Drafting RB in Round 1 rarely makes sense. Lions make exception for Texas’ Bijan Robinson

Detroit Free Press

Defense, defense, defense.

The Detroit Lions need so much help for their last-ranked defense they could — many would argue, should — use both of their first-round draft picks on help for that side of the ball.

Another pass rusher, preferably of the interior variety, would go a long way towards completing the defensive line. A three-down linebacker is essential to fixing a unit that struggled to get off the field on third downs. And no group needs more help than a secondary that’s devoid of difference makers.

The Lions could address one or more of those needs in free agency, but April’s 2023 NFL draft should set up nicely for infusing the defense with more young talent.

At No. 6, the pick they received from the Los Angeles Rams as part of the Matthew Stafford trade, the Lions should be in position to add a pass rusher. Perhaps one of Will Anderson or Jalen Carter falls, but more likely the Lions have their pick of Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson, Clemson’s Myles Murphy and the rest of the second tier of linemen.

At No. 18, the Lions probably won’t have their pick of cornerbacks like they would at six, but there are enough good ones who project to come off the board in the middle of Round 1 that they should get an immediate contributor. Devon Witherspoon, Joey Porter Jr. and Christian Gonzalez are three of the best in this year’s draft.

I strongly considered doubling up on defense in my first mock draft Thursday. With Anderson, Carter and the draft’s top quarterbacks (Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud) off the board, I gave Wilson to the Lions at No. 6.

He missed time with a foot injury last season, but he’s big and long and relentless, and if his medicals check out, he won’t make it out of the top 10. Pairing Wilson with last year’s No. 2 overall pick, Aidan Hutchinson, and second-year linebacker James Houston, would give the Lions a trio of young pass rushers to build their defense around for years to come.

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The Lions desperately need cornerback help, too, but at No. 18 I went a completely different direction – one I wasn’t fully considering until the board fell the way it did.

Rather than draft defensive help, I gave the Lions an offensive prospect too good to pass up: Texas running back Bijan Robinson.

I’ve been lukewarm on, and in some cases downright against, teams spending first-round picks on running backs in the past. The position is complementary in today’s NFL, and most teams, including the Lions, favor backfields by committee. Capable running backs can be found on Day 3 of the draft or sometimes in undrafted free agency, and the Lions have D’Andre Swift under contract for 2023 and seem likely to bring back Jamaal Williams as well.

Williams, a fourth-round pick in 2017, had the best season of his career last year with 1,066 yards and an NFL-best 17 touchdowns. He’s 27 years old, and the Lions offense will be just fine with him and Swift, 24, leading their backfield next fall.

But Robinson is a true difference maker at the position, the rare back who is worthy of a first-round pick. He’s elusive, his vision is unmatched, he can catch the ball, he fits who the Lions want to be, and if the Lions take him at 18, he makes financial sense.

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Three running backs — Christian McCaffrey of the San Francisco 49ers, Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints and Zeke Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys – are playing on contracts that average at least $15 million per season. Last year, the No. 18 pick of the draft got a four-year deal worth $14.4 million total.

Kamara and Elliott hardly look worth the money anymore, and McCaffrey played every game this season for the first time since 2019. Running backs are rarely worth the money they make on second contracts, but good ones are definitely worth the type of coin they make on rookie deals.

Robinson has the makings of one of the NFL’s best backs from the minute he steps in the league. By taking him at 18, the Lions would get the best four to six years of his career — they’d have the fifth-year option on his rookie contract and the ability to franchise tag him in Year 6; three running backs, Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard, are tag candidates this year at a paltry $10.1 million — at a price that’s a bargain compared to his peers.

At last year’s slotted value, Robinson’s deal would be worth $3.6 million annually, or less than what Spotrac projects Williams’ market value to be ($4.1 million per season) in free agency.

Contractual value isn’t the biggest reason Robinson makes sense at 18. All good players on rookie deals are values compared to their peers, and I point out the money the Lions will pay the 18th pick mostly to show how valuable having two more controllable years in the prime of a young back’s career can be.

The real reason Robinson makes sense at 18 is because of how his immense talent would complete the Lions offense.

Lions coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes spent last offseason trying to fortify the offense around Jared Goff to give Goff the best chance to succeed. They built one of the league’s most dynamic offenses, behind a rock solid offensive line, and if they intend to keep Goff around for the foreseeable future (which I believe they do), they need to keep amassing talent on that side of the ball.

Goff helped the Rams reach the Super Bowl in 2018, when L.A.’s play-action pass game was unmatched thanks in part to Todd Gurley, the best running back in the league. Robinson is not a facsimile of Gurley as a player, but he can be to the Lions what Gurley was to the Rams – a multi-dimensional game-changer who helps the Lions win in myriad ways.

It’s true that teams can find productive backs just about anywhere. The Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs have a sledgehammer of a back, Isiah Pacheco, they took in last year’s seventh round, and five of the 15 backs who topped 1,000 yards rushing last season were Day 3 draft picks.

But most of the best running backs in the NFL — Barkley, Jacobs, McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, Travis Etienne, Kenneth Walker — were first- or second-round picks. That’s the type of investment teams have to make if they want a force multiplier at the position, and with two first-rounders for the second straight year, that’s a luxury the Lions have.

The Lions defense looked decrepit at times last season, and they won’t go far in the playoffs until that’s fixed. Wilson or another pass rusher, plus a cornerback in Round 2 and some well-spent dollars in free agency, would be a nice start.

But this is an offensive league, and Robinson is one of the best offensive talents in this draft. Taking him at 18 would be a win for the Lions for years to come.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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