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Player Spotlight: Atlanta Running Backs

A detailed look at the Atlanta running backs fantasy prospects for 2015

The Atlanta Falcons' running back stable is staffed almost exclusively by young, relatively unproven players. Excepting one long-time Falcon, soon-to-be-30-years-old Antone Smith, who enters his sixth NFL season, the other running backs in the potential mix for 2015 are all 24 years of age or younger, with a combined 66 carries for 252 yards and one TD rushing at the NFL level. That total includes a practice squad player, Ronnie Wingo, who has been on and off the Atlanta roster since 2013, and was most recently released by the team on May 1, 2015. The Falcons are banking on youthful energy and exuberance at running back entering 2015.



Tevin Coleman (5'11/206 pounds, 22 years old) was drafted this past spring to replace now-departed Steven Jackson as the Falcons' lead runner - he set the Indiana University school record for rushing yards in a season during 2014 with 2,036 yards to his credit (one of only three Big Ten players to get more than 2,000 yards rushing in a season - Larry Johnson and Melvin Gordon III are the other two). According to NFL.com, half of Coleman's 28 career rushing touchdowns were of 43-plus yards, including eight of 64-plus yards. He is noted for outstanding, star-caliber speed though there are some concerns raised by scouts about his pad level, ability to break tackles, and his creativity running once past the initial wave of defenders. Coleman is considered a boom-bust draft pick but will have the advantage of working with the Falcons' new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who is noted for his skill in bringing out the best in his running backs. Reports out of Atlanta after the draft indicate that Coleman is envisioned as running back 1A in some sort of committee with second-year man Devonta Freeman. We'll have to see how the work-sharing arrangement pans out during training camp/preseason. As of June 1 organized team activities, coach Dan Quinn confirmed Coleman and Freeman are "absolutely battling for" the starting running back job.

Freeman was selected at 4.03 of the 2014 draft out of Florida State - he's now 23 years old (5'8/206). After the 2014 draft, Footballguy/NFL Draft guru Matt Waldman expected Freeman to compete for touches on the football during 2014 (Freeman handled 65/248/1 rushing and saw 37 targets for 30/225/1 receiving during 2014 in a part-time role) and then potentially supplant Jacquizz Rodgers as the #2 in Atlanta for 2015. This is indeed how the scenario has worked out, with Rodgers moving on to Chicago during free agency this past spring. Freeman will likely be the junior partner in a running-back-by-committee paired with Coleman, as noted above. Freeman started with the first team on opening day of OTAs in June, but the competition between Freeman and Coleman is far from settled as of mid-June.

Smith is a lightly-utilized backup who had seen a total of six rushes during his four-year career in Atlanta through 2013. Last year, in his fifth season, Smith flashed big-play ability while scoring five TDs over 10 games (23/144/2 rushing with 15 targets for 13/222/3 receiving) - a broken leg cut short his 2014 season, though. He was re-signed by the team on March 10, 2015 (he'll be 30 years old on September 17, and goes 5'9/192). Smith resumed practicing during OTAs on June 2, and he is expected to be back to full health by the time training camp rolls around. He will likely continue to be a complimentary play maker/change-of-pace back in the Falcon's 2015 stable. However, if Freeman fails to impress during training camp, Smith might work his way into a larger role within the new offensive system that Shanahan is introducing to the Falcons.

Jerome Smith (24 years old, 6'0/226) was called up from the Falcons' practice squad on December 24, 2014 and appeared in one game for the Falcons last season, with zero carries or receptions. He was signed in May, 2014 as an undrafted free agent after a collegiate career at Syracuse University, with a $3,000 signing bonus and is owed $510,000 this season if he sticks with the club. According to the Falcons' website, Smith finished his career as one of Syracuse’s top rushers, ranking 13th on the school’s all-time rushing list with 2,219 yards. Smith rushed for 914 yards on 200 carries with eight touchdowns scored during 2013 and ranked second in the Big East with 1,171 yards on 227 carries during the 2012 season. We'll have to wait and see what Smith brings to the field at this level during the 2015 preseason games.

Wingo (24 years old, an alumnus of Arkansas, 6'3/231) is another undrafted free agent who spent his 2013 season on the Bills practice squad after being orginally signed by the Falcons on April 27, 2013, but joining the Bills' practice squad on September 2, 2013. Wingo was cut on August 25, 2014 after Buffalo traded for Bryce Brown - over two games with the Bills during 2013, Wingo had 1/4/0 rushing and 1/2/0 receiving to his credit. He didn't appear in a NFL game during 2014, though he did get signed to the Falcons' practice squad on December 23, 2014. Wingo was released by the Falcons on May 1, 2015, but is probably on speed dial for the Falcons if one of the four backs ahead of him on the roster go down to injury or are lost for other reasons during 2015.

As you can see, the Falcons have a lot of coaching up/work to do at the running back position, and they will have one of the youngest stables of running backs in the NFL (perhaps THE youngest, depending on who sticks with the team) this upcoming season.

PositiveS

  • Offensive coordinator Shanahan is noted for bringing out the best in running backs, so the requisite teacher is available to tutor the Falcons' runners.
  • Coleman has the speed to be a impact player at the NFL level.
  • The Falcons' backs will have the advantage of youthful energy and resilience which should limit the number of nagging injuries amongst the squad.

NegativeS

  • Almost no established track record at the NFL level. Freeman actually has the most NFL carries of the bunch at 65/248/1 rushing so far in his career, while Smith has handled 29 rushes over five years in the NFL.
  • This stable will be playing in some sort of running back by committee, which may keep the lead back from handling enough carries to be a top-shelf fantasy back - and we have no idea how the work will be shared out among this group, and likely won't know how it will be handled until after the start of the season. This is a highly fluid situation with no guarantees for fantasy owners.
  • There are substantial worries over how effective Coleman will be at the NFL level, so even the likely 1A running back in this committee is a big question mark for fantasy owners.

Final ThoughtS

In redraft fantasy leagues, the Atlanta running back stable should be approached with extreme caution. As of June 2015 we honestly have nothing approaching a clear-cut picure of the depth chart or work-sharing arrangement among these youngsters. Teams for which Shanahan has been the offensive coordinator - Houston (208-2009), Washington (2010-2013), and Cleveland (2014) - have averaged 1,856 yards rushing per year, though the total from Washington's 2012 season (2,709 yards rushing during Robert Griffin III's first season in the NFL) is a clear statistical outlier. Throwing out the clear outlier, we get an average of 1,714 yards rushing for the various teams that Shanahan coached in six out of his seven years as a coordinator, which seems like a reasonable projection for the Falcons' entire team this season as Matt Ryan is NOT a scrambling quarterback (he's averaged 35 yards rushing per season over his seven-year career).

Mark Wimer'S Projections For the Falcons' Running Back Stable As a Whole

390/1,670/12 rushing with 70/600/5 receiving

ColeMan:

  • 200 rushes
  • 860 yards
  • 6 TDs rushing
  • 30 receptions
  • 250 yards receiving
  • 1 receiving TD

Freeman:

  • 90 rushes
  • 360 yards rushing
  • 3 TDs rushing
  • 15 receptions
  • 100 yards receiving
  • 1 TD receiving

ANtone Smith:

  • 100 rushes
  • 450 yards rushing
  • 3 rushing TDs
  • 25 receptions
  • 250 yards receiving
  • 3 TDs receiving