Running back, a position that once was a veritable strength for the Atlanta Falcons, has now fallen on hard times and has been one of the more unremarkable groups on the roster.
Over recent seasons the Falcons have relied much too heavily on older, declining running backs due to the greater emphasis the team has had on the passing game. Essentially the team seeks players that complement their passing game, as opposed to a player that can be the centerpiece of an offense much like Michael Turner was when he first arrived in Atlanta in 2008.
Current incumbent starter Steven Jackson embodies that mentality. While Jackson is the rare sort of runner that has managed to avoid the menacing clutches of Father Time, he no longer is a back that can carry an offense. And the value that Jackson brought in the passing game in 2013 wasn’t great given too many breakdowns in pass protection and dropped passes.
The goal of the Falcons when they signed Jackson as a free agent a year ago was to get an upgrade over the version of Turner that played in 2012, a version which was on its last legs. And the Falcons can proudly say that mission was accomplished. Despite missing several games at the start of the season, Jackson showed over the final two months of 2013 that he was a much more adept lead back than Turner. And it gives the team some optimism that Jackson could be poised for an even stronger 2014 if he can remain healthy and get improved blocking along the offensive line.
But in reality, the Falcons goal with adding Jackson was about as low as one gets. The 2012 version of Turner was among the league’s least effective starting running backs and the Falcons were arguably the worst rushing attack in the league that season. One analogy would be to compare it to the Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback version, which was arguably the worst in the league in recent years with failed draft pick Blaine Gabbert as the starter. Chad Henne is a better option than Gabbert, but he’s by no means a good option.
Essentially, the Falcons new goal should become to find not just a better option but a good one. Jackson, at this point in his career, is not that.
Including Jackson, the Falcons currently have five running backs on their roster. Traditionally, the Falcons have kept four on the roster, although things changed in 2013 with the solid play of Josh Vaughan during the preseason. The team also got solid production in limited reps from Antone Smith late in the season. And Jacquizz Rodgers is arguably one of the better third down backs on the roster. And with the team’s public support for retaining Jackson for at least another year, the possibility increases that the running back on the unsurest footing may be Jason Snelling.
Snelling is another older back just five months younger than Jackson, despite entering the league three years after him. Snelling’s primary value is his versatility as a role player, capable of being a runner, receiver, blocker, and special teams player. But moderate cap savings coupled with his midseason arrest could make him a bit more expendable in the eyes of the Falcons brass.
But the primary reason why the Falcons would part ways with Snelling is to make way for a younger running back with the potential to be the sort of runner that is reminiscent of a younger version of Turner. It’s unlikely that Jackson will be retained beyond 2014 due to his declining skills in contrast to his increasing cap number. Given that 2014 is also the final year in the contracts of all four remaining Falcons running backs, that increases the likelihood that there is significant roster turnover at the position in 2015. Time is ripe for the Falcons to add a young back with fresh legs that can be stashed on the roster for a year with the intention to take over as the lead rusher a year from now.
Similar to tight end Tony Gonzalez, Jackson is potentially an excellent role model for young backs due to his toughness, work ethic and intelligence. Jackson entered the league as a talented, but immature runner that benefited from spending a year under Faulk before passing him as the starter in his second-year. And despite early friction between the two, the experience made Jackson into a better runner over the course of his long NFL career. The Falcons could seek to have history repeat itself with Jackson now in Faulk’s role as the mentor, and a rookie striving to carry his mantle moving forward.
Ideally the Falcons could draft a running back similar to Jackson that could bring that physical element to the ground attack, but also be a capable complement to the passing game. Said player could form a nice one-two punch with Rodgers, who among all the backs is the only one that is likely to still be a Falcon in 2015.
Atlanta’s need at running back is by no means pressing. They could opt to make no major additions to the roster outside a couple of undrafted rookies and get by in 2014. And given more pressing needs elsewhere on the roster, the Falcons could just put off their need to address this position until 2015. But if the Falcons do come across a good player, they should jump at the chance to draft him. Even though it may not bring as much immediate value as drafting a player at another position and more pressing need, long-term it could be highly valuable. Particularly if that running back can give the team a running back that is reminiscent of a younger Jackson or Turner.
That would be analogous to the Jaguars upgrading their quarterback position not with Chad Henne, but with Andrew Luck.