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Falcons training camp battles: Running back

Despite all signs indicating a running back by committee plan, the coaching staff will have to decide on who will be most featured coming out of the backfield.

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Given the state of the NFL, where most teams operate with a two running back system, it’s hard to call Atlanta’s competition for the top running back spot a true battle. The Falcons are in a unique situation where they have one of the most fascinating players in the league on their roster to go along with two bruising young players and a former Super Bowl hero at the running back position.

All four players are capable of playing a valuable role in the rotation. Only three will likely end up being depended on.

It’s quite a contrast from last season, where the coaching staff seemed set on giving Mike Davis the workload. That didn’t last long, as Davis didn’t have the explosiveness that he had in Carolina. As powerful as a runner he is, his inability to break off big runs and make up for the horrendous run blocking made him expendable this offseason. Cordarrelle Patterson’s stunning breakout season was the other primary reason behind Davis becoming a non-factor in most games. Unless he had to rest, it became impossible to take off Patterson in games. That’s how productive he was.

As much as he knows his capabilities, Arthur Smith knows Patterson’s limitations as well, as Patterson faded down the stretch. There needed to be another young back added to the roster. Tyler Allgeier fits the bill with his thunderous running ability. It only made sense for Smith to add a true power back, especially when you watch how much the Falcons struggled to convert in short-yardage and red zone situations.

Qadree Ollison’s late-season impact puts him into the mix. As much as the coaching staff is high on Allgeier, Ollison’s big runs and power running style deserves to be acknowledged. He could play himself into a role, along with Williams, who has years of experience as a pass-catching back and capable pass protector. Exciting new pieces and experienced veterans are making up the running back rotation.

The recent history at running back

The Falcons went from Michael Turner in 2012 to Steven Jackson in 2013 and 2014, making the need for a younger back very clear to those inside the building. Fortunately, Dan Quinn and company had the ideal lead back to roll forward with, as Devonta Freeman had been drafted the year before. He and Tevin Coleman formed a potent duo for most of the rest of the decade, before Coleman exited in free agency and Freeman’s injuries eventually led to his exit.

Since then, the Falcons have been getting by, signing Todd Gurley for a mixed year in 2020 and rolling with Davis and Patterson a year ago. That brings us to today.

Here are the four players competing for a featured role coming out of the backfield.

Camp battle contenders

Cordarrelle Patterson

The people’s champ is back in Atlanta. After some off-season concern, the dynamic playmaker returns to the team where he got to showcase his full talent and become the man. Patterson was simply sensational last season. Whether he bounced runs to the outside or catching passes downfield, the former first-round pick produced explosive plays every week.

At times, Patterson was a one-man army trying to keep an offense lacking playmakers afloat. The way Patterson’s skill set and Smith’s play calling aligned was one of the biggest highlights from last season.

There are some understandable doubts about how good Patterson can be in 2022. He is 31 years old, after all, and his performances dipped during the latter part of the season. It’s highly unlikely the Falcons could depend on him as much as they did last season. That said, he is still one of the more dangerous players in the NFL with the ball in his hands. His vision, footwork, spatial awareness, and power make him a handful to deal with in the open field.

Patterson should enter the season as the default starter. While he isn’t necessarily going to get more than 12-15 carries a game, Patterson can do it all as a runner. Any doubts about his ability to run in between the tackles were erased last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Patterson averaged just under 3.0 yards after contact per rush.

The way he ran through contact and gained extra yardage made a significant difference in the Falcons manufacturing methodical scoring drives. Patterson may not take over games like he did last season, but he is still a true difference-maker and will create mismatches across different formations to help the Falcons produce easy chunk plays.

Tyler Allgeier

The promising rookie is starting to generate buzz heading into training camp. From his remarkable journey to his bruising running style, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him become an instant fan favorite. Allgeier is a tireless worker who punishes defenders and consistently picks up yards after contact. That work ethic and physicality made Smith and Fontenot want to select him in the fifth round.

