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Falcons 2022 free agent targets: Running backs

Atlanta would be wise to go young in the backfield, but if they’re dipping into free agency here’s who they might look at.

Indianapolis Colts v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

I wrote just this weekend that I would prefer that the Falcons emulate their 2014/2015 success as much as possible by investing draft picks in young, capable backs who fit their vision for their backfield in 2022 and beyond. Our own Kevin Knight gave us an idea of some backs in this upcoming rookie class who might be great fits.

Our preferences do not a team’s plans make, however. Last year the Falcons picked up multiple free agent backs and the likes of Cordarrelle Patterson, Mike Davis and to a much lesser extent Wayne Gallman dominated the touches in the backfield. This team, which is still very much a work in progress, may dip back into free agency this year if they aren’t sold on Davis and Caleb Huntley, or they aren’t in love with their options in the draft.

A note before we get into this: More than any other position, running back rankings are jumbled by situation and opportunity. A capable back with fresh legs and the right skillset can thrive when they land in the right situation, so these categories are even less scientific than they normally are. Think Patterson finally landing in the right spot with Atlanta for a sterling example of that, and just bear that in mind as we take a closer look at this free agency class.

High-level starters

  • Marlon Mack, 26
  • Melvin Gordon, 29
  • Leonard Fournette, 27
  • Chase Edmonds, 26
  • James Conner, 27

It’s a small group at the top, and not all of these guys will even command top dollar.

Mack has only played in seven combined games the past two seasons, but he’s only going to be 26 heading into this season and was a dynamite back in his last fully healthy year back in 2019. Jonathan Taylor obviously made him obsolete in Indianapolis—hell of a romantic comedy title—but Mack is young, talented and shouldn’t break the bank. He has the potential to be a high-end starter again with the right landing spot.

Gordon just produces. Since 2016 he’s scored at least eight touchdowns every single season, was 11th in the NFL last year in yards after contact, and was one of only eight backs to break 20 tackles in 2021, per Pro Football Reference. His age and mileage would suggest his best years are behind him, but obviously his physicality and production would make him appealing to a team like Atlanta if the money worked.

Fournette, too, just produces. The Buccaneers drafted multiple backs and Fournette still dominated the touches out of the Tampa Bay backfield, managing nearly 1,300 combined yards and scoring 10 touchdowns last year. He had the benefit of playing in a loaded offense, but he’s a terrific player.

Edmonds and Conner shared a backfield in Arizona in 2021, but teams would likely feel fortunate to scoop up either one. Conner is a balanced, hard-running back who broke 19 tackles last year and didn’t drop a pass on 39 targets, reeling in 37 of them, and once again showed he can handle a lead role in a backfield very capably. No running backs in the NFL had more yards before contact than the elusive Edmonds, meanwhile, and he provides considerable value as a receiver and runner.

If the Falcons are looking for someone they know can lead the backfield for more than a year and they want to go the free agent route, this is where I’d look. It’s not clear they’ll want to—or should—spend the kind of money it’ll take to reel in anyone here except for Mack.

Stopgap starters/quality reserves

  • Cordarrelle Patterson, 31
  • Sony Michel, 27
  • Devonta Freeman, 30
  • Leonard Fournette, 27
  • Darrel Williams, 27
  • D’Ernest Johnson, 26
  • Rashaad Penny, 26
  • Ronald Jones, 24
  • Jeff Wilson, 26
  • Phillip Lindsay, 28
  • Justin Jackson, 26
  • Dare Ogunbowale, 28
  • Brandon Bolden, 32
  • J.D. McKissic, 28
  • Jerick McKinnon, 30

If Patterson returns, he’ll once again be asked to handle a major role in the backfield, but likely will still split time with Mike Davis, a rookie, or both. We have no idea which way the team is leaning with him, but obviously if the dollars work he showed he can be a tremendous asset for Atlanta and clearly wants to return.

The rest of this list is a mixed bag. Wilson interests me because of the fine work he did in 2020, his youth and the fact that he’ll likely be an extremely cheap addition to the backfield, but he’d be at best the second guy on the depth chart here. Jones has been stuck behind Fournette in Tampa Bay but looked pretty good with a bigger workload in 2020 and is the youngest back on this list. Michel is a rock solid complementary back who can do a little bit of everything, including block effectively. McKissic would be fun to reunite with and offers you production as a pass catcher, as does Bolden despite his age.

Sign me up for Penny if the Falcons aren’t bringing back Patterson and are hellbent on dipping into this free agency pool, personally. He’s been trapped in Seattle and subject to the whims of the Seahawk offense, but he’s coming off an extremely impressive year where he led the NFL in average yards after contact with 119 carries and has barely any NFL mileage on him. Penny has Diet Michael Turner potential for a team willing to give him a real role, as he barely has more NFL carries heading into his age 26 free agency season (280) than the Burner (228) and is a capable runner.

Reserves

  • Qadree Ollison,
  • Latavius Murray, 32
  • Alex Collins, 27
  • Boston Scott, 27
  • Derrick Gore, 27
  • Tevin Coleman, 29
  • Duke Johnson, 28
  • David Johnson, 30
  • Royce Freeman, 26
  • Damien Williams, 29
  • Salvon Ahmed, 23
  • Corey Clement, 27
  • Malcolm Brown, 29
  • Matt Breida, 27
  • Ty Montgomery, 29
  • Kalen Ballage, 26
  • Dwayne Washington, 28

My preference is that the Falcons simply bring back Ollison and let he and Huntley duke it out for third back duties in Atlanta, because both have had time with the team and would seem to offer enough in that role. If they’re not inclined to do that or want to add competition, Ahmed is an interesting addition because of his age, his speed and his promise as a pass catcher, while Clement has done enough in limited looks in Philadelphia and Dallas to make me think he could be effective for Arthur Smith and company in a reserve role.

Who would you add from these lists?