Devonta Freeman’s future with the Falcons is up in the air. He has a couple of years left on his deal but has not been able to play a full season since 2016. Freeman still has talent, and since the cap savings would not be significant unless he is a post-June-1 cut, there is a chance that he could be a Falcon in 2020. But he also posted the lowest YPC of his career, and the Falcons will have to do some maneuvering of the cap if they want to bring back Austin Hooper. You can expect better production out of a healthy O-Line in 2020, but regardless of whether Freeman is a Falcon or not, it is time for the team to pursue fresh legs in this year’s Draft.
Atlanta will be looking to bolster their defense in this year’s draft, and rightfully so. They invested a ton of equity in their offensive line last offseason, and have the skill players on offense any team would die for. With Kylin Hill, Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, and Chuba Hubbard returning to school, this running back class is not as deep as it once appeared to be, but there is still a handful of guys with a ton of upside in the 3-5 round range. Taking a back in the mid-rounds will be crucial for the team going forward, so let’s dive into the options.
Guys who may end up going a bit too early
Two backs who should be dynamic at the next level, but may be off the board by the mid-rounds are Clyde Edwards-Helaire and J.K. Dobbins. Both were instrumental in their team’s road to the College Football Playoff. The talk around LSU is Joe Burrow, and rightfully so, but Edwards-Helaire was reason 1B for their success. He is well rounded; a short, stocky, but shifty back who rushed for 6.6 yards per carry. His ability to catch balls out of the backfield, as well as his toughness as a pass blocker, is criminally underrated. He reminds me a lot of Mark Ingram but with better receiving skills coming out of college.
Like Ingram, he played his best when the lights were the brightest, and while he may not be the fastest back in the open field, he has elite vision to open up big runs and is the type of back who is harder to stop as the game goes on.
Dobbins had as dominant of a season as they come in college, rushing for over 2,000 yards. He is a tough runner with a nice blend of speed and size and should be one of the better backs at the next level. He has excellent bust and power, good enough hands to be a three-down back, and has shown elite vision at the college level.
Both of these guys are going to make an impact at the next level, it will just be a matter of whether the Falcons will want to spend that much equity on the position. These guys are too talented to make it out of Round 2, but it seems the value of running backs in drafts comes in waves. If either of these guys is there in the third, it should be a no-brainer.
Upside, upside, upside
If the Florida State program had not faltered the way it has during Cam Akers‘ tenure at running back, we could be looking at Akers as a top back in the Draft. He has immense talent and was still able to post 1,144 yards and 14 touchdowns behind a weak offensive line while showing big enough strides as a pass-catcher. Akers has the ability to be a three-down back at the next level, and his combination of explosiveness, size, and power should benefit from playing behind a better offensive line. He is built to make it through full NFL seasons. He will just have to work on his pass protection.
A guy who can be had at a discount due to a down season is Eno Benjamin. We saw a massive dropoff in terms of yardage and yards per carry last season. Size could be an issue, and there is a chance he ends up only being a change of pace back in the NFL, but he has the talent to prove otherwise. He is a good guy to go with if the Falcons want to rotate backs and can probably be the lead guy with a managed workload in time. If the Falcons are looking to re-establish the running back into the passing game, Benjamin could be a great addition. He had 42 receptions last season for Arizona State.
Perhaps the most underrated back in this year’s draft is A.J. Dillon. He shattered every rushing record at Boston College in just three seasons. He is a power back who is strictly meant to run through the tackles, but he is a damn good one. Like Benjamin, he may be best used in a rotation of sorts, and would actually be a great compliment to Devonta Freeman – if they decide to keep him – as a guy who can be used frequently in short-yardage situations. He is built like a tree and is a patient, downhill runner who can get the tough yards. Just don’t expect him to catch many balls out of the backfield.