Atlanta Falcons Full Position Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis at Running Back
The Atlanta Falcons have one of the most unique running back situations in the league. Where most teams have a featured back pretty much predetermined at this point, Atlanta is dealing with a group that has a ton of question marks and very few answers.
It's very possible that the Falcons don't even know who their starting back is going to be, despite having Steven Jackson under contract for the next two seasons. There's going to be a lot of competition across the entire team, and running back looks to be the biggest one where guys will battle for playing time.
Steven Jackson: The Powerful Veteran
Steven Jackson is the incumbent starter who will be focusing on retaining his starting job after injury and decline marred a 2013 campaign.
After having eight straight years with over 1,000 yards rushing and seven of the last eight surpassing 300 yards receiving, Jackson’s 2013 looked horrible. His 543 yards rushing were a career low. And his 191 yards receiving barely beat his career low from his rookie season.
Jackson needs to stay healthy for the Falcons in 2014 if he wants to make any sort of impact. Otherwise, he’s going to be a big free-agent bust.
That being said, the improved offensive line should be able to open holes better for him than last year’s iteration did. Adding a talented right guard in Jon Asamoah and replacing Lamar Holmes, Jeremy Trueblood and Ryan Schraeder in the starting lineup with Sam Baker and Jake Matthews will help Jackson tremendously.
Jacquizz Rodgers: The Diminutive Change of Pace
Jacquizz Rodgers was put on notice this offseason when the Falcons went out and drafted Devonta Freeman in the fourth round. Freeman is very similar to Rodgers, but he has more of an ability to be a three-down back than Rodgers does.
Rodgers has shown throughout his career that he’s more of a receiver than a rusher. He’s someone who provides an excellent change of pace to a power back but cannot carry the load himself if the starter goes down. He also has value in the return game and as a gunner.
However, this could be his last year as a Falcon. Rodgers has not shown anything past change-of-pace ability and will lose his returner job to Devin Hester this offseason. He’s also in the final year of his contract, and unless he can earn the starting role or show the ability to do so, Atlanta could let him take more money elsewhere.
Devonta Freeman: Potentially the Next Warrick Dunn
Devonta Freeman was selected by the Falcons in the fourth round of the 2014 draft to replace the retired Jason Snelling this season. Snelling was used continually as a second running back in the shotgun sets as well as the secondary change-of-pace back. He was deadly on interior screens and was a great pass-blocker.
Freeman has the same kind of abilities to be effective in the shotgun sets that Snelling was good in. However, his best fit is as a rusher in a zone-style blocking scheme out of I formations.
Freeman is closer to Warrick Dunn than he is to Jacquizz Rodgers. He’s an all-around threat despite being a bit undersized. Nonetheless, the Falcons have someone who could be a legitimate bell-cow back for around 210-220 carries and 40-50 catches every season.
Antone Smith: Gunner Extraordinaire
The Falcons don’t really know how to utilize Antone Smith properly. When they had him play in some games as a running back in 2013, he shined as a big-play threat every time he touched the ball. When they had him on the field as a gunner, he shined as one of the best in the NFL.
The issue is that the Falcons need to find more for him to do in the offense. But they can’t trust him to have a bigger role in the offense if his pass-blocking is as poor as it is. He needs to get more pop into his initial punch as a blocker or he’ll just continue to get run over by linebackers.
That being said, Smith is a game-breaking talent with grandma-owned-Oldsmobile-level mileage on his legs. The Falcons need to learn how to get the ball into his hands. Designing four or five touches a game for him is all that’s really needed to get some explosion out of him in the offense.
Josh Vaughan: Uphill Battle Just to Make the Roster
Josh Vaughan has shown nothing in the regular season for the Falcons to say that his roster spot should be anything close to safe. Honestly, he wasn’t even that great in the preseason last year. The Falcons don’t get any special teams value out of him either.
It’s tough to judge a guy who is such a one-trick pony that he keeps a roster spot but can’t actually help the team when it's falling apart. At this point, it’d be shocking to see him keep his roster spot, because Vaughan has provided literally nothing to the Falcons outside of a practice body.
Jerome Smith: Syracuse's Jason Snelling Clone
The Falcons needed to replace Jason Snelling with someone similar to him. Jerome Smith is the closest thing to Snelling that came out of the 2014 draft. He’s a 6’0", 225-pound power back who runs with a never-say-die attitude.
He’s also a surprisingly good receiver out of the backfield and can make people miss despite his best ability being to run them over.
The Falcons will get a solid, yet unspectacular pass-blocker in Smith. The biggest question for him is how versatile he is.
He lined up primarily at running back at Syracuse, but the Falcons could look at him as a potential fullback candidate if he can gain a couple of pounds. Nonetheless, he’s probably not making the 53-man roster this year without a ton of injuries. He should find a role on the practice squad until he can earn that spot.
Patrick DiMarco: The Incumbent Fullback
Patrick DiMarco is an average fullback. He’s a solid blocker who doesn’t see many carries and will get a pass his way every now and again. The Falcons had him play around 200 snaps last year, and he performed well during them.
However, fullback is almost a dead position in the NFL. If the Falcons feel like they can get someone who will be stronger, quicker and a better blocker, they could easily upgrade from DiMarco. The former Gamecock has shown that he’s a great fallback option, though.
Roosevelt Nix: The Defensive Line Conversion
The Falcons brought in Roosevelt Nix from undrafted free agency because he’s a bigger body than the average fullback at around 5’11" and 250 pounds, but he can still move like a linebacker at the position. He’s quick off the snap and played defensive end with great leverage.
Nix's biggest question comes from how a conversion from defensive tackle to fullback will affect him. He’s not afraid to mix it up with bigger players, but attacking linebackers is different from attacking ball-carriers and quarterbacks. If he can perform well, Atlanta should easily have its new fullback because he's the best athletically of the team's three options.
Maurice Hagens: The Camp Body
Maurice Hagens was a starting fullback for the Miami Hurricanes the past four seasons. However, he’s done nothing to show that he deserved anything more than a camp invite.
The Falcons are probably taking a flyer on him to see if he can earn a spot. However, don’t expect much from Hagens. He was mediocre at Miami and will likely project into a worse pro. He could potentially take the starting job if he can show that he’s a good special teams player on top of his blocking, but that remains to be seen.
All stats used are either from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required), ESPN, CFBStats or the NFL. All combine and pro day info is courtesy NFL Draft Scout. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac and Rotoworld.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, College Football, NFL and the NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.
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