The Falcons have vowed to go into the draft with the ability to focus on taking the best player available, regardless of position. To do that, they’ll need to feel as though they have at least given themselves options at every position of need, which seems easier said than done given that thus far they have had very little money and have signed very few free agents. It is necessary, however, if they’re going to put themselves in a position where they feel good about drafting someone technically non-essential but with superstar potential at #4, like say Justin Fields or Kyle Pitts.
The team will make more additions that put them in a position to at least have a fallback plan at key positions, but here’s one thing I do feel confident about: The most important addition to the running back group won’t come in free agency.
This is an assumption informed by a few factors:
- The Falcons only have three backs on the roster, and only one of those backs is a proven contributor at this point. I’d expect Ito Smith to get quite a bit of run in 2021, but I also don’t expect Atlanta to necessarily lean on him as the lead option in the backfield, given that it’s not a role he’s filled to this point. Qadree Ollison’s role is uncertain—though I’d hope for a larger one—and Tony Brooks-James figures to mostly be a special teamer if he sticks. It would be stunning if they didn’t make a significant addition here, and it would be sparked by this staff having a drastically different evaluation of Ito and Ollison than the last one.
- The free agent options left are not necessarily players Atlanta will look to as lead backs. That might be because of injury (Todd Gurley, Tevin Coleman, Jerrick McKinnon), age (Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore), a shaky history of production to this point (D’Onta Foreman, Kalen Ballage, Corey Clement, to some extent Brian Hill), or expense (Leonard Fournette). Only former Panther Mike Davis, ex-Giant Wayne Gallman, and maybe former Chief Damien Williams have the recent history of success and lack of tread on their tires that suggest they could join up and definitely provide some short-term value as the primary ballcarrier in this backfield, and a signing of one of those guys would allow Atlanta to not treat the position like a need. If that happens, you can frown at this article.
- This coaching staff is well aware of the value of having a clear-cut lead option who is young, affordable, and hasn’t pulled down 1,000 carries at the NFL level already. This draft class is loaded with interesting options there who could credibly be the best player available at their spot for this team, including Memphis’s Kenneth Gainwell, who the Falcons have checked in on recently. They don’t need to take a back at #4—and shouldn’t!—when there are options later on who could be the team’s most credible lead back for the next 4-plus seasons.
- The team’s free agency dollars are too limited, minus changes to contracts for Deion Jones and Grady Jarrrett, for them to address every single need on their list. My expectation all along has been that they’ll try to sign someone for near the veteran at minimum at guard, maybe center, defensive end, cornerback, and again at safety, perhaps ponying up a tiny bit more for a pass rusher who can contribute in a major way. I may prove to be reading the tea leaves wrong here, but I think the intersection of limited dollars and the interesting aspects of this draft class means they’ll prioritize other needs ahead of running back.
This is not to suggest that Atlanta will skip free agency entirely, because the lack of movement in the market suggests there’ll be interesting, affordable options for them in the weeks ahead. If Arthur Smith is serious about replacing Derrick Henry with a committee, he’ll likely find value in having a veteran bulldozer to compete with Ollison for short yardage and early down work at the very least. It is fair to suggest that Smith got way too much out of Henry for him to want to move ahead without a young lead option he really likes? Yeah, I think so.
Could the Falcons sign a veteran, have that player split touches with Ito and Ollison, and call it a day? That’s possible, but this is a team with an eye on the future well aware that the only back on the roster a year from now might be Ollison. It feels like a virtual lock that the one place they’ll consider need and BPA inextricably linked is running back, and whether that’s on the draft’s second or third day, I’d expect the nominal lead back for 2021 to join up in late April.