The Atlanta Falcons’ running back corps is coming off of a dismal 2013 — one in which the team finished dead last in the NFL with a paltry 77 rushing yards per game. A lot of blame could be thrown at the offensive line, and rightfully so, but the running backs weren’t particularly impressive in their own right. The Falcons invested heavily in the offensive line this offseason, so the onus is now on the running backs to prove themselves worthy in 2014.
Standing atop the depth chart is Steven Jackson, a key free agent signing in 2013 and huge disappointment for the Falcons last year. A hamstring injury, poor blocking, and apparent aging were enough to put an end to Jackson’s streak of eight straight 1,000-yard seasons. Jackson is out to prove that last year was a fluke, but he’s on the wrong side of 30 and has two young running backs behind him hungry for carries. He’ll start 2014 as the primary back, but if Jackson is usurped by one of Devonta Freeman or Jacquizz Rodgers by year’s end, you can say goodbye to Jackson in Atlanta.
The Falcons spent a fourth-round pick this year on Florida State’s Devonta Freeman, and all indications are that the Falcons will groom the versatile back to be the featured ballcarrier in the near future. A shifty, one-cut back with soft enough hands to be a valuable asset in the passing game, Freeman draws comparisons to Pro Bowl running backs Ray Rice and Frank Gore. How soon could we see Freeman hit the field? We’ll know a lot more when the preseason starts, but if Freeman can continue his development as a pass protector, he may dip into Jackson’s carries a lot sooner rather than later.
The somewhat forgotten men of the group are Rodgers and Antone Smith. Rodgers will look to retain his role as a dangerous change-of-pace back, but with the similar Freeman in town and this being ‘Quizz’s contract year, 2014 could very well be his last season in a Falcons uniform.
Smith has been vastly underutilized by the Falcons’ staff, but with so many talented options ahead of him, it’s hard to see him getting many meaningful carries this year. Regardless, Smith makes his money as a dominating special teams player, so he should have no trouble making the final roster.
Syracuse UDFA Jerome Smith and career-backup Josh Vaughn will both face an uphill battle for a final roster spot, and I’d be surprised if either of them are kept around with the amount of talent Atlanta employs at the position.
At fullback, the Falcons are bringing Patrick DiMarco back to compete with the athletic-UDFA Roosevelt Nix for the starting job after releasing the always-injured Bradie Ewing early in the offseason. Fullback isn’t a vital position in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s offense, but it will be interesting to see Nix make the transition from defensive line to fullback while attempting to beat out DiMarco.
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