After breaking down the quarterbacks last week, it’s fitting to go right into running backs following the recent news regarding Todd Gurley, where Dirk Koetter admitted the Falcons are in the dark regarding his knee injury. Luckily, the team has clauses in his contract that will protect them if he’s not healthy to play, but still, there might not be many quality free agents on the market by the time they find out. However, in these trying times, I’m attempting to be more optimistic, and I do believe Gurley will be cleared to play once he undergoes his physical.
Thomas Dimitroff and Dirk Koetter have said they like to use a running back by committee system, and they certainly have the depth to do so in 2020. But there is no question who the lead dog is in the locker room — Todd Gurley (assuming everything checks out).
People are rightfully concerned about Gurley’s knee problems, but I don’t believe much has changed since last season. The condition will never fully heal, but it’s all about pain tolerance. Some weeks he will be able to shoulder a full load, and in other games, he will have to be used sparingly. Despite all the issues he had last year and load management, Gurley still ran the ball 223 times and appeared in 15 out of 16 games. Devonta Freeman hasn’t recorded that many carries since 2016, when he had 227, and has missed 16 games over the last two seasons. Behind an offensive line that I expect to be much better this year, Gurley should have a bounce-back year. When he’s on the field, he is still one of the most explosive running backs in the league. If he can give the Falcons 200+ carries this year, Gurley will be well worth his contract.
The Battle for RB2
Where things start to get interesting is the battle behind Gurley for carries. Ito Smith was the backup to Devonta Freeman last season and played well when called upon, carrying the ball 22 times for 105 yards — good for a 4.8 YPC. However, he was limited to just seven games because of injury. In his place, Brian Hill stepped up and played splendidly, doing enough for the Falcons to place a fifth-round tender on him, guaranteeing him a contract of over $2 million. In 12 games, including two starts, Hill ran the ball 78 times for 323 yards and a couple of touchdowns. When it comes to roster battles, this is a genuine toss-up, but if I had to give someone a slight edge, it would be Smith.
Behind those two lies Qadree Ollison, who is a prototypical vulture. The bowling ball of a back was used primarily in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Given his lack of speed and the guys in front of him, I don’t expect his role to expand, and it might even shrink. Todd Gurley has been a touchdown machine over the years, and when he’s healthy, I expect him to get those carries — even if Ollison thrived in those situations last year.
The Falcons also have Craig Reynolds, who played in three games for the Redskins last season before joining the Falcons practice squad, and Mikey Daniel, who the Falcons just signed as an undrafted free agent out of South Dakota State. However, it is going to be challenging for either of them to crack the 53-man roster, given the depth Atlanta has at the position.