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The Atlanta Falcons have stepped into the ring
This isn't how teams are supposed to build but the Falcons don't care. Now, with Bijan Robinson, they’ll make their move in the NFC.
At first glance, there’s nothing abnormal about this sight. All teams stage this press conference and, typically, it’s peak performance art.
Both head coach and general manager are required to resemble 7-year-old kids on Christmas morning because, hallelujah, the board fell perfectly! Obviously, such optimism is often hogwash and — away from the cameras — there are coaches and GMs fuming about the prospect that got away. But when the two men running the Atlanta Falcons addressed the local media after selecting running back Bijan Robinson in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft, neither seemed artificially giddy.
Most importantly, neither GM Terry Fontenot or head coach Arthur Smith want to be like the other 31 clubs. No NFL team is allowed to take a tight end fourth overall, like they did in 2021. No NFL team should ever take a running back eighth.
“Are you saying we’re disruptors?” Smith asked a reporter when this regime’s unconventional ways was broached. “When you answer those, it’s like you’re trying to pat yourself on the back like we’ve done something. We have our beliefs in the way we operate. But that’s with a lot of moves. Look at the other moves we’ve made — not just in the draft — when you’re trying to find value. I think we’ve tried to be creative. There are certain things we’re trying to work around to give us a chance to win and to build the right culture around here. I think about this business, there’s so much paranoia and insecurity and people want to crowdsource and go with groupthink to be safe, so they feel good right now.
“Hey, we’ll see. We’ll find out. But we feel pretty damn good about where we’re at.”
Quickly, Fontenot chimed in.
“We really believe in our staff, whether we’re talking about the front office or the coaches. We believe in our building. We believe in our process. So, when we take players off the board, we love those players. We have a lot of conviction about the players and the people we’re bringing in the building.
“You have to block out the noise and not care if it’s conventional or what different people say you should or shouldn’t do.”
All music to the ears.
Being bold, different, brave. This psychology is the first step toward any team in any sport building a program that lasts. Hell, take it further. Anyone trying to innovate — a musician, a comedian, an artist, an architect — must push boundaries. The herding sheep who refuse to stray from convention are destined to toil in mediocrity. Those are the GMs merely trying to stay employed, trying to keep their owners happy the stadium’s mostly full. Nothing the Falcons are doing right now is the norm and that’s exactly why they’re now in position to win the NFC South this season and contend for a championship sooner than anyone thinks.
After quietly piecing together the best free-agent class in the NFL, Atlanta has now added the best prospect in the NFL draft.
April 27, 2023 may be a dark day for YouTube-grinding, self-appointed draftniks caressing their analytic formulas but it’ll go down as the day the Falcons asserted themselves as a force.
Texas’ Bijan Robinson is that talented. He was just drafted by the perfect team.
A team with a plan.
This regime has now gone its first three drafts without selecting a quarterback in the first round.
Unheard of in the modern NFL. If any GM wants to get hired, he better map out a detailed Quarterback Savior Battle Plan to his owner.
Instead, Fontenot and Smith built a core of playmakers: Tight end Kyle Pitts (No. 4 overall), wide receiver Drake London (No. 8) and, now, Robinson. They’ve also got a 1,000-yard back returning (Tyler Allgeier) and an all-time versatile weapon in Cordarrelle Patterson. Smith, one of the best play designers in the sport, can now disguise and deceive and keep defenses guessing before the ball’s snapped… with the virtuoso Robinson central to it all.
There are NFL scouts who view the 5-foot-10, 215-pounder not only as the best player in the draft, but a talent on par with Hall of Fame running back Edgerrin James. (Had a fun chat with “Edge” in our early days at Go Long, icymi.) Robinson also drew comps to Christian McCaffrey and (Peak) Le’Veon Bell because appreciating the best of this prospect doesn’t require one to carefully splice together a six-minute highlight reel. Literally watch any game, any play. At Texas, he rushed 539 times for 3,410 yards (6.3 avg.) with 33 touchdowns, while also catching 60 balls with eight scores. He’ll line up in the slot and chew up defenses as a receiver underneath. Expect a dynamic screen game and seams and wheel routes. Robinson immediately joins the extremely short list of offensive players who can kill a defense from any square inch of the field.
