National Football League
The next Christian McCaffrey? Bijan Robinson eyes breakout with Falcons
National Football League

The next Christian McCaffrey? Bijan Robinson eyes breakout with Falcons

Published Jun. 19, 2024 12:42 p.m. ET

Two quotes from the Falcons' offseason workouts have fans — both in Atlanta and all over fantasy football — excited about the potential of an even larger role for running back Bijan Robinson in his second NFL season.

"I don't know what the plan is," Robinson said during the final week of OTA workouts. "But it's like run first, like I did in college ... but still having that access to do creative things out of the backfield, more so like how they use Christian [McCaffrey] down there in San Francisco, something like that. So that's kind of what the plan is here."

If that didn't do the trick, consider what new coach Raheem Morris said as mandatory minicamp closed last week when asked how he'll fine-tune Robinson's role in a new offense this fall.

"In the simplest form that you can make it, it's get the ball to Bijan as much as you can, in as many ideal situations that you possibly can," Morris said. "For him, he's so talented, you don't want to limit the things he can do. But you also don't want to water it down so much that he's not doing anything that he can do great. When you get the ball in his hands, he makes people miss. He gets extra yards. He breaks tackles. He's fast. He's explosive. He's strong."


That wasn't necessarily the message the Falcons gave Robinson in his rookie year. He rushed for 976 yards and four touchdowns, caught another 58 passes for 487 yards and four more scores, but he wasn't the dominant force many expected when Atlanta took him with the eighth overall pick out of Texas.

Robinson ranked eighth in the league in yards per carry, but just 19th in carries and tied for 25th in touchdowns. Coach Arthur Smith tended to use him less as the Falcons got closer to the goal line: Robinson ranked 12th in the NFL in total touches as a rookie, but just 32nd in red-zone touches, behind teammate Tyler Allgeier.

That's not to say Robinson wasn't heavily involved in the passing game. Only five backs — the Saints' Alvin Kamara, the Jets' Breece Hall, McCaffrey, the Bucs' Rachaad White and the Steelers' Jaylen Warren — caught more passes. The only backs in the entire league with more touches and more yards per touch were McCaffrey and Warren.

Robinson piled up those numbers while working in an offense that didn't threaten much through the air. Atlanta's passing game should be much improved with Kirk Cousins' arrival, though the veteran quarterback has never had a prolific pass-catching back like Robinson. In 12 NFL seasons, Cousins has had a 50-catch back just once — Dalvin Cook had 53 catches with the Vikings in 2019. If the Falcons turn at some point to rookie QB Michael Penix Jr., he never had so much as a 30-catch season from a running back in six years of college football.

Much the same way, new Falcons offensive coordinator Zac Robinson hasn't been in an NFL offense featuring pass-catching backs at all. In the past five years as a Rams assistant, Los Angeles didn't have any backs with more than 32 catches in a season. That's not to say the Falcons can't throw more to a talented back like Robinson, just that they and their new OC haven't done it much before.

It's not often that running backs are drafted as high as Robinson was, so there's a natural excitement to his overall potential. As a rookie, Robinson's ADP (average draft position) in fantasy football drafts was eighth overall, and he's even higher this year. ESPN's preseason tip sheet has him third overall, and his ADP in Yahoo leagues is sixth this year, seventh in consensus rankings.

Robinson's dual-threat debut came despite him being relatively new at catching passes at a high volume. He had 58 catches as an NFL rookie, after totaling 60 catches in three full seasons at Texas. In overall usage, he had more touches (277) in 12 games in 2022 with the Longhorns than he did in essentially 16 games as a rookie in Atlanta (272). 

Falcons RB Bijan Robinson "excited" for the Raheem Morris regime

A second-year breakout for Robinson would be much in line with McCaffrey, who was used less as a rookie. In his sophomore season with the Panthers, McCaffrey jumped from 117 carries as a rookie to 219, from 80 catches to 107, from seven total touchdowns to 13 in his second year. So there's certainly still room for growth for Robinson, even after an impressive debut.

"He can do so many things, you can get overwhelmed sometimes maybe as a playcaller, even as a designer," Morris said. "But for him, I think he enjoys the whole process. I think he compared himself to that Christian McCaffrey role. And if we can get anywhere near the great player that Christian McCaffrey is, I think we'll all be pretty excited."

Greg Auman is FOX Sports' NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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