RB Bijan Robinson (Texas): The Next Reggie Bush or Saquon Barkley? Matt Waldman’s RSP Film Room

Matt Waldman’s RSP Film Room profiles 2023 NFL Draft prospect Bijan Robinson’s tape and reveals where Robinson can develop more high-level concepts to compliment his big-play athletic ability and maximize his already promising skills.

The Next Reggie Bush?

The USC running back lit the draft world on fire with his exploits. Many compared Bush to all-time greats. When considering acceleration, movement, aggression with tight creases, balance, and open-field moves, I saw a lot of Gayle Sayers in Bush’s game.

Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian, one of Bush’s coaches at USC—and even Bush himself—see similarities between Bush’s and Robinson’s game. It’s the palpable acceleration out of his cuts that stands out the most.

Bush never achieved the heights of his pre-draft buzz. He had a good career, but there were flashes of what could have been if not for injury and a well-meaning but immature motivation to put the Saints on his back as a playmaker. It led to Bush attempting and failing to break big plays in situations where the chain-moving plays were there for the taking.

The corner store in L.A. near University Park had not seduced Bush, but that big contract and the desire to be an immediate difference maker on a grand scale for a city recovering from Hurricane Katrina led to Bush putting too much pressure on every play.  Once he curbed the thought that he could out-athlete the elite athletes in the NFL play, Bush became a better overall runner despite injuries slowing him, physically.

Robinson can become a more powerful and less agile NFL iteration of Bush with more down-to-down upside if he develops the high-level concepts of running the football. If not, Robinson’s comparison profile will continue to have some of Saquon Barkley’s flaws that have limited his play-by-play consistency as a lead back.

This brings me to a vital point about something fans call nitpicking or scouts describe as flaw-spotting.

Robinson, Barkley, and Flaw-Spotting

Scouts have a mantra about evaluating players based on what they can do to help a team. Remember this is based on their frame of reference: All players have flaws, but it’s about finding players who offer skills that fit well with their team’s scheme.

Scouts (present and former) were trained to evaluate within the confines of a specific team. This is often something that’s lost on them when discussing prospects in the public space. Media scouting has some differences. It requires us to not only to identify what a player does well and where he fits, but also what he doesn’t do well and where he doesn’t fit.

Flaw-spotting is a vital part of refining expectations. Barkley was seen as an all-world, generational talent. As an athlete and mover, he is. As a decision-maker, he never was. While there’s still an opportunity for Barkley to address his decision-making flaws, it has held him back from reaching his ceiling.

Obviously, Barkley is still a starter talent, but I’ve seen scouting reports of his NFL from multiple sources that regard these issues as reasons why Barkley is good, but not great at his craft. This probably riles some football fans who lack the nuance to grasp it, but another way of looking at it is this:

If we took Barkley’s first two seasons and used his data and film as the basis for his career performance—ignoring the injury-riddled campaigns of the last two—would Barkley’s performance merit the second overall pick?

Barkley averaged 1,734.5 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns during that two-year period. That’s elite production for the position so the answer would appear to be yes. Except, there are numerous teams that have generated similar or better production from backs not taken at the top of the first round.

Alvin Kamara (3rd round), Derrick Henry (2nd round), Jonathan Taylor (2nd round), Austin Ekeler (UDFA), Dalvin Cook (2nd round), and Nick Chubb (2nd round) and recent examples of backs with lower draft capital where teams arguably got as much or more statistical production than the Giants got out of Barkley. The same goes for early picks Ezekiel Elliott and Christian McCaffrey.

This sounds like the essence of a Running Backs Don’t Matter argument, but it’s only the first dimension of a more nuanced point.

When we look at Barkley’s film, it’s there’s a marked difference between Barkley’s decision-making and execution and all of the backs listed two paragraphs earlier. Yes, there are big-play gains that are exhibitions of rare speed and movement that few of the names listed above could have pulled off as well.

However, there are also a lot more touches where Barkley leaves yards on the field. I’m not talking about plays where his offensive line didn’t execute, either. That’s a valid part of the overall conversation about opportunities a running back doesn’t earn at the cost of others. It’s also a valid (and vital) to discuss what a player has within his control and doesn’t exploit it.

These are the plays I’m noting. And there are enough of them in Barkley’s film portfolio, college and pro, to say he has put his team in undesirable down-and-distance situations that compressed the offensive playbook, stalled drives, and limited chances to continue playing well-rounded offensive football for the rest of the game.

Barkley is a boom-bust running back of the highest order and it’s why people who are fans of him see the critiques as nitpicking as far back as his collegiate years. They see the things he can do and argue that if the team was better, Barkley would be otherworldly.

There’s truth to this argument. It’s also true that Barkley has clear opportunities to be better right now and better in a way that will measurably help his team extend 2-3 drives per game. Those 2-3 plays per game may seem small, but the NFL operates on narrow margins of error and it will make a difference in the win-loss column.

Many of the backs who are statistical peers of Barkley in the scenario listed above maximize their skills with superior decision-making in these situations where positive gains are within their control. As a result, they generate production that’s more consistent.

At the end of the day, while a highlight-reel game-breaking run of Herculean effort can strike fear in defenses and generate media buzz, the best backs in the game get the tough yards, the easy yards, and display the occasional Herculean effort. Barkley looks like the stud locked in the paddock, but he’s just on the outside looking in when looking at his behaviors as a football player.

Robinson is heading down a similar track at this stage of his career. Like Barkley, Robinson still has time to mature as a decision-maker—more time, in fact—but historically, we don’t see a change in this “breakaway or bust” outlook until there are some struggles in the NFL and he has a coaching staff has the awareness and support to demand that the player refine the behavior.

What you’ll see in this RSP Film Room on Robinson are the skills where Robinson’s game burns bright as well as the flaws that spell the difference between a strong stats producer and a consistent offensive workhorse who makes meaningful plays big and small.

If you’re a fantasy player, especially in best-ball leagues, this point won’t matter to you, because he’ll get you points one way or the other. If you’re a football fan, Robinson’s current play will excite and spawn visions of grandeur. However, it’s worth understanding what’s football nutritious.

Robinson’s game has some nutritious elements but there are some unnecessary additives that prevent it from being an NFL superfood at this point. Robinson’s game has matured more as a decision-maker in 2022, but are Saquon Barkley and Reggie Bush the comparison points for his game?

I have someone else in mind. Stay tuned…

And of course, if you want to know about the rookies from this draft class, you will find the most in-depth analysis of offensive skill players available (QB, RB, WR, and TE), with the 2022 Rookie Scouting Portfolio for $21.95. 

Matt’s new RSP Dynasty Rankings and Two-Year Projections Package is available for $24.95

If you’re a fantasy owner and interested in purchasing past publications for $9.95 each, the 2012-2020 RSPs also have a Post-Draft Add-on that’s included at no additional charge.  

If you’re a fantasy owner and interested in purchasing past publications for $9.95 each, the 2012-2020 RSPs also have a Post-Draft Add-on that’s included at no additional charge.  

Best yet, proceeds from sales are set aside for a year-end donation to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse of children. 

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