Have We Already Seen Brian Robinson's Ceiling?

Jul 09, 2024
Have We Already Seen Brian Robinson's Fantasy Football Ceiling?

After a middling rookie season that provided few usable weeks in Fantasyland, Brian Robinson was a far more consistent option in 2023, with far more involvement in the passing game. Though his early-down work was more or less the same, he far out-touched rookie Chris Rodriguez and veteran Antonio Gibson while more than tripling his year-to-year targets. Heading into his third professional season, he no longer has Gibson sharing the backfield but may have been introduced into an even more significant threat to his workload.

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Brian Robinson’s 2022 and 2023 Seasons

Robinson understandably had a slow start to his rookie season after being shot in the leg, which inevitably held him out of the first four games of the 2022 campaign. With full availability throughout the offseason leading up to last year, he was allocated a far bigger role from the onset, most notably in the passing game. He would end up running roughly three times as many routes (83-to-219) while hauling in a respectable 36 catches for 367 yards on 40 targets.

Those aren’t earth-shattering numbers, but they were leaps and bounds better than his ‘22 numbers (9-60-1) and provided him an opportunity to avoid bottoming out in the box score.

Brian Robinson’s NFL Career Stats
Year Carries Yards YPA % of Team Rushes (Rank) Yards After Contact (Rank) YPRR (Rank)
2022 205 797 3.9 20.7% (55th/60) 2.69 (50th/60) 0.72 (41st/60)
2023 178 732 4.1 46.3% (28th/63) 2.93 (27th/63) 1.68 (4th/63)

By most measures, Robinson had a perfectly acceptable 2023 as the Commanders’ lead back. His 0.01 EPA per attempt on short-yardage runs (3 or fewer yards to go) ranked 27th among qualifying backs, while his 16.9% stuffed rate slotted him in the same rank among his peers, all with his offensive line earning only 1.34 yards before contact on RB carries (21st).

With that said, he still couldn’t wrest over 50% of the team’s attempts, even with Washington basically phasing Antonio Gibson out of the rushing game plan. Much of that had to do with Sam Howell’s propensity to take off with the ball, which skews the number quite a bit, but it’s not as if they are bringing in a quarterback who will take off with the ball less. They have also brought in a veteran presence who offers a much larger threat to his down-to-down role.

He might be being squeezed from two sides heading into 2024.

The Commanders Offense in 2024

The Washington Commanders have had some of the most significant offensive turnover in the league this offseason. The front office brought in offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury to turn things around with the aid of Heisman Trophy-winning, second-overall-selection quarterback Jayden Daniels. The hope for fans and fantasy managers alike is that the big-armed quarterback will add some explosiveness to the offense and help wide receiver Jahan Dotson hit a ceiling in his third year.

Kingsbury is —rather famously— not known for creating vertical shots at the NFL level, but there’s a chance that is a little overblown. His former Cardinals team finished in the top 10 in pass attempts that traveled 20+ air yards down the field in 2021 and 2022. And those teams comprised often-hobbled DeAndre Hopkins, a mid-30s A.J. Green, and 5’7”, 180-pound Rondale Moore. A combination of Terry McLaurin (29 targets of 20+ air yards over the last three seasons) and Daniels (69.1% adjusted completion rate on passes 20+ yards down the field in ‘23) should offer him more tools to work with, which could help him eradicate the “Horizontal Raid” tag.

Though I am optimistic about the quarterback and his two main pass catchers (McLaurin/Dotson), it’s worth pointing out that the offense is projected to score the seventh-lowest number of points and have the sixth-shortest odds of scoring the fewest amount in the NFL this year. That’s not exactly what we should be attacking when looking at a team’s RB1 in fantasy.

There’s also the elephant in the room here, which is what the rookie quarterback will likely do with his legs. Our projections currently have Daniels at 131 rush attempts, the fourth-highest mark at the position, narrowly trailing Lamar Jackson, Jalen Hurts, and Josh Allen. Even if there aren’t a ton of designed runs for Daniels (there will be), Robinson runs the risk of losing the target total that kept him afloat in 2023.

In addition to Daniels’ minuscule RB target rate over two years at LSU (12.7%), Robinson now also has to compete with Austin Ekeler, one of the most proficient RB pass-catchers of the last decade.

Projecting the Commanders Backfield in Fantasy

Though nothing is set in stone at this point, it would surprise nobody if Robinson far out-carried his new teammate. Still, his moderate pass-game role is very unlikely to increase. On paper, the roles are clearly defined, as the 6’2”, 225-pound Robinson will operate as the short-yardage and goal-line back, as Ekeler will flex his elite-level receiving game as the third down back, assuming most of his ankle woes are behind him.

Harkening back to Kliff Kingsbury’s time with the Cardinals, the team targeted the running back position at a 16.1% clip from 2019-2022, more or less in line with the league average. We can assume that number is likely the high-water outcome, with Daniels set to take off with the ball even more often than Kyler Murray did in his time with Kingsbury. This would set a hard cap on both running backs’ ceilings in fantasy.

What’s even worse —for Robinson in particular— is the possibility that their new quarterback calls his own number around the goal line. Robinson handled eight attempts from within the opponent’s five-yard line last season (62% of the backfield share), while Ekeler scored an efficient six touchdowns (11 attempts) in those scenarios back in 2022.

Each back has a middling week-to-week floor, but the tandem will likely make a better pairing in real-life football than in fantasy, cannibalizing each other to the point that each is closer to the RB2/3 fringe than a locked-in starter.

Bottom Line

  • Brian Robinson took over as a true RB1 for the Commanders last season and turned in an RB21 season (12.0 half-PPR points per game).
  • The addition of Austin Ekeler presents the biggest threat to Robinson’s workload that he’s seen through his first two years in the league.
  • With the Commanders’ selection of dual-threat quarterback Jayden Daniels, Robinson is now being squeezed both in his goal-line role and the passing game.
  • According to current Underdog ADP, Robinson has climbed into the RB30 range, while Ekeler continues to fall, now in the RB40 range. These ADPs are completely out of whack and should be much closer, making the veteran the preferred target when they’re this far apart. That said, Robinson should still be on drafter’s radars, specifically when creating a Zero RB build.
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