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Roster Review: Running Back


The Falcons finished in the middle of the pack in almost every rushing category in 2009, due in large part to the health of Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner.

A lingering ankle injury caused Turner to miss five games and parts of two others last season, and the team didn't approach the kind of rushing totals that saw the franchise finish second in the NFL in rushing in 2008.

Jerious Norwood struggled with injuries of his own, appearing in only 10 games last season.

Third-year back Jason Snelling carried the load for Atlanta as best as he could at various points of the season turning in career highs in every rushing category, including a dominant season-ending contest against the Bucs when he ran for 147 yards at 5.9 yards per carry.

With such solid depth at the running back position, there may not be much fluidity to the unit for the Falcons in 2010, but a fourth running back may be needed in the picture as was the case last season. looks at the current depth at running back and who might emerge in training camp as the fourth back.

Michael Turner 7th season

Who:Despite a subpar season in 2009 by his own standards Turner's 10 touchdowns was good for ninth-best in the NFL. There's little doubt he's the feature back in Atlanta, though he may see his carries reduced after an injury-riddled season following his workhorse-type season in 2008 when he rushed 376 times. Turner has stated during the offseason that he's comfortable splitting carries and that his only goal for the upcoming season is to play in all 16 games.

Why:Turner returns in 2010 with a renewed focus on conditioning and an offseason of rest. With a healthy Turner and little turnover along the offensive line, there's not much of a reason to believe he won't produce stats comparable to his '08 Pro Bowl season.

How:The 5'10", 244 pound running back has shown that all he needs is a hole and he can take it the distance, running over would-be tacklers along the way. The ankle injury from last season is healed, but Atlanta's cautious coaching staff will give Turner a light load in training camp and the preseason. The 28-year-old is a veteran at this point in his career and is also entering his prime after four years of a light workload in San Diego.

Jerious Norwood 5th season

Who:The fleet-footed Norwood gained yards in chunks in his first three seasons, but after missing six games last season due to various injuries his yards per carry dropped to 3.3. Norwood, when healthy, can bring an x-factor type dimension to the Falcons offense in both the running and passing game.

Why:Norwood's game-breaking speed is a good contrast to Turner's hard-charging style. The 26-year-old back also has made a major contribution in the return game in the past. Injuries prevented him from serving as a return man in 2009, but a healthy Norwood is valuable to the Falcons on special teams as well as the offense.

How:It's doubtful that Norwood will fail to make the team in 2010. Norwood's assets are critical to Atlanta's success on offense as well as in the return game. Between Turner, Norwood, and a '09-like production from Snelling, the Falcons' running back trio could be lethal.

Jason Snelling 4th season

Who:Snelling up until last season was mainly a special teams ace and spot-duty running back. With injuries depleting Atlanta's running back corp. in 2009, Snelling stepped up and set career highs with 613 yards rushing and four touchdowns and one additional TD as a receiver out of the backfield.

Why:Snelling showed last season he's capable of helping carry the load in a major way. Between his contributions on special teams and the ability he showed to make a positive contribution to the offense, Snelling will make the team and be relied upon as a utility player (he also serves as the team's backup fullback).

How:Like the two backs ahead of him, Snelling will make the roster for the upcoming season. He seized his opportunity last season and the coaching staff will expect to use him in a similar role in the upcoming season to keep Turner fresh and Norwood healthy. He also serves as a valuable Plan B should either back go down again this season. The work he does on special teams makes him the kind of player all winning teams need a few of.

Antone Smith 2nd season

Who:The Honorable Mention All-ACC member in 2008 as a senior at Florida State joined the Falcons' practice squad last season in October after being released by three teams earlier in the season. A quick and compact back, Smith spent all season on the practice squad and was re-signed by Atlanta in January.

Why: Smith's speed could be an asset for Atlanta should they decide to carry four backs into the season. If he performs well in training camp, he could be the leading candidate as a running back to return to the practice squad again this season.

How:Unless Coach Smith decides to carry four running backs on the roster, Smith will need an absolutely spectacular training camp to make the Opening Day roster. Smith also needs to show an ability on special teams, but he's got a long list of names to climb as a returner, if he's got the skill set to play that role.

Dimitri Nance Rookie

Who:Nance, a 5'10", 218-pound back, was added to the Falcons roster as an undrafted free agent this offseason. As a senior at Arizona State, he earned All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention honors.

Why:In his college career he gained 4 yards per carry and will look to improve on that mark during training camp. A back in the same vein of Turner, Nance is thick and well-built and takes on tacklers head on. Head Coach Smith and the offensive coaches will appreciate his tough running style.

How:Nance has his work cut out for him this summer. He's not exceptionally fast (4.64 40 in campus testing) so his contribution in special teams will be as a member of the coverage team. His blocking will need to improve, but he has a leg up on Smith because of his good receiving hands out of the backfield.

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