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Senior Bowl preview: Running backs & tight ends to watch for the Falcons

Next up in our Senior Bowl preview is running back and tight end, two spots where the Falcons have a big need for young, talented depth. The Senior Bowl features a number of top players at both spots, including arguably the top TE in the class in Trey McBride.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Georgia at Michigan Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

It’s officially Draft Season here at The Falcoholic, with the Atlanta Falcons locked into the 8th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Based on the results of the NFL’s divisional round of the playoffs, we also know that the Falcons will have the 58th pick as a result of the Julio Jones trade with the Titans. That gives the team three top-60 picks—and there’s the potential to add more with a few other player trades, if Atlanta is interested in making additional moves.

The next event on the offseason calendar is the Reese’s Senior Bowl—a showcase of the top draft-eligible seniors (or players who graduated early) that takes place in Mobile right around the first week of February. To get everyone ready for the week to come, I’ll be breaking down the top players to watch for the Falcons and the league at large. In case you missed any of the previous entries, you can find them here:

DL | LB | DB | WR | RB & TE | OL | QB

Next up is running back and tight end, two positions which could use an infusion of young talent alongside some established veteran options. What the Falcons decide to do with players like Cordarrelle Patterson and Mike Davis could make a big difference in how highly the team prioritizes RB, while the retirement of Lee Smith and impending free agency of Hayden Hurst leave a void to fill behind Kyle Pitts at TE.

RB

There’s no sugar-coating that the Falcons run game was a disappointment in 2021. Much of that had to do with the lackluster play of the offensive line, but presumed starter Mike Davis struggled mightily until late in the season and was a better option as a receiver. I still expect Atlanta to re-sign Patterson, but either way they’d be wise to look at adding another young runner to the rotation. This year’s RB class is lacking stars at the top, but has a great deal of depth and complementary players. The Draft Network has just five RBs in the top-100, but a whopping 15 more in the top-200. Here are some of the RBs I’ll be watching at the Senior Bowl.

James Cook, Georgia

One of the biggest risers in 2021, Georgia’s James Cook took on a much bigger role in the backfield and continued his absurdly-efficient production. Cook put up 728 yards on 113 carries (6.4 YPC) and 7 TDs, and also had a great season as a receiver with 27 receptions for 284 yards (10.5 YPR) and 4 TDs. Cook isn’t the biggest or the strongest runner, but he would be a great complement to a bigger, short-yardage back. He’s elusive, savvy, and offers great hands and receiving ability. Look for Cook to impress in one-on-one drills in Mobile.

Hassan Haskins, Michigan

If the Falcons are looking for a workhorse runner, Hassan Haskins is one of my favorite options in the class who could be had late on Day 2 or perhaps even early on Day 3. I mocked Haskins to Atlanta in my latest mock draft, and here’s how I described his skills:

Haskins was a quality part of a backfield rotation for Michigan up until 2021, where he seized control of the workhorse role. He took advantage of the added volume, piling up 1327 yards on 270 carries (4.9 YPC) along with 20 rushing TDs. Arthur Smith clearly has a preference for big physical backs, and Haskins fits the bill at 6’1, 220. Haskins is a bruising, decisive runner who excels between the tackles. While he’s not a dynamic athlete, he’s got enough speed and agility to pick up extra yards when available.

Brian Robinson Jr., Alabama

Finally out of the shadow of Najee Harris in 2021, Alabama’s Brian Robinson Jr. took over the workhorse role this season and put up impressive production: 270 carries for 1336 yards (4.9 YPC) and 14 TDs. Robinson is a physical, big-bodied runner with terrific contact balance and short-yardage ability. He’s not a special athlete, which limits his upside, but he’s capable of shouldering the load on the ground. In the passing game, Robinson is a strong pass blocker with reliable hands—though he’s not a dynamic threat as a receiver. I’m interested to see how he fares at the Senior Bowl.

Tyler Badie, Missouri

If Atlanta is looking to replace the skillset of Mike Davis at a fraction of the salary (and with a Day 3 pick), Missouri’s Tyler Badie is an intriguing addition. I had the Falcons taking Badie in a previous mock draft, and here’s how I described his fit:

Badie spent the first three seasons of his career as a pass catcher and punt returner, playing mostly on third down and in passing situations. That role is great for him: Badie is a good athlete with quality hands, route running chops, and blocking ability. However, in 2021, Badie took over the lead role in Missouri’s backfield and flourished: he’s piled up 1612 rushing yards on 268 carries (6.0 YPC) and 14 TDs along with 54 receptions for 330 yards (6.1 YPR) and 4 TDs. He’s clearly more than just a receiving option, but his lack of size (5’8, 198) ideally makes him part of a committee with a larger back who can handle short-yardage work. I love Badie’s fit in Atlanta alongside a dominant threat in Patterson, who also happens to be great in short yardage.

