Once again the Atlanta Falcons will feature a battle at the starting running back position during this summer’s training camp. However this year’s battle won’t be as wide open as last year’s.
That’s because incumbent starter Devonta Freeman is coming off a 1,056-yard season. Midway through 2015 Freeman was leading the NFL in rushing, which helped him earn his first Pro Bowl bid.
However the competition Freeman faces isn’t one geared for him to potentially lose his grip on the starting job, but instead one that might lighten his workload this upcoming season. Freeman’s production tailed off in the second half of 2015 and the Falcons are looking for second-year running back Tevin Coleman to help pick up some of the slack this year.
Coleman opened 2015 as the team’s starter but then was sidelined in during Week Two with a rib injury. Freeman took over thereafter and never looked back. It would not be impossible for Coleman to once again emerge as the starting tailback to start 2016, but it likely would require an injury to Freeman to facilitate such a move. Instead the Falcons want to see improvement from Coleman in order to make him a bigger part of the offense.
During Freeman’s run as the starter, Coleman was largely an afterthought in the team’s offense. In eight games that Freeman started and finished last year when Coleman was fully healthy, the latter averaged about 3.1 touches per game.
Coleman’s play must improve in order to demand a bigger role for the former third-round pick. That in turn should allow Freeman to remain fresher down the stretch while also adding a much-needed explosive element to their ground attack.
Coleman’s speed is his biggest asset to the Falcons offense. But in order for him to be trusted with more reps, he’ll have to improve his ball security. Coleman fumbled three times last year despite his limited workload, including a pair of fumbles while replacing an injured Freeman in Weeks 11 and 12.
Coleman will also need to become a bigger factor in the passing game with improved catching and blocking if he wants to carve into Freeman’s playing time.
Like Freeman and Coleman, fullback Patrick DiMarco’s hold on a roster spot is fairly set in stone. His solid blocking led the way for Freeman and also launched himself into a Pro Bowl spot. Like Freeman, coming off such a strong season the Falcons aren’t looking to replace DiMarco in the starting lineup. Which is a stark change from a year ago when he was neck and neck in a competition with Collin Mooney.
Beyond those three however, the competition at running back is fairly wide open. The Falcons will certainly keep at least one more tailback behind Freeman and Coleman, with Terron Ward being the incumbent and likeliest choice.
The coaching staff showed a great deal of confidence in Ward last summer when he was earning starting reps in practice while both Freeman and Coleman were nursing hamstring injuries. However Ward’s play in games both in the preseason and regular season didn’t exactly show why the coaches were so high on him.
He’ll have to do better this summer with players like Gus Johnson and Brandon Wilds competing behind him. Ward’s leg up will be based off his ability and experience on special teams and passing downs, the two likeliest avenues for a third-string tailback to get in-game reps.
Johnson probably presents the greatest challenge, being a good fitin the team’s outside zone-blocking running scheme thanks to his slashing running style and the promise he showed as a rookie last summer with the Dallas Cowboys. After spending most of last year on the Falcons practice squad, he should be up to speed enough to give Ward a run for his money.
Wilds is unique in the sense that his 6’1″ and 225-pound frame makes him stand out among the smaller crop of Falcons running backs entering camp. Wilds will hope to use that to his advantage by showing a bit more power, which is somewhat lacking between the skill sets of Freeman and Coleman.
The key for Johnson and Wilds in particular, will be showing enough ability this summer to force the Falcons to keep a fourth running back rather than settling for just three since Ward is very likely to retain his spot behind the top two backs.
Most NFL teams tend to keep five running backs on their roster, which the Falcons did not do last season by retaining just four. So there is also room for either Johnson or Wilds to win a spot that won’t necessarily require them to outperform Ward this summer.
Also in the roster mix will be undrafted fullback Will Ratelle, who will be making the transition from college linebacker to NFL lead blocker. Several have made a transition in the past, but it typically takes a year or two to get fully up to speed. That means that Ratelle is a likelier candidate to land a role on the practice squad rather than the roster this summer. But like the others, he could use his defensive experience to impress on special teams as a way of landing a job.
Last summer, injuries really colored the competition at the running back position. With both Freeman and Coleman missing time with injuries as well as Antone Smith, the team was forced to rely upon a bunch of untested options throughout camp and preseason. That created an opportunity for Ward, which he fully took advantage of.
Obviously the Falcons will hope that injuries have far less impact on this summer’s competition at this position. But it still will boil down to whomever takes advantage of whatever opportunities come their way that will determine which players stay or go and what their roles will be in 2016.