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The Middle Running Back: Alabama's Brian Robinson, Jr

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

If a team has an outstanding run blocking offensive line, they don't need a great RB to have good rushing production. Marlon Mack was the next to last pick in the 4th round in 2017. Compare Mack's rushing production to the two Day 2 RBs drafted recently by the Rams:

Mack 2018 and 2019: 442 carries for 1,999 yards and 17 TDs, 4.52 rush average.

Akers and Hendo 2020 and 2021: 437 carries for 1,940 yards and 12 TDs, 4.44 rush average.

What's the difference? Maybe even a slight edge to Mack. Akers was obviously injured in 2021, but we're comparing 2 units of Mack with a combined 3 units of Akers/Hendo. I don't think this means Mack is the better RB. It probably is a reflection of the strength of the offensive line of the Colts, which was stacked with high draft picks, such as Castonzo, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly and Braden Smith. PFF ranked them 3rd in the NFL both in 2018 and 2019. In 2021, the Colts struggled with injuries to their OL and weren't as good in pass blocking, but they continued to be great at run blocking, helping to power Jonathan Taylor to a great season.

In my view, Mack during 2018 and 2019 was just an ordinary RB, he wasn't an elite individual player. This primarily based on the "eye test" from watching cutups, but it is also supported by statistical metrics. NFL Next Gen stats has a stat called RYOE (rushing yards over expected) which uses advanced computer modeling to try to calculate how many yards the RB should gain based on how the players on the field are moving and positioned in relation to each other. In RYOE per attempt, Mack ranked 26th and 21st among qualifying RBs in 2018 and 2019. His combined RYOE/Att over that 2 year period was 0.288, which is about an average score. He was well behind the good RBs in this category during that period, such as Chubb, Henry, Barkley, Aaron Jones, Joe Mixon and Christian McCaffrey. Mack failed to achieve a PFF grade of at least 70 in either 2018 or 2019. Jonathan Taylor was PFF's top graded RB in the NFL last season with an 87.0 grade. He had an 83.9 grade as a rookie.

Jonathan Taylor not only has put up gigantic traditional rushing stats the last 2 seasons, he also has performed far better than Mack in RYOE. Taylor has a combined 2 season total RYOE/Att of 1.17, which is outstanding. Nick Chubb at 1.43 might be the only back who has been better.

Marlon Mack tore his Achilles tendon at the start of the 2020 season. Last year, he slipped down the depth chart so far he hardly played all year. Currently, he's an unsigned free agent looking for another opportunity to continue his career.

While pre-injury Mack wasn't an elite RB, he was still considerably better than any of the Rams RBs in RYOE. Cam Akers as a rookie had a -0.083 RYOE/Att. Any negative score is bad. Hendo over the last 2 seasons is at 0.003, barely a positive number. Sony Michel last season was at -0.130, the worst of the 3 RBs. Over the last 2 seasons, an average of 33 qualifying RBs per year have had positive RYOE/Att numbers, so per this metric the Rams RB group has only performed like marginal starters to good backup level players.

Todd Gurley in 2018 had 1,251 rushing yards and 18 rushing TDs, but only ranked 27th in RYOE/Att at 0.07. He was named All Pro that season and until late in the year was considered to be an NFL MVP candidate. The advanced stats say the bulk of the credit should have been given to the offensive line that year, not to Gurley individually. Still, the same metric also says that 2018 version of Gurley was better than any of the current Rams RBs.

Once in a while, a middle round RB can be so solid that it makes you wonder if he's a borderline elite RB in disguise. Damien Harris of the Patriots was a 3rd round pick in 2019. He's never had a 1,000 season in the NFL. Over the last 2 seasons, Harris has been very good in advanced metrics. PFF gave him a 90.3 grade in 2020 (best in the NFL) and an 87.8 grade last year (ranking 3rd in the NFL). So, over the last 2 years, Harris actually has a better PFF grade than Jonathan Taylor. This is an extremely surprising result, because Taylor in 2021 alone had more production than Harris did in 2020 and 2021 combined.

Harris (last 2 seasons) 339 carries for 1,620 yards and 17 TDs. 23 receptions for 184 yards and zero TDs.

Taylor (last 2 seasons) 564 carries for 2,980 yards and 29 TDs. 76 receptions for 659 yards and 3 TDs.

Should we take from this that PFF spits out strange numbers or that Harris is an underrated player? Maybe a bit of both.

