I debated whether I should post two of these in a row, but since nothing's going on in Falconland on a Sunday afternoon I figured I might as well. As you might imagine, ESPN's ranking are slightly more favorable for the Falcons when running backs are involved:
Despite leading the NFL in rushing the past two seasons, Atlanta does not have the top running back unit in the NFL. The reason it led the league in rushing is quarterback Michael Vick's 1,039 yards rushing. Even though he is a better runner than passer, he does not officially get listed in the running back unit. Despite that, this is still a very talented unit led by the underappreciated Warrick Dunn. Despite being 32 years old, Dunn has saved the best for last, having his three best statistical seasons in the last three years. His receiving numbers are down over those three seasons, but he hasn't been asked to catch the ball very much in this offense. Backup Jerious Norwood totaled 633 yards on 99 carries last season for a whopping 6.4 yards per carry average as a rookie. Norwood's role will expand this season, which gives the Falcons a very explosive 1-2 punch.
I would debate these rankings, if only because I'm prejudiced. There's no way the freakin' 49ers should be a spot higher than the Falcons. Before you say "but Dave, the 49ers have Frank Gore, who's like ub3r l33t", remember that this is supposed to rank the whole position for each team. Dunn and Norwood are a much better 1-2 punch than Gore and Michael Robinson or Maurice Hicks. Case in point:
Warrick Dunn, 286 ATT, 1140 yards, 4 TDs
Jerious Norwood, 99 ATT, 633 yards, 2 TDs
Frank Gore, 312 ATT, 1695 yards, 8 TDs
Maurice Hicks, 29 ATT, 82 yards, 0 TDs
Michael Robinson, 38 ATT, 116 yards, 2 TDs
If Frank Gore was to be injured, the 49ers would be straight up boned. The Falcons could survive an injury to one or the other because they're both talented enough to carry the load for a while. I recognize that Gore is well on his way to becoming an elite back, but to me it makes no sense to rank a team with exactly one good running back as better than a team with two. But I guess that's why I don't make a crapload of money to make up arbitrary team rankings.
Aside from that clear oversight, the Falcons are close enough to the top that I'm pretty happy. I expect big things out of both Dunn and Norwood this year, especially with Pet Rhino installing a blocking scheme that's best described as an immovable wall of fat. As Vick and the receivers hopefully show growth at the beginning of the year, the running game should be primed to pound out some ridiculous numbers.
What do you all think?