The running back position in 2020 was not a bright spot for Atlanta. Ito Smith had his moments, Todd Gurley scored in bunches, and Brian Hill had a brilliant scamper at the end of the year, but by and large the ground game was not a strength for Atlanta. We’ve gone on and on about Dirk Koetter’s legendarily weak rushing attacks and won’t spend too much time on that here, but suffice to say the backs themselves don’t bear all the blame.
That said, this is a soon-to-be-changing backfield that has to get a new featured player ahead of 2021. Let’s hit the review.
2020 Stats: 195 carries, 678 yards, 9 rushing touchdowns, 3.5 yards per carry, 45 first downs, 2 fumbles; 35 targets, 25 receptions, 164 yards, 7 first downs, 71.4% catch rate
Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent
I decided I was going to have an open mind about Todd Gurley. It seemed evident to me that Gurley’s arthritic knee was impacting his production in 2019, but analysts I like and respect thought he had plenty of juice and Sean McVay’s odd treatment of his workload was a factor in his reduced effectiveness. You needed only to fire up a few Rams games from 2019 to see moments where Gurley looked as explosive and tough as ever, and in the first five games of the year he served as the clear lead back and tallied 375 yards and 5 touchdowns. A little crow eating for skepticism seemed warranted at that point.
Perhaps predictably, though, things went rapidly downhill from there. Gurley played in 10 more games and rushed for only 303 yards and 4 touchdowns in that span, and he didn’t post a single score or over 26 yards rushing beyond Week 9. He was still the team’s most effective blocker and short yardage option, a role he basically settled into exclusively toward the end, but that was not exactly the point of signing the Todd Gurley who put up Canton-worthy production in his first few years in the NFL.
The truth is Gurley will wash out of Atlanta after one year for a variety of reasons, most of them outside of his control. He can’t predict or decide when his knee is going to impact him, for starters, as it clearly did at times in 2020. He can’t make Dirk Koetter run a less predictable, more effective game script that does not feature doomed runs up the middle into the teeth of stout defenses. He can control his decision-making, including trying to bounce short runs outside at ill-fated times or disengaging from a block at precisely the wrong moment, but those represented a handful of very visible errors. Most of the lack of production can be laid at the feet of Koetter and Gurley’s health, and the once-effective pass catcher averaged just over a catch a game in Atlanta. It remains unclear what the Falcons thought they were getting in Gurley, but after the first five weeks we certainly didn’t see it.
Koetter’s attraction to veteran back has been a feature and not a bug of his offenses since he came to Atlanta the first time. It is part of the reason he’ll be looking for a new job (again) and part of the reason Gurley is going to struggle mightily to get a $5 million deal on the open market this time around. I can’t imagine he’ll be back in Atlanta, and I hate that a player as talented as Gurley had a season like this for the Falcons.
FB Keith Smith
2020 Stats: 4 carries, 7 yards, 1.8 yards per carry, 4 first downs; 15 targets, 11 receptions, 59 yards, 4 first downs, 73.3% catch rate
Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent in 2023
Smith is a valuable special teamer and quality blocker, the primary reasons the team re-signed him to a three year deal to lead the way for their ground game. He did what he could this year but obviously could not rescue the ground game by himself. His affordability and special teams play will probably keep him here under a new regime next year.
The one unexpected bright spot was Smith’s random involvement as a receiver. He didn’t lag all that far behind the other guys in this backfield in terms of targets and proved to be a pretty sure-handed receiving option, catching 11 balls after never having caught more than 5 in a season before 2020. That was weird, random, and probably not something we’ll see replicated, but I certainly enjoyed it.
2020 Stats: 100 carries, 465 yards, 1 rushing touchdown, 4.7 yards per carry, 18 first downs, 2 fumbles; 30 targets, 25 receptions, 199 yards, 7 first downs, 83.3% catch rate
Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent
Hill got just about half as many touches as Gurley and accounted for about 3/4th of his yardage, though that comes with caveats. Serving as Gurley’s backup throughout much of the year, Ito Smith’s during a small chunk of the year, and finally as the featured guy in Week 17, Hill had a solid but unspectacular year where he was a decent runner, capable if under-utilized receiving option, and decent blocker. His efficiency as a runner is inflated a lot by that impressive 62 yard gallop at the end of the year, as without it he’s at 4.0 yards per carry and just around 400 yards, but it was a hell of a run.
Hill has shown himself to be a capable, well-rounded back at this point in his career, one that the Falcons may consider re-signing. Like Gurley, his effectiveness was limited by the guy coordinating the offense—the number of plays where Hill was swallowed behind the line of scrimmage is nowhere near zero—but he still managed to do enough with his touches to catch the eye of teams looking for a quality veteran backup.
2020 Stats: 63 carries, 268 yards, 1 rushing touchdown, 4.3 yards per carry, 8 first downs, 1 fumble; 26 targets, 17 receptions, 75 yards, 3 first downs, 65.4% catch rate
Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent in 2022
One of only three backs under contract for the upcoming year, Smith is also the only one with a proven track record of success, albeit one on limited touches.
Ito was mothballed throughout much of the year but enjoyed a burst of productivity from Week 12 to Week 16, piling up most of his yards for the year and serving as the nominal lead back. As a runner, Smith is shifty, physical and has good vision, and while his pass catching numbers are nothing special, he has done good work there in the past. His blocking is not his strong suit and I doubt the next staff is going to view him as more than a complementary option for their next lead back, but Ito’s a useful part of the Falcons backfield and he’s under contract for a very affordable price in 2021. I’d pencil him in as the #2 guy on the depth chart.
The big question is why it took him so long to get more involved, given that he was an immediate breath of fresh air for the offense, but that’s one of the many questions from this Koetter offense we’re not going to get an answer to.
2020 Stats: 1 carry, 3 yards, 3.0 yards per carry
Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent in 2023
The Falcons drafted Ollison in the fifth round in 2019, somewhat of a head scratcher given that they had Devonta Freeman, Ito Smith and Brian Hill at the time. I figured Dirk Koetter might want a short yardage and goal line option and Ollison’s size, power and open field speed made him an interesting addition to the backfield mix, even if I didn’t expect him to play a lot as a rookie.
What I didn’t expect is that he would effectively spend the entire 2020 season shelved, but that’s what happened. Ollison only suited up for gameday three times and received one measly carry all year despite the ground game’s constant struggles.
I like Ollison and think he could carve out a role as a short yardage option and third back for the next coaching staff, but it’s troubling that the offensive coordinator he was drafted under didn’t give him the time of day at all. We’ll hope a fresh start does wonders.
2020 Stats: 3 carries, 4 yards, 1.3 yards per carry
Contract Status: Reserve/future contract for 2021
Brooks-James will have a chance to hang on as a special teamer and speedy reserve, but it may be a slim chance with at least one new back on the way for a new regime, I’d wager. As a late addition to the roster, the one-time undrafted free agent did pick up 15 snaps.
Outlook: In need of help
I like Ito Smith a great deal and I’m excited to see him get a fair shake at a real role in the offense from the jump next year. I think Qadree Ollion can offer value to an offense, too, and hopefully he’ll get a shot to prove that.
This backfield still needs help. Gurley is as good as gone and Hill may or may not be back. Either way, any offensive-minded head coach—heck, any head coach—is going to want a young feature back and is probably going to stump for one in the NFL Draft. Getting that player and getting a good one is going to matter for this offense in 2021, given how badly it struggled with a lackluster run game at times this past year. Ito and Ollison can hopefully play prominent roles in that offense, but there’s a zero percent chance Atlanta goes into next year with that duo as their top options at the position. It’s just a question of who they’re getting.