Falcons Drafting for “Who,” Not “What” with Bijan Robinson Selection
The running back position in the NFL has never been valued less than it is today. Eight days ago, the Atlanta Falcons became the first team to draft a running back inside the top-10 picks of the NFL Draft since the New York Giants selected Saquon Barkley in 2018. Not only has it been five years since the Giants took Barkley in the top 10, but we have yet to see a running back selected inside the top 20 since. In fact, only four running backs have been inside the first round since 2018.
The Steelers and Jaguars selected Najee Harris and Travis Etienne No. 24-25 in the 2021 NFL Draft. The Chiefs took Clyde Edwards-Helaire with the 32nd and final pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, and the Raiders selected Josh Jacobs with the No. 24 pick in the 2019 draft.
The Falcons could have filed a need with the eighth overall pick in the draft last week. The Falcons “needed” a cornerback, an edge rusher, or a guard. Christian Gonzalez was on the board, and so was every other cornerback, save for Devon Witherspoon. They could have taken Jalen Carter or Peter Skoronski. They could have taken any number of players that would have been excellent answers to their perceived needs.
However, Atlanta wasn’t drafting for the “what” but for the “who” at No. 8, a philosophy I’ve championed when discussing how teams should attack the top 10 picks in the NFL Draft. Bijan Robinson was that guy. Aside from the quarterbacks, and maybe Jalen Carter and Will Anderson Jr., there wasn’t a more obvious NFL talent in the draft than Bijan Robinson.
“There are a million ways to do it. The thing that we focus on the most is, ‘It ain’t about what, it’s about who,” Falcons director of player personnel Kyle Smith said on Wednesday. “When it comes to Bijan (Robinson), the player, the skill set, the versatility, the impact as a player and a person, it was an easy pick, man. It really was.”
Robinson racked up 3,410 rushing yards, 805 receiving yards and scored 41 touchdowns in a three-year career at Texas. He was the fifth-best prospect in the draft according to Dane Brugler and many other draft experts.
Some have wondered why the Falcons would spend that type of draft capital on Robinson in this era of running backs. Particularly when they have a talented running back in Tyler Allgeier, whom they drafted last year with the 151st pick in the NFL Draft. Allgeier ran for 1,035 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie fifth-rounder. That’s the way this position is handled these days. You find a low-cost acquisition running back (more often than not, two of them) and make it work for cheap these days. The Falcons did that last year.
But let’s make one thing crystal clear, and I mean no disrespect to him: Tyler Allgeier is no Bijan Robinson.
Bijan Robinson is a Madden NFL-like human juke machine with endless home run potential. He is the rare breed of bell-cow and three-down running back you don’t see much in the NFL these days. You can’t afford to have him off of the field. He was that good in college and has that ceiling in the NFL.
The Falcons intend to maximize Robinson’s involvement by utilizing him as a versatile playmaker instead of a typical running back.
“I think he can do a lot of different things and that’s one of the things that when you put on the tape and wherever he is on the field he does, he makes impacts,” Falcons GM Terry Fontenot said (via PFT). “If he’s at receiver, if he’s in the slot, you’re going to worry about him. You better make sure you have a plan for him. Coordinators have to make sure they have a plan for him or if he’s in the backfield, but when you just go through our players on our roster, we have other players that are the same way. You don’t know where they’re going to line up and exactly what they’re going to do, so that’s the fun part about it.”
The Falcons spent big in free agency, and they’ve drafted well in recent years. Drake London and Kyle Pitts have become playmakers in the last two drafts. Bijan joins a backfield that includes Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson. The big question in 2023 will be whether or not they made the right call sticking with Desmond Ridder.
However, the Falcons aren’t relying on Ridder putting on an air raid attack to lead the Falcons to wins. Instead, they plan to run over their opponents and kill them with speed and brute force in the trenches.
“I think to your point, you have to have a clear plan of exactly what you’re going to do and how you’re going to utilize that particular player.” Fontenot said. “That’s what’s fun about [it]. We do really like the players in our running back room, whether we’re talking about Tyler or C.P. and all the different things that they can do. I have a lot of confidence in our coaching staff from our head coach Arthur Smith and our offensive coordinator Dave Ragone. You go all the way down to coaching staff, we have some really smart people in the building and we have clear visions and clear plans for everyone on our roster. When we get excited about a player and know the impact he’s going to make, obviously you factor all those things in, usage and mileage and all those things, but we have a very clear plan and clear vision of how it’s going to all come together.”
The Falcons’ 159.9 rushing yards per game were second in the NFL in 2022. Adding Robinson to the mix has the Falcons in a position to have the NFL’s most fearsome rushing attack. Furthermore, Atlanta’s compilation of playmakers has them primed for a run at an NFC South title this year.