Four takeaways from the Atlanta Falcons' offseason program

The Atlanta Falcons are likely to use Bijan Robinson, the No. 8 pick in this year's draft, as more than just a running back. Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The spring mattered for the Atlanta Falcons, but they treat spring workouts as intended -- voluntary -- and what will really matter will start to take shape in the summer.

“You’re going to make the team by how you perform in August,” coach Arthur Smith said. “There’s life that happens outside of this building.”

For some, like veterans Calais Campbell and Cordarrelle Patterson, the spring meant sticking to personalized plans successful enough to keep them in the league longer than a decade. For others, it is rehabilitation from injury or a family trip planned before they signed with Atlanta.

What happened in April, May and June on the field for the Falcons won’t lock a person onto the roster, but it could help put them in position to do so once training camp begins in late July.

With those things in mind, here are some nuggets from the offseason program.

Bijan Robinson is going to be way more than a running back

When Atlanta drafted Robinson in April, Smith said they didn’t view him as just a running back. Through his first six weeks with the Falcons, that became evident. Robinson lined up everywhere in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills in the non-padded, non-contact workouts.

Smith, the third-year Falcons coach is not one to waste time with diversionary tactics, so Robinson’s versatility as a runner, receiver and, potentially, a punt returner matches Smith’s pre-draft observations.

Robinson is part of a versatile skill position group of backs, receivers and tight ends where almost every player on the offense can line up in multiple positions.

“It’s how we use a lot of our personnel,” Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone said.

So, yes, perhaps Robinson was a pick some disagreed with at No. 8. But not the Falcons. Not for a second.

“We do not have buyer’s remorse,” Smith said. “If that’s what you’re asking.”

What they do have is a player who can potentially make an impact from the beginning of his rookie season.

Dee Alford is rising

A year ago, the recently signed former CFL star was a potential player with a chance. Since then, Alford kept moving up and up. In Falcons’ training camp last season, Alford’s ascent became a daily occurrence -- forcing his way onto the 53-man roster and, eventually, into playing time.

Now, it’s possible he’s played himself into being a starter. Alford took the vast majority of first-team reps at slot corner during the spring open-to-the-media practices ahead of Mike Hughes, which means he has a shot of winning the starting slot gig.

Alford was brought up unprompted by defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, usually a good sign for players, lauding him for being able to correct mistakes he may make on the field. How he works made an impact.

“To cover those routes inside, I mean, there’s a lot of space,” Smith said. “He’s tougher than hell, quick. But very, very pleased. Those were some of the traits that you saw in those guys as we brought them in and worked them out.

“He’s really done a nice job.”

Watch for Josh Ali

When Josh Ali signed with the Falcons’ practice squad last season after going undrafted out of Kentucky, he knew it would be a year of learning coming off a knee injury.

A year later, Ali has potentially put himself in position to push for a roster spot. Most of the 2022 season was spent working with then-scout team quarterback Desmond Ridder, who would often throw to Ali. This spring, Ali has made a few noteworthy catches and seemed to be a player Ridder trusts.

“Me and Josh definitely have a connection,” Ridder said. “Definitely started early on with him just playing at Kentucky, being from Bleed Blue Nation and me giving him crap about all that. But he’s a great player for us.”

Ali also has a chance to make the team at punt return -- he’s a player Smith said is vying for the role -- after Avery Williams tore his ACL in June.

“The position I’m in right now, I can play every [receiver] position, so that’s what I’m learning,” Ali said. “I feel like if I do every position on the field and special teams, I have a good chance.”

Where do returning guys fit in?

This was one of the biggest puzzle-piece scenarios of the spring, which will continue into training camp. How does the offense shift when star tight end Kyle Pitts returns after injuring his right MCL on Nov. 20? How does Eddie Goldman, after a year away due to retirement, factor into the defensive front -- and is he in position to do so? How big of a role will Campbell have defensively and Patterson offensively? How does Mykal Walker fit into the inside linebacker conversation with Kaden Elliss and Troy Andersen? Who handles punt returns?

Based on conversations and observations, it seems Pitts will settle into a large target share early in the season. Campbell is likely to become a pass-rush specialist and be on the field in crucial situations. Patterson will be used more like he was in 2021: An enigma for defenses. Walker will have a role on the defense. Goldman and the punt return job are, at this point, anyone’s guess.

But that’s what training camp is for.