Welcome to Blank to the Future, a new series at The Falcoholic that plays the ever-enticing game of “what if.” We look back at the games not won, decisions unmade, the players potentially drafted, and ask…what if this goes differently? How does it change the franchise? Does it really make a difference? Here, we play the prognosticator and try to present B-sides to pivotal moments of Falcons history.
Don’t act like you haven’t asked yourself this every now and then.
The question that burns in the back of Falcons fans’ minds like one thousand suns taking a vacation to Florida in July. The thought that provokes controversy and conversation, like an episode of “First Take” from 2012. The potential path that postulates endless possibilities...
What if the Falcons had drafted RB Todd Gurley in the 2015 NFL Draft?
The running back long-coveted by Falcons fans in the pre-2015 draft process, Gurley is coming off a 3-touchdown performance in the Rams’ Thursday night tilt against former Falcons OC Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers (excitement on a Thursday night – now that’s a “what if?” for the ages).
But, instead of watching Gurley pound the San Francisco defense into the ground, what if the RB had been the ground hero of Shanahan’s 2015-16 Falcons offenses? What would have it meant for the Falcons’ 2015 draft – one that many point to as the turning point in the franchise under Dan Quinn? What would it have meant for Devonta Freeman, who was poised to have a breakout season in 2015? Would the Falcons’ have had a historical offense in 2016? Would they make the Super Bowl?
Well, let’s hop in Uncle Arthur’s DeLorean and see…
What if the Falcons had drafted RB Todd Gurley?
But first, a little history.
The Atlanta Falcons have just blown an unexpected chance to go to the 2014 playoffs in an embarrassing loss to the Carolina Panthers. Long-time Falcons coach Mike Smith is fired the next day. Roughly a month later, Seahawks DC Dan Quinn is named the Falcons head coach. Quinn bring along former Browns OC Kyle Shanahan. The team’s running game, led by aging vet RB Steven Jackson, is as stagnant as any team’s stable in the league. Second-string RB JacQuizz Rodgers is a free agent, and 2014 draft pick Devonta Freeman has done nothing to really prove he can handle the workload after a quieter rookie season.
The Falcons cut Jackson and see Rodgers head to the Chicago Bears. With Freeman and longtime reserve RB Antone Smith the only two running backs on the roster of note, the Falcons need another runner – whom many perceive would be the starter. The Falcons own the eighth pick in the 2015 draft.
Georgia RB Todd Gurley is the draft’s top prospect. He’s an electric college talent who would start for any team needing a running back on day one. He’s linked to the Falcons in many mock drafts. So, what happened?
The Falcons draft Vic Beasley with the eighth overall pick, and he becomes the league’s 2016 sack leader after a work-in-progress 2015 campaign. The team drafts RB Tevin Coleman in the third round, and he wins the starting job over RB Devonta Freeman. But, an injury to Coleman paves the way to see Freeman have his monstrous breakout performance against the Dallas Cowboys. He never looks back. In 2016, Freeman continues his dominant play and Coleman breaks out, giving the Falcons the league’s most dangerous running back combo. The team posts up a historic offense that season. They go on to lose the Super Bowl, in pristine Falcons ironic fashion, by failing to run the ball.
THE ALTERNATE REALITY:
The Atlanta Falcons see RB Todd Gurley fall into their hands after losing out on Vic Beasley to the Chicago Bears. Falcons beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter openly sheds tears of joy, wiping his eyes with a handkerchief embroidered B.P.A. The city of Athens celebrates like never before. Todd Gurley is coming home. Oh, for what it’s worth, the Rams took RB Melvin Gordon two picks later.
The Falcons still nab CB Jalen Collins second with the pass rusher of their dreams not on the board at that point, so they survey the group of edge guys on the board and continue to dip from the LSU well – the team drafts DE Danielle Hunter to perhaps line up next to newly-signed DE Adrian Clayborn (spoiler alert: he will). WR Justin Hardy, DT Grady Jarrett and company all follow suit. Oh, for those asking at home about the kid from Indiana, RB Tevin Coleman gets drafted by the Cleveland Browns a few picks after Atlanta’s.
