Mike Davis was signed to be the lead back for the Falcons in 2021, but he has never started a full 16 games in that role before. He also has never topped the 165 carries he had a year ago, so while we’re high on him, it’s fair to say we also expected Atlanta to add a complementary back in free agency or the draft.
That didn’t happen. Instead, Atlanta picked up ace returner Cordarrelle Patterson and will apparently use him as a part-time back, and they picked up undrafted free agents Javian Hawkins and Caleb Huntley to go with Qadree Ollison and Tony Brooks-James, who were already on the roster. That leaves you with the impression that the backfield is pretty unsettled unless they go out and sign someone else, and on Monday, new running backs coach Desmond Kitchings said as much.
Chatting with Desmond Kitchings and what immediately stuck out to him about this RB position group is how competitive it's going to be. Without drafting a RB, he says "the door is wide open" for anyone to take over.— Tori McElhaney (@tori_mcelhaney) May 10, 2021
This talk doesn’t always match the walk in August, and if the Falcons free up enough cap space to take a crack at a couple of reasonably-priced free agents, they may well do so. Teams should look for bargains and fresh legs at the running back position more often than they do, so if this group proves to be solid this summer, I’m all for Atlanta getting a better running game cheaply and with the help of what we all hope is a better offensive line and coaching staff at the helm.
The battle to watch isn’t so much the lead role—I’d still very much expect that to go to Davis—but rather the down the depth chart fights. Is Patterson going to have a real, significant role in this backfield, or will he essentially be the team’s fourth back and fifth or sixth receiver? Is Ollison in line to spell Davis, or will rookie Huntley prove to be the useful reserve power back? Is Hawkins in line for a significant role or is he ticketed for the practice squad this first season, replaced by a free agent signing or outdueled by Brooks-James? Will the Falcons even carry four backs, including Patterson, or is that the wrong read because they expect a lot from Davis?
Ultimately, the question is who will actually make this roster and have a role. It’s obviously too early to say, but my early money would be on Davis, Patterson, Ollison and Hawkins filling out the depth chart. There’s a good mix of skills in that group, with Ollison hopefully being able to handle early down work if Davis needs to be spelled and Hawkins and Patterson some lightning to their thunder. I think it’s very reasonable to assume that this coaching staff, which already seems to like Hawkins, will give him every opportunity to succeed.
Desmond Kitchings says Louisville RB Javian Hawkins brings the speed the room didn't have before they signed him as a college free agent. Mike Davis and Qadree Ollison are bigger backs who are more power style running backs #Falcons— Kelsey Conway (@FalconsKelsey) May 10, 2021
There may be a little less intrigue here than there is at places where starting jobs are truly up for grabs, like left guard and cornerback, but it should be a fun summer for the running back group. If Atlanta hit at least one undrafted free agent home run between Hawkins and Huntley, in particular, it’s only going to help them build the next effective Falcons ground game on a budget.
Who do you think makes the roster?