2014 Training Camp Preview: Running Backs
When training camp officially begins on July 25th, you'll be hard-pressed to find a position group more excited to start the season than the team's running backs, coached by Gerald Brown. A fresh, new chapter awaits the group that is looking to showcase its talent, producing numbers that Falcons fans hope bury the final stats from one year ago.
Jackson again headlines the team's RBs group, entering his 11th NFL season, second with the Falcons. Playing in 12 games last season, due to a hamstring injury, Jackson finished with 157 carries for 553 yards (3.5 yds/att) and six TDs, as well as 33 receptions for 191 yards, (5.8 yds/rec) and one TD. Completely healthy, entering camp, Jackson is primed for better numbers in 2014; he'll be helped by a healthy offensive line and the return of the dynamic duo, WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones.
The third NFL season could be the charm for DiMarco, who started seven games for Atlanta in 2013, his first year with the team. Not asked to carry the ball last season, DiMarco showcased his blocking talents, along with his pass-catching ability, recording eight receptions for 49 yards. This season, DiMarco could earn even more responsibilities as the team tries to top last year's 5.4 yards-per-play average.
Entering his fourth NFL season, Rodgers returns to Flowery Branch with the multi-threat skills that led the Falcons to draft him in 2011. He nearly matched his career-best numbers from the 2012 season last year, logging 96 carries for 332 yards (3.5 yds/att) and two TDs, along with 52 receptions for 341 yards, (6.6 yds/rec) and two more scores. Rodgers started four games last year and he'll use training camp to continue building a case for more opportunities in 2014.
One of the team's biggest fan favorites, Smith is back with the Falcons in 2014, following his jaw-dropping rushing average from one year ago (29 yards per carry). Sure, Smith toted the pigskin just five times, but he made the most out of every carry, covering a total of 145 yards. Motivated to prove that his super-sized rushing average is no fluke, look for the former Florida State Seminole to continue making a push for more carries in training camp, as well as the regular season. Smith also thrived on special teams last year, voted a special teams captain at the end season. With such a crowded RBs group, special teams play could be a separating factor for Smith.
Practice makes perfect, something Vaughn will try to prove in 2014. Signed to Atlanta's practice squad in 2012, he played in six games for the Falcons last season, ending with one carry for one yard. His work ethic, abilities and potential have provided him opportunities to earn bigger responsibilities with the team, something he'll again try to do when camp opens.
Freeman was selected in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft (103rd overall). Unlike players who may sometimes be drafted to sit and learn an NFL system for a year or two, Freeman is built to hit the ground running, following a championship career at Florida State University.
He earned All-ACC First Team honors last season, headlining FSU's three-headed running back attack, starting all 14 games. The durable back, Freeman never missed a game in three years; his quickness and power allow him to grind out yards at the line, as well as bounce it outside. He showed the world that he's not afraid of the big lights, ending his college career with a 73-yard, one-TD victorious performance in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game against the Auburn Tigers.
Hagens is used to creating pathways for running backs and following 42 games (13 starts) in four seasons as a lead blocker at the University of Miami (Fla.), he'll set out to do the same thing for the Falcons.
The first player in Kent State history and the fifth MAC player to earn first team all-conference honors in four seasons, Nix joined the Falcons as an undrafted rookie free agent. The star LB finished his career second on the school's all-time sacks list with 24 quarterback takedowns and is the Golden Flash's career leader with 65 tackles for loss. However, when camp begins, Nix will compete for a roster spot with the RBs, more specifically with Patrick DiMarco at FB.
Smith joined the Falcons as an undrafted rookie agent, following his career at Syracuse, where he currently ranks 13th on the school's all-time rushing list with 2,219 yards. In 2013, Smith ran for 914 yards on 200 carries with eight scores and ranked second in the Big East with 1,171 yards on 227 carries in 2012. Along with his three fellow rookie RBs, Smith knows whatever reps he gets in camp will be watched with keen eyes of the coaches, who are looking for the best Falcon fits for 2014.