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Falcons roster battles: Breaking down the backup RB competition

A familiar cast of competitors return in 2020 behind Todd Gurley.

Los Angeles Rams vAtlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

We’re months away from settling roster battles, obviously, but we can start talking about them right now. Let’s start with running back, a position with a clear cut starter and loaded with backup options, and determine who will actually be backing up Todd Gurley.

The starter

Todd Gurley

Barring health issues keeping him off the field, Gurley is the starter. He was the starter for the Rams last year, he has a track record of production in the NFL, and the Falcons went ahead and gave him $5 million to play for them, all clear signs he’ll be the lead back. Gurley is coming off a down season and there are plenty of whispers about his knees, but he’s a capable runner, receiver, and blocker who fits what Dirk Koetter wants. There won’t be any controversy here unless he’s hobbled.

The backup contenders

Ito Smith

Ito would be the obvious backup here for many reasons if it wasn’t for his multi-concussion 2019, which robbed him of much of the season. He’s got excellent vision, balance, and deceptive power, and is one of the best pass-catching backs on the roster. His iffy blocking and injury history are going to work against him, but if he’s healthy Judge Ito should be on the field a lot in relief of Gurley.

Brian Hill

If Ito’s not 100%, Hill is the next man up. He’s a physical runner who is improving as a blocker and receiver, but he didn’t have a ton of luck in his opportunities a year ago in terms of actually producing on the ground. Hill is a logical direct backup to Gurley because his skillset is Gurley-Lite, but he’s not really a noteworthy change of pace from what Gurley offers and likely won’t play a lot unless Gurley can’t go or needs a breather.

Qadree Ollison

Ollison’s role to playing time is tough to see. He was a Dirk Koetter draft pick last season and is a strong short yardage and goal line guy, as he scored four touchdowns on limited chances a year ago, can bull his way to yardage, and has deceptive speed once he gets a hole to work with. The problem is that Gurley is also a very capable short yardage and goal line option, and Smith and Hill are more experienced, well-rounded backs. It’s possible Ollison winds up as a gameday inactive or even practice squad player early on in 2020.

Craig Reynolds

He’s an obvious longshot. Reynolds has size, power, and pass catching ability, and even dabbled as a returner in college, so it’s not like he couldn’t be a sneaky practice squad addition or back of the roster guy. With Gurley, Ito, Hill, and Ollison all here, he realistically needs injuries to open up a spot for him, however.

The predicted outcome

There’s an incredible amount of uncertainty here, if we’re being honest. Gurley is the slam dunk starter but his health makes having capable backups vital. Ito Smith’s health is also a question mark heading into this, and Dirk Koetter didn’t give us a ton of strong indications that he had a favored backup a year ago. In the case of Ollison, a player the Falcons drafted after years of heavy investments in the running back positions, we don’t even have a good read for whether he has a role in this offsense based on his light 2019 usage.

That said, we can make some guesses. Ito was the first man up a year ago behind Devonta Freeman, who dominated snaps when he was healthy, and I’d expect that to be the case again if he’s healthy. Hill was third in line and took on major snaps when injuries struck, and the Falcons went ahead and made keeping him a priority. That leaves Ollison and Reynolds competing for the fourth spot—and the Falcons will carry four backs—and Ollison’s status as a Koetter draft pick and short yardage banger gives him a leg up there.

What I’m suggesting is that ultimately, things will shake out the same way they did a year ago, just with a new lead back. Ito will be a pass catching option and he and Hill will occasionally spell Gurley, while Ollison will be in mothballs unless injuries hit. The Falcons are likely to ride out this situation one more year and then make a significant investment at running back in 2021, when Gurley and Hill are free agents and Ito is entering the final year of his rookie deal.