The Atlanta Falcons are a case study in the argument against drafting running backs with top picks, and yet they were the team to select Bijan Robinson with the highest pick spent on a running back since Saquon Barkley in 2018.
Atlanta was the league’s most run-heavy offense last season— the only team to call a run play more often than a pass play — and ranked third in rushing yards as an offense and fourth in yards per attempt. Their backfield consisted of an undrafted rookie from 2021 (Caleb Huntley), a fifth-round rookie (Tyler Allgeier) and a wide receiver-turned-running back (Cordarrelle Patterson on his fifth team in seven seasons. All three averaged at least 4.8 yards per attempt and 3.0 yards after contact per attempt. They each earned a PFF rushing grade of at least 83.5.
If any team could look at their situation and be convinced of the merits of a low-cost investment in the running back position, it’s the Falcons. But they used their eighth overall selection in the 2023 NFL Draft to select Texas' Robinson.
Despite the evidence that significant investment in the running back position is a negative expected value proposition, it seems to regularly be the teams used as the finest example of that concept that pursue the investment the most. The Shanahan coaching tree has been seen as a manufacturing line for rushing production for decades, but Kyle Shanahan has consistently searched for upgrades in the draft before trading for Christian McCaffrey and his significant contract in the middle of last season.
Evidently, NFL decision-makers, even those in the engine room of offenses able to create rushing success out of almost any backfield, still covet the potential that an elite rushing talent brings to the table.
That’s the only explanation for Atlanta spending the No. 8 overall pick on Robinson.
And it’s an argument that does hold some merit. Special talents change the rules. Exceptions are exceptions for a reason. Generally, guards play a position that means they don’t make a big enough impact to be drafted in the top 10, but Quenton Nelson‘s arrival in the NFL broke those rules. Nelson was such an elite prospect that the Indianapolis Colts selected him No. 6 overall. And for the first three years of his career, he was the single most valuable offensive lineman in the game — not just guard, offensive lineman — according to PFF WAR.
Nelson wasn’t just an excellent prospect, but there was virtually no disagreement about his quality. Whether you relied on stats, tape, old-school cliches or anything else in between, you loved Nelson and expected him to be not just good, but elite at the NFL level.
Robinson is arguably the same thing at the running back position. He is the best back to enter the league in years. How far back you go exactly is up for debate, but from a PFF perspective, he is the best prospect to enter the league since PFF started grading college football in 2014. That puts him above the likes of Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley II, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey. That’s not to say he’s better than each of those players in every area, but his overall profile exceeds them all.
It has been argued that he is the best running back prospect to enter the league since Adrian Peterson (2007), which starts to qualify for the heavily overused descriptor “generational talent.”
Robinson broke 104 tackles last season at Texas, the most PFF has recorded in a single season. His broken tackle rate is elite and his 96.1 rushing grade are the best of any back to enter the league since PFF has been grading college football.
He has an ease of movement that can be deceiving sometimes — often appearing like he isn’t actually doing much but just consistently making move after move to maximize yardage on any given play.
Robinson’s talent within a Falcons offense that is already dominating on the ground has exciting potential. When I wrote pre-draft about how high Robinson should be drafted, one of the key questions any team needed to answer before pulling the trigger was whether they needed him to fix their run game or just add value to one that was already working well. Atlanta’s run game was already cooking last season with a limited threat from the passing game, so Robinson can just add value to the mix without needing to fix fundamental problems.
Without Marcus Mariota this year, the offense will need to evolve, either by involving Desmond Ridder more in the designed run game in a way we saw precious little of during his rookie playing time or by improving the pass game efficiency to take pressure off that rushing attack.
Whether the Falcons end up winning more games this season will come down to how viable Ridder is at quarterback is, not the rushing attack. But adding Bijan to a backfield that was already productive has justifiably catapulted him to the front of the Offensive Rookie of the Year odds and should produce some serious fireworks.