The offensive line battle ought to be fierce. The young cornerbacks should push hard for real roles. But for my money, no position grouping brings more intrigue to the summer ahead than running back, of all places.
Mostly that’s because nobody expected the team to sink two picks into the position. I fully realize that Marcus Green is versatile enough to be considered a receiver, too, but this team went into the draft with an established (if injury-ravaged) starter, a promising second-year back, a former fifth round draft pick who showed off some physicality and skill a year ago, and a potential returner and speedy option in free agent signing Kenjon Barner. It was not a position that seemed to need a multi-pick investment, and despite my regard for both players, you should read everything that follows this with the thought in mind that I don’t exactly approve of the team’s decision to do so.
So why did the Falcons add two backs? Three reasons, as I see it.
A year ago, the Falcons employed backs who had limited special teams utility, if we’re being blunt. Tevin Coleman, Ito Smith, and Brian Hill combined for 113 special teams snaps, and Hill was responsible for 87 of those. Smith played just 26 and Coleman actually played zero.
That special teams value in limited opportunities suggests that Hill might get a genuine shot at fullback or the fourth running back gig, but the Falcons went ahead and added two very gifted special teamers for new ST coordinator Ben Kotwica. Ollison, as our friend Aaron Freeman at FalcFans notes, was a personal protector on punt returns for Pittsburgh, and his solid speed and bruising blocking ability make him a fit for that role at the NFL level. He may well be blocking for Green, who has extensive experience returning at Louisiana-Monroe, is incredibly fast, and has good enough hands as a converted wide receiver to be a passing down option. If the team had just drafted a short yardage back and a gadget player it would’ve been a frustrating use of draft resources, but it’s hard to argue that’s what they did.
Long-term, Ollison probably tops out as a #2 back—not that he’s likely to get there with Ito Smith in the way—and Green tops out as a part-time player who can do a little bit of everything. The versatility and the special teams value help make their case for them, however.
Ollison’s role is obvious. He’s 20 pounds heavier than Freeman and nearly 30 pounds heavier than Judge Ito, and while those two backs rely on terrific vision and quick feet, Ollison rumbles through contact when it comes and utilizes surprising straight line speed to take off when his blocking excels. With the team’s investments in the offensive line, Ollison’s value as a short down bruiser and punishing change of pace back likely makes him an upgrade on Hill in Dirk Koetter’s eyes. He’s guaranteed just a handful of touches per game, but there’s enough here to think he’ll make the most of those, especially if the blocking is up to snuff.
Green’s role will also be small to start, but over the long haul he’s the Antone Smith or quasi-Tevin Coleman of Koetter’s offense. Green has excellent hands owing to his background as a receiver, quick feet and the best straight line speed on the team at the position, which makes him a potentially dangerous weapon on Koetter’s beloved screens and as a receiving option on passing downs. Freeman and Ito’s utility as pass catchers limits his upside in the offense a little bit, but he genuinely has the talent to make a difference, and with Coleman gone those opportunities will be there.
Finally, and most depressingly, the Falcons are probably hedging their bets here. Devonta Freeman only played in two games a year ago after playing 14 and suffering multiple injuries in 2017, and he’s been on the wrong end of leg injuries and concussions alike along the way. Free has produced like one of the league’s best backs when he’s been healthy, but he’s 27 years old and there’s a non-zero chance that injury is going to rear its head again or take a bite out of his productivity.
With Ito Smith also coming off an injury and Hill largely unproven, the additions of Ollison and Green give the Falcons fresh legs and thunder and lightning options if the Falcons do suffer injuries at the position. I wouldn’t count on seeing either one play a major 2019 or even 2020 role, but hopefully the snaps they do get are productive ones.
How do you expect roles and snaps to shake out for Ollison and Green this year?