Even though the Atlanta Falcons just spent $12 million prior to the 2013 season bringing in running back Steven Jackson, and in light of the fact that offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter called a pass play 68.65 percent of the time last season—the most of any team in the league, according to TeamRankings.com—the Falcons might want to consider adding a running back in the 2014 NFL draft that starts on May 8.
With 10 picks in this year’s draft, the question of whether or not the Falcons will use one on a running back isn’t as prevalent as when? How soon is too soon for general manager Thomas Dimitroff to pull the trigger on a running back?
Five running backs carried the ball 303 times last season for the Falcons. Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling, Antone Smith and Josh Vaughan gained a combined total of 1,185 yards and scored 11 touchdowns on the ground. A total of seven running backs eclipsed the 1,185-yard mark in 2013 by themselves, and two scored more than 11 rushing touchdowns.
As a team, Atlanta finished dead last with a 77.9 yards-per-game average on the ground. The Falcons, along with the Jacksonville Jaguars, were one of two only NFL teams that failed to gain at least 80 yards per game on the ground.
Did the Falcons run the football only 31.35 percent of the time because the passing offense was just that good, or was it because Atlanta couldn’t churn out yardage on the ground? The answer is a little bit of both, but an honest look would reveal a failure to run the football.
Jackson only gained 542 yards on the ground, the worst output of his 10-year career. He was injured for four games, and when healthy he averaged just 3.5 yards per game. Rodgers added 332 rushing yards and Snelling 164. But neither of them was terribly effective either, with a 3.5 and 3.7 yards per carry average, respectively.
While pointing a finger at the five ball carriers is necessary, it’s also not the only direction to look for blame. Atlanta’s offensive line didn’t win the battle in the trenches as often as it should have. According to Football Outsiders, Falcons ball carriers were stuffed at, or behind the line of scrimmage 21 percent of the time in 2014. Only seven teams were worse.
The Falcons also ranked 25th in second-level yards, the number of times a running back broke past the line of scrimmage and gained between five and 10 yards on the ground.
Atlanta has attempted to address the offensive line issue in free agency. The Falcons brought in guards Gabe Carimi and Jon Asamoah to help bolster the run. The offensive line is expected to garner attention from the front office during the draft too.
An upgrade in ball carrier is in order as well.
Taking a look at Falcons active 46, room for 2 LB's, a RT, a TE, and a RB. This team is adding a pass rushing LB and T early in draft.— Los Medina (@FrontOfficeLos) March 20, 2014
As already noted, Jackson had career lows in rushing yards and yards per attempt last season. What hasn’t already been mentioned is the fact that he’ll turn 31 before training camp begins. There is a cliff-like drop in production for running backs once they reach the age of 30. Of the top 10 rushers in 2013, only Frank Gore was at least 30 years old.
Rodgers has always been a decent change-of-pace back, but he’s not shown his ability to step up in the No. 1 role during his three years in the NFL. Not only has he never carried the ball more than 96 times in a season, he’s never averaged more than 3.9 yards per carry.
In 47 regular-season and three playoff games, Rodgers has only carried the ball more than 10 times in a game on four occasions. It may be time to consider that Rodgers will never be more than a secondary option in the Falcons’ run game.
Snelling, who has at times been able to carry the load of a No. 1 running back, retired in March. Smith showed signs of brilliance last season in a very small sample size, but he could never break into the rotation as anything more than a situational ball carrier. With only 11 carries to his name in three seasons, Vaughan, like Smith, isn’t going to magically transform into starting running back.
Where should the Atlanta Falcons draft a RB in 2014?
Another aspect to consider: Four of the five running backs that carried the ball in 2013 can become free agents in 2015. The final year of Jackson’s contract is 2016.
The time is now for Atlanta to consider adding a rookie running back.
With holes to fill early, it’s impossible to imagine the Falcons looking at a running back prior to the fourth round. But that’s not a bad thing, as only a handful of running backs will come off the board prior to Atlanta’s first pick in the fourth round at No. 103 overall.
Atlanta must address needs like pass-rusher and offensive line early, and then possibly look into a safety or a tight end. After that, The Falcons’ need at running back is somewhat high. They need a guy that can come in and learn from Jackson in 2014, before competing with him for the starting job in 2015.
The Falcons have two picks in the fourth round (No. 103 and 139 overall), and this is the first place you might see a running back being selected by Atlanta.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.