As noted when discussing the Falcons needs at the running back position, it is likely that the team will opt to go for a young back in the draft rather than free agency. If the Falcons are looking for a guy that can fill the mantle as the team’s feature back and sustain the team’s ground attack with a heavy workload, there will be better options come April in the draft than in the free agent market in March. But if the Falcons prefer someone that can split reps with Rodgers and Snelling to form more of a three-man committee system, they should have plenty of options in free agency.
The biggest names to hit the free agent market will likely be Steven Jackson (Rams) and Reggie Bush (Dolphins). Jackson is fast approaching the end of his career, as retirement talk has been broached. Jackson still has a bit left in the tank, but similar to the likely departing Michael Turner, he is a shell of the runner he once was. The value that Jackson brings is that he’s a veteran that is comfortable in the passing game, and still has retained some quickness and burst, certainly more than Turner. He would represent an upgrade, but not a significant one. The other downside of signing Jackson is the likelihood it’s probably only a one-year stopgap which would mean the Falcons would need to hope that Jacquizz Rodgers emerges as a viable lead back candidate in 2013 or be right back searching for someone else come 2014.
Bush is a big name due to his former high draft status and high profile in New Orleans for years, not particularly because he’s a blessed runner. Bush still has excellent quickness and speed to make the big plays. But in two years in Miami, he proved that he is not quite capable of being a lead back, and should return to the duties he held in New Orleans which was primarily a situational runner that provides value in the passing game. Besides his home-run potential, Bush at this point in his career doesn’t bring much more to the table than Rodgers.
Another free agent is Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall. But Mendenhall’s injury history, off-field issues, character, coupled with limited value in the passing game likely will keep him firmly off Atlanta’s radar.
Restricted free agent Chris Ivory (Saints) could draw attention. He’ll likely receive a second-round tender from the Saints, which may be a steep price to pay for him. Ivory has similar tools as Jason Snelling, except his superior footwork, balance, and burst probably make him a better candidate to be a lead back. But he’s limited in the passing game, which is the main reason why he has yet to flourish in New Orleans despite being consistently productive whenever he does get reps. While Ivory has some upside due to his youth, giving the division rival Saints a second round pick for his services seems too high especially given the fact that the Falcons could use that pick on a more well-rounded player in the draft.
Fellow Saint, Pierre Thomas may be cut loose this off-season, particularly if the Saints opt to keep Ivory. Thomas is a gifted pass catcher and a good solid straight-line runner. He’s been the Saints most consistent runner the past two years. But in truth, Thomas is nearly an identical player to Snelling. In a committee system, he is effective, but probably is not a good fit to become a lead back that gets more than 8-12 carries per game.
Other veteran options that may be cut/traded this off-season could be DeAngelo Williams (Panthers), Ahmad Bradshaw (Giants), Maurice Jones-Drew (Jaguars), Ben Tate (Texans), and Anthony Dixon (49ers). Of that group, probably the player that best fits Atlanta is Bradshaw. He has the combo of speed and power that has proven he can be a lead back in this league, and he’s one of the league’s best pass protectors and would be an excellent option in the Falcons revamped screen game. The only issue Bradshaw has is durability, as he has only played all sixteen games once in his six-year career. But reports indicate that the Giants appear reluctant to part ways with Bradshaw this off-season.
Next on that list would probably be Williams, who showcased late this past year that he still has something left in the tank with a 210-yard effort in Carolina’s season finale against the Saints. Williams is a speed back with home-run potential that does a good job in the screen game. While he’s a competent pass protector, it is telling that the Panthers have opted for Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert in those roles over the years. Williams is predominantly an outside runner that will turn 30 in April. Similar to Jackson, that means he’s more of a short-term option that might be able to give Atlanta one or two good years, but nothing more.
Jones-Drew is a big name, but he’s fast approaching Michael Turner territory as it’s clear he’s starting to loose a step. His 2012 season was thwarted by an early holdout and a late foot injury. He has only recently gotten surgery on the injured foot, which may put the start of the 2013 season in jeopardy for him. While MJD still has some ability, at this point in his career he’s probably comparable to Turner circa 2011. Throw in his injury, and it’s possible the Jones-Drew that suits up in 2013 will be closer to the diminished Turner that played in Atlanta in 2012. Again, like Williams and Jackson, at this point in his career he is just a one-year fix.
Ben Tate is an intriguing option as he’s entering the final year of his contract. The opportunity is ripe for Houston to shop him around trying to get something for him. Tate is an excellent cutback runner with homerun ability. The main issue with Tate in Atlanta is the fact that the Falcons don’t run a zone-heavy blocking scheme that Tate’s skillset is ideal in. It remains to be seen if he could adapt to becoming a lead blocker without a dramatic shift of the Falcons up front. Players like Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock would likely need to slim down this off-season. The Falcons also stand to lose their best zone blocker in center Todd McClure this off-season as well. All in all, it likely would be trying to fit a square peg in a round hole if Tate were to come to Atlanta. Besides that the main concern with Tate is his ability to contribute in pass protection, something he’s rarely been asked to do in Houston. He does however possess excellent hands that could make him a big factor in the Falcons screen game. It also remains a question what sort of compensation Houston would want. It would seem likely that a minimum they’d want a second round pick, given that was the round that Tate was selected in 2010.
Dixon has similar tools to Turner, in that he’s a nice powerful runner between the tackles, but lacks the burst and quickness to really be a dynamic option. He also has proven to be a limited factor in the passing game. While he could be an effective short-yardage and goalline replacement for Turner, it’s doubtful that he would blossom if asked to take on a more significant role in the offense.
All in all, there are no great candidates that are likely to become available prior to the draft that can solve the Falcons running back issues for years to come. Of the likely candidates, I’d probably peg DeAngelo Williams as the best option assuming Brsdshaw is not let go. But due to the murkiness of the free agent crop, it will likely lead the Falcons to try and solve their running back issues in the draft.