It's tough to be a running back in the NFL these days. Most teams have decided that they don't value the position the same way they used to. Josh Jacobs just led the league in rushing yards, but the Raiders don't want to give him a long-term contract. Saquon Barkley is the Giants' best player, and he's also looking to get paid but got slapped with the franchise tag.
Austin Ekeler had to basically beg the Chargers for a revised contract that adds just $1.75 million in incentives this season. J.K. Dobbins, who is in the final year of his rookie deal, is now frustrated about his contract situation. And former stars like Dalvin Cook, Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette are all looking for jobs in mid-June because their former teams deemed them too expensive.
It makes you wonder why any young football player with the ambition to play in the NFL would want to be a running back. But then we come across the rare team or two that still values the position, that still believes that running backs matter. And the Falcons are one of those franchises.
Atlanta didn't need a running back in the NFL Draft this season. Tyler Allgeier just ran for 1,000 yards as a rookie in 2022, and he averaged 107.8 yards per game over the final four outings of the season. And the team had Cordarrelle Patterson, who had over 1,000 total yards in 2021.
But when the Falcons were on the clock with the No. 8 overall pick in the first round, they called Bijan Robinson's name. The team realized the running back from Texas is a star. They realized this running back can be a difference maker. Atlanta coach Arthur Smith wanted this running back on his team.
"He's a dynamic football player," Smith said in an interview with CBS Sports. "He's got a unique skill set. You need a guy that can put the ball in the end zone. You can't have enough guys like that. ... He can do some things for us."
I asked Smith what those "things" are, and he said, "We'll let Carolina find out." The Falcons play the Panthers in Week 1.
By the time we get to that Week 1 matchup, the hype for Robinson might be out of control when it comes to Fantasy managers. His FantasyPros Average Draft Position in June is already No. 10 overall as the No. 3 running back behind Christian McCaffrey and Ekeler. He's my No. 6 overall player in PPR and No. 2 in non-PPR leagues.
At that draft price, a rookie needs to have a shot at making history in his first year. Will Robinson take his place among the best rookie running backs ever?
Robinson's do-it-all profile
We haven't had a running back prospect like this since Barkley came into the NFL in 2018 when the Giants made him the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Robinson finished his time at Texas with the fourth-most rushing yards (3,410) in program history and avoided a whopping 113 tackles last season. That's the most tackles avoided by any FBS player over the past five years.
He also has the ability to be a dynamic receiver. Texas coach Steve Sarkisian told NBC Sports prior to the NFL Draft that Robinson could be a legitimate slot receiver in the NFL. Robinson finished his collegiate career with 60 catches for 805 yards and eight touchdowns, and he averaged 16.5 yards per reception in 2022.
"I probably made a couple of receivers on our team mad last season," Sarkisian said, "but he had the best hands on our team."
Smith said Robinson is "multi-faceted," and he wants to see how Robinson's game can "expand" in the NFL. We've already seen reports that Robinson has been working with the receivers in Atlanta during individual drills in the June minicamp.
And it started right after the Falcons drafted Robinson. In May, Robinson said Smith's plan was to utilize him in a bunch of different roles.
"He uses me everywhere, from receiver to running back," Robinson said, via ESPN. "He lets me do my abilities and skill set the right way, whether it's catching the ball, running routes, obviously running the football, blocking and doing it all."
But is Smith going to let Robinson do it all? Smith was the offensive coordinator in Tennessee with Derrick Henry from 2019-20. And in 2020, Henry had one of the best seasons ever for a running back with 378 carries for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns, along with 19 catches for 114 yards on 31 targets.
Smith made it clear that he won't ask Robinson to be Henry.
"There's one Derrick Henry," Smith said. "He's damn near superhuman. I'll never ask another player to do what Derrick Henry did for us in 2020."
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Atlanta's other RB options
Smith said that he wants a balanced rushing attack and that Allgeier and Patterson will still get opportunities to touch the ball even after the team invested heavily in Robinson. That's good news for Allgeier and even Patterson as Fantasy assets.
Allgeier, who is the first 1,000-yard rusher for the Falcons since 2016, so far is saying all the right things about the addition of Robinson.
"I think the guys upstairs do things for a reason," Allgeier told the Atlanta media in May. "It's just competition. That's the name of this game. I'm excited for him to come in, and it should be fun."
Allgeier is still worth drafting with a late-round pick in all leagues, and he's the handcuff for Robinson. As we saw last season, especially down the stretch, Allgeier could be a No. 2 running back if Robinson were to miss any time.
For Patterson, it could be a little tougher to produce if everyone is healthy. At 32, he should take a backseat to Robinson and Allgeier as a running back, but Smith said Patterson will still have a versatile role on offense. The former receiver has been a solid player for Atlanta and Fantasy managers when healthy over the last two seasons, totaling 1,313 rushing yards, 670 receiving yards and 19 total touchdowns in 29 games.
He told the Atlanta media in June that he's just happy to contribute at this point in his career and doesn't need to be a star.
"I'm in Year 11 right now," Patterson said. "I wish I could play the rest of my life, but I can't. The ceiling's closing on me, so I'm all in."
Patterson, like Allgeier, is also saying all the right things about the addition of Robinson.
