Given the lack of experience that the Atlanta Falcons currently have at the running back position, it’s less a question of if but rather when should the team take a running back in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Between the four running backs currently on the roster: Devonta Freeman, Antone Smith, Jerome Smith and Ronnie Wingo, they have less than 100 combined carries in the NFL.
While the team has expressed a great deal of confidence in the potential of Freeman to be their leading rusher this year, that doesn’t mean that the team plans for Freeman to carry the brunt of the load. The Falcons will be looking for a player that can at least play second fiddle to Freeman and possibly at most take over for him as their featured runner.
Their chances of finding the latter should only increase if the team uses one of its second-day draft picks on the position. But because of their apparent trust in Freeman, they may opt to wait until the third day in the hopes that a talented back slides a round or two to the back half of the draft.
Falcons new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan employed a committee system a year ago in Cleveland largely because no single player emerged to be the “bell cow.” Although to be fair, that strategy was not the Browns’ initial plan after signing Ben Tate in free agency and using a third-round pick on Terrance West. But they turned to that strategy largely because Tate was oft-injured and too ineffective to be the lead tailback they were hoping he would become. By year’s end, West and Isaiah Crowell were splitting carries and alternating as starters week-to-week.
The Falcons might be forced to adopt the same strategy if neither Freeman nor the rookie emerge as the sort of runner that earns the right to being the lead option week after week.
Because of Freeman and Antone Smith’s smaller statures, it’s very likely that the Falcons will add some much-needed size to this position via the draft by targeting someone that might be a bit more proven between the tackles. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Falcons are going to target a “power” back.
While running backs coach Bobby Turner was an assistant under Kyle’s father, Mike, in Denver, the majority of backs that the Broncos drafted were bigger downhill runners like Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson and Ryan Torain. The Falcons may follow a similar template, but it’s no guarantee.
The team has looked at backs such as Ameer Abdullah, Duke Johnson, David Johnson and Tevin Coleman, who are all known for their explosive big-play abilities rather than grinding it out between the tackles. But the Falcons haven’t shied away from “grinders” through the draft process like Jay Ajayi, Todd Gurley, Mike Davis and Terrell Watson.
Nearly all would fit various roles in Atlanta. But considering that the Falcons already have an explosive playmaker in Antone Smith, and a quicker-than-fast outside runner in Freeman, someone that can be a bit more effective in short-yardage situations makes perfect sense for the Falcons.
Which still leaves that big question unresolved, when do the Falcons pull the trigger on such a runner? The safest bet is that it comes somewhere between round three and five. If earlier in that range, it indicates that the team feels Freeman is better suited as a complementary runner. If later in that range, then it means that the rookie will instead be the complementary option and the team will turn to Freeman first and foremost.