The biggest questions surrounding the Atlanta Falcons running back position are less about who will make the team, but how the team will stack its depth chart.
Steven Jackson returns as the unquestioned incumbent starter at the position. Jackson missed a significant chunk of his first year with the Falcons due to a hamstring injury, but finished the year relatively strong. Jackson rushed for 392 yards in the final seven games, which extrapolates to just shy of 900 for a full 16-game slate.
Although it’s worth noting that low figure likely has a lot to do with the fact that the Falcons rarely had opportunities to run the ball in the second halves of games down the stretch due to getting behind early. Over the final seven games, the team ran the ball on 35.6 percent of first-half plays, but only on 30.6 percent of second-half plays.
Jackson also saw his production dip significantly in those second halves, averaging just 2.4 yards per carry versus 4.8 yards in the first halves of the final seven games.
The team is hopeful that there will be more balance with their running game this year given improvements made along the offensive line as well as on defense which should prevent the team from getting too far behind early.
Behind Jackson may be the most notable competition at the position, which will feature a battle between Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie Devonta Freeman for the right to be the team’s primary third-down back.
Rodgers is the incumbent and has performed well in that function over the past three seasons. His abilities as a pass protector and receiver make him the ideal candidate for the Falcons to turn to when they engage their up-tempo, no-huddle attack.
But he’ll be pushed by Freeman, who is a player with a similar skill set that shined as a blocker and receiver during his days at Florida State. But upon drafting Freeman in the fourth round this past May, the Falcons brass indicated that they envision him not just as competition for Rodgers, but as a long-term replacement for Jackson. That increases the expectations that Freeman will produce right from the outset when preseason begins.
Regardless, the team is likely to find ways to work both Rodgers and Freeman onto the field, but the level of workload each receivers likely will be heavily dependent on whether Freeman hits the ground running this summer. If he does, then it will likely equal increased reps for him in the regular season and a decreased workload for Rodgers.
Behind that trio, the team has Antone Smith, who is by no means a lock to make the roster entering his fifth summer with the Falcons. Typically, Smith flashes his trademark explosiveness with a couple of big runs or receptions each preseason. Coupled with his prowess as a gunner on special teams, Smith’s job is fairly secure for a fourth-string running back. Smith flashed in very limited work last season and there has been buzz that he could also see increased playing time come this fall. If that happens, it will begin with Smith having a good preseason.
He’ll face competition from Josh Vaughan and undrafted rookie Jerome Smith. Vaughan was very productive as a rusher last summer, but struggled immensely in limited opportunities on special teams. He’ll have to show a more well-rounded game to earn a potentially fifth running back spot again this year.
Jerome Smith is reminiscent of recently retired runner Jason Snelling due to similar size and running style. The key for Smith to earn a roster spot is going to be mimicking Snelling in more ways, notably showing that he can contribute on special teams. But in all likelihood, even with a strong summer, he’s likely destined for the practice squad.
The Falcons carried five running backs for the entirety of 2013, but it’s most likely they will only keep four this year. More than likely, those four spots are pretty sewn up unless there are major surprises come preseason. Instead, most of the competition will be players like Freeman and Antone Smith jockeying for the chance to earn significant playing time in the regular season.