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Bright spots in a dim year: Ito Smith gives Atlanta running backs hope for the future

The Falcons have strung together great picks in the third and fourth round at running back, and Ito might be the next.

Arizona Cardinals v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Over the next week or so, we’ll look at the bright spots on this roster we didn’t have the time or energy to really praise during the regular season. After that, we’ll take a closer look at some of the players who didn’t meet our expectations.

Ito Smith’s season didn’t end the way he would have liked it to, but he did head to injured reserve knowing he’s done enough to get a long look as the team’s second running back next year.

Ito’s surface stats are fine but unimpressive for a guy who clawed his way into a timeshare with Tevin Coleman—he wound up with 315 rushing yards, 152 receiving yards, and four total touchdowns—but as is often the case the numbers don’t tell the full story for the rookie. Smith looks like the latest in a long string of successful mid-to-late round selections for the Falcons, who nabbed Devonta Freeman (3,316 rushing yards, 1,605 receiving yards, 37 combined touchdowns in just over four years) in the fourth round, Tevin Coleman (2,340 rushing yards, 1,010 receiving yards, 29 touchdowns in four years) in the third round, and even Brian Hill (a couple of promising games) in the fifth round.

Smith’s early success matters because the Falcons may well need him. Coleman is an impending free agent who figures to cash in elsewhere, Freeman is recovering from an injury, and despite evident promise Hill is not a proven option. In his best games, Smith showcased good vision, a physical running style, and terrific burst behind a lackluster offensive line, and the Falcons’ focus in the trenches figures to help him even more.

He put plays like this on tape:

And this:

It’s often said that running backs are not a valuable commodity in today’s NFL, and indeed, teams that pay for them aren’t always glad they did so. But if you can keep feeding the pipeline on your team with guys like Ito who can run, catch and block well, you’re in better shape than those teams dealing with outright busts or street free agents when injury strikes. Ito Smith will likely go into 2019 either as Freeman’s direct backup or the starter if Free isn’t 100% heading into the year, and either way, he showed enough in 2018 to make us happy at that prospect.