The Falcons have new faces on both sides of the ball – Gurley and Freeman look to lead the backfield, Hunter wins out the RDE job next to Clayborn (he has a good rookie year, and an even-better sophomore season). Gurley has an insane first game against the Eagles, but he hurts himself in the second game against the Giants, and Freeman comes in to fill in. While Gurley is out, Freeman has the monstrous performance in Dallas, but he goes back to his role as Gurley’s second fiddle once the first rounder returns. The team collapses after the hot start, but Gurley still wins Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Freeman’s flashes aren’t forgotten – he has a really nice year as Gurley’s understudy, and other teams have taken notice. And, really, Gurley and Freeman are very similar players. The Falcons know they’ve got to continue to add talent to the defense – the draft the best place to do so. Freeman’s also from another regime – Gurley is Shanahan’s guy, and the team feels they can draft a RB2 in the mid-rounds. Plus, what if Freeman doesn’t repeat in 2016 (silently chortles), and the team left a pick on the table?
So, in come the calls after Trader Thomas lights the signal fire. Teams are offering the Falcons fair compensation for Freeman – all the way up to third-round draft picks! Atlanta looks for a suitor, and finds one in Thomas Dimitroff’s old pal Dave Caldwell. The Jaguars weren’t crazy with RB T.J. Yeldon’s rookie year, and instead of going out and signing a big-ticket free agent to help out Blake Bortles, he decides to make an offer to bring back the Florida State favorite to the Sunshine State. The compensation? A 2016 third round pick – pretty big for a second-string running back. Dimitroff the Dealer decides that, you know, a third rounder sounds pretty nice. So, Freeman gets dealt to the Jaguars for a third rounder.
The Falcons decide to take S Keanu Neal and LB Deion Jones with their top-two picks in 2016. But, they’ve got an extra third-round pick to play with. Why not add to the defensive line? The team has Grady Jarrett, Ra’Shede Hageman and an aging Jonathan Babineaux – they decide to draft one of Quinn’s old players, DT Jonathan Bullard, to help out the rotation.
Freeman has a breakout season with the Jags in 2016, despite the offensive line, and the Falcons have a pretty great offense, but many consider if they just had one extra piece in the running back stable – UDFA RB Terron Ward, who won the job behind Gurley, is pretty good, but the offense, one of the league’s better units, just is missing that extra x-factor to be consistently great week-in-and-week-out. Gurley plays well enough to make another Pro Bowl, but it’s a one-man backfield. They make it to the playoffs by winning the division, but lose on the road in a tough Seattle bout. The future is bright for those Falcons, but they need a little more explosion on offense. Extension talks with Gurley will begin inevitably. The Falcons’ defensive line, with Hunter and Bullard in tow, is pretty solid, by the way, but it lacks a true star.
So, it’s a major franchise-changing decision for the team to pick Gurley. Essentially, in this scenario, one of the major reasons why the team had a historic offense and went to the Super Bowl – the dynamic backfield of Freeman and Coleman – goes away, with an 8-8 Falcons team in no position to miss out on trading Freeman, which is really the most likely scenario in a league where teams are looking for cheap talent at the position, for a draft pick as Quinn continues to build his defense. Yes, we have no way of knowing if a trade actually happens, but an 8-8 team isn’t usually one that can afford a luxury at running back if they could get a higher draft pick.
Without Beasley, the Falcons’ pass rush lacks a lethal bite. They would have still had a pretty solid rotation, with perhaps Hunter and a Bullard-type in the mix, but Beasley is the lynchpin to the front seven. Missing on him also makes Atlanta that much lesser on defense. Hunter is a very good rusher, but he’s not quite to Beasley’s level (depending on who to talk to). There’s the possibility, also, the team doesn’t draft Hunter, which would have left them with a caliber of player of a Brooks Reed or Derrick Shelby — good rotational piece, not a game-changer (well, unless you’re playing the Bears).
Let’s say Gurley and Freeman stick together – would Freeman have ever really come into his own as the understudy? It’s a fair thing to ask. You never really know how these things develop, and while Freeman would no doubt be a good player in any reality, perhaps being a starter and gaining that traction his sophomore season has helped make him who he is today.
The team would have more cap to play with in the interim, though Gurley’s deal would loom large.
So, that’s a rough sketch of what life would have looked like if the Falcons had drafted Todd Gurley. It’s better that they didn’t, to be honest.
Next time: What if the Falcons had beaten the Panthers in the 2014 finale and won the NFC South?