2013 Outlook: Jacquizz RodgersRecently, I’ve discussed quite a bit the potential benefits that running back Steven Jackson could add to the Falcons offense in 2013. In doing so, I also made mention that third-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers could get lost in the shuffle.
Rodgers served as a key asset for the Falcons last year. While his production as a runner was not overly impressive, his value in the passing game was critical to the team’s success. Quizz’s quickness and ability in the open field made him a potent weapon on screen passes, and he showcased his abilities in pass protection when the Falcons went into their no-huddle attack. While even a diminished Michael Turner still proved to be the team’s top rusher for much of the 2012 season, the offense was at its most efficient when Quizz was on the field because of their ability to throw the ball, the clear strength of the team.
Jackson and Rodgers won’t have much animosity among them as they compete for reps. Both hail from Oregon State, and have known each other for a long time. But as Jackson is likely to get a significant amount of reps, it will likely be at the cost to Quizz. But the key for Quizz will be to take advantage of what limited reps he does get.
Rodgers will still be the team’s most potent weapon out of the backfield in the passing game. While Jackson is a capable receiver, Quizz’s quickness and explosiveness after the catch make him their best asset when it comes to screens and catching dumpoffs and checkdowns. He can make that first defender miss, and then it’s off to the races. His 17 missed tackles as a receiver (per Pro Football Focus) were second-highest in the league last year among running backs behind only Trent Richardson.
Jackson and Rodgers will likely be expected to form a “thunder and lightning” pair. While Jackson will be utilized to pound defenses in the second half and getting extensive reps in short-yardage and near the goalline, the Falcons will still make ample use of Rodgers in early passing situations.
A comparison that has been made in the past in regards to Rodgers has been that of New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles. Both are short, compact, but explosive backs. While Sproles has Quizz beat in terms of pure speed, the latter offers dynamic and potent ability in the open field due to his quickness and ability to stop on a dime. Sproles however gets the bulk of the reps in New Orleans because of their pass-centric offense. That likely won’t be the case this year with Jackson in the mix here in Atlanta. Instead, Rodgers will likely be used in a comparable fashion to how Sproles was used during his days in San Diego when he worked behind LaDainian Tomlinson. In 2008 and 2009, Sproles led NFL backs in Pro Football Focus’ Yards Per Pass Route Run metric, measuring how many yards are gained per snap where the back is running a route. Sproles once again paced the league last year with 1.99 receiving yards per route, but Rodgers wasn’t far behind with 1.51, good enough for 11th among regular contributors. Even with a lighter workload in 2013, Rodgers can improve his production by taking advantage of each opportunity.
One of the interesting developments this year will be whether or not the Falcons try to use Jackson on a “pitch count” similar to how they used Turner last year to try and keep him fresh down the stretch. That could result in more opportunities for Rodgers early in the season as well as earlier in individual games. If Rodgers is able to take advantage of those opportunities to become a feared component of the Falcons offense is in his own right, that will only add value to the Falcons down the stretch as they begin to mix in a fresher Jackson.
And while Rodgers may see a lesser percentage of the Falcons rushing attempts, he could still actually see a similar overall workload to what he had a year ago. The presence of Jackson should allow the Falcons to run the ball a lot more than they did last year. The Falcons ran the ball 378 times last year, but hope that number approaches 500 times this year if things go according to plan. While Jackson could receive as much as two-thirds of that workload, that still could leave a substantial portion for backups like Rodgers and Jason Snelling to split. Rodgers had 94 rushing attempts last year, a number he could still eclipse. Key for him will be improving upon his team-leading 3.9 yards per carry. For a player like Rodgers, that figure is too low. If Jackson is effective at softening up defenses however, that should open more avenues for Quizz. Defenders won’t have fun trying to take on the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Jackson, and then have to try and deal with the 5-foot-6, 196-pound Rodgers. That dichotomy of trying to tackle one of the biggest running backs in the NFL, and then have to switch to try and get a handle on one of the shortest who’s as quick as they come should help Quizz be in a position to take advantage of the opportunities he does have.
Another factor that also works in Quizz’s favor is that he should not have to expend as much energy on kickoff returns as he did last year. While the incumbent at that position, Rodgers should only be seen as a last resort in 2013 since the team will be expecting either his brother James, rookie corner Robert Alford, or an undrafted free agent like Rashad Evans or Darius Johnson to emerge as the returner. Alford’s straight-line speed probably gives him the advantage in that race. While Quizz will still work on other special teams units, the wear and expended energy that comes from returning kickoffs shouldn’t be there in 2013. That should keep him fresher for offense and allow him to make more plays in limited opportunities there.
Quizz may not see an increase in reps this year, as one might expect for the emerging young running back. But he could make a lot bigger impression if he can turn what limited opportunities he does get into big plays for the Falcons.