NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew has three straight 1,300-yard seasons to his name, the most recent of which came just last season, when he finished the year as the league leader in carries and rushing yards after running the ball 343 times for 1,606 yards.
Today an established veteran in the league, it wasn’t so long ago that Jones-Drew was believed to be just a change-of-pace back whose biggest chance to make a name for himself probably would come on special teams. Selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the third round of the 2006 NFL draft, his ability to become an every-down back in the league was heavily doubted with him standing at just 5’7” and 208 pounds.
Entering the 2010 NFL draft, 5’6”, 196-pound running back Jacquizz Rodgers faced similar doubts. Despite carrying the ball nearly 800 times and recording over 150 receptions in his three-year career at Oregon State, scouts questioned his durability. When the Falcons selected him with their fifth-round draft pick that year, many concluded Atlanta got a great change-of-pace back with above-average pass-catching skills, but one who didn't have the frame to take on a starting role.
Yet size isn’t everything in the NFL, and Jones-Drew is just one of many to have proved that. Often times, opportunity is what determines which players go on to enjoy productive careers and which ones remain in the shadows forever.
For Jones-Drew, that opportunity came thanks to his former offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Koetter, who led the Jacksonville Jaguars’ attack from 2007 to 2011, was the one to orchestrate the transition at running back from the aging Fred Taylor to the younger, more versatile Jones-Drew. After giving Jones-Drew more playing time in each of his first three years in the league, Koetter finally handed him the starting job following Taylor's release prior to the 2009 season.
With Koetter now having been hired by the Falcons this past January, there’s a good chance Rodgers’ own opportunity will come sooner rather than later (per ESPN’s Pat Yasinskas):
“Jacquizz figures into [the gameplan] quite a bit,” [head coach Mike Smith] said. “We drafted him to be a change-of-pace back and we found out very quickly that he’s a guy that is more than a change-of-pace back. Even though he’s short, he’s not little. He’s a guy we feel like we can integrate more into our offense.”
The first steps have already been taken. Rodgers already looked to get more playing time this season after the Falcons said they would put current starter Michael Turner on a pitch count.
Then, fans and media alike were given great reason to predict a breakout year from Rodgers in 2012 when it was announced Koetter would be bringing the screen pass attack to Atlanta. Koetter has shown his preference for the screen pass in the past: In the five years Koetter coached Jones-Drew, the diminutive back averaged 46 receptions a season.
Such an addition to the Dirty Birds’ offense figures to fit right in with Rodgers’ strengths as a quick, elusive back with sure hands, and could eventually have him become the team’s very own version of Jones-Drew.
Of course, with just a year under his belt and Turner still under contract through 2013, Rodgers will likely have to wait a while for his chance to take over the bulk of the workload.
But at 30 years old and a lot of mileage on his legs, Turner’s light is fading fast. And if Koetter’s track record is any indication, Rodgers just might be right there waiting to take over for him when it does.