Training Camp Preview: Running Backs

Unlike quarterback, running back doesn’t feature any prime time battles. The first two spots on the depth chart are pretty secure barring injury. Michael Turner will open the season as the team’s starter, with Jerious Norwood serving as a reserve.

Turner was paid $34.5 million to come here from San Diego as LaDainian Tomlinson’s backup to be the Falcons starter. Turner has a solid blend of size and speed. Able to hit the homerun with his impressive straight-line speed, as well as run over tacklers due to his low center of gravity and strong lower body. In that way, he is similar to a blend of a young Warrick Dunn in Jamal Anderson’s body. The Falcons hope that Turner can be a workhorse in Atlanta. He had very impressive numbers in San Diego, but played mostly in garbage time there. The team hopes that Turner can now translate that production into a bona fide NFL feature back.

By all accounts, Norwood has been underutilized by the two previous coaching staffs. Norwood is a top speed back, able to bust loose for a big run anytime he touches the ball. Those types of players aren’t very numerous in the NFL, and many believe that the past coaching staffs have not taken advantage enough of this ability. One of the issues has been Norwood’s durability. His lanky frame hasn’t shown an ability to hold up to the punishment of the NFL. Too often last season he lingered on the turf after a hit from a defender, and a hit that wasn’t perceived to be that big of a deal at the moment. Norwood has polished hands, and has really improved his pass blocking in recent years, making him an ideal option on third downs. But it remains to be seen if the coaching staff will give him more opportunities besides passing downs.

The only real battle of significance this summer will be between rookie Thomas Brown and second year man Jason Snelling for the third running back position. Brown was a sixth round pick this year, and Snelling a seventh rounder last year. Snelling had a very impressive summer and even showed some ability late in the season. He’s a big back that showed he has potential as a short-yardage runner. Brown is smaller and has home run speed, and essentially the pair form their own little power-speed combination like Turner and Norwood deeper on the depth chart. But more than likely only one will stay. And not only will their rushing success this summer determine that, who can contribute the most on special teams will also help. Snelling was effective in special teams coverage at Virginia, while Brown showed some ability as a return threat.

After them, there really isn’t much expectation from the rest of the backs. Jamar Brittingham is the only other runner on the roster and isn’t expected to make the team. However, Brittingham does have an opportunity to be a potential practice squad player. He’s a smaller back with a similar frame to Norwood. He was highly productive in Division II, rushing for nearly 5700 yards in four seasons. He also may get a chance to work as a returner on special teams.

At fullback, in relative terms the roster seems pretty much set. Ovie Mughelli will be uncontested as the starter. One of hte legue’s top lead blockers, the Falcons hope to get him more involved offensively increasing his reps.

Behind him is last year’s special teams captain Corey McIntyre. Due to his ability in that area, it’s a long shot that the team could cut McIntyre, although a slim possibility. The Falcons may try to move Snelling to this position. And if Snelling can show some potential as a lead blocker this summer, he has a slim chance to unseat McIntyre. McIntyre is a solid blocker in the mold of Mughelli, but Snelling offers a much more versatile offensive weapon due to his running and receiving skills.

The Battles

Brown vs. Snelling – This will likely get the most press during the summer.
Snelling vs. McIntyre? – It remains to be seen if this battle becomes real, but could be one of the more interesting ones all summer.

The Falcons will likely keep five running backs. Normally, they would keep three runners and two blockers, but Snelling’s versatility could make it so that he counts as both a runner and blocker. Snelling, Brown, and Brittingham are all eligible for the practice squad.

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Aaron Freeman
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