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Rush Hour: What Becomes Of Atlanta's Running Game?

/The times, they are a-changin'...

Kevin C. Cox

It's no secret the Falcons are making some real changes on both sides of the ball.

Mike Nolan's defense has seen the more drastic overhauls, to be sure. But an offense that has been the cornerstone of Atlanta's success since 2008 has also seen its share of transition this offseason, most notably the departure of Tony Gonzalez and a sorely-needed retooling on the offensive line. Heck, there's even a new backup quarterback.

Something tells me running back falls next on the checklist. With Steven Jackson in the twilight of his career, Jacquizz Rodgers in the final year of his contract and Antone Smith still not seeing meaningful carries, what happens to the group this season and next?

Devonta Freeman is the only clear long-term option still on the roster. Many of you, myself included, expected the Falcons to address running back in this year's Draft. However, Freeman's skill set was a little surprising in how closely it compared to Rodgers.

Both could be considered quicker complements to your bigger power back. Freeman had plenty of experience pass-blocking at Florida State, which Daniel Cox details over at the official site, and he also possesses quality receiving skills and open-field elusiveness. However, Freeman sets himself apart in that he has more potential to contribute on multiple downs and between the tackles. He seems to me a more decisive runner than Rodgers and he has a better initial burst in his step, or at least he did in college.

And that's not to sell Freeman's power game short: He only managed 14 bench reps at his Pro Day, but his functional strength on the field seems just fine to me. Mike Smith thinks so, too:

"I think if you look at his size, the first thing that comes to your mind is he may be a change-of-pace back. That is not the case," Smith said to Sports Illustrated. "He's a very strong runner. He is shorter in stature, but he has great strength. If you really study him, he's probably more effective running with the ball between tackles then he is outside."

With the team so high on Freeman, I wonder whether Rodgers could be gone by next spring. He certainly wasn't bad in 2013 -- the offensive line basically skewed any numbers the backs put up -- but his talents seem to be more limited than the rookie's. You also have to consider much of Rodgers' production in the receiving game came on checkdown passes from a pressured Matt Ryan when the team was behind (which was a lot last season).

Here are a couple of advanced numbers for context:

Rodgers' DVOA among backs with 20-99 carries was -8.1 percent, per Football Outsiders, meaning he was a below-average rusher. His yards above replacement: -7. Rodgers' DVOA in the receiving game was 7.8 percent. While above average, this also ranked below 17 other running backs, including Jason Snelling, who had a league-best 46.2 percent receiving DVOA for backs.

Meanwhile, Freeman averaged 5.87 yards per carry as a junior with the Seminoles, and that includes 82 yards on nine carries in situations of "third down and 1-3 yards to go."

Now, I'm not saying Rodgers has been terrible and Freeman is the savior of the Falcons' running game. A lot of this depends on how the offensive line does. What I hope I pointed out in all of this, however, is that the Falcons essentially know what they have in Rodgers -- a below-average runner, plus-receiver and capable pass-blocker -- and could be hard-pressed to keep Freeman off the field as a rookie because of that.

Now, I could also use this space to argue that Antone Smith should see more time this season based on his limited success in 2013.


Let's face it: that will never happen. Best cross our fingers for Freeman.