Falcons: Who will carry the load behind Devonta Freeman?

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As a lifelong Packers fan, I’ve been afforded the privilege to watch the team sustain success comparable to that of the Steelers and Patriots. Green Bay like the Steelers and Patriots are doing so by being on the forefront of innovation in offensive strategies (OK, maybe it has a little to do with back-to-back decades of HOF QBs).

Mike Holmgren’s West Coast offense is viewed mainly as the closest one to Walsh’s, but Holmgren changed the way he utilized the personnel as he expanded the packages and how they were presented.  In his version of the West Coast Offense, Holmgren has done more with formations such as widening his tight end formation.  Mike McCarthy also has roots in the West Coast offense but often opts for plays in which he trusts his receivers to win one-on-one, rather than route combinations that work together to beat certain coverages.

The two posted impressive seasons with both Favre and Rodgers at the helm. From 1995-1997, Favre provided three transformative seasons. In 2011, Aaron Rodgers set the record for passer rating in a season, then again put up similar numbers in 2012 and 2014. Both quarterbacks benefited from a newly implemented variation of a well-established offensive scheme.

From my thoughts, the NFL is making an almost league-wide transition. Fans of teams like the Rams, Saints, and Bears have enjoyed the spoils that result from a heavy dosage of running backs in the passing game. These offensive systems, though different in overarching philosophies, have rudimentary similarities when deploying the running back in passing situations.

Whether it is Sean McVay encompassing Todd Gurley in the offense via screen, option route, play-action, or a check-down, or it is Sean Payton scheming Alvin Kamara into a 1-on-1 with a linebacker (usually resulting in favorable outcomes), a handful of NFL offenses have now shown the rest of league (which is a copycat league) the benefits of attacking defenses with either a blue-chip, star in a 1-back system or an array of backs with differing skillsets in a multi-back system. Running backs that possess several skill sets are in demand in the NFL, and it looks to be the blueprint for many successful offenses today.

Falcon fans watched in fascination as the 2016 team seemingly moved the ball at-will, led by former OC and now HC of the 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 85 catches, 883 yards, and five touchdowns when targeted by Matt Ryan during his MVP campaign. Kyle Shanahan is an offensive guru, and the success of the 2016 season is due in part to the former OC. Now duplicating his success in San Francisco with former Falcon Tevin Coleman, fans are left wondering if there will ever be another season like his last in Atlanta. This offense is most effective when it is balanced among all facets of the running and passing games. To do that; there must be a variety of running backs in the stable.

As the team has slowly moved away from calculatedly involving the running backs, the ensuing seasons have been more and more disappointing. In 2017, the duo of Freeman and Coleman accounted for 63 catches with the season resulting in a loss to the Eagles in the Divisional round. In 2018, the duo accounted for only 37 catches as Freeman produced only five catches after an injury-ravaged season that resulted in missing the playoffs, posting a 7-9 record. With Tevin Coleman’s departure, the Falcons cannot afford to reminisce on the duo’s previous success. The team must find not only serviceable but contributable backs behind Freeman to maximize the offenses’ production and the 6th year back’s longevity.

The Atlanta backfield starts, and optimistically this season will prove that it does not stop with Devonta Freeman. Freeman is no longer a spring chicken, injured his foot and suffered from a sports hernia last season, resulting in a move to the IR for the rest of 2018. When healthy, he is inarguably a top 10 back in the league, and he doesn’t believe last year’s injuries will slow him down.

“I got stronger from that,” Freeman said. “I got closer to God. I learned how to be patient more. I [learned] better people skills. All around the stuff that I couldn’t do, I took advantage of the stuff I could do. I have a greater appreciation for life.” Thus illustrating his gratitude of the good times, i.e., back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2015-2016. Freeman’s last full season, 14 games in 2017, was considered by many, including Freeman, as a down year.

Freeman posted just under 900 yards in those 14 games, proving if the now 27-year-old is healthy, he is productive. Paired with a capable back-up and still accounting for a down year, the future tandem should have no issues matching the totals Freeman and Coleman posted back in 2017.

Ideally, Freeman would remain healthy, reclaiming a spot among the best all-around running backs in the league. Dreadfully, the trend of injuries from the previous two seasons could persist into 2019. In this worst-case scenario, the front office must be prepared to assemble a 53-man roster capable of competing for a Super Bowl, and fans can expect heavily relying on the wide receiving core to pick up the slack. A rebound is anticipated but cannot be guaranteed. Therefore, generation of competition and meticulous evaluation between those behind Freeman on the depth chart is necessary.

Ito Smith has proven that he can handle the workload asked of a No. 2 running back. Though Smith has similar running styles to Freeman, he performed adequately in his rookie season when splitting time with Tevin Coleman. Smith has been a fill-in for the spot behind Devonta Freeman since the start of camp. The second-year back out of Southern Mississippi averaged 3.5 yards on 90 carries in 14 games last season and is looking to carve out the same role this year. Not only is Smith a dependable receiving threat, but he can run inside and outside the tackles.

After assessing his first season with running backs coach Dave Brock, Smith said he wants to focus on consistency when hitting the hole full-speed and improving his pass protection. Not only does Ito Smith possess skill and work ethic, but he is also dedicated to the team effort. “I’m just doing my part,” Smith said. “We know that everybody has to be able to do everything whenever the offense calls you. I’m just being prepared to do whatever coach has asked me to do.”

As Ito Smith is set to move into the role as Freeman’s primary back-up, the No. 3 and 4 running back spots are up for grabs. I mention the fourth spot in a forecast of what I believe to be unbiasedly true. And that is the Falcons will have to either carry four running backs or stash one on the practice squad and risk another team signing him. This is the case for a few reasons: injuries, competition, and schematics. In my eyes, three backs are competing for one job, maybe two.

Brian Hill averages a staggering 6.3 yards per carry for his career. Though it may only be on 31 rushes, he has proven himself on the ground. Last year, Hill could not catch the ball out of the backfield. He has ground to make up, regarding his receiving ability, if he wants the No. 3 running back title. Though a little recognition from Dan Quinn will help a young guy’s confidence. He showed some love after singling him out and is “happy with his progress.”

Qadree Ollison has a thick lower body that resembles that of former Falcon, Michael Turner.  He uses his size to pick up the tough yards on the third and shorts that this offense has struggled to pick up over the last seven seasons. He will be an ideal change of pace back that will make Freeman and Smith more dangerous.

Kenjon Barner is the veteran of the group. At 30 years old, he has more experience than the rest combined. He’s the safest choice for that No. 3 spot, however, he doesn’t have the upside of the team’s younger RB options. Barner’s best value in recent seasons has primarily been as a kickoff returner, and he’ll also be in the mix for that competition

Whichever variation of the depth chart that is rolled out on display week 1, there will be eager fans excited to see what Dirk Koetter has ready for opposing defenses. Known to involve his running backs in his past offenses, Koetter should find value in a three if not four deep running back room.

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