Qadree Ollison is Dirk Koetter’s guy. There can be little doubt that the team’s decision to draft the burly Pitt back was driven by the new offensive coordinator, especially because it was a bit of a surprising move for a team with a reportedly healthy Devonta Freeman, Ito Smith, Brian Hill, and Kenjon Barner already on hand. That fact will shade the rest of this article.
Bluntly, Ollison is likely competing directly against Brian Hill. Freeman and Smith are the established top two at the moment, with Smith doing enough interesting things a year ago to probably stick as the backup for at least the short haul. If the Falcons keep four backs, it’s likely that Kenjon Barner’s speed and special teams value would make him that guy, where Hill and Ollison are similar enough on first glance to assume they’ll be going for a third back gig and the nominal power role, though Freeman does enough fine work in short yardage situations that their touches on the goal line and third downs will probably be pretty limited.
It’s not a role that carries a lot of immediate upside, but Hill snagging it would give him a chance to put more good games on tape ahead of free agency in 2020. For Ollison, it’s a start and a chance to gain a real foothold on a Dirk Koetter offense where an injury-wracked Freeman and Smith, a back who was Steve Sarkisian’s guy and not Koetter’s, are the only players in front of him. If Ollison lands the gig, I wouldn’t count him out of a larger role down the line.
So who wins?
Qadree Ollison, 22, entering rookie season
Ollison was sort of a baffling pick at the time as a fifth rounder joining a crowded depth chart, but you don’t have to look far to see the appeal.
As our own Eric Robinson wrote, Ollison has size (he’s nearly 230 pound), power, good speed for his size, and an ability to roll through contact. He’s not particularly elusive and his pass protection needs some refinement, but there’s a good toolkit here, and his ability to hammer through contact and break off long gains make him an interesting change-of-pace option in this offense. If he’s able to block at a high level, there’s a role waiting for him.
Ollison’s greatest weakness may be that he doesn’t do a lot that the Falcons are currently missing. Freeman is the quintessential lead back in today’s NFL, with vision, physicality, shiftiness, underrated blocking skills, and plenty of value as a receiver. Ito brings nastiness and elusiveness of his own, and while he doesn’t have breakaway speed, he can do a little bit of everything and showed a nose for the end zone last year. Ollison’s fit in that group isn’t clear, but his best runs at Pitt suggest that he can do enormous damage as a north-south runner if the offensive line is improved enough to give him some space to work with. At worst, he’d be a compelling option on a handful of carries per game, and his size could make him interesting in short yardage when Freeman needs a breather.
The best case scenario for Ollison in year one is a small number of compelling plays. Long-term, though, he has the well-rounded skillset to be more than that if he makes it.
Brian Hill, 23, entering 2nd non-continuous year in Atlanta
Hill’s road thus far in the NFL has been an interesting one. He joined the Falcons as a fifth round pick in 2017 but only spent one game with Atlanta, ultimately getting poached by the Bengals off the team’s practice squad. He struggled to make a real impact there, averaging 3.4 yards per carry in a crowded backfield, and wound up back in Atlanta for ten games in 2018 with Devonta Freeman on the shelf.
Again, his opportunities were incredibly limited, but this time Hill did some things that forced us (and by extension, the Falcons) to pay attention to him. Hill showed a little bit of recklessness with the ball but wound up managing 157 yards on 20 carries, or an average of 6.9 yards per carry, largely fueled by one 60 yard scamper. Even in that limited glimpse, Hill’s willingness to absorb contact and hard-charging style were evident. Hill also picked up 20% of the special teams snaps, suggesting that the team saw some value there.
Hill’s problem isn’t really talent so much as opportunity, and what he’s able to do with those opportunities. The Falcons have already essentially allowed him to walk once, have been displeased with some of his decision-making in his limited chances (the fumble stands out), and just drafted another back who fits the “big back” role that Hill only fills loosely to begin with. His astonishing senior season at Wyoming (1,850 rushing yards, 22 rushing TDs) suggests that he can be at least a capable third back in the NFL, but his value as a receiver is fairly limited and if he does claw his way onto the roster, it’d need to be at the expense of Ollison for him to have any sort of value.
I like Hill as a runner, so it gives me no great pleasure to note these things. The Falcons have never seemed all that interested in giving him an extended shot, so I feel like he goes into training camp already a little behind Ollison.
Who will be the winner?
As this article and others before it have suggested, Ollison is the major favorite to win this job. His selection didn’t happen in a vacuum, but was a deliberate addition by a new offensive coordinator looking to put his stamp on the offense. If you squint really, really hard, you can see shades of Diet Michael Turner in Ollison, and while Turner was on his way out during Koetter’s final year, the once-and-new OC for the Falcons has always had a fondness for punishing backs dating back to the days of Maurice Jones-Drew bowling balling through defensive linemen back in Jacksonville. Ollison’s well-rounded skill set and his potential to simply run through large holes opened by a new offensive line group and through the second level of a defense is likely appealing to Koetter.
That just doesn’t leave much room for Hill. I could see the Falcons keeping three backs rather than keeping Ollison and Hill, and Barner’s particular skillset is so diametrically different than Ollison and Hill that he’d be the logical choice to be the fourth guy, especially if he wins a returner gig. Hill will face the same challenge Kurt Benkert does in his battle against Matt Schaub: To win the job, he’s going to need to outplay his competition by a degree that may not even be possible.
So Ollison it is. Do you agree?