INDIANAPOLIS – Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff likes the stable of running backs he's crafted over the past few years, but he's always seeking ways to improve the roster in Atlanta.
That search for improvement involves evaluating every position on the field, including the ones that have the level of depth and versatility that Dimitroff sees in the Falcons' running back group. Atlanta has approached the NFL Draft as a key opportunity to bolster its crop of runners. The team has drafted a running back in each of the last three offseasons, selecting Ito Smith in the fourth round and using fifth-round picks on Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison.
If the Falcons do have plans on once again adding a running back in this year's draft, Dimitroff believes they can continue to exercise patience as the event unfolds.
"I think there's really good value at the running back position," Dimitroff said. "You don't always have to yank that guy off the board in the top 16 picks. There are some great values in the draft, and just like any other draft, this year they have it too. Not saying it's not a good addition to your team to go higher on someone, but there's some really good running backs out there."
Atlanta currently has three picks in the first two rounds, including the 16th-overall pick. Positional value has become a big topic of conversation with running backs, however, with many beginning to question if they are worth selecting in the first round.
Teams like San Francisco are only providing more ammunition for those making that case. The 49ers rode their dominant run game to the Super Bowl and had the second-best rushing offense in the league despite not having a single running back gain 1,000 yards. Raheem Mostert, the team's leading rusher with 772 yards, had previously been on six different teams and never carried the ball in a regular season game before signing with the 49ers in 2016.
"You saw what they did out in San Francisco, they ran their butts off," Dimitroff said. "And it was constant and consistent."
Despite a competitive, inspiring showing from the running backs in training camp and the preseason, the Falcons' run game was neither constant nor consistent in 2019. Atlanta averaged 85.1 rushing yards and 22.6 attempts per game, both of which were third-fewest in the league.
Falling behind early in many games during the first half of the season forced the Falcons to become a pass-heavy team and stifled their ability to stick with the run, but head coach Dan Quinn is determined to find more balance on offense.
Starter Devonta Freeman led the Falcons with 656 rushing yards last season but averaged 3.6 yards per carry and scored just two touchdowns. Ito Smith, who entered the year as Freeman's primary backup, looked decisive and nimble as a runner but ended the year with only 106 yards after a concussion sustained in Week 7 landed him on injured reserve. Brian Hill became the primary No. 2 at the position and gained 323 yards on 78 carries while showcasing a hard-nosed, downhill running style. And rookie Qadree Ollison became the team's top goal-line option due to his power and vision, finishing the year with four touchdowns.
"We feel that we have good numbers there, we feel that we have good talent there," Dimitroff said. "How we get creative and continue to improve that run game is not only a function of the player talent, which we believe we do have, but it's also how we run the scheme, how our O-line is blocking, there's a lot to it … We like where we are with our running backs. We'll continue to always bolster that as well, and that's our direction moving forward."
If the Falcons decide that they can bolster their run game in the 2020 NFL Draft, there should be a number of good players to choose from – even if they decide to again wait until the middle rounds.
ESPN draft guru Todd McShay has just one running back – Georgia's D'Andre Swift – among his top 32 players entering the draft. There are, however, a number of accomplished and talented players entering the draft alongside Swift.
Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins and Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor each gained 2,003 yards and scored 21 touchdowns in 2019, both of which were tied for the second most among all college football running backs. Utah's Zack Moss and LSU's Clyde Edwards-Helaire both gained over 1,400 yards and scored 15 and 16 touchdowns, respectively.
Other big-school standouts such as Florida State's Cam Akers, Vanderbilt's Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Florida's Lamical Perine have shown NFL-caliber talent against some of the best competition in the country.
The Falcons are looking at all aspects of the run game, offensive scheme and blocking included, in their efforts to become a more consistent threat on the ground. While Dimitroff made it clear the Falcons like the players they currently have in their backfield, history has shown the team is not afraid to draft a running back if they believe the value is there. And given the position's depth in this year's draft, that right blend of talent and value could arise.
"I believe the versatility of the running back group, who brings what to the table, is important. And if you have a good and creative coordinator, like we do, we can utilize our running backs in the right way, and I think we can get back to being a very productive run game."
Here is a look at all players set to enter free agency when the new league year begins on March 18. Restricted free agents and exclusive rights free agents are noted in the captions.