In 2011, the Falcons traded five draft picks for the right to move up 21 spots to take Julio Jones. Debate rages to this day. Was it too much Draft Capital to spend? Was it too much to spend on a wide receiver? Would the sacrificed picks hamstring the Falcons in future drafts? In the cold light of hindsight, those seem quibbles.
The Falcons landed the man who would become the NFL’s best receiver. He’ll be in Canton – not the one just north of Marietta – soon. He made the play that should have delivered a Super Bowl. Would some combination of a pass rusher, an offensive lineman, a couple of DBs and a garden-variety wideout have done as much for the Falcons as Jones did for first Mike Smith, then Dan Quinn and always Matt Ryan?
Football, unlike basketball, rewards quantity. At the highest level along the finest margins, football also rewards quality. How many smallish guards could have scored 50 points in a Game 7 on the road, as Stephen Curry did Sunday in Sacramento? How many receivers could, with 4:38 remaining in the Super Bowl and his team leading by eight points, make the catch of his life?
Re-watch the clip. Jones rises to snag Ryan’s on-the-move throw over the Patriots’ Eric Rowe, juggling at the top of his mighty leap. Rowe’s reaction is to signal “no catch,” reflecting both wishful thinking and common sense. Nobody else could have secured the ball – un-juggled it, as it were – and gotten both feet down while jackknifing over the sideline. The one NFL receiver capable of doing such a thing did such a thing.
I know about “draft points,” first espoused by Jimmy Johnson with Dallas. The Cowboys’ run of excellence was hastened by the famous trade that sent Herschel Walker to Minnesota for five players, three draft picks and five conditional draft picks. In the long run, quantity trumped quality. But, as Cowboys chronicler Norm Hitzges later revealed, Johnson first approached the Raiders’ Al Davis and dangled Michael Irvin.
Per Hitzges, Davis said: “You sure you want to do that? Who’s going to catch passes for you?”
Irvin remained a Cowboy. In 16 playoff games, he caught 87 passes for 1,315 yards and eight touchdowns. He has three Super Bowl rings. He’s in Canton.
No one – not you, not me, not Mel Kiper, not Arthur Smith – can guarantee that Bijan Robinson will be a Hall of Famer. Ask the folks in Cincinnati about Ki-Jana Carter, picked No. 1 overall in 1995. (Curtis Martin, another RB from a Pennsylvania school, went 73 picks later in that draft; he is in the Hall of Fame.) But I’m willing to concede that Smith knows his team better than you and I do, better even than Mel.
As a rule, running backs have short shelf lives and are best found down-draft. This assumes all RBs are equal, which isn’t necessarily so. The Falcons see Robinson as a three-down back who can run and catch and go long distances. Who’d have a greater feel for an offense than the man who designed it and calls plays?
Jones wasn’t just a receiver. He was the best of his era. Robinson mightn’t be the best running back of his era – then again, he might – but the Falcons saw him as the player who could help this team the most, more than the great Jalen Carter. (Who played 52 snaps against Ohio State and made one tackle, FYI.)
You’re free to disagree. Mel of ESPN disagrees. He gave the Falcons’ draft a B-minus. Only three teams were rated lower. “I just don’t get it,” he wrote of Robinson’s selection. “The Falcons could have gotten 90 percent of his production from (Tyler) Allgeier and a couple of Day 3 options.” Really? And we know this … how? (Kiper also conceded Robinson “might win Rookie of the Year.”)
The intent here isn’t to tweak the most famous draftnik. He’s seeing the board in toto. The Falcons care only about their little corner of the world. They didn’t take some faceless replacement-level RB. They took Bijan Robinson, the one and only.
Maybe they could have found 90 percent of his output elsewhere, but what if Robinson’s 10 percent wins them a game in December? Or January? Or, dare we say, February?
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