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Caleb Huntley has solidified his place in Atlanta

With Cordarrelle Patterson’s return looming, there are questions about how the Falcons will split carries in the backfield. However the carries are distributed, Caleb Huntley needs to get his well-deserved share.

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Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

An undrafted player that has been waived multiple times in two years isn’t supposed to become a valuable contributor, and many do not. Being a running back in the NFL is hard enough, given the volatility at the position. Given that he is both undrafted and a 230-pound between-the-tackles back, Caleb Huntley doesn’t exactly fit the bill of the modern-day running back.

He doesn’t offer much as a pass catcher, or at least hasn’t to this point. He doesn’t possess breakaway speed. He was largely known for being the running back getting carries during the second half of preseason games. You have to defy expectations to have his skillset and make a splash.

As the midpoint of the regular season approaches, the former Ball State has ascended to a key contributor in the Falcons offense and a legitimate power back, playing an integral role in the Falcons’ surprising success.

Establishing the foundation of a growing identity

Huntley made his mark in a memorable showing against the Browns. With the passing game languishing, Huntley entered the game and carried the load, sparking a stunning performance from the running game. The vision, decisiveness, power, and grit he ran with left everyone in awe. Out of nowhere, a traditional power back became a key piece of the offense for the first time in close to a decade.

The coaching staff remained firmly behind him after propelling the Falcons to victory over Cleveland. His performances have been steady over the past three games, with notable flashes against Tampa Bay and San Francisco. His ability to continuously pick up yardage, regardless of the blocking, makes a significant difference for a team that has truly been a run-first offense. No matter what is being presented in front of him, Huntley gallops forward and forces defenders to put maximum effort into bringing him down.

Without Huntley, the Falcons can’t operate as a run-first offense, looking to punish defensive fronts on the ground. The ferocity he runs with elevates an offensive line that is still very much a work in progress. With Keith Smith and Parker Hesse consistently making key blocks, Huntley adds another physical element to this unorthodox offense. As promising as Tyler Allgeier is, Huntley has outplayed him as a runner since they formed a one-two punch following Cordarrelle Patterson going on injured reserve. That was evident in a ridiculously thrilling (and nasty) victory over Carolina.

The best game of his young career

As jaw-dropping as his breakout performance was against Cleveland, he produced his finest performance against an underrated, stingy Carolina front. His usual punishing running style and sharp cuts were on full display. What was most notable and different was the patience Huntley showed in making the right cuts to accelerate into the open space. Instead of crashing in to the pile aimlessly and gaining two hard-fought yards, he consistently stayed composed and allowed the play to develop to make his move to gain four to six yards per carry.

Per Pro Football Focus, Huntley gained a whopping 75 of his 89 yards after contact. As the Falcons struggled to get much push up front, he found any space available and lowered his shoulder to keep things moving. The coaching staff clearly values his ability to get those crucial extra yards, as they called a run for him on third and one in the red zone during the second quarter. He picked up five yards to help set up Marcus Mariota’s touchdown pass to Kyle Pitts.

From his rushing style to his inspiring story, Huntley’s emergence is very reminiscent of fan-favorite Jason Snelling. The contact-eager, power-running style instantly gets you excited with every touch. The fact that both were initially considered as nothing more than camp bodies is something else both players share. The ability to be productive by carrying the ball 15-20 times is a valuable trait both players possess. While Huntley doesn’t possess the receiving ability Snelling had, he does have the ability to shed tackles and break open an explosive run, and that’s hugely valuable for this offense.

Take last game, again. Running behind the outstanding blocks from Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, Huntley produced a much-needed 30-yard run in the fourth quarter. After turning the corner, he slightly dipped and accelerated past Cory Littleton to get into the open field. It’s the subtle movements that make Huntley a greater handful to bring down. His skillset goes beyond being a traditional downhill, one-cut running back. His excellent footwork and craftiness makes him more dynamic than a standard 230-pound back.

Huntley was surprisingly out-snapped 40 to 24 by Allegier. While Allegier is the starter and player the organization drafted, he simply was nowhere near as effective as Huntley was on a snap-to-snap basis, even if he did better work blocking and catching the ball. From an overall rushing standpoint, Huntley has impressed more than the rookie running back. As the people’s champ is nearing his return from injury and transitioning from sensational fashion looks (Free Calvin Ridley, as you already know) to shoulder pads, it makes you wonder what role Huntley will have with Patterson back in the mix.

An underdog with something to prove

With an enigmatic passing game led by a quarterback who makes as many impressive plays as mind-blogging decisions, there are no doubts about Arthur Smith’s plan for success. He wants to run the ball effectively. He knows the team needs to run the ball effectively. He loves every bit of building this tough-minded identity by being fully committed to the running game.

A short-term future of Patterson, Huntley, and Allgeier presents plenty of possibilities. It’s on the coaching staff to find the best mix to make the running game even more lethal. There is no reason why Huntley shouldn’t be receiving eight to ten carries a game, especially given the team’s urgency to have high rushing output.

Huntley is well-aware of the obstacles ahead for the team. He knows numerous people didn’t expect this team to be competitive. As he stated in a postgame interview with The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz, the Falcons aren’t a team built with a bunch of prima donnas. They embrace being the underdogs and proving how they belong as a competitive team. Sitting on top of the NFC South, they have certainly demonstrated how capable of a team they have become.

In a season filled with surprises, Huntley’s emergence is one of the best stories out there. He was given an opportunity to inject life into a stagnant offense against Cleveland. Once the ball was in his hands, he never looked back in bursting forward picking up positive gains at a tremendous rate. It didn’t take long for the coaching staff to realize he doesn’t solely belong in the NFL. He belongs as one of the key players in one of the most prolific running games in the league.