The Falcons took Brian Hill a year ago with the hope that he’d become their third running back, a big body complement to Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and perhaps eventually their #2 option at the position. Hill largely disappointed in training camp and preseason, leading the team to take the risk of dumping him on the practice squad, where the Bengals snapped him up. That’s a fifth round pick up in smoke, something I’m sure the team is keen to avoid repeating.
That’s why they took Ito Smith in the fourth round this year. The team’s use of picks at running back in back-to-back years should make their plans for 2019 and beyond abundantly clear, but just in case that connection isn’t immediately clear, here’s the rub. Ito Smith is going to replace either Tevin Coleman or Devonta Freeman next year, and the odds-on favorite is Coleman.
There’s a popular undercurrent in the fanbase that suggests the team will sign Coleman, who stands to get at least $3-4 million per year given his youth, production, and obvious talent, or will cut ties with Freeman in favor of Coleman. The former is a possibility, though unlikely given the resources this team will have to allocate in the coming years, but the latter is a complete non-starter.
Per Spotrac, the first year the Falcons won’t eat a huge chunk of dead money to release Freeman is 2021, when he’ll be 29 years old and it’ll only cost them $3 million to cut ties. He’s carrying a hit of $14 million in 2018, $9 million in 2019, and $6 million in 2020, and that’s not chump change to carry on your cap in exchange for exactly nothing. The Falcons gave and structured this deal this way because Freeman is the guy, and short of a surprise trade nothing is going to change that.
By drafting Smith, the Falcons have given themselves intriguing young insurance for a Freeman injury (hopefully for years to come) and an obvious #2 option for 2019 and beyond, when Coleman is playing for another football team. Smith has quality speed, great hands, and enough power to allow him to carry the load at times, and while he may not be Coleman 2.0, he should be good enough to be the lesser half of a rotation with Freeman over the long haul. The Falcons didn’t take him to be their #3 back for very long, in other words.