Everyone loves Antone Smith, including Kyle Shanahan. The question is whether Shanahan will be able to use Smith more effectively than he's been used in the past. I have hope that he will.
Smith finally got his share of touches in 2014, and he rushed for 144 yards on just 23 carries, reeled in 13 catches for 222 yards and scored a combined five touchdowns in just ten games before going down with an injury. We all would have liked to see more touches than that—and the way the season went, it's a huge bummer we didn't—but part of what made Antone so dangerous was his infrequent usage. He always had fresh legs, defenses had to account for him when he was on the field and his speed is just unbelievable.
The two questions for Smith coming in 2015 are whether he'll be totally healthy and as speedy as ever, and what kind of touches he can expect in the Falcons' backfield. Right now, Devonta Freeman profiles as the lead back in any committee, and the Falcons seem hellbent on adding another back in the draft, which likely leaves Smith picking up a handful of touches per game. I'm just hoping it's a larger handful.
I've repeatedly said that I think Smith's best role in the offense is as a receiver. He's starting from the line, he's got the chance to lose a defender in space without fighting through large bodies up front and he has the speed and agility necessary to make 'em miss when he gets the ball in his hands. You can see this in action in this video, but suffice to say a Falcons passing attack that makes use of Smith as a receiver is a Falcons passing attack that is much more dangerous. Teams can't afford to put a slow-footed linebacker on Smith, which has positive repercussions for Julio Jones, Roddy White and the team's other receiving options.
Smith is a dangerous runner, no question, as you can see at the 1:50 mark in the video below.
The beauty of Shanahan's zone blocking scheme is that it rewards backs who can make a single cut and be free of the line, and there's little question that a healthy Smith can do exactly that. Even if he's a more effective receiver, the Falcons would be wise to get Smith 5-10 carries per game and let him work, but his success will probably be heavily dependent on how effective that offensive line looks. If they can adapt to the zone blocking principles Shanny's installing and the ground game gets rolling, teams will need to be extraordinarily wary of Smith.
Using Antone Smith effectively this season won't require any particular wizardry from Kyle Shanahan. Smith's effectiveness lies in his ability to break a game open, which means you don't have to feed him the rock until something happens. You just have to put him a position where he can make a quick move and get into open space, where he's virtually impossible to catch. Easier said than done, I'm sure, but there's little question that Smith will benefit from the zone blocking scheme and a less-crowded running back depth chart.