There are few hotter-button topic for football fans in March than the notion of their favorite team acquiring a running back in the first round of the NFL Draft. This annual tradition is fueled in part by the de-valuing of the position in the pass-happy NFL, as well as the notion that a great prospect at a position of lower priority might begin to slide down the board on draft night.
That’s why Buffalo Bills fans have found themselves wading through daily takes about Texas running back Bijan Robinson — and will continue to deal with that until the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft is finished on the night of April 27.
Opinions on the matter are strong and long-established, and the author of this latest Bijan-to-Buffalo column is under no delusion that the arguments laid out below are either particularly original, or that they will sway anyone in the opposite direction of their current stance. Like any good topic of debate, however, the idea of Robinson finding his way to Buffalo on draft night has its merits, and its drawbacks, and they’re worth fleshing out on a Sunday in early March.
Let’s talk about “draft, develop, and re-sign”
The Bills are entering year six of their team build, if you start counting from the 2018 season — when general manager Brandon Beane, head coach Sean McDermott, and quarterback Josh Allen first convened to form what is now the second-longest-tenured GM/HC/QB combination in Bills franchise history. (That distinction belongs, of course, to Bill Polian, Marv Levy, and Jim Kelly, who first came together during the 1986 season, then spent six more full seasons together from 1987-92. Beane-McDermott-Allen stands a very good chance of surpassing Buffalo’s Hall of Fame trio from the glory years.)
During the current build, the Bills have drafted and re-signed several core players to lucrative long-term deals. No fewer than six players meet that qualification, and the team may very well add linebacker Tremaine Edmunds to the list in the next couple of weeks, depending on how his free agency goes:
- QB Josh Allen — 2018 Round 1; signed six-year, $258 million extension in 2021
- CB Tre’Davious White — 2017 Round 1; signed four-year, $70 million extension in 2020
- OT Dion Dawkins — 2017 Round 2; signed four-year, $58.3 million extension in 2020
- LB Matt Milano — 2017 Round 5; signed four-year, $41.5 million contract in 2021
- CB Taron Johnson — 2018 Round 4; signed three-year, $24 million extension in 2021
- TE Dawson Knox — 2019 Round 3; signed four-year, $52 million extension in 2022
Draft, develop, and re-sign is the organization’s motto, but they will have to make some hard decisions on the third leg of that journey in the next couple of years. Half of that list above is comprised of 2017 picks — made before Beane came aboard — and outside of Edmunds and perhaps defensive tackle Ed Oliver (playing in 2023 on his fifth-year option), the list of recent Bills draft picks that the team is likely keen to re-sign is drying up.
Current Bills players on rookie deals (drafted 2020-22) that are highly likely to have significant roles on the 2023 iteration of the team include wide receiver Gabe Davis, defensive end Greg Rousseau, and kicker Tyler Bass. Several more might join the fray, including right tackle Spencer Brown, cornerback Kaiir Elam, running back James Cook, wide receiver Khalil Shakir, linebacker Terrel Bernard, defensive back Christian Benford, and defensive ends Boogie Basham and A.J. Epenesa. How much those guys play will depend on how offseason acquisitions shake out at their respective positions.
Beane is an excellent general manager, but the high degree of draft-day success the team experienced in 2017 and 2018 has fallen off a bit in recent seasons. The team needs more reliable, upper-tier players on rookie deals to continue to compete for championships for the foreseeable future, and that might make a proverbial slam-dunk pick like Robinson much more appealing — despite the position he plays, and even if said position isn’t one that qualifies as a longer-term retention priority.
Let’s not ignore the realities of the run-game priority
The Bills have generally been very good at gaining rushing yards in the McDermott era, even though they have only had one 1,000-yard rusher in that time frame (LeSean McCoy, 2017). The Bills have ranked outside of the Top 10 in team rushing yards per game just once in Allen’s five years as a pro, and his contributions (30.3% of the team’s rushing yards and 48.1% of their rushing touchdowns in that five-year window) are clearly a huge reason why.
