Falcons: 2021 Running Back Rant & Prospects

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As it stands, the Falcons have two running backs under contract for next season’s roster. Ito Smith is signed through 2021 but becomes an unrestricted free agent following the season, and Qadree Ollison is signed through the 2022 season. Even though the Falcons’ offensive struggles begin and end with Dirk Koetter, the running back room in Atlanta is lacking talent. Instead of the traditional highly coveted prospects’ draft profiles, I will expand on why it is never worth it to draft a running back high and, subsequently, the hidden gems of the 2021 class.

Drafting a running back in the first two rounds of the draft should be reserved for luxury picks and incompetent general managers. Much like the Chiefs selecting Clyde Edwards-Helaire with the last pick in the first round of this past draft, selecting a running back that high should only happen if the pick is inconsequential to the team’s success. What I mean by that is the Chiefs were going to be equally great with or without Edwards-Helaire. They are the defending Super Bowl champions and essentially retained every critical piece of that championship team, taking a running back in the first round epitomizes just how complete they already were.

My overarching theme of this article is simple, the odds of a first-round rookie running back astronomically outperforming a third-round (or later) running back in the same situation are not good enough to warrant the use of such valuable draft capital. I am not saying there should not be a case to be made for selecting a running back in one of the first two rounds; I am saying, given the particular situation the Falcons find themselves in, calls for not selecting a running back until at least the third round.

I am also for literally never giving a running back a second contract. Instead, draft two running backs every year in the late rounds to slowly replace expiring rookie contracts.

There are too many instances where a third, fourth, or even a fifth-round running back outperforms a first or second-round back. The 2017 draft is a perfect illustration of both sides of my argument. You have first-rounders in Leonard Fourtnette and Christian McCaffrey, who both found early success in different situations but presently find themselves in two different atmospheres. Fournette signed a one-year deal worth up to $3.5 million with the Buccaneers after being waived by the Jaguars at the end of October. While McCaffrey signed a four-year, $64 million agreement with the Panthers making him the highest annually paid running back. Two first-round running backs with two totally different trajectories for their careers.

McCaffrey is much more than a running back, he could start as a slot receiver on most NFL teams, but I think the Jaguars made the smarter decision. It is difficult to let any first-round pick leave without receiving a second contract given the sunk cost of a first-round pick, but when it comes to running backs, NEVER GIVE THEM A SECOND CONTRACT.

Example A: The Falcons gifting a charitable second contract to Devonta Freeman, and we know how that turned out. Example B: The Rams are still paying Todd Gurley his extension money as he plays in a running back by committee situation with the Falcons, in which he will not return. Example C: The Cowboys are in a finicky situation with Ezekiel Elliott after making him the highest-paid running back in NFL history (total value of the McCaffrey extension doesn’t top that of the six-year, $90 million Zeke deal). Granted, the Dallas offensive line has been decimated by injuries this year, but it shows exactly how ineffective Elliott can be when running behind a mediocre offensive line. Why sink that much money into a player that has shown to be productive only with a top-three offensive line.

But the clarity from the 2017 draft continues past the first round. In the second-round, Dalvin Cook was drafted by the Vikings, and Joe Mixon was drafted by the Bengals. In the third-round, Alvin Kamara was drafted by the Saints, Kareem Hunt was drafted by the Chiefs, and James Connor was drafted by the Steelers. In the fourth-round, Jamaal Williams was drafted by the Packers, and Marlon Mack was drafted by the Colts. In the fifth-round, Aaron Jones was drafted by the Packers, and Chris Carson was selected by the Seahawks in the last round of the 2017 draft.

From that draft class, there are examples of both sides of the fence I created. The Vikings are happy with their decision to use a second-round pick on Dalvin Cook, rewarding him with a five-year, $63 million contract. Again, I would not have given him a second contract, but the amount invested in the form of a second-round pick is too high for Minnesota to let Cook walk. The other second-round pick was Joe Mixon, and he signed a four-year, $48,000,000 contract with the Bengals. Cook has missed 21 games since being drafted, and Mixon has missed 14 games since entering the league and has only eclipsed 80% of the offensive snaps three times in the same span. Both second-round picks, both have missed extensive time, and both received lucrative second contracts. Given Cook’s sizeable deal, Minnesota was unable to retain many talented players on defense, and it shows. While the Bengals are in a total rebuilding state, with more money committed to Mixon than any single offensive lineman. See the problem? Even when it comes time to surround Joe Burrow with talent, Cinncinati will be challenged to pay Burrow or anyone for that matter, having already allocated 10% of their salary cap to Mixon alone.

From the third round from the same draft class, Alvin Kamara received a five-year, $75 million contract extension. While James Connor has yet to, and most likely will not, receive a new deal from the Steelers. Kareem Hunt is on his second team — the Browns — after a domestic violence incident resulted in him being released by the Chiefs. Hunt and Kamara have been two of the most productive backs in this class but are receiving wildly different salaries. In contrast, Connor has struggled to stay healthy and now splits time with Benny Snell Jr. Kamara’s contract illustrates New Orleans’ “win now” approach to the season but restricts future deals for rostered players or free agents.

