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Competition for backup running back spot heating up for Falcons

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – The Falcons are as deep as they've ever been at the running back position since Dan Quinn arrived in Atlanta in 2015.

Devonta Freeman, Atlanta's starting running back, is healthy and looks as explosive as he has in the last two seasons.


After Freeman on the depth chart, however, is where things start to get interesting. Ito Smith will likely be the Falcons' No. 2 running back, but it's far from decided at this point.

To this point, when Quinn has been asked about the depth at running back, he has said it's a "different kind of shared role" and he's encouraged by that.

What he means by that is unlike the previous four seasons where it's been Freeman and Tevin Coleman as the clear-cut No. 1 and 2 options at running back, that's not the case at the moment.

"To see the improvement of guys like Brian [Hill], match up to Ito [Smith]. [Kenjon] Barner has versatility," Quinn said. "Much like we were talking about how to use versatile players, we're kind of feeling that way at running back, where it might be by some of the skill stuff they have, and how to feature them in that way."

Smith, Hill, Barner and rookie Qadree Ollison will spend the next month fighting for a roster spot and they understand not all of them will get the luxury of staying in Atlanta.

Hill, one of the biggest surprises of the preseason, said running backs coach Dave Brock's message to the group at the beginning of training camp has stuck with them.

"We all can't make this team but we all can make the NFL," Hill said of what Brock's message was.

And right now, they're all putting their best foot forward in that regard.

Hill led the group in Atlanta's first exhibition game against the Denver Broncos with 57 yards on 11 carries and caught his first touchdown pass.

It was Ollison's turn in the Falcons' second preseason game. The fifth-round pick out of the University of Pittsburgh recorded his first career touchdown on a 15-yard run. He finished the night with 41 yards on eight carries.

"It was the most exhilarating feeling I've felt in a long time," Ollison said of his first touchdown.

In addition to his return duties, Barner also showed why he can be an asset to the Falcons' running backs room. Barner caught a 37-yard pass from Matt Schaub at the end of the second quarter to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Hill.

When asked what he brings to the running backs room, Barner didn't hesitate when saying:

"Diversity. I can catch the ball extremely well out of the backfield, I can run the ball. And from special teams standpoint, I can return, I can block."

The next three games will provide Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff more opportunities to evaluate this position and the entire roster.

Every talent evaluator's dream is to have more good players to pick from than not enough and as Ollison mentioned, the Falcons certainly have that.

"I think the good thing about our room is that everybody brings a lot of different things," Ollison said.

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