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Running backs to watch for the Falcons at the NFL Combine

With the 2022 NFL Combine coming soon, we’ll be breaking down the players to watch at every position. We continue with running back, a position of possible need for the Falcons with the return of Cordarrelle Patterson and Mike Davis in question.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Southwest Classic - Texas A&M v Arkansas Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2022 NFL Combine is fast approaching, with workouts kicking off on Thursday, March 3. To prepare Atlanta Falcons fans and fellow draft enthusiasts for the “underwear olympics”, I’ll be breaking down the top players to watch at every position heading into the event. In case you missed any of my previous entries, you can find them all listed below:

DEFENSE: EDGE | DT | LB | CB | S

OFFENSE: QB | WR | TE | RB | OT | C/G

Today, we continue on offense with running back. A position of significant need in Atlanta, the Falcons have just Mike Davis (who is a potential cap casualty) and 2021 UDFA Caleb Huntley under contract. Cordarrelle Patterson is a free agent who is likely to have many suitors, while Qadree Ollison is very likely to return as a veteran minimum ERFA. This year’s draft lacks star power at the top, but is deep in the Day 2-early Day 3 range and could offer a good opportunity for the Falcons to add a complementary starter.

Read on for some of the top running backs to watch in Indianapolis.

Tyler Badie, Missouri

One of the standouts at the Senior Bowl, Missouri’s Tyler Badie is a great Day 3 target for the Falcons. He finally got a chance to carry the load on the ground and rose to the challenge. While Badie is probably best as a complementary third down and change-of-pace runner at the NFL level, his versatility makes him a great value. Here’s how I described Badie in a previous mock draft:

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.

James Cook, Georgia

I was sad to hear that Georgia’s James Cook pulled out of the Senior Bowl, as I think he could’ve been one of the biggest risers from Mobile. I’m still very excited about his NFL projection, particularly if he’s still available in the late-Day 2, early-Day 3 range. Testing is always a little overrated for RBs, but Cook has a lot to gain from an impressive Combine. Here’s how I described him in my Senior Bowl preview:

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.

Jerome Ford, Cincinnati

I hadn’t specifically scouted Cincinnati’s Jerome Ford prior to the Senior Bowl, though I liked the flashes I saw from him while watching Desmond Ridder and Alec Pierce. He continued to impress me in Mobile as one of the better runners in a pretty good overall group. Ford is a physical, downhill runner with good vision, patience, and plus athletic traits for his size (5’11, 210). While he appears to have good hands and has encouraging reps as a pass protector, he wasn’t utilized much on third down. Ford is probably an early-down workhorse early in his career, but I think the skillset is there for a more complete role in time.

Breece Hall, Iowa State

One of the most productive rushers in college football over the past two years, Iowa State’s Breece Hall certainly looks like an Arthur Smith RB at 6’1, 220. His best traits are his vision, patience, explosive burst, and long speed. Hall is great at reading and following his blocks before taking off for chunk yardage. He’s not particularly elusive and while he doesn’t shy away from contact, he’s not a true bruiser. Hall also isn’t an asset as a receiver or pass blocker, but could potentially develop here over time. I like Hall as an early-Day 3 target for a zone-heavy offense like Atlanta’s.

Hassan Haskins, Michigan

One of my favorite late-Day 2, early-Day 3 targets for the Falcons, Michigan’s Hassan Haskins would be an exciting addition to the backfield. He’s carved out a bigger and bigger role over his college career, and seems to fit what Arthur Smith looks for. He’d be an excellent early-down complement to a more dynamic option like Cordarrelle Patterson. Here’s how I described Haskins in a previous mock draft:

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.