Other players to watch:

Jerome Ford, Cincinnati
Rachaad White, Arizona State
Zaquandre White, South Carolina
Dameon Pierce, Florida

TE

The tight end position is a sneaky big need for the Falcons after the news of Lee Smith’s retirement and the impending departure of Hayden Hurst in free agency. Outside of the star power of Kyle Pitts, Atlanta has just former UDFAs Parker Hesse and John Raine under contract. With Arthur Smith’s offense favoring 12 personnel packages, the potential is there for Atlanta to go after another quality TE option in the draft—and the 2022 class is a great one for TE2s. While there are no Pitts-level prospects, there are 5 TEs in TDN’s top-100 and another six in the top-200. Here are some of the prospects I’ll be watching at the Senior Bowl.

Trey McBride, Colorado State

My TE1 in this draft class, Trey McBride is a legit do-it-all prospect. The engine of the Colorado State offense, McBride put up 90 receptions for 1121 yards (12.5 YPR) and a TD in 2021. He’s got great hands, is a good athlete, and has excellent size and length at 6’4, 260. McBride is also a quality blocker with experience lining up all over the formation, including in-line and in the backfield. Arthur Smith’s offense prefers 12 personnel groupings, and I wouldn’t be shocked if the Falcons strongly consider adding another high-end TE to bolster that group. McBride has a chance to solidify himself at the top with a strong week.

Jeremy Ruckert, Ohio State

The tight end with perhaps the most to gain at the Senior Bowl, Jeremy Ruckert was criminally underutilized in the Ohio State offense over the past several years. With the passing game going through the elite WR corps, Ruckert caught just 26 passes in 2021. However, he’s got the build (6’5, 250) and athletic traits to be a much more productive pro. Ruckert is a red-zone specialist and good blocker who would be an ideal TE2 for the Falcons. Ruckert has a chance to raise his profile in Mobile after limited college production.

Isaiah Likely, Coastal Carolina

A receiving specialist with some positional versatility, Isaiah Likely showed consistent growth throughout his time at Coastal Carolina. That all culminated in a terrific 2021 season that saw Likely put up 59 receptions to 912 yards (15.5 YPR) and a whopping 12 TDs. Likely is a very good athlete who functioned as a deep threat for the offense, showing off long speed, very good hands, and elusiveness in the open field. He’s not the biggest TE (6’4, 240), but works hard as a blocker from multiple spots—including in-line and as a FB. I’m interested to see how Likely fares against the higher level of competition at the Senior Bowl.

Jake Ferguson, Wisconsin

If the Falcons are inclined to wait a bit to add to the tight end position, Jake Ferguson offers a well-rounded skillset that would be a good complement to the more electric style of Kyle Pitts. Very much an old-school TE, Ferguson offers quality blocking chops and a reliable skillset as a receiver. He’s not a high-end athlete, but has good hands and carved out a consistent role as a short-yardage and red zone weapon for Wisconsin. With a lot of dynamic athletes at this year’s Senior Bowl, Ferguson has a chance to stand out as one of the better blockers and a strong in-line option.

Charlie Kolar, Iowa State

A late-round prospect at tight end with a unique skillset, Iowa State’s Charlie Kolar is an intriguing prospect. The Falcons need a complementary option across from Pitts, and I think Kolar could fit the bill. Here’s how I described Kolar in a previous mock draft:

A big-bodied traditional tight end, Kolar is 6’6, 260 with excellent length. He’s an aggressive player who brings a nasty attitude to his work as a blocker and receiver. Kolar’s best attribute is his ability to catch the football. He’s got strong hands, a massive catch radius, and a very competitive demeanor at the catch point. Kolar is an expert at bodying smaller defenders and winning contested-catch situations, and is fearless over the middle. Which is good, because he’s nothing special as an athlete and doesn’t separate particularly well. He’s also fairly average as a blocker and absolutely must get stronger to make an impact there at the NFL level.

Other players to watch:

Cole Turner, Nevada
Greg Dulcich, UCLA
Daniel Bellinger, San Diego State
Grant Calcaterra, SMU

I hope you’re enjoying our Senior Bowl preview series! I’ll be in Mobile to cover the Senior Bowl practices for The Falcoholic from Tuesday, February 4 through Thursday, February 6. Stay tuned tomorrow for our next position preview: offensive line.