Free Agent Focus: Running Back
I’ve already discussed that I believe the Falcons should be parting ways with Michael Turner this off-season. And if that were to happen, then it would leave a pretty large hole atop the team’s depth chart at the running back.
One hope would be that Jacquizz Rodgers can fill that hole or at least a large part of it. Rodgers was underutilized by the Falcons this past year, and he could blossom in Dirk Koetter’s offense. Koetter maximized the abilities of Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville, and there are many similarities between the two players. But more than likely, the Falcons aren’t going to want to thrust such a huge responsibility on Rodgers. And by no means should the Falcons put all of their eggs in that basket.
Turner’s potential departure should improve the odds that Jason Snelling should return to the Falcons. Snelling is by no means great, but he’s a consistently solid and is versatile due to his ability to play a multitude of roles as a runner, receiver, blocker, and on special teams. He’s proven in the past to be a capable replacement starter for Turner, and thus should get another opportunity to showcase that ability.
But what the Falcons really need to do is go after someone that is in a position to potentially take over the No. 1 spot and be the sort of workhorse that receive up to 250 carries next year.
The big names on the market are Baltimore’s Ray Rice, Chicago’s Matt Forte, and Houston’s Arian Foster. But it’s been well-known since October that Rice and Forte will receive the franchise tag from their respective teams, and Foster is just a restricted free agent. So barring the Falcons packaging players and both of their Day 2 draft picks in a trade, they won’t have the opportunity to even sniff at any of them.
But the free agency cupboard still is not barren after those guys, just there is nobody that is clearly a top back. Cedric Benson (Cincinnati), Michael Bush (Oakland), Tashard Choice (Buffalo), Justin Forsett (Seattle), Ryan Grant (Green Bay), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (New England), Tim Hightower (Washington), Peyton Hillis (Cleveland), Thomas Jones (Kansas City), Marshawn Lynch (Seattle), and LaDainian Tomlinson (NY Jets) are some of the backs in that next group of runners.
You can probably eliminate Benson, Grant, Jones, Lynch, and Tomlinson from the Falcons wish list. Since after all, the whole point of cutting Turner is to get younger, and going with one of those names does little to do that. Bush is probably the best option of those left, coming off a fairly productive year (256 carries, 980 yards, 3.8 avg, 7 TDs). He offers a similar physical skillset as Turner. But he’ll also be 28 when the season starts, and thus you’re afraid you could be in a situation just like you are with Turner where there isn’t a whole lot left in the tank.
Honestly, the player I would prefer to have is Peyton Hillis. He’s still relatively young (turned 26 on Saturday), brings the physical interior run presence that is absent without Turner. The problem of course is that Hillis is coming off a bad season in Cleveland where he seemingly lost his mind. I don’t know how to explain it, but presumably he was preoccupied with his desire to get paid rather than his desire to play football. That’s not a good mindset, especially if the Falcons have to invest significant money to secure Hillis’ services. But I still think Hillis is a good player when he wants to be, and hopeful that a potential change in scenery and a modest upgrade in compensation can leave all of those issues at the door. But there are so many red flags with what Hillis did this past year (sitting out games, teammate intervention, etc.) that I certainly understand why it would be difficult to convince others to get on the bandwagon for signing Hillis.
Green-Ellis is another nice option that has proven the past two years in New England that he can be a competent lead back. He would probably a much safer choice than Hillis. But I also believe part of his success in New England has been due to a really solid offensive line. And putting him on what could be a more average unit in Atlanta probably won’t reap nearly the same results. But the “Law Firm” is a solid short-yardage and interior runner that won’t wow you, but can get the tough yards between the tackles, in the redzone, and at the end of games. And that’s the sort of role one would envision he could have here in Atlanta.
Forsett is a good back, but he seems to offer the exact same sort of skillset that Rodgers does, which would make him redundant. Choice is another nice back that is a local kid hailing from Georgia Tech. But he’s coming off a really bad year in both Dallas and Buffalo. A few years back he looked like a guy primed to be a solid starter in this league, but one wonders after the abysmal season this past year whether that back still exists. He’s probably the guy with the most upside, but is also a potential bust if he does not find his former legs.
Honestly, between Hillis, Green-Ellis, and Choice, I’d probably pick the guy that would be willing to play for the cheapest price. I don’t think the Falcons have to go out and spend a fortune at this position to find a good player. If the Falcons want the next big thing, they will have to find that in the draft and/or potentially develop Rodgers. But in free agency, the Falcons should be focused more on a potential stopgap, and they shouldn’t be in a mindset to pay a high premium for such.