Dameon Pierce, Florida

Truthfully, I hadn’t paid much attention to Florida’s Dameon Pierce before the Senior Bowl. But the show he put on in Mobile demanded a film study, and I came away very impressed by Pierce and puzzled by his lack of usage in college. Pierce is a well-rounded runner and pass catcher with a compact, thick frame (5’9, 220) perfect for the position. Here’s how I described him in my latest mock draft:

Florida’s Dameon Pierce was the biggest standout at the Senior Bowl, showing off a versatile skillset as both a physical, elusive runner and as a quality pass-catcher. Pierce would be an excellent value early on Day 3 who has a chance to have a much better NFL career than the one he had in college.

Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M

If you asked me to pick a running back for the Falcons in the second round, I’d choose Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller. The biggest difference between Spiller and the other contender, Kenneth Walker, is that Spiller has really worked and improved as a receiver and passing down option. Given how much Smith likes to use his RBs in the passing game, I’d expect Spiller to be the choice early on. Here’s how I described Spiller in an early mock draft:

Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller is one of the best runners in college football, and would be a perfect fit for Smith’s offense. Spiller has the size that Smith likes (6’0, 215) along with exceptional vision and balance. While the Falcons have struggled to give their running backs clean rushing lanes, Spiller has excelled at navigating traffic and making the first man miss. He’s a physical, hard-nosed runner in short-yardage situations and is a good overall athlete, although he lacks true breakaway speed. Spiller is also comfortable in both zone and power concepts—he can do it all, and do it well.

Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State

If you’re looking for the best pure runner in the class, it’s Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III—and it ain’t close. Walker is a good-sized back with a compact 5-10, 210 build and a well-rounded skillset as a rusher. He’s got excellent vision, is patient in the backfield, possesses elite footwork, high-level agility, and terrific physicality and contact-balance in short-yardage situations. He can work in any scheme and execute any concept. He also doesn’t have the wear-and-tear of typical Day 2 backs, with just one year of a major workload. My issue with Walker stems from his basically nonexistent passing game role. He’s an unreliable pass blocker and limited receiver. His stature and athletic gifts suggest Walker could develop in these areas, but it’s currently a significant projection.

Rachaad White, Arizona State

I really enjoyed watching Arizona State’s Rachaad White at the Senior Bowl, where he demonstrated quality athleticism, good vision, and exceptional patience in short-yardage situations. He was one of the most impressive backs in Mobile, and I think he’s worked his way into the early-Day 3 conversation. Here’s how I described White in a previous mock draft:

White has a well-rounded skillset with good size (6’0.5, 210), agility, and long speed. He’s got soft hands and has advanced route-running skills out of the backfield, even lining up in the slot on occasion. White isn’t an overly physical back and succeeds in short-yardage situations with his vision, elusiveness, and quick footwork. I love White as a complement to a hopefully re-signed Cordarrelle Patterson in 2022.

Kyren Williams, Notre Dame

I love Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams, although he’s not exactly a typical Arthur Smith back. His incredible ability as a pass protector at 5’9, 200 reminds me of former Falcon Jacquizz Rodgers, who was one of the best pass protectors in the NFL despite his 5’6 stature. Williams is a dynamic, well-rounded runner who also offers a high-end receiving skillset. He’ll demand a Day 2 pick, but he’d be well worth it for Atlanta. Here’s how I described Williams in a previous mock draft:

Williams is a potential workhorse back who can thrive in any situation, though he’s likely best suited to a zone-scheme attack. At 5’9, 200, Williams clearly isn’t a big back but isn’t undersized either. As a former wide receiver, Williams is an excellent pass-catcher who runs a variety of routes and shows off strong hands. He’s also a very good pass blocker—perhaps the best in the entire draft class—and that matters for a Falcons team with a poor OL. Williams is a fluid athlete who is quicker than fast. Although he’s not a home-run threat, he’s got enough juice to rip off 10+ yard gains if he finds a crease. He’s also not a particularly good asset in short-yardage situations, though he does run with good contact balance and doesn’t shy away from hits.

I hope you enjoyed this NFL Combine prospect preview! Stay tuned for our next position group tomorrow.