The Bills also like to run the ball well and often, despite their offense running through Allen and his nine-figure right arm. It’s been a repeated emphasis of McDermott’s throughout his tenure, and that mantra has been backed by the actions of the player-acquisition arm of the franchise.
Beane has spent three different Day 2 picks on running backs in his five drafts with Buffalo — Devin Singletary (Round 3, 2019), Zack Moss (Round 3, 2020), and James Cook (Round 2, 2021). Moss was traded last season, and Singletary is a pending free agent. The team has only officially supplemented the position through the veteran market with lower-cost signings like Frank Gore, T.J. Yeldon, and Matt Breida, but that’s not for a lack of trying; within the past calendar year, they made a run at J.D. McKissic on the free-agent market, traded for Nyheim Hines during the season, and also were reportedly in on the bidding for Christian McCaffrey before he was dealt to San Francisco. Already this offseason, the Bills have been linked to pending free-agent running back Jamaal Williams.
Beane has poured significant resources into the running back position, even if they haven’t been his highest-value assets. The strategy has, for the most part, not worked. Singletary had his moments through four years, and Cook had a few as well as a rookie. But the Bills’ identity as a rushing offense is Allen and the RPO, with little emphasis placed on individual runners. That strategy might not change, even with a back like Robinson in the fold, but the team is clearly seeking improved production at the position, regardless. That’s their team-building philosophy right now, and it’s been that way for a couple of years.
Where is the line between ideals, reality, and projection?
Obviously, there’s no guarantee that a prospect of Robinson’s caliber will even be available when the Bills pick at No. 27 overall next month. Even still, sides have already been chosen in the debate, and that’s probably premature. It’s March 5; just about everything should still be on the table as a possibility, for fans and doubly so for the Bills themselves.
Ideally, of course you would rather find an elite talent at a position of higher importance. For Buffalo this offseason, that would include (in no specific order) a wide receiver, an offensive lineman, or perhaps a pass rusher. (Hey, if we’re advocating for not writing off a running back selection, we certainly can’t disregard the idea of selecting another end, either.) You’d rather pick elite players at positions that qualify for long-term retention, and which are both valued league-wide and more difficult to find as a result. This is not really up for debate.
In reality, the Bills opened their championship window in 2020, and have missed on that opportunity for three straight seasons. They want to compete for championships as long as Allen is an elite player at the game’s most important position, which keeps their window open beyond the 4-5 year mark — especially if Allen stays healthy. But 4-5 years is probably going to be a significant chunk of that window; Allen turns 27 in May, will be 31 or 32 at the end of this rookie deal and, let’s face it, does not currently have a play style that supports him playing well into his 30s.
Projecting, let’s say — hypothetically — that the Bills do end up considering picking Robinson. They’d be adding a player who is widely considered one of the best half-dozen prospects in this draft class, at a position that the team clearly values and wants to improve at. They’d get him on a four-year deal worth roughly $13-15 million, with a fourth-year cap hit of around $4.15 million and a fifth-year option likely to only be in the $8.5-$9.5 million range. If Robinson is as good as everyone seems to think he is, this is highly reasonable financing for five years of an elite running back in his prime — again, even if the team doesn’t plan on keeping him beyond that. Yes, the Bills gain this type of financial value if they select a great-to-elite player at any position, but that’s easier said than done, especially lately, and an available-at-27 Robinson would likely represent the safest bet for the team.
Do we want this to happen in a vacuum? Most fans would still probably say no, and would be justified in doing so. Given the difficulty of striking gold where Buffalo will be picking, if the Bills are forced to select between upside projections who may or may not contribute to a high-value position right away, and a guy like Robinson who’d walk into the starting lineup and assume a high-volume role with potentially elite production for a huge chunk of the team’s Super Bowl push... why are we dismissing that idea out of hat? Just because of the position he plays? Really?
No matter how you feel about it, keep the idea on the table for a bit longer. The Bills probably are, too.