The Atlanta Falcons had to do something in this year’s draft to strengthen their running back corps. The perfect time seemed to be with their first pick in the fourth round, when the Falcons selected former Florida State running back Devonta Freeman with the 103rd overall pick in the draft.
Atlanta finished worst in the NFL last season after only rushing for 77.9 yards per game. Steven Jackson led the way with 543 yards, with Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling rounding out the regular rotation with 332 yards and 164 yards, respectively. None of the trio averaged more than Snelling’s 3.7 yards per carry.
Snelling retired in the offseason, taking his 44 carries and 52 receptions away from the roster. Jackson and Rodgers will both be back, but there are question marks there.
Jackson missed four games last year with a hamstring injury and never really showed the franchise why it signed him to a hefty contract. He’ll also turn 31 years old prior to training camp, well on the wrong side of the age issue where running backs are generally in their prime.
Rodgers just finished his third season in the NFL. He was viewed as a change-of-pace back when he entered the league, with the possibility he could evolve into a feature back. In 2012, head coach Mike Smith told D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Rodgers could do more than be a backup.
"Quizz is someone that we feel is a three down back. He can come in a do the things that a three-down back does. He’s is not just a change of pace back."
But Rodgers has never carried the football more than 100 times in a season. And he’s never averaged more than 3.9 yards per carry. He may never turn into that three-down back Smith can visualize.
Freeman brings similar questions to the Falcons roster.
In 2013 at Florida State, Freeman rushed for 1,016 yards and scored 14 touchdowns. His yardage total ranked 51st last season in college football, and 14 players scored more rushing touchdowns than Freeman.
Freeman’s 5.87 yards per carry ranked 73rd in the country.
Freeman led the Seminoles in rushing and helped lead the team to a BCS title. He did a lot of things well, but nothing exceptionally well.
When Freeman gets to camp, he’s likely going to be listed at Atlanta’s No. 3 running back. Even at that spot, he can contribute in 2014. He also may push to steal touches from Rodgers, which offers a troubling question.
Is Freeman really just Rodgers 2.0?
Both Rodgers and Freeman are diminutive backs, at least in regard to height. Freeman stands 5’8”, while Rodgers is 5’6”. But both are physical specimens. Rodgers weighs 196 pounds and Freeman comes in at 206.
Freeman may be able to take punishment in the trenches better than Rodgers. Freeman is able to hit a hole quickly, and if he can find an opening, he can be extremely elusive. Freeman is also a decent pass-catcher and a great blocking back.
While it seems like Freeman can be a better version of Rodgers, he’s still a version of the same thing. Would the Falcons have been better off drafting a running back that could spend a year or two as the No. 3 option before taking over as a featured back?
No one will argue the Michael Turner had lost a step, and his departure from Atlanta was perfectly timed. But no one should forget that when this Falcons team under Smith was really humming on offense, it was when the team had a featured back: Turner.
Jackson may or may not turn into that guy. But even if he does, at his age, he won’t be effective for too much longer. There were other options at running back available at pick No. 103 that could have evolved into the next Turner, or even better.
Freeman might not ever be that guy. Could he materialize into something better than a change-of-pace back? Yeah, he could end up being compared to Ray Rice or Frank Gore for some time. But could is different from will, and that’s just another question Freeman carries with him into his NFL career.
The Falcons will run the football better in 2014. Freeman will help accomplish that. But he’s just an improvement piece for this offense, not the answer for the future at running back.
Is that OK with a fourth-round pick?
Uh-oh, there’s another question surrounding the Freeman pick.
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.