"He's not nervous," Patterson said. "He has adapted well and has learned the playbook so quick. ... He's out there everywhere. There's not one spot he can't play on this field. I'm excited to see that man do what he's supposed to do."
The good news is there's room for everyone to be involved in this backfield. The Falcons led the NFL in rush attempts in 2022 with 559, with 454 of those carries going to the running backs. Allgeier led the way with 210, followed by Patterson (144), Caleb Huntley (76), Avery Williams (22) and Damien Williams (two).
This is a great system for running backs, and Atlanta has an underrated offensive line, which is led by All-Pro right guard Chris Lindstrom, left tackle Jake Matthews and right tackle Kaleb McGary. Drew Dalman is a serviceable center, and the Falcons are hoping rookie Matthew Bergeron is an upgrade at left guard. Pro Football Focus ranked Atlanta's offensive line seventh-best in the NFL this season.
Robinson couldn't have landed in a better place. However, Smith expects Robinson to have some "growing pains" during his rookie campaign.
"That's why they're called rookies," Smith said.
History in the making?
But some rookie running backs have given us historic performances, and Robinson could be next in line. While I believe Smith that Allgeier and Patterson will each have a role this season, Robinson should make it hard to take him off the field.
And by the time the season is over, we might be talking about Robinson the same way we did Barkley in 2018 and Eric Dickerson in 1983. Those are the two best Fantasy seasons for a rookie running back in NFL history.
Barkley had the best PPR rookie season ever for a running back when he had 261 carries for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns, along with 91 catches for 721 yards and four touchdowns on 121 targets. He was amazing that season for the Giants and Fantasy managers, and he finished second only to McCaffrey as the best non-quarterback (388.5 PPR points to 385.8)
I spoke to Barkley at the Pro Bowl after that season, and he said, "it's crazy to have the impact that I had as a rookie."
Dickerson's performance in 1983 for the Rams was the second-best PPR season ever for a rookie with 379.2 points, but he was No. 1 in non-PPR with 328.2 points. His production that year was one of the best ever for a running back, rookie or not.
Dickerson still holds the rookie record for rushing yards (1,808), rushing touchdowns (18) and rush attempts (390). He also added 51 catches, 404 yards and two receiving touchdowns. He led the NFL in rushing yards as a rookie, which is something the Hall of Famer did four times in his 11-year career.
For NFL fans who remember watching Dickerson play, that rookie season was special. He spoke about it on the Behind The Mask Podcast in 2022.
"That record is going to be hard to break because it's hard for a team to build an offense around a rookie," Dickerson said.
Based on what Smith has said, Dickerson is probably right about his rookie rushing record. But that doesn't mean Robinson can't be a huge success in his rookie campaign. It will come down to how much Smith wants to use Robinson compared to Allgeier and Patterson. And potentially what happens in the passing game.
More mouths to feed
Let's not forget, the Falcons have two other young stars in Drake London and Kyle Pitts. Both have the chance to be special in Fantasy and reality. But Desmond Ridder comes into his second NFL season with just four starts under his belt, and hopefully, all these assets can flourish with him under center. Smith is excited to see what Ridder can do.
"He made significant improvement in each start," Smith said. "We expect him to make another leap. There's always little things you can work on. ... We expect significant growth from him."
Ridder is only worth drafting in Superflex and two-quarterback leagues with a late-round pick. But London and Pitts, like Robinson, have the chance to be awesome.
London had a solid rookie campaign in 2022 with 72 catches for 866 yards and four touchdowns on 117 targets. In his final four starts with Ridder, London averaged 13.3 PPR points per game with 36 targets for 25 catches and 333 yards. He didn't score a touchdown, but nine targets per game with Ridder were exceptional. Only 10 receivers in 2022 averaged at least nine targets per game.
"Drake is not a self-promoter," Smith said. "He had a great year. He contributes in the run game. He's super competitive. I love his worth ethic."
I plan to draft London as early as Round 5 in the majority of leagues. And we'll see if London can produce at a high level with Pitts on the field. He missed the final six games of the season with a knee injury, which has lingered into this offseason. Pitts was also out for minicamp in June, but Smith said he's trending in a positive direction with regard to training camp.
Pitts had just 28 catches for 356 yards and two touchdowns on 59 targets through 10 games last year, but we know he's capable of more. As a rookie in 2021, he became just the second tight end in NFL history with 1,000 receiving yards (1,026), joining Mike Ditka in 1961.
"Kyle proved what he can do in his rookie year," Smith said. "He's just scratching the surface of what he can do as a player."
As long as he's healthy for training camp, Pitts is worth drafting as a top-five tight end as early as Round 5 in all leagues. Hopefully, this is his breakout season in 2023. He could be a tremendous difference-maker at tight end.
There's a lot of talent in Atlanta with Robinson, London and Pitts, and they all have the chance to be standout Fantasy options. But Robinson is the one with the most upside. He's the one Fantasy managers are going to target first, and he's going to be a first-round pick in all leagues.
The NFL might not value running backs the same way anymore, but Fantasy managers still rely on the position in a major way. We love star running backs, especially ones like Robinson who can handle a heavy workload and work in the passing game. He landed in the right spot with the Falcons. And hopefully he can be historic in his rookie campaign.
This article appears in the CBS Sports/Beckett Sports 2023 Fantasy Football Magazine. Pick up your copy at newsstands in mid-August.