Hopefully in the comings days or weeks, the NFL will be back open for business. And when that happens, we will get a free agency period. It’s no secret that the Falcons will need to make some decisions about their own free agents. Chief among them are their three starters along the offensive line, but also the Falcons will need to also prioritize bringing back Jason Snelling.
Keeping Snelling probably isn’t as hard now as it might have been in March. This past April, 24 running backs (not including fullbacks) were drafted, the most in over a dozen drafts. That means that the market for free agent running backs is much more lukewarm as many teams were able to fill their chief needs at that position with rookies.
That is not going to mean a player like Snelling won’t get any nibbles from other teams looking to sign him. But it is another positive that there are several other bigger-named free agents on the market such as DeAngelo Williams, Ahmad Bradshaw, Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, and Joseph Addai, so it’s very unlikely any team will be offering Snelling a starter’s role and salary elsewhere.
The decision the Falcons have to make in regards to Snelling is not whether they want him back, but how much are they willing to pay to keep him. For the previously mentioned reasons, Snelling’s market value isn’t going to be huge, so it’s unlikely he’s going to price himself out of Atlanta. Whatever he asks for, the Falcons are likely going to be able to afford. But it all raises a question of what do the Falcons see as Snelling’s future value, and are they going to be willing to pay a premium for it?
As of today, Snelling’s primary value is as a third down back. According to Pro Football Focus, he is one of the best pass catchers among his position group in the league. And he’s also shown that he can be a valuable replacement on the occasions when Michael Turner has been injured over the past two seasons.
However, one wonders how much confidence these spot performances inspire in the Falcons brass? Do they see Snelling as a legit successor to Michael Turner? Do they see him as a future 1000-yard rusher in this league?
The answers to these questions certainly could be used as leverage points for Snelling and his agent when it comes to negotiations. If the answers are yes, then it could mean the difference a several million.
Last March, the Chicago Bears paid Chester Taylor a four-year deal that averaged slightly over $3 million per year and included around $7 million in guaranteed money. The deal is relevant because Taylor was viewed as one of the premier third down backs in the league at the time, and a solid No. 2 rusher that could help the Bears mediocre rushing attack. A few months back, Jamaal Charles signed an extension with the Chiefs that averaged about $4.7 million a year with $10 million guaranteed, and the Saints re-upped with Pierre Thomas for $2.8 million/yr. and $4.2 million guaranteed.
Certainly not blockbuster deals by any stretch of the imagination. But if the Falcons think Snelling is the heir apparent to Turner and believe he offers long-term value, then he should be able to get a deal that is closer to that of Charles than Thomas on that pay scale. Thomas, who was the primary facilitator of one of the top rushing attacks in the league in 2009, now might have fallen by the wayside in New Orleans with the production of Chris Ivory last year and their selection of Mark Ingram in the first round this past April. If the Saints saw Thomas as a long-term fixture at that position, they did not pay him accordingly.
And thus the same might be the case with Snelling and the Falcons. If the Falcons see Snelling more as a situational player long-term, then they shouldn’t break the bank for him. You don’t want to be in a situation where a backup running back is coming off a 300-yard season in a few years and making something like $5 million. That sort of pay should be reserved for 1000-yard rushers.
Can Snelling be a starter in this league? I believe the answer is yes, if you look at his production in the latter half of the 2009 season and his Week 2 performance against the Cardinals last season. But is he the type of starter that this offense really needs? I’m not sure about that. Who knows if Mike Mularkey is still the offensive coordinator in a few years, but his offenses work best when they have a top-level power rusher like Jerome Bettis, Willis McGahee, and Michael Turner toting the rock. A running back that welcomes 25-30 carries in any given week and essentially carry a team to victory on his back and legs. I’m not sure Snelling is in that caliber. I think he can be a good, productive starter but more in the BenJarvus Green-Ellis mold than Bettis or Turner in their primes. The Law Firm is a guy that is able to give your offense balance, but he’s not going to be able to carry it.
That doesn’t necessarily seem like a bad thing, not if the Falcons do as they should and make a dramatic shift in their offensive identity in future seasons from a more physical, run-oriented and conservative offensive attack, to a more open, aerial attack. Snelling can potentially fit perfectly in such an offense because of what he brings in the passing game. A player like Green-Ellis fits well in that sort of offense in New England, where he is capable and comfortable with around 15-20 carries per game, with a big chunk of those carries coming late in games when the Patriots are grinding out the clock.
If the Falcons see a future such as that for Snelling, then they should feel free to offer him a deal that matches or exceeds what Taylor got from Chicago last year. While Taylor didn’t quite live up to his contract this past year, it shouldn’t stop the Falcons from thinking a four years younger Snelling will.