinson has a path to legit receiving volume to go with plenty of work on the ground.
For Jahmyr Gibbs in Detroit, his landing spot is exceptional as well. D’Andre Swift registered 70 targets in 14 games last season despite splitting time with Jamaal Williams. The Lions swapped Williams for David Montgomery in free agency. Swift, expendable after the selection of Gibbs, is now in Philadelphia, meaning the receiving back role in a potent offense with a great offensive line and an immobile quarterback willing to check down in Jared Goff (Goff’s 6.9 air yards per attempt ranked No. 28 among quarterbacks last season) is all Gibbs’.
PlayerProfiler’s own Theo Gremminger expanded on these guys’ situation a bit more in his reaction to Day 1 article, so be sure to check that out as well. The bottom line is: we really couldn’t ask for anything more with these two running backs and their draft outcome.
Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs are good. Good enough that the NFL deemed them worthy of being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft despite positional value telling them otherwise. If the NFL tells us they are that good, we as fantasy gamers should listen and follow their lead. Almost every first-round running back has provided outstanding value during their rookie season for fantasy football purposes. And few of them have been as highly regarded a prospect as Bijan Robinson. He and Gibbs should be hot commodities in upcoming drafts no matter what format.