The Falcons return all three of their tailbacks from a year ago. Jason Snelling is playing under a new three-year deal he signed this off-season. Jacquizz Rodgers is expected to take more reps as a reserve. And Michael Turner is still locked in atop the depth chart.
Turner will remain the Falcons start this year although they have made statements that he will be on a “pitch count” this year, limiting his reps to try and keep him fresh down the stretch. This has been something that the team has tried to do throughout the past three seasons to limited success. It remains to be seen how much better Dirk Koetter will be at it than previous offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.
The team is adamant they will be looking to mix more of Rodgers and Snelling in the lineup this year, who served as little more than third down backs that would get the occasional carry to spell Turner when he was tired. With the team expected to adopt a pass-heavier attack, the roles of Rodgers and Snelling should expand. Koetter will make ample use of screens in the offense, and Rodgers and Snelling’s quickness should make them the preferred options over Turner on those plays.
Rodgers and Snelling will be directly competing for who will be the top reserve behind Turner, but at the end of the day both players will be utilized extensively. But the team is likely leaning towards Rodgers, who they hope can blossom in the Koetter system, particularly on screens because of how effective he was at Oregon State. And if the team adopts more zone-blocking runs, that should also play to Rodgers’ favor.
At fullback there will be a new face, as Bradie Ewing is expected to take over for long-time lead blocker Ovie Mughelli. Ewing will get competition from Mike Cox, who replaced Mughelli last year after he went down with a knee injury. Cox was solid, but his upside is limited, which should give Ewing the edge in a camp competition. Koetter’s scheme is expected to reduce the overall workload of the blocking fullback from previous years, which means that Ewing may share reps with Snelling as well, who can fill in.
Cox will be among others competing for the fifth and final running back spot. That role will likely go to the player who provides the most on special teams. Antone Smith would be considered the incumbent. He shined as a gunner throughout the latter half of last season, and will also be expected to compete for the vacant kickoff returner spot. Offensively, Smith has shown some ability in the passing game and some explosiveness as a runner, although his primary contribution will remain on special teams.
Also in the mix will be Dimitri Nance, Robbie Frey, and fullback Lee Meisner. Nance gets the benefit of being recruited by Dirk Koetter to go to Arizona State. Nance is probably the superior runner of the group, but he’ll have to reaffirm himself capable in passing situations as well as on special teams. Frey was a solid kickoff returner in college, so that adds potential for special teams. Meisner is a converted linebacker, that will need to utilize those skills to work on coverage units in camp.
The fifth spot will likely go to Cox, Smith, or Nance simply because they do offer more ability on offense, and have experience playing special teams. Cox’s best chance is to beat Ewing for the starting fullback job, otherwise Smith is the top candidate. Frey and Meisner are more likely competing for practice squad spots, hoping that they can make enough of an impact to be carried there.