The fourth, fifth, and seventh rounds of that draft yielded Jamaal Williams, Marlon Mack, Aaron Jones, and Chris Carson. Mack has been on the injured reserve since Week 2 but has been Indianapolis’ most productive running back. However, with the emergence of Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines, there is little need to give Mack a second contract. Chris Carson has been as productive, when healthy, as any back in this class. But the key point to that is — when he is healthy. Carson has yet to receive a second contract, and rightfully so after missing 20 of his first 64 games.

Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones have formed the most dangerous backfield duo this year, but neither has received a second contract. Jones is highly touted outside Green Bay, but Williams is equally praised within Green Bay. I am a Packers fan and still stand firm on the notion of giving running backs a second contract being malpractice. The Packers drafted AJ Dillion in the 2020 NFL draft, and he enjoyed a breakout performance last week against the Titans. So, why would Green Bay back up the Brinks truck for one or both of the aforementioned 2017 draft picks when they have a replacement capable of producing similarly on a rookie contract? To reiterate my earlier point:

I am also for literally never giving a running back a second contract. Instead, draft two running backs every year in the late rounds to slowly replace expiring rookie contracts.

Examining the 2017 running back class has proven my point. The running backs who have received second contracts will have less talent around them in the future due to their high salary figures, which could result in less production and buyers remorse. It is entirely possible to strike gold in the first two rounds, but it is also predicated on the situation the running back is going to. The Packers, Saints, and Chiefs are ideal situations with established quarterbacks, stable head coaches, and a quality offensive line. Whereas the Bengals, Panthers, and Jaguars are rebuilding with none of the previously mentioned successful teams’ characteristics.

The running back position in the NFL has the lowest learning curve of any position transitioning from college to the pros — pass protection being the most challenging part for most rookies. So with that, as long as a team has a competent coach, quarterback, and offensive line, the drop off in production from a first-rounder to a third-rounder (or later) in the same situation is ordinarily minuscule.

The Falcons are in limbo. Nobody knows what the new regime will bring. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones‘ futures are an enigma, but either way, the team is not in a position to draft a running back in the first two rounds with so many holes on the roster. So due to those circumstances, I will highlight a handful of running backs that should be available on days two and three of the draft.

Kylin Hill, Mississippi State

Projected Round (2021): 3-5

Kylin Hill’s best game this season came in the opener against LSU. In Mike Leach‘s air raid offense, he showcased his elite receiving ability and surprised many with his pass protection. Following a suspension over a locker room incident, Hill opted out of playing the rest of the season and decided to enter the 2021 NFL Draft. He is a natural runner with both power and quickness, making him a potential three-down starter in the NFL.

Larry Rountree III, Missouri

Projected Round (2021): 3-5

Larry Rountree is a more physical runner than Hill but possesses similar combinations of size and speed. He has run extremely well this year for the Tigers, but the offense lacks the firepower to help him. He is a bruising, fourth-quarter running back that should be used in combination with a faster, slashing-style running back.

Max Borghi, Washington State

Projected Round (2021): 3-5

Max Borghi exemplified the rotational, receiving back that NFL teams value. He showed elite level receiving ability last year in Mike Leach‘s air raid offense. For the NFL, Borghi needs to get stronger and add more weight to his frame. A combination of body types like Borghi and Rountree is my preference.

Keaontay Ingram, Texas

Projected Round (2021): 4-6

Keaontay Ingram possesses the technique that has become common in the league, having great body control and patience at the line of scrimmage. He is a big-bodied back with unusual receiving ability for someone his size. He also possesses a great ability to stick his foot in the ground and change directions, creating a foot race to the endzone against the second and third levels of the defense. Ingram is my late-round dark horse candidate to be a hidden gem.

Trey Sermon, RB, Ohio State

Projected Round (2021): 5-7

Trey Sermon has split carries with Master Teague so far in 2020 but enjoyed a breakout game when given the full load against Northwestern in the BIG 10 Championship. He’s got a stout lower half for a 6-foot-1, 215-pound back and can run through arm tackles with ease. He showcased his balance and toughness running through one of college football’s best defenses in Northwestern. He set a record with 331 rushing yards on 29 carries in that championship game.

Pooka Williams Jr., Kansas

Projected Round (2021): 5-7

Pooka Willams is extremely undersized for the NFL, but he was very productive for Kansas over the past two seasons. Williams’ most impressive attribute is his acceleration. Often, he makes Power 5 schools look like high school teams, similar to Tyreek Hill‘s ability to accelerate and decelerate with elite body control. He is in the same realm as Max Borghi in that he needs to be apart of a committee to find success in the NFL.

The Falcons would be wise, regardless of the new regime’s future plans, to target several running backs in what is a loaded class. Top to bottom, there are potential gem prospects. Casting a wide net in this case is smart. Instead of drafting a Najee Harris or Travis Etienne in the second round, selecting three of the aforementioned prospects in later rounds would increase their chances of finding at least one capable running back.

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