The Atlanta Falcons haven’t been much for drafting starting running backs over the years. Under Thomas Dimitroff, their biggest additions tended to come via free agency (Michael Turner, Steven Jackson, Todd Gurley), and that continued in the first year with Terry Fontenot at the helm (Mike Davis, Cordarrelle Patterson).
The lone exception to that rule came in 2014 and 2015, when the team drafted Devonta Freeman in the fourth round and Tevin Coleman in the third round. Freeman would become the most productive drafted runner in Atlanta since the great Jamal Anderson, while Coleman became a home run threat and filled in capably for Freeman when he wasn’t available. The duo combined for over 6,000 yards and 50 touchdowns on the ground from 2015-2019 and added another 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns through the air, making them an unmitigated draft success story for Dimitroff and that front office.
It’s time for this team to do that again, hopefully with similar success. The Falcons can and likely will stock their backfield with veterans again, whether that means keeping Davis and Qadree Ollison or cutting ties with Davis in favor of Patterson, but it’s beyond obvious that the best way to build a backfield is four years at a time. You draft a capable back who fits your offensive philosophy, supplement that with other young backs who fill other needed niches, and then move on by drafting another player. Teams that don’t take that lesson to heart—and the Falcons were among them with Freeman—generally come to rue the day they don’t do so.
This is a familiar story for both Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith. In New Orleans, Fontenot saw the Saints achieve tremendous success with Alvin Kamara, who was central to the team’s offensive success throughout his rookie contract. Ditto Tennessee, where Derrick Henry certainly made Smith’s job much easier than it would’ve been otherwise. Finding the right back isn’t that simple—you’re not simply going to draft the next Kamara or Henry because you want to—but the value of securing a rookie with an affordable initial contract who can potentially give you multiple great years as a starter is obvious.
This is not a dominant class for runners, but with the Falcons having plenty of picks they’ll have options. Iowa State’s Breece Hall, Florida’s Dameon Pierce and Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller all seem like good fits who could be had on day two of the draft, and with an additional second round pick it’s not crazy to think they’ll expend one either on a back they love or trading down to pick up additional selections that might be used on one.
I’m going to write up a list of free agent running backs for early next week, so know that I’m not opposed to finding affordable options and building your backfield at least in part via those means. Turner was one of the great players in Falcons history, after all, and Patterson was one of the best free agent value signings ever. But as signings like Jackson, Gurley and even Mike Davis have shown, getting backs after their prime years are over rarely works out the way you want it to, especially when you don’t have the offensive line necessary to open huge holes for them.
For a Falcons team hoping to crack open a window of contention and keep it open for several years, though, drafting young running backs who can handle a heavy workload makes a ton of sense. We saw it work for Atlanta in the recent past and there’s no doubt in my mind it can work again in the near future, and the team would be wise not to dismiss the possibility of drafting a back (or two) in 2022.