Joyce’s Atlanta Falcons Roster Predictions: Running Backs

Photo: Atlanta Falcons- https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

The Atlanta Falcons, along with the rest of the NFL, will have to finalize their 53-Man rosters by Saturday September 5 at 4 p.m. ET. This means that many of the players fighting for a roster spot will be sent home or signed to the practice squad after clearing waivers. In this series, I will do a breakdown of each of the Falcons positions and what they may look like entering the September 5 deadline.

For more content:

Predictions for final cuts: QB [2] | RB [5] | WR [6] | TE [3] | OL [9] | DL [9] | LB [5] | DB [6] | S [4] | SPT [3]

Here let’s take a look at the running backs:

New Blood:

In the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons took a chance at the starting running back for the national champion Florida State Seminoles, Devonta Freeman. And boy did it pay off. In his first season, Freeman learned the ropes by splitting reps with Jacquizz Rodgers behind then started running back Stephen Jackson. But in 2015, Freeman was handed the keys to the starting running back role and never looked back. Freeman rattled off a couple 1000-yard rushing seasons with equally impressive receiving stats for a running back. Unfortunately, after signing his extension in the summer of 2017, the promising Falcons running back was derailed by multiple injury issues. The Falcons saved two million against the cap by releasing him prior to the 2020 season. This left a huge opening at the running back position with only Brian Hill, Ito Smith, and Qadree Ollison left. This left many to speculate which running backs the Falcons would draft in the 2020 NFL Draft. That is until a certain All Pro and former Offensive Player of the Year was released from Los Angeles.

For a long time, many University of Georgia fans have been pining for the Atlanta Falcons to dip into the large and talent rich pool in their own backyards. In the 2015 NFL Draft, the same fans were begging Atlanta to take the best running back in the country and University of Georgia alum, Todd Gurley. The Falcons had that opportunity but passed by taking pass rusher Vic Beasley from Clemson. I understood the want to take Gurley, but at the time the Falcons had a young promising back in Freeman and desperately needed pass rushing (which let’s be honest has been and still is a huge question since the departure of John Abraham). At the time that was the correct pick. Unfortunately, production was an issue for Beasley, aside from a stellar sophomore season, and injuries hampered Gurley in Los Angeles. But if you ask Georgia fans, it all worked out. Finally, they can cheer that their star running is back home.

“We Got Him”

               Todd Gurley is the starting running back for the Atlanta Falcons. Gurley signed a one-year deal with Atlanta on April 6, and you can imagine the excitement. The only question surrounding Gurley is health. He has suffered a torn acl in college, turf toe, knee sprain, and according to Gurley’s trainer in Los Angeles he has developed an arthritic component in his knee. If he can stay healthy, Gurley is a top three running back in the entire league.

  • Let’s see his stats since entering the league:
  • 2015: 1,106 rushing yards, 10 TDs, 188 receiving yards *
  • 2016: 885 rushing yards, 6 TDs, 327 receiving yards
  • 2017: 1,305 rushing yards, 13 TDs, 788 receiving yards, 6 TDs +*
  • 2018: 1,251 rushing yards, 17 TDs, 580 receiving yards, 4 TDs +*
  • 2019: 857 rushing yards, 12 TDs, 207 receiving yards, 2 TDs
  • *: pro bowl, +: first team all pro

The Rest:

Dirk Koetter said he hopes to give Gurley 15-25 carries a game, which means the other running backs will be working by committee. Each offers a different side to their games. Both Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison are the more traditional I formation runners, while Ito Smith provides a change of pace type with receiving skills out of the backfield. Keith Smith is the Falcons fullback who just signed an extension this offseason for 3 years and $4.36 million. The Falcons are one of the few NFL teams who still use a fullback in today’s game. However, they are hoping Keith can provide the same impact that Patrick DiMarco once did. Keith won’t get a ton of yards rushing or receiving, but he will open up holes for all the other running backs.

  • Hill:
    • 2017: 37 rushing yards, 36 receiving yards
    • 2018: 157 rushing yards
    • 2019: 323 rushing yards, 2 TDs, 69 receiving yards, 1 TD
  • Ito Smith:
    • 2018: 315 rushing yards, 4 TDs, 152 receiving yards
    • 2019: 106 rushing yards, 1 TD, 87 receiving yards
  • Ollison:
    • 2019: 50 rushing yards, 4 TDs, 7 receiving yards
  • Keith Smith:
    • 2016: 5 rushing yards, 20 receiving yards
    • 2017: 26 receiving yards
    • 2018: 23 receiving yards
    • 2019: 8 rushing yards, 13 receiving yards

This is not a ton of production behind Gurley, but they aren’t short of talent. The issue would be if Gurley goes down, then the Falcons may not have another number one option. In this case, they will operate by committee as they did last year when Freeman went down. But the Falcons coaching staff are hoping and praying that Gurley can stay healthy and return to his All Pro form.


  • 2017: 4 running backs, 1 fullback
  • 2018: 3 running backs, 1 fullback
  • 2019: 5 running backs, 1 fullback


Final Projection:

  • 2020: 4 running backs, 1 fullback

I wanted to go with three running backs which would allow Atlanta to roster one more receiver, but with Gurley’s health still a big question mark, I believe Atlanta will keep an extra back to provide depth. I believe Ito Smith will be the primary backup if he can stay healthy. Brian Hill will split reps with him as he did come on very well towards the end of the year. Ollison will be the big goal line back, while Keith Smith provides the blocking fullback role.


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