There is a learning curve for all rookies, particularly for rookie running backs. How effectively Allgeier takes on pass protection duties will be something to monitor. That has proven to be one of the most difficult challenges for rookie running backs in past years. Allgeier will also have to show he can be a check-down option for whoever starts at quarterback. No running back ever wants to be classified as a one-dimensional player. It will be fascinating to see how Allgeier evolves as an overall player to compliment his appealing rushing style.

The opportunity is there for him to earn a starting role. According to The Athletic’s Josh Kendall, Allgeier can become the Falcons’ starting running back this season. Smith loves power backs who can wear down opposing defenses. Allgeier consistently pounded defenses into submission at BYU. It’s been a decade since the Falcons had a productive running game led by a true power back (sorry, Steven Jackson). The long wait to see a ferocious running back lead the backfield could finally be over with Allgeier.

Qadree Ollison

Ollison only receiving 21 carries last season remains a total mystery. As the Falcons’ running game completely faltered in the second half of the season, Ollison showed legitimate flashes and gave the offense a much-needed spark. He had notable big play moments against New England, Carolina, Buffalo, and New Orleans. A fumble in the fourth quarter against Carolina did likely make the coaching staff hesitant to give him more opportunities. That doesn’t mean he should have been a total afterthought.

Ollison showcased impressive power, vision, and shiftiness during his limited reps. Look no further than his touchdown run in what was about the only highlight from the Falcons’ ugly loss to New Orleans to finish the season. As Davis ran out of juice last season, Ollison provided it shooting out of the backfield.

There were moments when he looked like the best running back on the roster. Patterson’s decline in the final month of the season should have resulted in more carries for Ollison. The coaching staff failed to do so, which makes you wonder where he stands going into this season. Allgeier is positioned to be the main complimentary back alongside Patterson.

That doesn’t immediately rule Ollison out of contention for carries. His big-play potential can’t be discounted. While Ollison isn’t a pass-catching back, his ability to break tackles and produce explosive plays makes him someone to watch for in the backfield.

Damien Williams

The 2020 Kansas City Super Bowl hero finds himself in Atlanta after deciding not to play in 2020 and a forgettable stint in Chicago. It was an understandable move on the front office’s part when assessing the backfield. While Patterson is certainly capable of catching passes, he is best suited lining up as a wide receiver to make plays in the passing game rather than catching passes out of the backfield. Patterson also struggles in pass protection, which isn’t ideal for a team that allowed 200 pressures last season.

Williams is a classic third-down running back who can be a solid contributor in a rotation. That was evident in Miami and Kansas City. It’s been some time since the Falcons had a legitimate pass-catching back who can be depended on to pick up blitzes. Williams can be that type of player.

He isn’t going to carry the ball all that often. The other three running backs are better suited to handle red zone and short-yardage duties. Williams is best suited to be a change-of-pace back that can be utilized on third down. It’s not a guarantee that comes to fruition without a productive training camp and preseason.

Williams hasn’t played much football over the past two seasons, so it’s on him to prove he deserves to play more than Allgeier and Ollison. In what has become a crowded backfield, he faces the longest odds to be counted on in a featured role.

Who earns a featured role?

Patterson and Allgeier are going to get the bulk of the carries. Patterson will remain the starter, but Allgeier will quickly be inserted into a prominent role. Smith loves those massive, physical running backs that can run between the tackles. While it’s difficult to be optimistic about the current state of the offensive line, Allgeier is more than capable of picking up yards after contact.

Ollison should hopefully find his niche as a change-of-pace back. His ability to create a 10-to-12-yard run was impressive last season. When the offense couldn’t muster up anything, he was slicing through New England and New Orleans on a few runs.

As experienced as Williams is, the lack of upside and game time over the past two seasons as an aging player doesn’t seem ideal. It’s hard to see him getting much of an opportunity. Patterson and Allgeier will form a one-two punch, with Ollison getting cracks to make his mark and provide a spark to a revamped offense.