As we prepare for the fourth and final week of actual preseason, the team’s third running back battle hasn’t been resolved. It’s that rare camp battle that’s going down to the absolute wire, which makes it worth watching.
There are two contenders for the gig, and weirdly enough it appears there’s more certainty at the #4 spot than the #3. Devonta Freeman is the starter, Ito Smith has tightened his grip on the #2 role this summer, and Kenjon Barner is the favorite right now to be the fourth RB and kick returner for this football team. Qadree Ollison and Brian Hill are locked into the last remaining battle, with Tony Brooks-James hoping for a practice squad shot.
The battle is not settled, but let’s take a close look at how both have fared and try to figure out who will make it.
Qadree Ollison: 35 carries, 129 yards, 3.7 yards per carry, 1 touchdown; 1 reception, 3 yards, 1 fumble
Ollison has had a solid but unremarkable preseason to this point. At times he’s reeled off some pretty significant runs behind the team’s makeshift reserve offensive line, showing good power and straight line speed in the process. He’s also mixed in as a protector on punt returners, which means he’ll manage to carve out a role on gamedays if he makes the roster.
What’s working against Ollison, frankly, is his lack of value in the passing game to this point, as he’s barely seen any looks there. He may be able to grow into that role, but in year one he’s likely to be limited to early down relief work for Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith and the aforementioned special teams role. That means if the Falcons are keeping him, it’ll be to develop him into a useful part of the committee down the line, and less so in the hopes that he’ll be making a massive impact on the field right away.
What’s working in his favor? Chiefly it’s the fact that he was hand-selected by Dirk Koetter and that his usefulness as a late game battering ram behind an improved offensive line is attractive for this particular football team.
If the team thinks they can sneak Ollison on to the practice squad and have him stick around, they’ll almost certainly do so. But in the end it’ll probably come down to the final game’s performance and the team’s comfort level with that idea.
Brian Hill: 27 carries, 99 yards, 3.7 yards per carry, 1 touchdown; 3 receptions, 5 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 drop
Hill has slowed down of late, both in terms of snaps and in terms of performance, but he was blazing hot in training camp and had a couple of very nice weeks to start August. The question is whether the Falcons are largely holding him in reserve now because they consider him locked in or because they need a longer look at Ollison to tell the tale.
Hill’s value in this offense would be fairly evident. He’s improved as a pass catcher—that unfortunate end zone drop aside—and has always been a hard-charging, surprisingly quick runner who put good effort on tape late in the 2018 season. He can block fairly well, he’s figured into special teams this summer, and generally looks well-rounded enough to fill in if injuries strike or just find snaps filling whatever role the Falcons need from him. Given his good summer, he would be a roster lock in a vacuum.
The problem, again, is that Ollison has done fairly well and was Koetter’s hand-picked guy, as I noted above. If it comes purely down to performance and Ollison doesn’t blow the doors off the Jaguars in Week 4, it ought to be Hill.
One thing to watch: With the Texans suffering a massive injury to Lamar Miller at running backs and other teams hurting for depth, the Falcons could potentially move Hill for a late round selection if they’re hell-bent on keeping Ollison. It’s a longshot, but something to file away.
Presumptive Winner: Brian Hill