Our roster review series rolls on with running back, a position that had dismal fortunes in 2019 and has a cloudy outlook for 2020.
Blocking and the iffy commitment to the ground game from Dirk Koetter were a huge factor in the group’s lack of success this year, but the reality is that nobody outside of Ito Smith had a very inspiring year, and Ito’s was ended by injury before the first half was even over. Devonta Freeman could be cut, Smith’s concussion troubles could impact his 2020, Brian Hill is a restricted free agent, and Qadree Ollison just didn’t get enough run for us to know how he’ll fare with more playing time.
Despite spending a 4th rounder in 2014, 3rd rounder in 2015, 5th rounder in 2017, 4th rounder in 2018, and 5th rounder in 2019, then, the Falcons have more questions than answers at running back this year. That’s a grim situation, and one they’ll likely address with yet another draft selection in the mid-to-late rounds in 2020.
The best case scenario is that Ito’s healthy, Hill returns, and Ollison proves to be a compelling early down thumper, but we’ll have to see. Here’s a closer look at the position after 2019.
RB Devonta Freeman
2019 stats: 14 games, 184 carries, 656 yards, 2 rushing touchdowns, 3.6 yards per carry, 46.9 yards per game, 3 fumbles; 70 targets, 59 receptions, 410 yards, 6.9 yards per reception, 4 receiving touchdowns, 29.3 yards per game, 84.3% catch rate, 3 fumbles
Contract: 3 years remaining; $6 million in dead money, $3 million in savings 2020
Freeman was healthier this year, participating in 14 games, but it was by far the least inspiring season of his career, even so. His yards per carry, touchdowns, and success rates were all lower than usual, and while he was a vacuum cleaner as a receiver, it was mostly on obvious check down situations. Freeman remains the team’s best blocker at the position, but that alone wasn’t enough to salvage a tough season.
It’s very questionable how much of that is his fault. Freeman has historically fared very well on 1st and 10 situations, but Dirk Koetter’s unimaginative run-up-the-middle habit in that situation led to a lot of unproductive carries. All too often, Free did his level best to turn a loss into a gain, but had multiple defenders in front of him before he had a chance. The blocking and scheme had as much to do with Freeman’s failings this year as his own ability, if not more.
That said, Free doesn’t look quite as dynamic on a snap-by-snap basis as he used to, which is only natural for a soon-to-be 28 year old back who has suffered multiple significant injuries in recent years. There’s little doubt that better tendencies and better blocking would lift his game—he was more productive in the second half when the team was more competitive—but I don’t know that he’ll ever produce like a top-tier back again.
There’s a strong chance the Falcons move on from Freeman this offseason, saving $3 million this year, $6 million next year, and over $8 million in 2022. The team will probably not find anyone who is quite as well-rounded as Freeman, and pass protection will be a legitimate concern next year.
RB Ito Smith
2019 Stats: 7 games, 22 carries, 106 yards, 1 rushing touchdown, 4.8 yards per carry, 15.1 yards per game; 14 targets, 11 receptions, 87 yards, 7.9 yards per reception, 12.4 yards per game, 78.6% catch rate
Contract: 2 years remaining
Smith is the back I’m most bullish on, but there are complicating factors. Judge Ito ran the ball effectively and is a fine receiver, but obviously has a ways to go in terms of pass protection. Ideally, he’s probably the #2 back in this offense, because he does so many things well.
The problem is that he’s coming off two concussions in a short span, which put him on injured reserve and certainly clouds his outlook. The hope would be that he’s ready to go for the upcoming season, and that he can be a compelling part of the committee for the final two seasons of his rookie deal, at minimum. Until we get clarity on his status we just don’t know, though, so I’m hesitant to say more than I’m a big believer in his talent and his ability to help out this offense.
If Ito’s not cleared to go for 2020, the Falcons have a bit of a situation on their hands, especially if they’re hellbent on moving on from Freeman to save money. Look for them to draft a back, even though they’ve seemingly drafted a back each of the past five seasons.
