There is a growing contingency—particularly among the analytics community—that believe drafting a running back in the first round is a cardinal sin. The argument is based on several things, but at the core of the debate is that the running back position has been devalued in today’s pass-heavy game, the shelf-life of a running back is far shorter than other positions, and there are other high-value positions that should be prioritized that early in the draft. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell had a fascinating article last week on the rising debate.
But it sure doesn’t sound like Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes is among those who believe in this line of thinking.
During his pre-draft press conference on Thursday, Holmes went back to his days as St. Louis Rams director of college scouting, when they opted to take Todd Gurley with the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
“I understand the narrative around that,” Holmes said. “But if you think a player is that good, and he’s out there producing for you, then I don’t think anyone is going to look back and say — and I don’t think anyone said in 2016 or ‘17 or ‘18, ‘Man, they picked Todd Gurley at 10.’ No. He was just a really good running back. He was one of the top prospects in the draft, so yeah, we didn’t really bat an eye.”
Gurley is interesting for Holmes to bring up because he offers an argument for both sides of the debate. For the pro-running back side, Gurley provided four years of highly-productive play for the Rams. He rushed for 4,547 yards and 46 touchdowns in his first four seasons. In that time, he was a three-time Pro Bowler, two-time All-Pro, Offensive Rookie of the Year, and the 2017 Offensive Player of the Year. He was a critical part of the Rams’ success that got them to the playoffs in back-to-back years and to the Super Bowl in 2018.
But that’s also where his career came to an abrupt stop. The Rams gave him a four-year, $60 million extension prior to that 2018 season, but he would only play on two seasons of it after rushing for a paltry 3.8 yards per carry in 2019. He was released the next year, and after one unproductive season with the Falcons, his NFL career was over after just six seasons. Like many running backs, his career was shortened by injury.
So was it worth it? Holmes seems to think so.
The debate on running backs has reached a fever pitch this year because of 2023 NFL Draft prospect Bijan Robinson. Many hail Robinson as a generational talent on par with the likes of Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, and others. Looking at the Texas running back’s production in college—and his highlight reel, for that matter—it’s easy to fall in love. In the past two seasons, he’s rushed for 2,707 yards, 29 touchdowns, and added another 609 yards and six touchdowns in the passing game. He’s prototypical in size, speed, and is a tackle-breaking machine.
There are plenty of logical reasons why a prospect like Robinson would fit with the Lions. Detroit values the running game more than other teams, they have a long-term need at the position with D’Andre Swift on the final year of his rookie contract, and with the 18th pick in the draft, that could be the sweet spot for where Robinson is likely to land.
Others may argue, though, that this is a deep running back class, and you can upgrade the position without spending premier draft capital. Players like Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs, UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet, or Tulane’s Tyjae Spears could be had on Day 2 of the draft and provide Detroit with a clear upgrade. Additionally, the Lions just committed three years and $18 million to David Montgomery in free agency just last month.
Regardless, it appears that if the Lions feel strongly about Robinson as a prospect and view running back as a pressing enough need, Holmes may not hesitate to run up the card with the Texas running back’s name on it.