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Falcons to watch: What kind of 2019 role can Ito Smith expect?

The second-year back will have the chance to make the most of his opportunities.

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

Ito Smith delivered when called up on during the 2018 season, when Devonta Freeman was hurt, Tevin Coleman was taking on a major role, and help was needed. Will he do much the same in 2019 with Coleman gone, or is there a larger role in store?

What’s working for Smith

He’s the clear cut backup to Devonta Freeman, barring some sort of insane summer from Qadree Ollison. Smith earned that role by putting together a solid rookie campaign where he showed a nose for the end zone, good hands, and an enjoyable running style. Injury took the end of the season from him and his yards per carry weren’t great, but the larger state of the offensive line shows that the latter in particular is a minor concern.

What was impressive about Smith is that like Freeman and Tevin Coleman before him, he hit the ground running in his rookie season with the opportunities afforded to him. A word I’ll use more than once in describing his running style is physical, because we’re talking about a back who trucked Luke Kuechly and muscled his way through defenders into the end zone on multiple impressive runs in 2019. He has good vision to find the holes and enough speed to take advantage of them, plus good hands and solid blocking chops. He’s the kind of all-around back who could emerge as the featured guy someday if Free can’t stay on the field, and the Falcons are already promising they’ll get him more touches this year, even if his snap count may or may not increase.

Aside from talent and a comfortable backup role, there’s the small matter that Free is coming off a collection of major injuries. We all fervently hope he’s healthy and effective—more on what that would mean below—but there’s a better-than-average chance that Smith is going to be pressed into a starter’s role at some point this season. Given that Ito’s young, talented, and under contract at a very affordable price for the next three seasons, excelling in whatever opportunities come along will only increase his value to this offense.

What’s working against Smith

The major—and perhaps only thing—is Devonta Freeman.

A healthy Free isn’t a true bellcow back, per se, but he’s going to take on a huge role in this offense as both a runner and a receiver. Smith’s physicality and versatility gives him the opportunity to spell Freeman and mix in for goal line touches, but he doesn’t possess the gamebreaking speed that made Tevin Coleman a logical complement to Free. That means it’s not a lock that the 2017 split at the position—where Free had 54% of snaps, Coleman had 41%, and Terron Ward had 7%—will hold true this year for Smith. He could be in line for something closer to 30% of the snaps, with Ollison getting close to 10% if his blocking and bulldozing skills are as advertised. Much will depend on Free’s health (which is uncertain) and how Smith does with his touches (which is more certain, as I think he’ll do well).

Smith will also need to prove his lack of efficiency in 2018 was a fluke. He and Coleman were two of the least consistent and efficient backs in football, with the offensive line a major culprit to be mentioned but hardly the sole cause of it. Smith has the balance, vision, and strength to fare much better behind an improved offensive line, but I mention it because a repeat in 2018 could lead to longer looks for Ollison, who after all was Dirk Koetter’s pick.

And finally, I should note that while Ollison leapfrogging Smith seems unlikely, Ito was a pick under Steve Sarkisian and Ollison is the kind of big, sturdy back Dirk Koetter has favored at times in the past. I can’t say for certain that his role in 2019 will be a small one, even if I suspect it will be.

What to expect in 2019

I think we’ve covered a lot of ground already here. Ito Smith will be Devonta Freeman’s direct backup and will likely grab at least one start in 2019. I’d expect him to snag a bit over 100 carries (say 115-125) for 450-500 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground, with another 20 receptions for 150 yards and a touchdown or so. Those aren’t thrilling totals, but I think he’ll make the most of the snaps he’s given, and if Free is hurt at all expect those numbers to take a huge jump.