One could certainly say the Falcons sported a MASH unit last year at running back. I think there was only two or three games last year where all three backs: Michael Turner, Jason Snelling, and Jerious Norwood were healthy.
Becuase of this, there is a potential need for the Falcons to add more depth at the position. Between the three, the Falcons are solid. But if one or more are missing (which was often the case last year), then it negatively impacts the Falcons offense.
Compounding the issue is the fact that Michael Turner is 28 years old. At least in recent history that is usually the age that running backs are at when they have their last good years as starters (see Jerome Bettis, Jamal Lewis, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Shaun Alexander). The positive is that Turner did not sustain the wear and tear that those backs sustain up until age 26. But regardless of the amount of miles on him, it’s obvious that the body doesn’t recover as quickly for backs as they approach thirty as it did years before. A given Turner’s heavy workload, it’s probably naive for the Falcons to think he’ll be able to sustain a high level of play for a full 16 games going forward.
Throw in the fact that Jerious Norwood is a free agent, and at a contract crossroads. He’s a restricted free agent, so he should be back for another year, but hasn’t shown the durability and consistency to merit the team giving him an extension. So presumably, this is his last year.
And while Jason Snelling played very well at times in spot duty, I don’t think the Falcons should think that is a lot of room for improvement with him. Considering he’s a former seventh round pick that was a tweener at halfback and fullback coming into the league, it’s not crazy to think he’s just about maxed out in terms of his potential.
All of that means that in a worst case scenario, the Falcons could be without a viable option as a lead back as soon as next season. And thus, it behooves the team to approach the draft with this in mind.
1. Third Down Potential (Blocking/Receiving) – If all goes to plan, and Michael Turner holds up and is productive for the majority of this season, then the only way a rookie is going to see significant PT is on third downs. The Falcons pull Turner in such situations, and platoon Norwood and Snelling there depending on the situation. So blocking skills are going to be very important, coupled with the ability to catch the ball if the rookie is expected to challenge Norwood or Snelling for those duties.
2. Durability – This is often confused with size since they is usually a close correlation between a back’s size and his durability. It’s more about build that actually weight. You can be light and be powerfully built like Maurice Jones-Drew or be heavy but have a slight-build like Darren McFadden. Either way, the Falcons will need someone that is definitely more durable than Jerious Norwood.
*Note: This is where a split lies, because the Falcons can go in one of two directions after the first two traits. They can go in the direction of finding a guy that can replace Norwood as an explosive complement to Turner, or they can target an insurance policy that can replace Turner if he ceases being effective in the near future. The former has more benefits for the short-term (i.e. 2010-11), while the latter is more beneficial long-term (i.e. 2012 and beyond). I’ll give preference to the short-term needs, since teams to think that way on draft day.
3a. Explosiveness – If they want someone that can challenge Norwood right away, explosiveness will be key. Speed is often considered the main factor here, but can get a bit overrated at times. I’ll take an explosive guy that only runs a 4.5 (like Ryan Grant) over a track guy that runs a 4.2 but lacks the burst and vision to consistently use it.
3b. Power – If the Falcons go for the insurance policy, then preferably that player can push Jason Snelling instead as a short-yardage back. Snelling struggled last year in that role. And any potential replacement should be an upgrade in that area.
4. Vision – Vision is a baseline skill, but I’m mentioning it only in the sense that the guy is likely going to have to be a single back going forward. While the Falcons love Ovie Mughelli, the way the league is headed he’s going to be a dinosaur in a few years. The double tight end and three-wide sets are becoming more prevalent in this league, and will do so too in Atlanta as Ryan becomes a more capable and consistent passer. And that leaves the fullback as the guy on the outside looking in because more often than not he’ll be the weakest link in the passing game on the field at a given time. So the ability to be productive without having a lead blocker will be important moving forward.
Backs that are good on third downs are usually in short supply in the draft. So that eliminates quite a few. And despite some of the guys being pretty good fits, anybody that is considered a lock as a first or second round isn’t going to be an option since the Falcons only have one pick in those rounds and certainly won’t use it on a back when they have more pressing needs.
Two bigger backs that could be had in the third round are Toby Gerhart (Stanford) and Montario Hardesty (Tennessee). Both have good size, power, and the ability to contribute right away on third downs if need be. But both lack explosiveness. And Gerhart played in a lot of I-formation, so his ability to transition to a single-back set down the road is a big question mark. And Hardesty has had issues with durability, having several knee injuries while at Tennessee.
Other potential mid-round options include more explosive backs in Chris Brown (Oklahoma), Stafon Johnson (USC), and Roy Upchurch (Alabama). But each have their faults. None have great speed or explosiveness, and don’t match Norwood in that regard. Brown doesn’t have great size and needs to improve his blocker. Johnson is coming off a near-fatal neck injury while lifting weights, so durability is an issue. And Upchurch was a role player during his career at Alabama, so there are issues of how polished a runner he is.
A sleeper like Wayne State’s Joique Bell, who had an impressive Senior Bowl week, showing a good potential as a blocker and also good size and durability. But his lack of speed could hurt him and he’s not explosive at all.
LSU’s Keiland Williams and Miami’s Javarris James also have potential. Williams is more raw and doesn’t really stand out in any one area, but has a good combo of speed and size. But he was never a big factor in LSU’s offense throughout his career, which is a similar concern to Upchurch. James biggest issue is durability and lack of ideal explosiveness, but is arguably one of the better third down options in the draft class.
Joe McKnight (USC) has the explosiveness, but lacks experience as a blocker and has questions about his durability.
There’s no obvious fit. But I would think if the Falcons were looking for someone to challenge Norwood, then Chris Brown, Stafon Johnson, and Javarris James would make the best options. The best option among that trio is probably the guy that puts up the better numbers in the speed/quickness tests at the Combine. I would pay attention to the 10-yard split on the 40-yard dash, the three-cone drill, and the short shuttle to see whomever comes closest to matching or exceeding Norwood’s numbers of 1.55, 6.81, and 4.26 seconds, respectively.
But if the team is looking more for a player that can push Snelling and be a bit more of a long-term insurance policy then Joique Bell is probably the best fit. Otherwise, the Falcons would likely have to target either Gerhart or Hardesty.
With exception to Gerhart and Hardesty, all of these guys are projected to be fourth round picks or later.