Whether or not a running back deserves $15 million per year is a debate for 2027 and 2028. Who cares right now? Bare minimum, you’re getting a freak in his athletic prime for five seasons. Six with a franchise tag. Adding a talent like Robinson on a cost-controlled rookie deal is actually one of the smartest financial investments a team could make.
Give me this over Georgia’s Jalen Carter every time.
Atlanta will now make its move.
“Bijan is more than a running back,” Smith said. “He’s an impact football player. He’s a home-run hitter.”
The criticism is obvious. It’s true: the Kansas City Chiefs did just win a Super Bowl with a seventh-round pick (Isiah Pacheco). It’s also true that Chiefs are quarterbacked by the best player on the planet. The Falcons unfortunately cannot mosey into Target and buy themselves their own Patrick Mahomes off the shelf. No team can. The New England Patriots loved treating running backs like DVDs in the KMart bin… the Patriots also had the greatest player in the sport’s history at QB.
Also, true: The last time a rookie running back entered the NFL in this high-esteem, the pick backfired. Saquon Barkley, the No. 2 pick, has mostly been what everyone expected and everyone still got fired. This skeptic would point out that any sub-.500 team choosing a running back in the Top 10 is foolishly making a luxury pick. Essentially building a beautiful garden around a home that’s collapsing. But these 2023 Falcons are nothing like those 2017 Giants, a franchise that proceeded to nosedive. GM Dave Gettleman was a disaster.
Conversely, Atlanta put itself in position to make a luxury pick. Each transaction through the months of March and April was calculated.
First, they looked within. They made the most dominant guard in the NFL last season the richest guard, re-signing Chris Lindstrom to a five-year, $105 million deal ($63M guaranteed). A lot of dough. I shuddered at those numbers initially, too. But you’re not tying up money in a volatile asset — you know you’re getting 1,000+ badass snaps at a position of value to you. The Falcons want to bludgeon defenses. That requires a hammer up front. Lindstrom was PFF’s highest-graded player regardless of position in 2022. Continuity matters, so the Falcons also re-signed the tackle right next to Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary, to a three-year, $34.5 million deal.
On to unrestricted free agency, all teams that can spend should spend. It paid off for Cincinnati in 2021, then Jacksonville in 2022, even as most pundits laughed. The key is obviously hitting the bull’s eye. Finding pros who’ll a.) perform; b.) stay hungry as the checks cash; c.) cultivate the right atmosphere. Like all those players those two teams signed (Trey Hendrickson, Mike Hilton, Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, Foye Oluokun, etc.), these new vets in Atlanta should check every box.
Jessie Bates (four years, $64M) is one of the best safeties in the sport, and just had a front-row seat to one of the best culture changes we’ve seen in the NFL. The Falcons stole defensive tackle David Onyemata (three years, $35M) and weakside linebacker Kaden Elliss (three years, $21.5M) from the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South. Win-wins. Taylor Heinicke, Scotty Miller, Mack Hollins, Bud Dupree and Mike Hughes were all cheap, smart signings. And I know they’re paying him $7 million for his services in 2023, but the fact that Calais Campbell had several suitors and chose Atlanta was a message. Even at 36 years old, he’s capable of eliminating his half of the line of scrimmage at 6-8, 300. As Lions head man Dan Campbell said at the owners meetings: “Oh, my gosh. I just keep watching (tape). … He’s just a force to be reckoned with. You put him in a closed end, you’re not running over there. He can rush as a 3-technique, still, on third down.”
Ninety-nine percent of Hall of Fame candidates in Campbell’s shoes go ring-chasing. He could’ve signed with Buffalo, Jacksonville, the New York Jets or stayed in Baltimore yet chose the Falcons. Money wasn’t the lone factor. Not only are they allowing Campbell to rush the passer more in their scheme but, as reported, the free agent defensive end sat down with Arthur Smith, Terry Fontenot and offensive coordinator Dave Ragone to watch film of quarterback Desmond Ridder. He liked what he saw.
