Given the impending release of veteran Steven Jackson, the Atlanta Falcons are in need to find his replacement.
The fact that Jackson isn’t expected to be back in Atlanta isn’t a surprise. When the team signed him in 2013, he was meant more to be a short-term upgrade over Michael Turner as the starting tailback rather than a long-term option. His combined two-year totals in Atlanta: 1,250 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns is more akin to what the Falcons are looking for in Jackson’s replacement in just one season.
Given the team’s insistence on keeping older backs like Jackson and Turner the past few years, it seems highly likely that they’d prefer to replace Jackson with a young player in the draft. Someone that they can develop to handle the bulk of the carries between the tackles given the presence of Devonta Freeman, who is geared to be more of an outside runner.
How much the Falcons are willing to invest in that power back will depend heavily on how confident they are in Freeman’s abilities. When drafted a year ago, the team was high on Freeman’s potential to develop into a “feature back” and the new coaching staff doesn’t appear to be any less praising of him. Freeman should be a good fit in the team’s new zone-blocking scheme.
The Falcons are certain to commit to running the football more under new head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The only question is how those carries will be split.
The likeliest scenario is one in which the Falcons draft a back that take the brunt of the carries between the tackles and can grind opponents late in games and have a competition in training camp this summer to see which of the two between him and Freeman emerge as the lead back.
Freeman only carried the ball 65 times as a rookie, but should he become the lead back, would see a workload much closer to that of Jackson: 190 carries. If the Falcons’ new brass are confident Freeman can make that leap, then it’s likely they will settle for drafting his competition in the middle portion of the draft. However, if there are concerns about whether Freeman can step up into a lead role, the Falcons are likely to try and add a running back earlier, likely on the second day of the draft in rounds two or three.
But before the Falcons make any decisions in the draft, they will have to address the running back position in free agency. That will be based around their decision to retain Jacquizz Rodgers and/or Antone Smith. While it’s possible that both players may return, it seems likelier that the Falcons will only be successful in retaining one of the impending free agents.
Both players should have value on the open market. In 2013, Rodgers was one of the better third-down backs in the league. He didn’t have a great 2014, but at age 25, he’s still young and can add quality depth on another team’s roster.
Smith is an explosive runner that can score almost any time he touches the ball, but the Falcons and other NFL teams will have to decide how big an issue his broken leg is. He suffered that injury on special teams in Week 11 last year, which should mean that he should have no problem being ready for OTAs and training camp this spring and summer but injured players don’t find the free-agent market as generous as healthy ones.
The Falcons probably want to bring back at least one of these free agents to add depth behind Freeman and whichever running back the team adds in the draft. Should the Falcons lose one or both, they could replace them with a free agent. A player like Roy Helu played under Kyle Shanahan and Bobby Turner in Washington, and possesses traits that could make him an ideal replacement for either player. Like Rodgers, Helu served as the Redskins’ primary third-down back the past few years. But like Smith, Helu possesses the explosive speed to generate big plays on the ground.
If not Helu, then the Falcons might just wait until the draft to add depth. Given the history of Shanahan’s father, Mike and Turner during their shared days in Denver, it’s likely that a new trend for the Falcons will be to utilize a draft pick on a running back almost every year. That trend likely will start in 2015 for the Falcons.