In recent years, running backs going early in the first round have become a rarity, typically reserved for a select few that boast rare physical tools and piled up ridiculous production at the college level in one of the power conferences.
However, the 2023 NFL Draft is maybe showing a shift in running back valuation as two backs went off the board in the first 12 picks, marking the first time that’s happened since 2017 when Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette went early in the first round. The first back off the board came as little surprise, as Texas star Bijan Robinson went to the Atlanta Falcons with the 8th overall selection. While some quibbled with the value at No. 8 just based on running backs as a whole, no one doubted Robinson’s talent, as many had him as a top-5 player on their big board (stripping away positional value).
When the Detroit Lions, who had traded down with the Cardinals from No. 6 to No. 12, arrived on the clock no one was expecting a second back to come off the board, but Detroit shocked just about everyone when they selected Jahymr Gibbs out of Alabama.
You can see the surprise from the NFL Network booth, as no one can quite believe another back came off the board, even one as talented as Gibbs. The Alabama standout (who starred at Georgia Tech prior to transferring to Tuscaloosa) figured to be in play late in the first round for contending teams looking for an elite pass catcher out of the backfield, but no one had him pegged as a top-12 pick. Detroit clearly was going off their board and no one else’s with this pick, and will look to replace Jamaal Williams’ production with Gibbs, as they add another Alabama playmaker to last year’s first round pick, receiver Jameson Williams.
The stunning part isn’t just the sudden run on running backs early, but that two backs were taken before a single receiver went off the board. In a pass-happy league, we usually see multiple receivers drafted before a single back, but this year the tables were turned and Gibbs and Robinson broke the trend and shattered mock drafts everywhere.