The quarterback started four games as a rookie. Won two, lost two. Nobody on the outside has a clue if Ridder is the long-term answer. But if Campbell’s buying in? I think we should, too. Don’t forget that he’s a weathered 15-year veteran who’s been around every type of quarterback through his 15 years. The good, bad and ugly. From Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer in Arizona to Blake Bortles and Gardner Minshew in Jacksonville to Lamar Jackson and Tyler Huntley in Baltimore.
Obviously, Ridder is the critical variable in Atlanta’s offseason equation. The Falcons were one of the teams making it known they didn’t want Jackson, instead signing Heinicke as a backup.
Very rarely does any team so emphatically get behind a 74th overall pick at QB. Seattle (Russell Wilson) and Dallas (Dak Prescott) wasted no time believing in mid-round guys. But in a weak 2022 quarterback class, Ridder still managed to fall. The Falcons even backed into this pick, drafting three other players before the Cincinnati Bearcat. But it’s also true that Fontenot and Smith know Ridder better than anyone after seeing him in their building for a full season.
They easily could’ve mortgaged draft capital to make a play for Young, for Stroud, for Richardson.
Instead, this is Desmond Ridder’s show and they want everyone to know it. GM and coach wouldn’t put their careers on the line for this quarterback if they didn’t see real reasons for optimism. Year 3 is typically do-or-die for any regime.
And the truth is, Ridder doesn’t need to be a 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown star this season.
The Falcons aren’t asking him to be 2021 Burrow or 2022 Lawrence on the heels of their own offseason spending. They’re following Philly’s lead. Detroit’s lead. They’re trying to build a powerhouse rushing attack. Why should teams be in such a panic to chase superstar quarterbacks when only four or five even exist? As our pal Chris Simms put so perfectly, “Build a f--king team!” Atlanta wasn’t foolishly one-click-purchasing free agents for the hell of it, either. All of these new faces fit. They decided on an identity and continue to lean hard into that identity.
Countless teams struggle with this concept. Good teams that even find one of those five quarterbacks. Rather than lean into the shootout, they clam up in the playoffs.
Other teams haphazardly overvalue a C-minus quarterback and fail to adequately build an offensive line to even give that quarterback a chance.
The Falcons, however, have been in lockstep. More teams should dare to enter this realm of team-building, one that took the Philadelphia Eagles within one play of a Super Bowl title. Nick Sirianni didn’t unleash Hurts as a passer until the QB’s third season and — even then — this remains a juggernaut that’d prefer to batter its opponents up front. They ran for 2,509 yards and 32 scores last season. Everything started on the line with Jeff Stoutland’s machine of a run game. How else to explain the “Tush Push” on fourth and short? Everyone in the stadium knows Hurts is going to sneak and the Eagles still rugby-scrummed their way to a first down 36 of 40 times.
Watch an Eagles game and it’s as if all 11 offensive players are playing downhill.
Everything started to click for Hurts as a passer in 2022 and, only then, did GM Howie Roseman decide to give him a five-year, $255M contract.
The Lions felt no rush to draft a singular savior at quarterback. Three years in, Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes are in a legitimate position to contend with Jared Goff, a quarterback left for dead. We probably shouldn’t be surprised that they drafted a running back in the first round, too.
To win it all, sure, every team needs something special at quarterback. But quarterbacks can be developed, as Hurts proved. In the meantime, build a team and make zero apologies. The Falcons could’ve taken a defensive player at No. 8, but they would’ve undoubtedly lost sleep with regret.
Bijan Robinson is a franchise-changer, and they know it.
Go ahead and roll your eyes when Smith dissects the run game if you want. He doesn’t care. As he explained, both Allgeier and Robinson are “yards after contact” players, yet they’re completely different in how they break those tackles. He said you’ve got to go beyond advanced metrics. He called Allgeier a “sledgehammer” who wears you down at the line of scrimmage, whereas Robinson relies on “contact balance.” Defenders pinball off him.
A team running to glory 40 times a game may sound archaic when, honestly, it can be innovative.
What Atlanta is attempting here completely cuts against the grain, but it can work.
As the head coach said: “We’ll see.”
Tony Gonzalez’s time in Atlanta was wilder than you think. You can read that excerpt from “The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football,” at Sports Illustrated here.