Stacking the Draft Board: Running Back

The Falcons offense was one of the least explosive offenses in the league in 2010. And it’s been a major point for the Falcons front office to try and change that headed into 2011.

At the running back position the Falcons currently have Michael Turner. Turner receives the bulk of the Falcons carries on the ground, at about 75% each of the last three seasons when healthy. That probably isn’t going to change in 2011. But since 2008, the Falcons have made a concerted effort to reduce some of Turner’s workload. And what can help that significantly if the Falcons can have reliable options behind him as a change of pace. Jason Snelling had a strong finish in the 2009 campaign, but outside his Week 2 performance as a replacement to an injured Turner, he didn’t contribute a ton in 2010 on the ground. Jerious Norwood missed almost the entire year, and his future in Atlanta is in doubt. If the Falcons can secure a solid No. 3 running back in the draft, it should all but end Norwood’s disappointing tenure in Atlanta due to his inability to stay healthy.

And the most likely target for that No. 3 spot is a quick, explosive back that can be a factor on third downs.

Thankfully for the Falcons, this draft class seems to be loaded with those types of runners, with teh Falcons more than likely targeting one in the middle portion of the draft. At this point, my expectation is that the ideal range where the Falcons will take a back is somewhere between the third and fifth round of the draft, with them trying to address other needs earlier.

Recent reports indicate that the Falcons talked to Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams. Williams is projected by most to be a second round pick, and perhaps even the second running back off the board after Alabama’s Mark Ingram. But he may go before the Falcons are looking to take a running back, unless team’s injury concerns cause him to drop into the third round. Williams didn’t have a strong combine, running a much slower 40 than expected at 4.59, but he can make up for that at Virginia Tech’s pro day in two weeks.

Other potential targets would also be: Noel Devine (West Virginia), Kendall Hunter (Oklahoma State), Taiwan Jones (Eastern Washinton), Dion Lewis (Pittsburgh), Derrick Locke (Kentucky), DeMarco Murray (Oklahoma), Jacquizz Rodgers (Oregon State), Da’Rel Scott (Maryland), Jordan Todman (Connecticut), and Shane Vereen (California).

Hunter, Murray, and Todman are all players that stock could move them up into the late second round range. But if any of those players are available come pick No. 91, the Falcons could jump all over them. Like Williams, Murray and Hunter dealth with their fair share of injuries while in college, which  may potentially scare off the Falcons due to their experience with Norwood. That would make a player like Todman a bit more valuable to the Falcons due to the fact that he only missed 2 games in 3 years at UConn.

Also on the Falcons radar may be Shane Vereen and Jacquizz Rodgers, both projected to go off the board in the third or fourth round by many experts. Both are two very productive players from the Pac-10 and were relatively durable despite not having great size. Both players are arguably just as good as the players ranked ahead of them, but because they had less than stellar 40 times (4.50 and 4.59, respectively), they aren’t currently as highly regarded. Both players were very productive pass catchers as well, meaning that they can contribute relatively quickly in the passing game for the Falcons.

If the Falcons continue to wait via the draft, they still should be able to find quality in the latter part of the draft. Pittsburgh’s Dion Lewis is small, but quick, and had a disappointing sophomore year after a strong freshman campaign. He is flying under the radar because of it. Players like Devine and Locke battled injuries throughout this past year, preventing them from putting a stamp on their collegiate careers. Devine has elite speed, but is small in stature at 179 pounds. But he’s been compared to Warrick Dunn, who had a great deal of success here in Atlanta. Taiwan Jones helped lead his team to the FCS National championship, but a broken foot suffered late int he year is keeping him off a lot of draftnik’s radars currently. He is a potential sleeper late in the draft. Da’Rel Scott’s stock has been rising this off-season, but he also had his issues with durability in the past which will probably prevent him from being an early round pick.

Because of this fairly solid depth to be had in the middle rounds, the Falcons shouldn’t feel to be under any pressure to snatch a running back early in the draft. They simply have to find which players they really like and figure out when the right time is to take them off the board based on how other teams are drafting.

Topping the Board:
1. Jordan Todman, Connecticut – Todman’s production, speed, and durability probably make him the preferred choice.
Next Best Things:
2. Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State – The senior’s leadership, quickness, and vision should be seen as an asset to the Falcons offense.
3. Shane Vereen, California – He’s not as explosive as Jahvid Best, but Cal’s offense didn’t skip a beat when he was toting the rock.
4. Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State – Rodgers production and toughness should make him a strong candidate for the Falcons.
Later Consolation Prizes:
5. Derrick Locke, Kentucky – Durability is the concern here, but he’s explosive and would be a potential steal late in the draft.
6. Noel Devine, West Virginia – Made a ton of explosive plays in college, and in a situational role could do the same for the Falcons. Not to mention his value and potential as a return threat as well.
7. Taiwan Jones, Eastern Washington – Small, but quick and explosive and should be a nice sleeper candidate due to his injury.

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Aaron Freeman
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