Next Gen Stats isn't as quite as extreme as PFF, but they also hint at Harris being a borderline elite RB. In RYOE/Att over the last 2 seasons combined, Harris scores 0.530, which is very good. It only slightly trails Dalvin Cook of the Vikings. Harris ranked 5th in the NFL in total RYOE in 2021 and 6th in RYOE/Att. He placed 12th in RYOE/attempt in 2020. So, over the last 2 seasons, Harris is about a top 10 RB if ranked based on RYOE.

You probably wouldn't have guessed that Harris was so good based just off of his highlight videos. There's nothing too fancy about Harris. He's not super fast, he doesn't have a bunch of spectacular long runs. He's consistent and he generates yards. When Harris was in the draft, Lance Zierlein gave him a 6.20 draft grade, calling him a grinder, with good ball security, was a good blocker, but who lacked burst and elusiveness. Harris has very little production as a receiver in the NFL. Damien Harris wasn't as hyped as many of the other Alabama RBs. He's not a Derrick Henry in talent level. Nevertheless, he's been a very solid NFL RB for a middle round pick.

In the 2022 draft, there's another Alabama RB who could become another Damien Harris in the NFL.

Brian Robinson Jr., got a nearly identical 6.21 draft grade from LZ compared with Harris, has a nearly identical draft profile (grinder, good ball security and blocking, lacks speed and elusiveness) and is projected to be a middle round draft pick.

If you watch a BRJ highlight video, you probably won't come away very impressed. You're not going to see him run over defenders like Derrick Henry, sprint away from defenders like Eric Dickerson, jump over people like Saquon Barkley or make elusive cuts like Marshall Faulk. You might assume that he's just a product of the Bama system and is an overrated prospect.

That's not what I see on video when I watched his games. He's a surprisingly complete and savvy football player. I have reservations about whether Robinson can ever be a RB1 in the NFL, which is why I don't have an early round grade on him, but I also believe he can have a very good NFL career as at least a RB2.

I think Robinson is pro ready and could contribute immediately as a rookie. If he doesn't get drafted until Day 3, I think that about 4 years from now we might look back and say that he was one of the best Day 3 picks in this draft class.

Background

6'1 5/8'' tall, 225 pounds, 9 3/4'' hands, 31 7/8'' arms, 76 3/8'' wingspan.

4.53 sec (40 time), 1.57 sec (10 yard split), 30'' vert jump, 9'11'' broad jump.

Bonus season senior. 23 years old. From Tuscaloosa, AL. 4 star recruit, stayed in hometown over scholarship offers from other SEC schools. Backup to more talented RBs until his final season. In 14 starts in 2021 had 271 carries for 1,343 yards and 14 TDs (4.96 yard average) and 35 catches for 296 yards and 3 receiving TDs.

Has 13 career kick returns, all from 2018 to 2020. Per ESPN stats he was credited with a fumble in the Texas A&M game in 2021, but I believe this came on a play where the QB was at fault for a botched handoff, knocking the ball off of the RB's pads. If we take that one off his stats, he only has 2 career fumbles in 597 career scrimmage touches, which is approximately 1 fumble per every 300 touches, an outstanding ball security rate.

Pulled his hamstring late in the season against Auburn. Right hamstring injury while running the 40 at the Combine.

Lance Zierlein 6.21 draft grade, compared by LZ to Chris Carson (who was a 7th round draft pick.) LZ says he has a predictable style, indecisive between the tackles, linear runner, poor hands as a receiver, a grinder.

Compare LZ's grade to Michael Carter (6.21) who was an early 4th round pick (107th overall) last year to the Jets.

ESPN 141st (late 4th round)

Tony Pauline 91st (3rd round)

Ian Cummings 105th (late 3rd to 4th rd)

Oliver Hodgkinson (5th rd)

Shane Hallam 111th (4th rd)

Brian Bosarge 179th (late 5th rd)

PFF 117th (4th rd)

The consensus from these rankings seems to be about a 4th round pick.

Strengths

One of the best pass blocking RBs in recent drafts. He's outstanding at pass blocking, while most college RBs are either poor or just average. Gives up his body on blocks. Stones blitzing LBs. Good size for a blocker. Very good level of aggression and physicality on blocks. Saw LB coming, loaded up power in his legs and hands and delivered powerful strike into defender. Fantastic awareness as a blocker. Scans well with his eyes, adjusted his block based off of his OT and picked up the other defender. Nice awareness to pick up looper. Given pro type blocking assignments in their scheme.

Perhaps the best play I saw from his games was a pass block. The OT appears to make a mistake on how to handle an overload blitz, blocking the wrong defender. Robinson as the RB standing behind him immediately recognizes what just happened and in the blink of an eye adjusts to block the free defender. That is not typical, you won't see many college RBs make that play. Really impressive.

