When the Falcons drafted Devonta Freeman in the fourth round of last year's draft, it was considered to be a terrific value pick. The running back from Florida State was considered an explosive and versatile running back. He runs bigger than his physique would lead you to believe, and that particular trait was similar to current Falcons running back Jacquizz Rodgers. His lack of height (five-foot-nine) was reminiscent of Rodgers, along with his ability to make defenders miss in multiple ways. When the team decided to take Freeman over a bigger running back, it seemed that the Falcons were preparing for the future.
Steven Jackson was clearly on his last year in Atlanta following the team’s disastrous season in 2013. With the team looking to rebuild as a whole, the running back position became one of the bigger priorities to rebuild in. That didn’t seem to affect Rodgers’ status as a Falcon yet. He is 25 years old and has proven to be a reliable role player. While his timely big plays tend to go unnoticed, Rodgers pass blocking and reliability as a receiver is valuable. That value had deteriorated, when the Falcons decided to draft Freeman.
The overall impression of Freeman seemed to be a more explosive version of Rodgers. It became apparent that Rodgers doesn’t quite have breakaway speed, despite being an undersized running back. During his stint of being a kickoff returner in 2012, he broke out into the open field against the Kansas City Chiefs. His ability to make tacklers miss has always been a special attribute in his repertoire. What surprised me was that he couldn’t run past the final defender. Nobody can complain about a 77-yard kickoff return, but his lack of breakaway speed did catch me off guard.
Some may classify my criticism as overanalyzing a particular play. That may be the case, but when has Rodgers displayed breakaway speed? Now those opportunities have been scarce running behind a below average offensive line. There are still running backs that can make plays happen in dire situations. Antoine Smith has made the most of those limited opportunities in creating a highlight-reel montage of electrifying touchdowns. It’s a telling sign that Atlanta was positioning their running backs in specific roles last season.
After receiving nearly 100 carries in both 2012 and 2013, Rodgers’ carries were limited to just 58 attempts in 2014. His upside had deteriorated from Smith and Freeman showcasing far more explosiveness in their reps. The fan base had slowly grown indifferent towards him. A once exhilarating running back had become stagnant and expendable. The flashes of greatness were declining throughout the past few years. After taking a more commanding role in 2012, his opportunities in being the focal point for screen and draw play designs were vanished.
Rodgers still remains a fan favorite among a certain crop of the Falcons fan base. There are several teams in the NFL that struggle in developing running backs that can pass block. You can make a case that Atlanta is undergoing that issue with the development of Freeman. For a team that has dealt with such a fragile offensive line, it was essential to have a solid pass blocker in the backfield. Let’s not forget that it was Rodgers, who made a key block on Marcus Trufant to allow Matt Ryan in completing a pass to Tony Gonzalez for a crucial first down in the lone playoff win under Mike Smith.
It’s those timely plays that Atlanta would miss from not re-signing Rodgers. While many remain disappointed that he never developed into a LeSean McCoy or even a Lamar Miller clone, his versatility is vastly under appreciated. In his rookie season, Atlanta executed a misdirection play to perfection that led to Rodgers scoring a critical touchdown against Carolina. Who can forget his two critical third down catches to keep Atlanta undefeated against the dreaded Dallas Cowboys? How can a running back make defenders miss in such embarrassing fashion? Curtis Lofton is still trying to figure that question out.
While his touchdown run against the Saints this season was incredible, one play will always explain Rodgers versatility to perfection. In the first quarter of the playoff game against Seattle, Rodgers broke loose and went head to head with Earl Thomas. Everyone expected the run to finish with a respectable nine-yard gain. Thomas slowly collapsed, as Rodgers’ thunderous helmet was too overpowering for him. The run ended up going for 45 yards, which left everyone with their jaws dropped.
You can’t develop versatility like that. A reliable pass blocker, receiver, and a running back that can make players miss emphatically. His vision did seem to hinder his growth to an extent. That seemed to have played a crucial role in not having a run over 20 yards in the past two seasons. It’s extremely rare for such a shifty running back to not have a run over 20 yards in such a time span. A lack of top-tier speed could be an indication of that as well.
This should be a much tougher decision to make based on Rodgers resume. You can classify him as a 25 year-old running back entering his prime that provides reliability in multiple areas. It’s also well documented that Rodgers won’t command a huge price. His limitations are evident in running between the tackles and not having the breakaway speed that a player like Smith has. That makes him expendable, which leads to a bitter ending in not re-signing an underrated player.
Atlanta has to set a certain rotation for their running game. Despite being 29 years old, Smith has proven to be a game-changing playmaker. Arthur Blank has spoken highly of him in the past. You can’t teach his ability to get in the open field and simply run past defenders. Freeman is the long-term option, which leaves an opening for a power back. Atlanta has struggled in converting third-and-short over the past few seasons. That comes more from Dirk Koetter’s incompetence rather than the interior line. His play calling was abysmal in trying to be unpredictable on third-and-short.
All indications are headed towards Rodgers not being re-signed. That would be the right move going forward, considering only so many snaps can go around. While the rumor of Atlanta being interested in Justin Forsett doesn’t intrigue me at all, a free agent running back sounds enticing. Roy Helu, Steven Ridley, or Mark Ingram would be valuable assets, if they’re available on the market.
It’s always difficult to witness an underrated player not be re-signed. I’ll always classify Rodgers as a fan favorite, despite some fans turning on him. His highlight reel plays will always be remembered, especially since many of them came from the magical 2012 season. The emergence of Smith and drafting Freeman simply made him expendable.
The NFL is a strange league, where a player can be on the verge of breaking out to becoming expendable in a matter of one season. That explains the once promising career of Jacquizz Rodgers in Atlanta. That doesn't take away from him being a valuable contributor on any other team.