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With Danny Woodhead retired, veteran options at RB still available for ATL

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If Atlanta really wants a new veteran running back, there are guys out there to fit the bill.

New York Giants v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

You might have heard that the Atlanta Falcons were linked to RB Danny Woodhead in free agency. Well, the original sultan of scraps has reportedly decided to hang it up.

So, obviously, we wish Woodhead happy trails as he heads off into retirement. But, when we think about what this could mean for Atlanta, you have to think about why they would have wanted Woodhead in the first place.

One wonders if the team gets a little skittish about the Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman combo from a health perspective. Freeman had two concussions last season that caused him to miss time, and Coleman’s struggled on-and-off with injuries through his career -- not major ones, but he’s yet to put a full season together (though, he only missed one game last year, so it’s not like it’s a pandemic or anything.

The Falcons have kept tabs a handful of running backs throughout the draft process so far, but with draft resources better allocated elsewhere, it makes you wonder if this is one of the spots they’re going to zero in on with the second wave of free agency, to give some needed depth behind Freeman and Coleman for 2018. Woodhead would’ve fit that mold.

With him out of the picture, can Atlanta still find a similar player to fill in Woodhead’s role? You betcha!

RB Shane Vereen (New York Giants)

Vereen is the most obvious alternative to Woodhead that’s available right now. Like Woodhead, Vereen’s a former New England Patriot who can provide on the ground and in the air, and can contribute as a blocker. He hopped over to the Giants a few seasons ago, and managed to get 164 on the ground, and 253 in the air on one of the NFL’s worst offenses. He’s approaching 30, which tends to be the perceived wall for any NFL running backs, but for what Atlanta would’ve wanted out of Woodhead, they could get out of Vereen, and less mileage. A rising tide lifts all boats, so he could also benefit from being in a better offense (say what you will about Steve Sarkisian, but his offense was lightyears ahead of what the G-Men had last season).

RB Orleans Darkwa (New York Giants)

Darkwa had a breakout year last season on a bad Giants offense, posting up 751 yards on the ground and five touchdowns. That’s pretty strong for the 26-year-old Tulane alum on a team that had few bright spots in 2017. With Ben McAdoo gone, Darkwa is a free agent, and could be a potential steal for Atlanta for depth purposes. It’s fair to think Darkwa deserves a bigger role elsewhere, but if he can improve his pass-catching (which did pop up to 116 yards last year after four seasons of minimal production) and pitch in as a blocker, Darkwa could eventually replace Coleman as the team’s second back if he impresses in his first season. He’s got room to grow in, and might be the running back out there right now with the highest upside.

RB Darren Sproles (Philadelphia Eagles)

Sproles is one of the most dangerous gadget players to ever take the field in the NFL. Electric with the ball in his hands, even into his mid-30s, Sproles technically won a ring with the Eagles last season. Though, he did go down last September with an ACL tear, and will be 35 when the season begins. He’s stated he wants to play one more year, and if Atlanta feels like he’s healthy, it’d be worth a one-year deal to see what he’s got left in the tank. He had a great year in 2016 (427 yds., 2 TDs in catching, 438 yds., 2 TDs on ground, 224 yards in punt returns), and if he can get anywhere close to that coming off the injury, that’d be an exciting wrinkle into Atlanta’s offense. He could also man the returner job if the team needed him to.

RB Andre Ellington (Arizona Cardinals)

Ellington had a promising start to his career with the Cardinals as a runner and pass-catcher before fading down the stretch of the Bruce Arians era. He was moved to wide receiver last season before landing on the waiver wire, where he was claimed by the Texans post-Deshaun Watson injury. It’s been a little while since Ellington was potent, but maybe a change of scenery could do him some good? He has the ability to play the Woodhead role in Atlanta’s offense, and isn’t quite 30 yet. Might be worth a shot at the minimum.

RB Benny Cunningham (Chicago Bears)

Cunningham’s another guy who hasn’t quite maintained the momentum he had at the start of his career. He was a three-and-one threat in his early Rams days, but sank with the lagging offense the team had at the close of the Jeff Fisher era. He landed in Chicago last season, where he quietly had 240 yards in the air for two touchdowns. He also can man the returning duties if need be. Cunningham’s only 27, and may still have potential to meet. He could be another cost-friendly addition to play that role the team may have envisioned for Woodhead.

RB Damien Williams (Miami Dolphins)

Williams is one of those guys who has stood out when the Falcons have played the Dolphins in the preseason (which feels like an odd recurring billing). At 25, he’s the youngest on the list, and has averaged between 150 and 250 in the air for his career in Miami. On the ground, he’s not quite as effective, but Miami’s a weird team. It’s not out of question to think Williams has a ton of potential left to crack into, and he’d be worthy of a one-year prove-it deal to play in Atlanta’s offense. Having a quarterback like Matt Ryan to help you and a line like Atlanta’s to block for you can make a difference for a guy like Williams.

RB Lance Dunbar (Los Angeles Rams)

Dunbar’s potential as a receiving/running threat has been hampered with injuries (he’s only had one fully-healthy season in 2014, and has two seasons of only four healthy appearances after that). But, if he can stay healthy, he’d be a solid option to spell Freeman and Coleman that could come in at the veteran’s minimum. He had a touchdown in one of his four appearances with the Rams last season, which sounds less interesting with “one of four” thrown in. If the Falcons are tight against the cap, Dunbar’s not a bad safety net. Perhaps he can regain some of his form from his earlier days with the Cowboys.

Other Options

Chargers RB Branden Oliver is three seasons removed from his electric 2014 rookie campaign (582 yds./3 TDs ground, 271 yds. 1 TD, air), and has struggled with injuries since then. He might be worth a flier if the team can’t afford the second wave’s contracts. Veteran RB Jamaal Charles might be spent, but if he’s got anything left in the tank, he’d be solid veteran depth. Ditto RB Chris Johnson. Ravens RB Terrence West had 774 yards and five touchdowns on the ground and 236 yards and a touchdown in the air for the Ravens in 2016, and could perhaps regain his momentum with a new team after falling off in 2017. Bucs RB Charles Sims has embarrassed the Falcons a few times in his career, and is two years removed from a 1,000-yard season in total offense. Seahawks RB Thomas Rawls was once considered a starter and has had some nice moments in Seattle, as has Texans RB Alfred Blue.

With quality running backs not that hard to find these days, the Falcons will have plenty of options to fill the gap that Woodhead would have in this second wave of free agency. We’ll see if the team decided to nab one of the guys listed, or someone we missed.