One of the key position battles in the Atlanta Falcons’ training camp this summer will occur at the running back position. It represents one of the few starting jobs that is truly up for grabs. Second-year back Devonta Freeman is expected to be pushed by rookie Tevin Coleman for who gets the honor of leading the Falcons’ rushing attack in 2015.
As things stand heading into camp, Freeman appears to be the front-runner. His year of experience and relative comfort in pass protection should help give him an edge over Coleman, who is the more gifted of the two runners but will experience somewhat of a learning curve given his rookie status. However Coleman’s explosive speed and better size to take the punishment of being a lead tailback might give him the edge in a camp competition, regardless of how green he measures entering this summer.
In all likelihood the Falcons will ultimately deploy both players substantially when the regular season hits, utilizing a committee system. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan juggled three running backs throughout the 2014 season when he was calling plays for the Cleveland Browns. In Atlanta, the actual battle may just be for which of the two backs is the first on the field. It’s certain that both players will be utilize during the fall, but each of their performances this summer will determine how much usage each get. The key will be whether one of the two clearly separates himself from the other, something Shanahan was unable to get from the Browns group he had a year ago. In reality, this battle won’t simply play out over training camp but into the regular season as Shanahan looks to deploy the “hot hand” each week and within each game.
Also hoping to get into the mix for reps this season is third-string running back Antone Smith. Many may forget that Smith is entering his sixth training camp with the Falcons, consistently earning himself a spot on the roster due to his special-teams prowess. Yet Smith has always managed to shine in the preseason throughout the years, which only finally began to pay off last year with increased offensive reps during the regular season. Smith’s breakout 2014 season was cut short by a broken leg, but he hopes to recover to make it a three-horse race for running back. While it’s doubtful that Smith is a serious contender to overtake Freeman or Coleman as the starter, a strong summer could mean that he sees a bigger chunk of the workload if and when the Falcons utilize their committee system.
Between those three, all are fairly sure bets to make the roster if they can remain healthy. After them, it’s a toss-up.
One of those positions that is up for grabs is the starting fullback position, where incumbent Patrick DiMarco is expected to be pushed by newcomer Collin Mooney. DiMarco was among the first players to re-sign with the Falcons after the hiring of new head coach Dan Quinn, suggesting the team has confidence in the fourth-year lead blocker. DiMarco has been a regular on special teams since taking over fullback duties in 2013 and also has served as a capable lead blocker the past two seasons.
But the Falcons could stand to improve in the latter area, which is where Mooney figures into the mix. Known for his rushing prowess during his days at West Point, after spending two years serving active duty in the Army Mooney morphed into a capable lead blocker for the Tennessee Titans in 2013. However that didn’t turn into a permanent starting gig, as the Titans’ new coaching staff turned to Jackie Battle last summer as the starting fullback.
Mooney will be looking for redemption this summer and could potentially have it. Unlike many roster battles this summer that be weighted in one players’ favor such as that between backup quarterbacks T.J. Yates and Sean Renfree, the battle to start at fullback should be wide open. Either DiMarco or Mooney could win it, with the victor being based purely off which player outperforms the other this summer.
In past years, the Falcons have kept four tailbacks and a single fullback on the roster. If that trend continues, the winner of the fullback competition will be fighting for a single roster spot, while the remaining battle in camp will be Jerome Smith and Terron Ward for the fourth running back position.
Similar to fullback, the battle between Smith and Ward is fairly wide open. Smith has the size that is sorely lacking among the Falcons’ other tailbacks. But despite his diminutive size, Ward is an explosive back that potentially adds value in the passing game. It’s easy to draw comparisons between Ward and fellow Oregon State alum and former Falcon Jacquizz Rodgers, as both are very similar in size and running style. Essentially Ward’s best pathway to making the team will be if his play is reminiscent of Rodgers, showcasing potential to be an option down the road on third downs.
Smith barely played last summer with the Falcons, but managed to impress the coaching staff enough to merit a spot on the practice squad. He’ll have to show that his time spent with the team last year has prompted improvement this summer.
Neither he nor Ward are guaranteed a spot on the roster. The one key component the Falcons are missing is a running back that can be effective in short-yardage. That will be another thing that both Freeman and Coleman will have to prove this summer. Right now, there best candidate may be the 238-pound Mooney. That means that there’s a better-than-average chance that the Falcons will be scouring the waiver wire at the end of camp in hopes of adding a back that can beef up this group that could supplant both Jerome Smith and Ward as the fourth runner.
Overall, running back will be one of the most competition-heavy position groups on the Falcons’ roster this summer. Not only are both starting spots at running back and fullback up for grabs, but there could be significant depth upheaval by summer’s end.