Falcons: Ito Smith will get his chance to lead Arthur Smith’s stable of running backs


As the roster currently stands, the Falcons have three running backs under contract — Ito Smith, Qadree Ollison, and Tony Brooks-James. Arthur Smith has already made it clear the same situation that worked in Tennessee isn’t going to work in Atlanta, for one obvious reason — there is only one Derrick Henry.

“We’re not going to have Derrick Henry here,” Smith said, via D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “So, it’s not like I think we’re going to have Derrick Henry.”

“The reality is that we’ll get multiple backs in here, and we’ll have the way we trust our schemes and the way we teach the details of it, and we’ll commit to it,” Smith said. “That should provide hope to people because of that mindset.”

It is clear that instead of using a workhorse like Henry, who Smith could’ve handed the ball to 30 times in a game if need be, he will use a running back by committee approach. For those of you who don’t think Smith’s offense can succeed in this way, it’s important to remember that Henry and his former offensive coordinator had a mutually beneficial relationship. A great talent like Henry propelled Smith’s offense, and the former Alabama running back thrived in the scheme.

I can all but guarantee that Henry’s numbers will dip with Smith’s departure. Before Smith (2016-2018), Henry carried the ball over 500 times for 2,293 yards (4.6 YPC) and 22 touchdowns compared to his 681 carries for 3,567 yards (5.2) and 33 touchdowns. Before Smith was calling the shots in Tennessee, Henry had never even eclipsed 1,100 yards. Who made who?

Terry Fontenot will surely address the running back position through free agency or April’s draft, as Ollison is the only player at the position who’s signed past next year — Smith and Brooks-James are set to hit free agency in 2022.

Tony Brooks-James was undrafted for a reason, and being a ‘camp body’ might be his only contribution to Atlanta. Ollison may have fallen out of favor with Dirk Koetter, or he really could be only a goal-line option. For now, [Arthur] Smith will have at least one semi-experienced running back in [Ito] Smith. Back in December, Raheem Morris named [Ito] Smith the lead back after Todd Gurley missed a game against the Las Vegas Raiders.

“Ito’s performance,” Morris said when asked why the roles have changed for both players. “Ito’s played so well. When he’s gotten opportunities he’s made yards.”

[Ito] Smith finished the year with 268 yards on 63 carries and one score, good for 4.3 yards per carry. He did have four explosive runs, which are rushes for more than 10 yards or more. The former Southern Miss Golden Eagle is an elusive, one-cut running back, which should serve him well in [Arthur] Smith’s system. His vision is also another impressive attribute that allows him to overcome some of his physical limitations. [Arthur] Smith doesn’t necessarily use running backs in the passing game nearly as much as his predecessor — Matt LaFleur — did in Tennessee, but [Ito] Smith is more than capable of catching the ball out of the backfield.

In summary, [Ito] Smith will likely have his shot to lead the running back room this season, but Fontenot would be wise to get him a long-term running mate, who would eventually take over the lead back role next year. It is easy for rookie running backs to acclimate to the NFL, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Fontenot takes one on Day 2 and Day 3 of the draft. Ollison will surely get his carries in camp, but at this point, it will be [Ito] Smith and whoever the front office brings in through free agency or the draft as the defective RB1 and RB2.

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