FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Bijan Robinson knows all about Atlanta Falcons coach Arthur Smith's commitment to a strong running game, including his history with Derrick Henry at Tennessee.
That history has Robinson excited about his opportunity to thrive in that run-first attack.
The Falcons took an offensive skill position player in the first round for the third consecutive year by selecting running back Robinson with the eighth overall pick of the NFL draft on Thursday night.
Robinson was regarded as the top running back in the draft after rushing for 1,580 yards with 18 touchdowns for Texas last season. Robinson, clocked at 4.46 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine, provides power and speed to a Falcons offense that has emphasized the running game under Smith.
The Falcons’ leadership team of general manager Terry Fontenot and Smith also emphasized skill positions on offense in the first rounds of the past two drafts. Tight end Kyle Pitts was the No. 4 overall pick in 2021, and wide receiver Drake London was the 2022 first-round pick, when Atlanta also had the No. 8 pick.
The selection of a running back, even one regarded as highly as Robinson, is considered controversial in an era many teams wait much later in the draft to address the position.
“Obviously I understand the running back position has been looked at as a less-than position, but for me it’s a blessing,” Robinson said, adding he considers himself to be more than a one-position player.
“Being a guy that can play running back, play receiver, being versatile," Robinson said, adding he worked as a slot receiver at Texas.
“It’s an opportunity to do the same thing,” he said.
As the offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans, Smith utilized Henry in another offense that emphasized the running game. That history is intriguing to Robinson, who is eager to find his role in Atlanta's running game. The Falcons ranked third in the NFL in rushing in 2022.
“It’s great and obviously I’ll love to be a part of that, especially because he had guys like Derrick Henry and now that it’s here it’s going to be pretty cool to see how he uses me in this offense,” Robinson said.
Fontenot said this week the Falcons would not rule out guard or running back at the No. 8 spot, even if those positions are not popular so high in the draft.
“You look offensively, what are the premium positions?” Fontenot said. "You say tackle and quarterback. You can stack those above other positions, but when we’re going through the process and looking at everything, it’s important to look at the makeup and look at the players and we’re thinking about the total team. We’re trying to make the team better.”
Robinson was a popular pick with NBA star Kevin Durant of the Phoenix Suns, another former college star at Texas. Durant posted on his Twitter account Robinson is “One of the greatest I’ve ever seen put on that burnt orange. @AtlantaFalcons got a star!! Let’s go.”
Robinson said he and Durant “chop it up” as friends.
“I respect him a lot,” Robinson said. “Kevin, that dude is the most solid it gets. We both represent Texas the best we can. I just respect him to the highest.”
The Falcons, who have focused on defense this offseason, bypassed defensive tackle Jalen Carter of the University of Georgia and instead chose Robinson.
The draft follows a busy offseason for Atlanta, which took advantage of its long-awaited ability to be active in free agency after finally emerging from years of salary cap woes.
Looking to end a streak of five consecutive losing seasons, including 7-10 finishes the past two seasons, the Falcons committed at least $179.8 million in guaranteed money to players signed or re-signed thus far this offseason.
Robinson will join 2022 rookie Tyler Allgeier and veteran Cordarrelle Patterson as Atlanta's top running backs.
Robinson's potential as an explosive runner and receiver out of the backfield should be a boost for quarterback Desmond Ridder, a third-round pick from Cincinnati last year. Ridder was 2-2 as the starter in the final four games last season and is expected to open 2023 as the starter. Veteran Taylor Heinicke, who signed a two-year deal as a free agent this offseason, says his role is to be Ridder’s backup.
The free-agent emphasis has been to boosting the defense. The Falcons are looking for immediate help from newcomers including safety Jessie Bates, defensive tackle David Onyemata, outside linebackers Kaden Elliss and Bud Dupree and defensive end Calais Campbell.
Atlanta also signed cornerback Mike Hughes, but cut Casey Hayward, leaving room for the position to be addressed in the draft.