When the Atlanta Falcons made former Texas running back Bijan Robinson the No. 8 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, they immediately rationalized the selection by declaring that Robinson is not just a running back. They said he's also a receiving weapon, and that they plan to use him that way.
According to Robinson himself, Falcons head coach Arthur Smith is moving him around during rookie minicamp, utilizing him in a bunch of different roles.
"He uses me everywhere, from receiver to running back," Robinson said, per 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."
Robinson was considered the best and most complete running back prospect not just in this year's class, but arguably since Saquon Barkley. His versatility is part of his appeal, and the idea of using him not just as a running back, but also in the slot or even out wide, is an enticing one.
However, as we wrote, while teams say all the time that they want to use one running back or another this way, they rarely follow through on the talk:
Anyway, the idea is that Robinson and [Jahmyr] Gibbs are so versatile and so explosive that you don't have to just play them in the backfield and hand them the ball. You can throw them the ball, and you can line them up anywhere -- including in the slot or even out wide. The issue there is, well, that is just not really a thing that happens.
For example, according to Pro Football Focus, Robinson lined up slot or wide on just 32 snaps last season at Texas. That's 2.7 snaps per game. Gibbs lined up there considerably more often, but even he did it on just 90 occasions, or 7.5 snaps per game. You might think their NFL teams will utilize them in that fashion considerably more often, but the Falcons and Lions would have to dramatically scale up the usage of running backs in locations outside the backfield from where it has been in recent NFL history.
Since 2017, just three times has a running back lined up in the slot or out wide for at least 10 snaps per game: Christian McCaffrey in 2017, Tarik Cohen in 2019, and J.D. McKissic in 2020. That's it. Cohen and McKissic were part-time players whose roles were near-exclusively about receiving, while that 2017 McCaffrey season was his rookie year, before he became Carolina's full-time starter at running back. Even last season, with McCaffrey playing under position-less football aficionado Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, he totaled just 108 slot or wide snaps in 17 games (6.4 per game), and that figure led all running backs league-wide.
Unless the Falcons, Smith, and Robinson are going to dramatically change the way running backs are used, it's likely that Robinson will spend nearly all of his time lining up in the backfield. And that makes sense, because he is a running back. But if that reality comes to pass, it will mean part of the rationale the Falcons used to select him in the top 10 will have been faulty.