FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Bijan Robinson is all of a week into his first NFL training camp. He knows better than anyone he’s got an awful lot to learn.
Yet, before he ever takes a handoff for the Atlanta Falcons, Robinson recognizes that he’s in a unique position to help carve a new, more profitable path for the league’s most beleaguered position.
“If you can do a lot of things, a lot of different things for your team, then you can maximize yourself to the best of you ability,” Robinson said.
He’s already given a tantalizing glimpse of that versatility in his first few practices with the Falcons.
In addition to lining up as a traditional running back, Robinson has taken snaps out of the slot, shifted outside like a wide receiver, and dropped back to work on punt returns.
In an early bit of brilliance, he thrilled win-starved Falcons fans by putting an ankle-breaking move on linebacker Troy Anderson — darting one way, then the other to leave the defender hopelessly behind — and then hauled in the slightly overthrown pass with a juggling, one-handed grab.
“Pretty damn pleased with Bijan so far,” Atlanta coach Arthur Smith said.
The Falcons have a lot riding on Robinson — and, really, all running backs do.
In recent years, the once-glamorous position has come to be viewed as a spot where you can draft a solid player in the lower rounds, work them hard until it’s their time to get paid, then move on to a fresher body who won’t gobble up a lot of the salary cap.
The issue has taken on such significance that a group of prominent running backs — including Derrick Henry, Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Christian McCaffrey, Nick Chubb and Austin Ekeler — recently held a Zoom call to commiserate over what might be done to improve their value in a pass-happy league.
Now, along comes Robinson, who the Falcons are counting on to defy the perception that running back is a one-dimensional role that takes a punishing toll on the underpaid guys who play it.
Atlanta went against the grain by using the No. 8 pick on Robinson, the highest a running back has been drafted since Barkley went second overall to the New York Giants in 2018.
Smith doesn’t want to get into what other teams might be thinking, but he makes it clear that the Falcons place a high value on runners who can do more than just take a handoff. Robinson, who played collegiately at Texas, joins another similarly skilled player on the Atlanta roster, Cordarrelle Patterson.
“You go back to how some people operate and the way they have fixed charts, which kind of makes sports go round,” Smith said. “There is no rule that says ‘You don’t have your own internal value on people and the impact they have on a game.’ The way we use him, I think, is different than most.”
Robinson could be the most important player yet in the Falcons’ lengthy rebuilding process, which already included the drafting of tight end Kyle Pitts and wide receiver Drake London with top picks the past two years.
Those three players are being counted on to take the load off Desmond Ridder, who is going into his first full season as the No. 1 quarterback. There are plenty of doubts about whether Ridder — a third-round pick who has played just four NFL games — is capable of handling such a prominent role.
Robinson and Ridder are rooming together at training camp, giving both a chance to pick each other’s brains and enhance their growth.
“Me and Des, we’ll always do our own thing after practice,” Robinson said. “We’re always studying and always trying to get the edge on something. He’s always telling me how I can make something better on the field or a new way to do something. He’s been such a big help for me.”
After five straight losing seasons, the Falcons feel they’re on the verge of a major turnaround.
Much of that talk centers around Robinson’s dazzling play in the first few practices.
“We love Bijan back there,” receiver Frank Darby said. “The receiver room, we are like, ‘Let’s get these holes open so Bijan can do what he’s going to do.’ The way he’s running, the way he’s performing, man, listen, it’s going to get scary.”
Robinson’s impact could extend far beyond a single team. He might change the direction of an entire league.
While he knows it’s far too soon to start boasting about his ability to make the running back position cool again, Robinson wouldn’t mind helping all those players who’ll be coming along behind him in the seasons to come.
He also makes it clear what he considers himself to be, above all else.
“I’m a running back, man,” Robinson said. “Obviously, I do a lot of different things that maybe a lot of running backs are starting to do. I’m a player that loves to give an opportunity to my offense — whether it be lining up out wide or lining up in the slot. I’m just trying to give our offense another opportunity to maximize ourselves.”
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