The best running back in this year’s NFL draft honed his moves by watching the greatest Detroit Lion of all-time.
Texas running back Bijan Robinson told reporters at the NFL combine Saturday that he watches highlights of Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders “probably every other day because I’m always trying to, like, mimic his moves.”
“He was so good at doing the things that you couldn’t do,” Robinson said. “He was just the guy where every single time you touched the ball you were just standing there trying to see what he could do. There would be some games on YouTube, some full games back in those times, and I would watch them all just to see every single run that he did. I mean, he was just the most exciting player I’ve seen on a highlight tape and, I don’t know if you guys agree, but if God could bless me to be at that caliber one day, that would be amazing.”
Sanders ranks fourth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list with 15,269 yards. He played 10 mesmerizing seasons with the Lions and often left defenders grasping at air with his elusiveness and cut-back ability.
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Robinson, a potential target of the Lions with one of their two first-round picks, has elite vision like Sanders and a knack for making defenders miss. He forced an FBS-best 104 missed tackles on 258 carries last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I’m a knee-bender when I run the ball,” Robinson said. “Another guy that was a knee-bender was Barry Sanders to try to redirect and be as low to the ground as you can and understand that you’ve got to feel defenders and read their shoulders and read angles to break as many tackles as you can to try to get north and south.
“So for me, I take pride in that and I do so many drills with my coach back at Texas, (running backs coach Tashard) Choice, and he really implemented that a lot in all of our drills. And sometimes they’re really tough but in the games they really pay off a lot.”
At 6 feet and 222 pounds, Robinson is one of the top prospects in this year’s draft regardless of position.
He earned praise from foes at the combine this week, with Alabama pass rusher Will Anderson calling Robinson the toughest opponent he faced.
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“He was a big back. We had to gang-tackle him,” Anderson said.
And he is considered by some draft analysts the best running back prospect since Saquon Barkley went No. 2 overall to the New York Giants in 2018.
“If you asked around, and I’ve done this to a bunch of teams, the most consistently highly-graded player in the draft — because even on some of them there’s some varying opinions. You’ll get some people will say on the defensive side, ‘Ah, you know, I’m a Will Anderson guy.’ Or maybe, ‘I’m a Jalen Carter guy,'” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “Everybody says that Bijan Robinson is not only the best running back in this class, he’s one of the five best players in this class. He’s elite.”
Robinson was ultra-productive in three seasons at Texas.
He averaged 8.2 yards per carry in nine games as a true freshman and had 1,127 yards as a sophomore before winning the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back last season.
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Beyond his rushing prowess, Robinson is considered one of the top receiving backs in this year’s draft. He averaged 13.4 yards per reception for his career and can flex out wide or play out of the slot.
As talented as Robinson is, his draft stock is a bit of a mystery. No running back has gone in the top 10 since Barkley, and the value of the position is such that some analysts have Robinson slipping into the 20s in their mock drafts.
“My philosophy on kind of running backs is I don’t mind taking a running back in the first round, as long as your team is ready to win right now,” Jeremiah said. “But I don’t want to waste carries on a crappy team. I want to have all of his carries over that five-year period (of his rookie contract) count and help us push towards a championship. So to take a big-time running back like that and your team stinks, you’re going to waste his prime and it’s not going to do anything for you. So that’s the conundrum there with Bijan Robinson. But he is, no doubt about it to me, he’s one of the premier, premier players in the draft.”
Three teams with winning records last season — the Lions, Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks — have top-10 picks, and a slew of other contenders could be salivating to get their hands on Robinson in the middle of the first round.
Asked Saturday if it’s unfair a player of his caliber could slip down the draft, Robinson said he’ll be ready to unleash his Sanders-like moves on the rest of the NFL no matter where he ends up.
“I don’t want to say it’s unfair,” he said. “I think that God has a plan for wherever I’m going to be at personally, and you just never know on that day where you’re going to go and for me it’s important to just keep enjoying the moment cause we might get to draft day and some surprise could happen, we just never know. So for me I’m just trying to just keep staying positive, always know that the blessings are here and just keep having fun doing that.”
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.