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The evolution of the Falcons RB position, 2008-2018

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From the Burner to Free, with plenty of Antone Smith in between.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Our series continues with a look at running back from Michael Turner to Devonta Freeman, and perhaps beyond.

The Falcons have not had the luxury of Matt Ryan-like stability at running back, but then, no organization has for that long. They have had the relative luxury of just three full-time starters from 2008-2018, though injury robbed Michael Turner of his effectiveness and robbed Devonta Freeman of significant portions of the last two years.

The story from 2008-2014 was one of marginalizing young, speedy backs whenever the opportunity presented itself. That was defensible when Michael Turner was running over hapless defenders and throwing Eric Weems like a javelin, but it was less defensible when Turner slowed down and, subsequently, when Steven Jackson took over. From 2015-2018, the story has largely been about getting the young backs involved, from Freeman starting to Tevin Coleman carving out a significant role to Ito Smith playing a major one (largely thanks to injury, but still) in year one.

Here’s a closer look.

Falcons RB Evolution

Year RB1 FB RB2 RB3 RB4
Year RB1 FB RB2 RB3 RB4
2008 Michael Turner Ovie Mughelli Jerious Norwood Jason Snelling
2009 Michael Turner Ovie Mughelli Jerious Norwood Jason Snelling Verron Haynes
2010 Michael Turner Ovie Mughelli Jerious Norwood Jason Snelling Antone Smith
2011 Michael Turner Ovie Mughelli/Mike Cox Jacquizz Rodgers Jason Snelling Antone Smith
2012 Michael Turner Mike Cox/Lousaka Polite Jacquizz Rodgers Jason Snelling Antone Smith
2013 Steven Jackson Patrick DiMarco/Bradie Ewing Jacquizz Rodgers Jason Snelling Antone Smith
2014 Steven Jackson Patrick DiMarco Jacquizz Rodgers Devonta Freeman Antone Smith
2015 Devonta Freeman Patrick DiMarco Tevin Coleman Terron Ward
2016 Devonta Freeman Patrick DiMarco Tevin Coleman Terron Ward
2017 Devonta Freeman Derrick Coleman Tevin Coleman Terron Ward Terrence Magee
2018 Devonta Freeman* Ricky Ortiz Tevin Coleman Ito Smith Brian Hill
Falcons RBs, 2008-2018

As I noted, the common thread running through the Mike Smith years in Atlanta, all of which notably came under either new/old offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter or tight end coach/old OC Mike Mularkey, was a big, physical back taking the lead role. That worked brilliantly from 2008-2011, but Turner’s body began to break down in a major way in 2012 and the passing game under Koetter largely dragged the Falcons offense along. Under Dan Quinn and coordinators Kyle Shanahan and Steve Sarkisian, meanwhile, the team shifted to less of an attack designed to bang between the tackles and one that emphasized versatility, speed, and shiftiness, which was largely perfect for Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

The noteworthy thing is how the Falcons have strove to have some stability behind their starters, with Jason Snelling, Jerious Norwood and Antone Smith each sticking around for a long time in Atlanta. Smith was criminally underutilized, something we’ll litigate another day, but the Falcons have done a stellar job over the last decade-plus of stocking the cupboard with talented backs they invested relatively little draft capital into. Tevin Coleman was the highest selection with a third round pick, while Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith were fourth rounders, Jacquizz Rodgers and Brian Hill were fifth rounders, Jason Snelling was one of the team’s best seventh rounders ever, and Antone Smith was an undrafted free agent. The team’s philosophy under Dimitroff has been largely brilliant in that regard, but the Falcons have repeatedly fallen flat on their big contracts since the masterstroke that was the Turner signing, with S-Jax’s decline and the state of the offensive line and now Freeman’s contract, undone to this point by injuries outside of his or the team’s control.

But history teaches us that the Falcons have keen eyes for young backs, which is a major comfort with Freeman’s long-term injury outlook so up in the air. We’ll hope that Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison will be the latest in a long line of quality additions, and more than anything, that Devonta Freeman will be the first Falcons back of this era to log more than five seasons as a starter.