The position on offense that has lost the most production over the course of the offseason, RB is in a bit of an interesting place for the Falcons. 2018 RB2 (and eventual starter) Tevin Coleman was not re-signed, and went to join Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. That left a significant void at RB2, with second-year player Ito Smith expected to step into the role behind presumptive starter Devonta Freeman. Atlanta also added a RB in the draft in Pitt’s Qadree Ollison to bolster the rotation.
Let’s take a closer look at the RBs heading into training camp.
2018 Stats: 14 carries, 68 yards, 4.9 YPC, 5 receptions, 23 yards, 4.6 YPA
One of the Falcons’ marquee players from 2015-2017, Devonta Freeman had an injury-plagued 2018 season that resulted in him netting less than 100 total yards. Injuries have been a common occurrence for Freeman over the last two seasons, but he’s still just 27 years old. If he can get back on track, Freeman could have a terrific bounce-back season behind what should be a greatly improved offensive line.
2018 Stats: 90 carries, 315 yards, 3.5 YPC, 4 rushing TDs, 27 receptions, 152 yards, 5.6 YPA
While Ito Smith’s overall production was pedestrian in 2018 (3.5 YPC isn’t great), he was also a rookie forced into action early in his career. Overall, Smith was a serviceable RB2 for the Falcons who flashed some short-yardage ability and excellent elusiveness. He also showed some receiving talent with 27 receptions last season. Hopefully “The Judge” will continue to improve in his second year, as he’s the first man up if Freeman’s injury concerns return.
2018 Stats (college): 194 carries, 1213 yards, 6.3 YPC, 11 rushing TDs, 11 receptions, 66 yards, 6.0 YPA
A fifth-round pick by the Falcons this year, Qadree Ollison is a large back (6’2, 225) with surprising speed and good college production. While not a pure power back, Ollison brings a hard-nosed running style to the table that makes him an interesting fit in Atlanta’s zone blocking scheme. Ollison has good balance and solid vision to go along with his size, which could make him the Falcons’ best short-yardage option. He’s also got experience at FB and could potentially take some snaps there.
2018 Stats: 20 carries, 157 yards, 7.9 YPC, 1 reception, 9 yards
The Falcons’ fifth-round pick in 2017, Brian Hill didn’t really impress in training camp and ended up getting cut in October. He was then signed to the practice squad and subsequently stolen by the Bengals in November. Atlanta managed to get him back just before the 2018 season. While he didn’t play much last year, Hill’s production in limited work was impressive (7.9 YPC is no joke). Hill is another physical back with solid athleticism, and he’s also spent some time learning the FB position. However, with the additions of Ollison and Kenjon Barner, Hill will have to fight for his roster spot in 2019.
2018 Stats: 19 carries, 71 yards, 3.7 YPC, 1 reception, 3 yards
A free agent addition by the Falcons’ this offseason, Kenjon Barner has been a journeyman of sorts throughout his NFL career. He’s never carved out much of an offensive role, but Barner has often been featured as both a punt and kick returner and special teams contributor. With the Falcons bringing in a new special teams coordinator, Barner was brought in to compete for the return job. That’s likely his only ticket onto the roster, however, as there are four better pure RBs ahead of him on the depth chart.
2018 Stats (college): 57 carries, 306 yards, 5.4 YPC, 4 rushing TD, 3 receptions, 73 yards, 24.3 YPA
The only UDFA RB that the Falcons added, Tony Brooks-James impressed the team enough during rookie minicamp to earn a spot on the 90-man roster. Brooks-James was never the bell cow at Oregon, but he’s an electric playmaker with a versatile skillset as a runner, receiver, and returner. He’s likely ticketed for the practice squad at best (unless he manages to win the returner job), but Brooks-James has some potential as a well-rounded backup in the NFL.
This group should be one of the strongest on the roster if Devonta Freeman can return to health in 2019. If not, it’ll be up to a trio of extremely young (and unproven) backs in Ito Smith, Qadree Ollison, and Brian Hill to carry the load for the Falcons. While Atlanta is still likely to be a pass-first team, we’ve all seen how much more successful this offense is when the running game is generating consistent production.
Hopefully, Freeman will have a bounce-back campaign this season behind a reinvigorated offensive line. Ito Smith as the RB2 should be good, as he has the ability to contribute as both a runner and receiver and features a similar running style to Freeman. We’ll see just how big of a role Ollison and Hill can carve out, but neither is likely to get more than a few touches a game.