The Atlanta Falcons’ leading rusher from the past two seasons Steven Jackson is gone and so is rotational scatback Jacquizz Rodgers. Last year’s fourth-round selection Devonta Freeman is in the mix along with this year’s third-round pick Tevin Coleman. Big hitter Antone Smith, second-year man Jerome Smith and undrafted rookie Terron Ward round out the unit.
Now the question of who will be the starter sits at the forefront of the Falcons’ offense?
Freeman seems to be the logical choice after totaling 443 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns as a rookie in 2014. He was behind Jackson, Rodgers and Antone Smith, a trio that recorded 271 of Atlanta’s 372 carries.
At 5’9″ and 206-pounds, Freeman is a fast, undersized back who can excel in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme.
Freeman’s best two games a year ago came in Week 5 against the Giants when he had four carries for 38 yards and five catches for 44 yards. In week 16 against New Orleans, he combined for 84 yards (36 rushing yards and 48 receiving yards), which included a 31-yard rushing touchdown.
His main competition for the starting gig is the impressive 5’11”, 210-pound Indiana product, Tevin Coleman. The rookie played in 33 games for the Hoosiers and generated 3,219 yards on 452 carries. He averaged 7.1 yards per carry and 97.5 yards per game while totaling 28 touchdowns.
Coleman averaged 169.7 rushing yards per game and ranked second in the nation with 11 100-yard games in 2014.
However, Freeman, who led the Falcons’ running backs in catches with 30 last season, isn’t too worried.
“I’ve been in competition my whole life,” Freeman said via Falcons.com. “Especially with great athletes, even at the little league. I was going to elementary class and there were guys who were real good — faster than me, stronger and bigger. But I feel like it developed me and helped me at this level.”
His size and speed should make him a great bet to be a breakout candidate as a pass-catching back. Outside of Steve Slaton in 2008 with Houston and Alfred Morris in 2012 and 2013 in Washington, Shanahan has mostly turned to a running back by committee approach. From 2009-11 it was exactly that with Washington’s Ryan Torain compiling the highest carry percentage with 58 percent in 2010.
If Shanahan opts to go to a committee approach in his first year running the Falcons’ offense, he has a nice trio already in place in Freeman, Coleman and Antone Smith.
Freeman has the ability to stretch the field as a pass catcher and be a bruiser on the ground. Coleman is a speedster who ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at his personal workout on April 15, ranking first among all rookie backs.
Smith is owed a chance to prove himself after totaling seven touchdowns on 44 touches in 25 games over the last two seasons. He averaged 6.3 yards per carry and 17.1 yards per reception along with five touchdowns in 2014 before a right knee injury ended his season in Week 11.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said on SiriusXM Blitz last Thursday that Coleman and Freeman are “absolutely battling” for the starting gig.
“I take a lot of pride in (being the go-to guy),” Freeman said in the aforementioned Falcons.com article. “This has always been my dream. I never had a dream to come to the NFL and play second to (any) man.”
Jerome Smith is in his second season in the league after appearing in one game in 2014 with Atlanta. The Syracuse product is a longshot, but at 6-0, 226 pounds he is the biggest back on the roster currently.
Ward is also competing for a spot. At 5-7, he is the smallest of the group, but the Oregon State product excelled for the Beavers with 22 rushing touchdowns and 87 receptions for 664 receiving yards in his collegiate career. Special teams will be his way onto the team.
“I’m very happy and thankful that we got this offense,” Freeman continued. “I want to try to maximize it myself — not just be one of the running backs.”
It remains to be seen who will be the starter for the Falcons in 2015, but right now they have two young determined risers in Freeman and Coleman and a nice change of pace option in 29-year-old Antone Smith.
The running back battle is perhaps the most intriguing one for Atlanta this year. The Falcons will continue their OTA practices before a three-day minicamp from June 16-18.