The retirement of running back Jason Snelling certainly will affect the Atlanta Falcons depth at running back. Coupled with the strong possibility that Steven Jackson is playing his last season with the team, there appears to be a compelling need at the position headed into next month’s draft.
Jackson has one more year left on his contract beyond this season, but carries nearly a $5 million cap hit in 2015. He’ll be 32 entering that season, and only three running backs have rushed for 1,000 yards at that age over the past 15 seasons. And it’s far from a given that Jackson will have that sort of production in 2014 to even merit that expectation next year. While playing roughly 11.25 games in 2013, Jackson had 543 yards, which extrapolates to 772 yards over 16 games.
Given that, it would seem very doubtful that Jackson is going to be a Falcon beyond this season even if he has the desire to continuing playing. It makes no sense to pay a guy $5 million if he’s not capable of breaking 1,000 yards rushing.
Jacquizz Rodgers is Jackson’s primary backup, but has done little in his three seasons with the team to suggest that he is ready to take over the full-time duties. Rodgers is entering his contract year with his future also in some doubt. Helping Rodgers retain long-term value however is that he is one of the better third-down backs in the league. That’s a role and skill set that isn’t likely to diminish for many years given Rodgers is only 24 years old.
But it’s certainly possible that Rodgers could be a free agent next year, and another team could value his third-down abilities far more than the Falcons and sign him. Therefore, he too could be playing in his final season with the team.
Fellow backups Antone Smith and Josh Vaughan are also set to be free agents after this season. This means that beyond 2014, the Falcons running back position is completely unknown. So it makes perfect sense to draft a running back to add some stability for the future.
The first priority is replacing Jackson. While there is no guarantee that the Falcons re-sign Rodgers, there is certainly a much higher chance of that happening than Jackson discovering the fountain of youth in 2014. There is every reason to believe that any rookie drafted can be expected to form a one-two punch with Rodgers beyond this year.
It does appear that the running back prospects the Falcons have shown the most interest in this offseason are in that mold of lead back. Prospects like Terrance West, Carlos Hyde, Jeremy Hill and Storm Johnson all are bigger, powerful runners in the mold of Jackson and his predecessor Michael Turner.
Any rookie added is probably only going to be used sparingly in 2014, just as Snelling was a year ago. Snelling played 233 snaps last year (according to premium website Pro Football Focus), 61 percent of which came between Weeks 2 and 8 when Jackson was injured. Basically in games where both Jackson and Rodgers were healthy, Snelling averaged about 6.6 offensive snaps per game. Essentially, any rookie added will be asked to redshirt this year, learn the offense if things go according to plan.
But in the NFL, things rarely go according to plan. And injuries happen, and any draft pick would also give the team insurance in the event of their occurrence since he’d offer greater potential than either Smith or Vaughan could.
So while the Falcons don’t have to draft a running back, it makes little sense not to.