Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview: Running Backs

In my opinion no position group is more important to the Falcons this year than the running backs. If the Falcons can find a way to consistently run the ball then I think they will have an outside chance of reaching the postseason. Being able to run the ball effectively will not only keep the defence off the field but it will give the Falcons wide receivers some favourable coverages that Matt Ryan can exploit off the play action.

With the loss of Tony Gonzalez the Falcons are going to have to find a new red zone target this season and with Julio being the only elite red zone receiver the running backs are going to have to do a better job getting into the end zone, whether it be running or catching the ball.

Starter: Steven Jackson

Steven Jackson was signed last season with the hope that he would be the player that would push the Falcons over the hump to that elusive world championship. Jackson is one of the all-time great running backs who could possibly make it into the hall of fame. However, despite his personal success Jackson has had the misfortune of never playing on a winning team in his career, a trend that unfortunately continued last season.

On a personal note, last season was somewhat of a disaster for Jackson as he missed a large portion of the season to an injury he ironically picked up against his former team. While on paper Jackson’s season does look disappointing the stats really don’t do him justice. Jackson was met at or behind the line of scrimmage on far too many occasions and it wouldn’t matter who you put behind last year’s offensive line, no one would have been able to consistently run behind the sorry excuse that was the Falcons offensive line in 2013. On the rare occasion that Jackson did have a hole to run through he still showed the vision and power that he showed for all those years in St. Louis.

It’s no secret Jackson is in the twilight of his career but I think he has one more great season left in him. While he does have a lot of tread on the tyres and an injury history that is now starting to stack up Jackson will be extremely motivated to make amends for last season. Jackson has always taken tremendous care of his body and if he can stay healthy this year I would hope and expect for SJ39 to roll back the years with what will probably be his last season with the Falcons.

Backup: Jacquizz Rodgers

With the signing of Devonta Freeman many people seem to be predicting that 2014 will be Quizz’s last season in Atlanta. When Quizz was drafted by the Falcons many fans incorrectly expected him to be the next Darren Sproles and as such they have been left disappointed. While Quizz hasn’t turned into the next Darren Sproles what he has done is become an extremely useful and indeed extremely good role player.

Quizz will never be a feature down back in the league but what he brings to the team should not be underrated. Quizz along with playing special teams gives the Falcons a third down ‘scat back’ with one of the best pair of hands in the league. Despite his stature he is also one of the league’s best pass blocking backs. While Quizz is incredibly versatile this is perhaps negating the fact that he is actually a very good ‘change of pace back’. Quizz isn’t the biggest back in the league but he runs hard and he isn’t shy of contact, get him in space and Quizz has the agility and quickness to make defenders miss. I feel Quizz gets a unfair wrap from fans who feel he hasn’t lived up to the expectations they incorrectly placed on him. If I was building an NFL team I would always be hesitant of letting a player such as Quizz go and I hope for the Falcons sake this isn’t the last we see of Jaquizz. Quizz does a lot of things that don’t show up as stats but hopefully this year he builds on his stats from the past couple of years and hopefully he becomes more of a viable red zone option as both a runner and pass catcher.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgH51Ijtzrg

 

Others: Devonta Freeman, Antone Smith, Jerome Smith, Josh Vaughn

Devonta Freeman is a player I’m extremely excited about for the future. Freeman is a traditional one cut and go running back and he really gets up field in a hurry. Freeman isn’t the biggest back but he has a powerful lower half and does have the ability to run people over. As both Freeman and Coach Smith have already said the biggest factor that will determine how much Freeman plays this year is his pass protection. In college Freeman was a willing blocker but all too many times he got away with a poor block simply because of his willingness to sacrifice his body. At this pre-camp stage of the season it’s difficult to say how much Freeman will play but I would guess he will get around 5 touches a game before he ultimately takes over as the ‘feature back’ next season.

Antone Smith has been promised a larger role in the Falcons offense this year. While I would be extremely happy to see this happen at this moment in time I’m dubious as to whether we actually see Smith gain regular touches. Whether Smith becomes a part of the rotation at running back remains to be seen but no matter what happens Smith will still do the bulk of his work on special teams where he has become one of the league’s best gunners. Smith is a player whose easy to root for and because of his blistering speed he could quickly become a fan favourite if he is handed the ball this season, at the moment I’m sceptical that this will consistently happen but I would love to be proven wrong.

Jerome Smith is an UDFA out of Syracuse who I think could stick around. WIth the loss of Jason Snelling this off-season the players need that secondary bruiser in the running back rans who if need be can be handed the ball at the end of the game and grind out those tough yards. Smith will struggle to make the 53 man roster this season unless the Falcons take 5 backs again but I could see him earning a place on the practice squad.

Josh Vaughn is a career journeyman who I think will be cut at the end of camp. Vaughn did have some nice runs last season and in fact with the injuries last season there were some fans who were calling for Vaughn to get some snaps. Vaughn is a bigger power back who makes his living running downhill. While he isn’t a bad power runner unfortunately that is all Vaughn offers, he can’t catch, he has little to zero lateral agility and he doesn’t play special teams.

 

The Falcons don’t have a superstar in the running back ranks at the moment but what they do have is some nice depth as well as some nice versatility. While this team is still a Matt Ryan team if the Falcons can run the ball effectively I would hope and expect them to get much nearer to a 50:50 run pass ration than in recent years.

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