Falcons coach Arthur Smith calls Robinson, the No. 8 pick in the draft, a “home-run hitter.” Oddsmakers have Robinson as the favorite to win the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. Saquon Barkley in 2018 is the last running back to earn that designation in the preseason. It usually is a quarterback, but bettors are anticipating that Robinson will get the ball frequently and make big plays.
Robinson looks to be NFL-ready, but first he has to learn. Robinson’s education began this weekend at rookie minicamp in Flowery Branch.
“Obviously, I’m going to have expectations, but for me, it’s just another opportunity to be the best player I can be,” Robinson said Friday after his first official practice with the Falcons. “Obviously, there’s a lot of eyes and a lot of people (watching). But if I just focus on being a good teammate and bring my expertise and my skill set to this offense, everything will take care of itself.”
Robinson is the third consecutive offensive skill-position player drafted by the Falcons with their top draft pick. They already have two good, young playmakers with tight end Kyle Pitts and wide receiver Drake London. Now they also have a dynamic, young running back with the talent to star as a rookie.
Robinson can make a very good rushing offense even better. The 2022 Falcons ranked third in rushing efficiency as measured by the Football Outsiders metric (adjusted by opponent and situation). They were consistent, ranking second in efficiency variance from week to week.
The Falcons can build their offense around Robinson. Not many teams do that with running backs anymore. Passing was more efficient than running for a long time. The rules engineered it that way, and the talent distribution and strategies followed.
But as defenses adjusted to stop the pass, offensive coaches countered with creative play designs, what Smith calls “non-traditional formations” and dual-threat quarterbacks. That put pressure on NFL defenses that play five defensive backs on about 60% of the snaps and seven DBs 15% of the time. The trend also has been for defenses to play smaller linebackers more suited for pass coverage than run stopping.
In response, a pass-happy league has become less so.
“It’s like a game of chess,” Smith said.
NFL teams ran the ball 27.3 times per game in 2022. That’s the most since 2011. Teams gained 4.5 yards per play on rushes. That’s the highest mark since at least 1932, the earliest year recorded in the Pro Football Reference database. Four of the eight teams to make the second week of the 2022 playoffs ranked 11th or higher in run frequency.
Said Smith: “Sometimes it’s what you are defending. There’s a lot of position-less players coming in (to the league). These guys are so much more skilled coming from high school with the training they have, with the way the game has been played from the high school level now. It’s wide open.”
That’s where Robinson comes in. It’s rare for running backs to be selected early in the draft because teams have devalued the position. Backs tend to get worn down and, save for last season, the NFL has been a passing league for a long time. The Falcons are on the hook to pay Robinson $22 million over four seasons.
But I think Robinson’s abilities and his circumstances with the Falcons mitigate those risks. He can run with power, but he’s also elusive. Robinson can be a big part of the passing game because he has good hands and is great in the open field. Also, the Falcons’ offensive line has become a run-blocking force, and Smith already showed he can fashion a good running game.
Said Smith: “With Bijan and how he fits, a lot of our guys are versatile. ... We feel we can give some people some unique matchups and continue to push the limits.”
The Falcons will be young on offense again. Robinson supplants Cordarrelle Patterson, 32, as the No. 1 back. Quarterback Desmond Ridder, 23, succeeds eight-year veteran Marcus Mariota. Rookie Matthew Bergeron is the projected starter at left guard.
Youth isn’t necessarily a hinderance. According to Football Outsiders, five of the top 10 teams in offensive efficiency last season were among the six youngest units when adjusted by snaps played. That includes Kansas City’s top-ranked offense, which was fourth youngest. The Chiefs had league MVP Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, but he was surrounded by a lot of inexperienced players.
I advocated for the Falcons to acquire a good, veteran quarterback or select one of the top draft prospects. I like Ridder’s potential, but the Falcons could have separated from their NFC South peers by making QB a surer thing. They decided to stick with Ridder and invest in Robinson as their home-run hitter.
That could end up being a good call because of Robinson’s talent, Smith’s offense and the NFL’s shift to running against defenses built to slow the pass.