One of the most common misconceptions about Arthur Smith’s offense in Tennessee is that it ran as well as it did because of Derrick Henry and Derrick Henry alone. The cries of “Atlanta doesn’t have Derrick Henry!” began immediately when the Smith hiring was announced, but the reality was always that A) Smith’s scheme would have to translate minus Henry and B) the passing game was more efficient than the ground game in Tennessee, though Henry’s bruising running style was a difference maker.
The open question was whether Arthur Smith and this front office would try to snag the equivalent of Henry, a true workhorse back to run the ground game through, or whether they’d put together more of a committee. The team’s limited cap space and the folly of spending a first round pick on a player like Najee Harris suggested the latter, but now we have it from the new Falcons head coach himself.
In an interview with D. Orlando Ledbetter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Smith said the team will trust its scheme and lean on more than one back, saying (possibly tiredly) that “it’s not like I think we’re going to have Derrick Henry.”
“The reality is that we’ll get multiple backs in here, and we’ll have the way we trust our schemes and the way we teach the details of it, and we’ll commit to it,” Smith said. “That should provide hope to people because of that mindset.”
If that’s the case, it sets forth a pretty clear course of action for Atlanta. Ito Smith will definitely be involved in a committee and Qadree Ollison may or may not be, but the Falcons are going to want a lead option to carry at least half the load, plus another back to fill a niche they don’t solve with that addition. They could do this via free agency—Kevin Knight broken down some good options on that front, as did Aaron Freeman on the Locked On Falcons podcast—or they could elect to make a Day 2 or Day 3 draft selection. Either way, there are multiple additions ahead at the position, with Ito settling into a pass catching and change of pace role or some kind once the dust settles.
The reason the Falcons probably won’t settle for one addition is the lack of experienced options and the number of touches Smith will want to distribute in the backfield. Ito’s an underrated runner and receiver, but Smith does not lean heavily on his backs to catch the ball, and after 3 years in the league Ito has topped out at 117 touches back in his rookie season. Ollison may simply have fallen out of favor with Dirk Koetter and may well have a bright future in this backfield, but it’s fair to suggest that’s not a lock. With Ito also scheduled to hit free agency in 2022, having a long-term option or two is just a smart play.
So no, there won’t be a Derrick Henry here. If Smith’s offense can’t function without him—something Smith himself would reject out of hand—then this offense was always going to be in trouble anyways. We’ll see who the Falcons do add very soon.