The Falcons were a team heavily reliant on the run for much of the last decade. Whether you were talking about Warrick Dunn, T.J. Duckett or Michael Turner, the Falcons always had a back who was capable of carrying a hefty load. Until they broke down, at least.
Dunn and Turner both had anemic last years in Atlanta, and in both cases, the Falcons looked to free agency to find their replacements. In this case, though, the Falcons elected not to go for young, fresh legs, but one of this generation's greats.
With the addition of Steven Jackson to an already crowded depth chart, let's look at what the Falcons bring to bear at running back in 2013.
Starter: Steven Jackson
2012 stats: 257 carries, 1,042 yards, 4,1 yards per carry, 4 touchdowns, 38 receptions, 321 yards, 8.4 per catch
Jackson will enter the season as the clear top dog at the position. He has over 10,000 yards and 59 touchdowns in his career, remains a threat out of the backfield and has only once averaged less than four yards per carry. Last year, he was his useful prolific self.
When the season begins, Jackson will be 30. The average running back starts going downhill around now, and there's reason to believe Jackson will follow that same trend. After all, he's got 2,395 carries to his name and has a hard-charging, aggressive running style that makes him difficult to bring down but has to take its toll on his body. Jackson's health will be something to watch.
If he's healthy, though, he'll still be a mighty useful player. He's a better pass-catcher than Turner, had a better year than Turner in 2012 overall and runs exceedingly hard. The Falcons can afford to give him less than 250 carries to keep him fresh with their stable of backs, and teams have to account for him as more than a runner when he's in the game. I'd bet strongly on him putting up close to 1,000 yards and reeling in 35-40 passes if he's healthy, and that'll be enough to make an already prolific offense even more dangerous.
For 2013, at least, the Falcons look very good at RB with S-Jax.
Backup: Jacquizz Rodgers
2012 stats: 94 carries, 362 yards, 3.9 yards per carry, 1 touchdown, 53 receptions, 402 yards, 1 touchdown
Not many teams have such a versatile insurance policy. Rodgers has never quite impressed when given a large number of carries, but he's capable of breaking big runs, has game-changing lateral agility and is definitely a natural and intuitive pass-catcher.
You'd be a fool to count Rodgers out of significant playing time for those reasons. The Falcons don't have a true speed back on the roster (we'll get to the closest possibility in a moment), but Rodgers can be tough to bring down because he's strong and agile. He's particularly useful as a receiver out of the backfield, which is where he's likely to get the majority of his snaps in 2013. As a runner, he still has some work to do, but he won't be asked to do a ton with Jackson in the fold. Consider him this offense's Swiss Army Knife.
Rodgers is still just 23 years old, so he could continue to get better. Pencil him in for 75-100 carries and a couple of bushels of catches as Jackson's backup and a sort of change-of-pace back.
Third-String: Jason Snelling
2012 stats: 18 carries, 63 yards, 3.5 yards per carry, 31 receptions, 203 yards, 1 touchdown
Versatility is also Snelling's calling card. He blocks well enough to dabble at fullback, and while he's arguably the weakest runner on the team, he's yet another capable rusher who can truck over hapless defenders.
Snelling's likeliest 2013 role will be part-time blocker and occasional short-yardage back who will be asked to catch the ball at times. While he's likely to get a smaller number of snaps than he did a year ago, he'll remain useful to the offense. Bet on that.
If you get the sense that the Falcons have built a stable of running backs capable of reeling in 100 catches between them...well, that's not by accident. This team is going to pass a ton, and a pass out of the backfield is another dimension that defenses have to account for in addition to Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas. Snelling is one piece, albeit a small one, of a deeply dangerous offense.
Fourth-String: Antone Smith
At this point, Smith is little more than a special teamer. He has probably the best straight-line speed of any back on the roster, but he's never been able to get serious playing time and the obstacles in front of him are as daunting as ever.
If there are injuries, he might get a handful of carries. Otherwise, he won't be a factor on offense, speed be damned.
Practice Squad: Josh Vaughan
Vaughan has nice size and decent speed, and in a plane of reality where the Falcons were rolling with Jacquizz Rodgers and a rookie platoon, he might be able to stick. As it is, he'll have to beat out Antone Smith to carve out a fourth running back role, and he's unlikely to do more than play special teams and serve as an injury replacement even if he does.
The Falcons are ultimately deep at running back, with a quality starter, one of the league's most versatile backups and some useful pieces behind him. If they want to look at getting a young back to take on the load down the line, though, they probably wouldn't hesitate to do so. As much as I like Snelling, he, Smith and Vaughan are no locks to make the final roster if a rookie comes along.
Still, this is a position I don't think the Falcons need to spend an enormous amount of time and effort on during the draft, unless there's a particularly tempting prospect available.
What do you think?