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Falcons training camp preview: Running back

With two weeks to go until the start of Falcons training camp, we take a closer look at Atlanta’s running backs. Veteran Mike Davis is the clear favorite to start, but the depth chart also features a number of intriguing rotational pieces.

NFL: Altanta Falcons OTA Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

With just over two weeks to go until the start of the Falcons’ 2021 training camp, it’s time to take a closer look at each of the position groups on the roster. We’ll go through each one, noting the potential starters and the competition for depth roles. We continue our look at Atlanta’s offense with running back, where the depth chart has been thoroughly changed from 2020.

OFFENSE: QB | RB

THE RB STARTER: Mike Davis

5’9, 221 | 2020 Stats: 165 carries for 642 yards (3.9 YPC), 6 rushing TD, 59 receptions for 373 yards (6.3 YPR), 2 receiving TD

After bouncing around the NFL as a reserve runner for the past 5 years, Mike Davis finally got his opportunity to start after an injury to Christian McCaffrey in 2020. His production was OK, as Davis struggled behind a subpar OL in Carolina and averaged just 3.9 YPC. However, Davis put some nice things on tape and has the potential to be a more effective runner in a better scheme and behind a hopefully better line.

Davis will get his first chance to go into a season as the more-or-less unquestioned starter in Atlanta. He’s likely to be an average at worst player who has the potential to outperform his price tag. His skills as a pass blocker and receiver also give him added value, where he is likely the best of any options the Falcons have. I wouldn’t expect a Pro Bowl-caliber season from Davis, but if he stays healthy he could flirt with 1,000 yards rushing in what should be a more balanced attack under Arthur Smith.

THE RB DEPTH: Cordarrelle Patterson, Qadree Ollison, Javian Hawkins, Caleb Huntley, Tony Brooks-James

Cordarrelle Patterson

6’2, 238 | 2020 Stats: 64 carries for 232 yards (3.6 YPC), 1 rushing TD, 21 receptions for 132 yards (6.3 YPR)

The Falcons signed Patterson to a 1-year, $3M deal this offseason—which wouldn’t normally turn heads, but in a cap-strapped year that made him one of Atlanta’s most expensive offseason acquisitions. Patterson is a 4-time All-Pro kick returner, and he’s obviously being brought in to elevate the Falcons’ special teams. But he’s also spent time at WR and RB, particularly in 2020 with the Bears and Atlanta’s new OC, Dave Ragone.

The Falcons seem serious about deploying Patterson as a RB, but I’d expect him to get a fair amount of targets as a receiver as well. We’ll see if Atlanta can utilize Patterson more effectively than Chicago, were Patterson’s production as both a runner and receiver was lackluster.

Qadree Ollison

6’1, 232 | 2020 Stats: 1 carry for 3 yards (3.0 YPC)

The forgotten man in the backfield over the past two seasons, Qadree Ollison’s career may have received a huge boost with Arthur Smith taking over the team. Ollison’s build and skillset match up nicely with the type of running back Smith has typically coveted, and he has a good chance at becoming the primary backup for Mike Davis with a strong camp and preseason. Ollison has been getting work with the first team offense in OTAs, which could suggest a role for him in the rotation.

Javian Hawkins

5’9, 196 | 2020 Stats (College): 133 carries for 822 yards (6.2 YPC) and 7 rushing TD, 16 receptions for 127 yards (7.9 YPR) and 1 receiving TD

Arguably the most exciting UDFA addition the Falcons have in 2021—which is really saying something, considering the volume of UDFAs the team added this year—Hawkins joins the team at an opportune time. Behind Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson, there are no established RBs on this depth chart. Hawkins has tremendous talent and fills a niche that Atlanta doesn’t have: he’s an electric, one-cut speedster who’s a home run threat on every carry. He’s also a better receiver than his production would suggest. A strong camp and preseason could not only land him a roster spot, but perhaps even a significant role in the rotation.

Caleb Huntley

5’10, 229 | 2020 Stats (College): 80 carries for 437 yards (5.5 YPC) and 6 rushing TD, 1 reception for 13 yards

Another intriguing UDFA, Caleb Huntley is the polar opposite of Javian Hawkins. He’s a big-bodied bruiser who, while not flashy in terms of athleticism or big-play potential, has shown an ability to grind out tough yards. Huntley has a more difficult path to the roster, as he’d likely need to beat out Qadree Ollison for a spot in the rotation. However, a promising camp and/or preseason could land him on the practice squad.

Tony Brooks-James

5’9, 179 | 2020 Stats: 3 carries for 4 yards (1.3 YPC)

Brooks-James is one of the few holdovers from the Quinn/TD regime who managed to stick around on a futures contract after Smith and Fontenot took over. Filling very much the same niche as Javian Hawkins, Brooks-James has shown a few flashes in the preseason but otherwise hasn’t made much of a mark in the NFL thus far. He’s got a tough path to the roster, with Hawkins seemingly the favorite at this point. Still, if Brooks-James performs well in preseason, he could still find himself a roster or practice squad spot.

THE FB COMPETITION: Keith Smith vs John Raine

Keith Smith

6’0, 240 | 2020 Stats: 4 carries for 7 yards (1.8 YPC), 11 receptions for 59 yards (5.9 YPR), 8 ST tackles

While there is technically a fullback competition, it’s very much Keith Smith’s job to lose—and that’s mostly due to his prowess on special teams. A former linebacker, Smith has managed 8 or more special teams tackles every year since 2017—and added 2 forced fumbles in both 2017 and 2019. He’s not the league’s best blocking FB, but he’s above average and has also shown some receiving ability when called upon. Arthur Smith’s offense has utilized a FB, with Tennessee playing in 21 personnel about 10% of the time (9th most in the NFL).

John Raine

6’1, 231 | 2020 Stats: 24 receptions for 233 yards (9.7 YPR)

The Falcons are trying their hand at a position switch for former Northwestern tight end John Raine, who is officially listed as a fullback on Atlanta’s roster. Raine has played some H-back, but was never a high-volume pass catcher over his career. He’s undersized for a TE and the Falcons have an abundance of talent there, so perhaps Raine can carve out a practice squad spot as a developmental FB with a strong camp.