RB Brian Hill
2019 stats: 12 games, 78 carries, 323 yards, 1 rushing touchdown, 4.1 yards per carry, 26.9 yards per game; 14 targets, 10 catches, 69 yards, 6.9 yards per reception, 1 receiving touchdown, 71.4% catch rate
Contract: Restricted free agent in 2020
Hill came into the season with a lot of hype, with the coaching staff praising his progress as a blocker and receiver. Hill’s always shown he can rumble on the ground a bit when given the opportunity, but those opportunities hadn’t always come.
Hill’s two weeks as a start couldn’t have been less inspiring, unfortunately. He got 35 carries in two weeks and got just 91 yards with them, or less than three yards per carry. He also received just five targets and caught two of them in that span, and I’d doubt the Falcons will be keen to give him a starting opportunity again.
That said, they should be looking to bring him back for another bite of the apple. He’s a hard runner and a decent-at-worst receiving option who can spell the lead dog in the committee, and even if the results were uneven this year, he has more upside as a blocker than Ito. At worst, he’s a solid enough third back.
RB Qadree Ollison
2019 stats: 8 games, 22 carries, 50 yards, 4 rushing touchdowns, 2.3 yards per carry, 6.3 yards per game; 2 targets, 1 reception, 7 yards, 1 fumble
Contract: 3 years remaining
Ollison was not a productive runner on a per-carry basis, but he showed flashes of being the short yardage and goal line bull that fans have been clamoring for since Michael Turner left. That’s evinced by his four rushing touchdowns, which is comically twice as many as any other back on the roster.
I have no idea what to expect from Ollison, who figured to be a more significant part of the committee given that he was a Dirk Koetter fifth round pick, especially once Ito Smith went down. He was an excellent special teams blocker at Pitt and could turn into a solid pass protector in the pros, and that plus his size, straight line speed and power could get him an early down look going forward. I’d love to see him step into a real role next year, if only because the team could really use that.
RB/KR/PR Kenjon Barner
2019 stats: 14 games, 4 carries, 28 yards, 7 yards per carry, 2.0 yards per game; 8 targets, 6 receptions, 22 yards, 3.7 yards per reception, 1.6 yards per game
Contract: Unrestricted free agent
Barner did fine work on the very rare occasions he was asked to help out on offense, but obviously his real value lies on special teams, where he was a very good returner. I’d expect him to return in 2020 and have the same minimal role on this side of the ball.
RB Craig Reynolds
2019 stats: N/A
Contract: Reserve/future signed for 2020
Reynolds is a young back who spent some time on the practice squad and could do the same again in 2020, sneaking on to the roster if injury strikes.
FB Keith Smith
2019 stats: 16 games, 5 carries, 8 yards, 1.6 yards per attempt, 0.5 yards per game; 3 targets, 1 reception, 13 yards, 0.8 yards per game, 33% catch rate
Contract: Unrestricted free agent
Smith’s stats are unimpressive, but that’s because he’s a fullback. As a blocker, he was pretty solid all year, however, and should be back if the Falcons want to use a traditional fullback.
The question is whether they want to or should, I guess. I had some hope that Jaeden Graham and Luke Stocker would end up taking on a hybrid fullback role to save a roster spot, given that fullback plays under 20% of the snaps and the ground game struggled even with Smith’s extra help, but that didn’t really materialize. Right now, I’m expecting him to return and do a fine job, especially since he’s a quality special teamer.
As I’ve alluded to repeatedly above, there’s a lot of uncertainty here, even if there’s plenty of talent too. Until we get clarity on Hill and Keith Smith’s contract status, Ito Smith’s injury, and whether Freeman will be back, it’s hard to know what to expect from Atlanta at running back next year.
I do expect them to invest a pick, and potentially one earlier than I’d like, to upgrade the talent at the position. Dirk Koetter’s best years as an offensive coordinator in terms of the ground game came when he had Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, and I’m sure he’d like to have a top-shelf young back he believed in to try to re-create that magic, especially with the team investing so much in the blocking up front.