Excellent vision as a runner. Very good "accuracy percentage" in reading his blocks and the defense to make the proper cut to find a crease or opening at the LOS. If you go through his tape, it is very challenging to find a play where he makes a poor read and misses a wide open hole or cuts the wrong way. Has a direct running style, makes cut and goes north and south. Gets skinny in hole, finds creases and the soft part in the defense, shrugs off tackles to gain extra yardage. Has a knack for not taking a ton of direct hits by defenders, subtle movement so they deliver glancing blows. Sets up 2nd level defenders before he gets to the LOS. Presses the hole appropriately, patient if it isn't there right away and continues to press it to widen the edge defender instead of trying to cut upfield or bounce outside too early. Nice cutback on zone run.

Runs with good pad level. Knocked over good safety with shoulder charge.

Enough elusiveness to make big plays as a runner. Subtle jump cut eludes 2 defenders penetrating into the backfield. Shook DB in open field. Efficient in his movements, beat safety with decisive cut in hole. Outstanding cut smokes 2 defenders in the hole and he rips off a big run.

Played in pro style offense. Experienced running zone blocking plays. Great cutback on outside zone run, sees the field very well as zone runner.

Very good technique and attention to ball security. Maintains points of contact on ball. Covers it up with 2 hands in heavy traffic.

Runs at appropriate speed as he gets the ball, changes speed in the backfield appropriately to hit the hole or set up defenders.

Detailed in carrying out run fakes to maintain disguise, both with his body positioning and with timing.

Average receiving ability. Had critical 3rd down catch late in the 4th quarter on angle route where he gets a rub from the TE to help create separation. His hands catching the ball seem fine to me, I don't know why LZ has so much of a problem with them. Made a nice catch on a low pass where he had to extend arms away from body.

Good awareness when the QB scrambles. Robinson saw an open area, but it was some distance away, so he had to accelerate and run away from the defenders at the LOS to make himself available for a pass. Smart play.

Less mileage than other Bama RBs. Only had 545 career carries in college.

Has some kick return experience. Played behind other RBs before, so is used to not being the featured RB.

Weaknesses

Dull route runner. Not sharp or dangerous in his breaks. More of a checkdown and screen pass type of receiver, not a featured hybrid WR type receiver.

No 2nd gear in open field. Doesn't pull away once he has a clear path to the end zone. Probably will get chased down from behind or allow defender to get pursuit angle on some long runs in the NFL.

Not a big and powerful bruiser who can push the pile or drag defenders for yardage. He's not a hammer who runs through the defender, he is more like a chisel who finds a narrow crease in the defense and drives through it.

Not explosive, creative or particularly elusive as a runner. Michael Carter has more burst than Robinson. Average speed running to and turning the corner. Won't put stress on safeties coming up in run support to close down openings. Holes in the NFL won't be as big as in college and could close on him before he can squeeze through.

Unable to get out of some ankle tackles, gets tripped up. Limited lateral jump cut range.

Paired with a good OL, should be very productive, but if playing with unreliable run blockers he isn't the type of RB who will routinely create something out of nothing and juke 3 defenders on the same play.

Injury from 2021 and Combine will need to check out. Hamstring injuries with RBs make me nervous.

Pro Comparison and Grade

Jamaal Williams (4th round 2017, Packers, BYU), 4th round grade.

I like how Brian Robinson Jr. plays the game. He makes smart decisions on the field, whether as a runner, receiver or blocker. He takes care of the football. I think he could be good in the NFL. Even as a rookie, I think he could play on 3rd downs, which is not typical.

Jamaal Williams was drafted 9 slots ahead of Marlon Mack. More than a round later, the Packers drafted Aaron Jones in the compensatory part of the 5th round. Jones was one of the last 3 picks in that 5th round. This illustrates how a team shouldn't be afraid of using multiple picks on the same position in the same draft, but it also makes you wonder if the Packers had Jones properly evaluated or if they just got lucky.

Odds are that Robinson won't be as big as a steal as Aaron Jones. On the other hand, you could make a case for Robinson being a better prospect than Damien Harris. So, if you believe the metrics and think that Harris perhaps really is a top 10 NFL RB who just hasn't gotten the credit and attention he deserves, maybe Robinson himself could also become a sneaky good NFL back.

I don't think that the Rams need to prioritize RB in this year's draft, but if they want to add another RB, put Brian Robinson Jr.'s name at the top of the list for RBs to consider.