FLOWERY BRANCH, GA — When Jason Snelling thinks about Michael Turner, he doesn't just see a Pro Bowl running back with a similar hard-charging and deceptively quick running style in front of him.
He sees a tailback that has been in his own shoes.
Entering 2009, the former Virginia standout had a total of 28 carries in his two seasons in the NFL. His role with the Falcons was as the team's third back and backup fullback, but when injuries depleted the stable of runners in Atlanta, Snelling stepped into the spotlight.
In Turner, who spent four seasons in San Diego in the shadow of All-Pro LaDainian Tomlinson before getting a shot with the Falcons in 2008, Snelling sees a player who knows what he's been through.
"He was always good but he had a guy ahead of him that was a great running back," Snelling said on Monday evening. "That's the situation now. Mike's a great running back and I just learn as much as I can. I let him lead by example and I learn things from him."
Once in the spotlight last season, Snelling proved he's in the NFL to stay, gaining 613 yards on 142 carries with four touchdowns, culminating his third year with a season-ending victory in Tampa where the seventh-round pick gained a career-high 147 yards. The victory gave the Falcons a winning record and closed the door on the long-discussed franchise record of failing to secure back-to-back winning seasons. It was a special moment for Snelling.
"It's definitely fulfilling to have an opportunity to carry the ball at the end of the game and help our team win and get that winning record," Snelling said. "That's the most important thing to me, to help my team win. I had a job to do and to be able to go out there and execute the way I did is fulfilling. I had a career high since I've been in the league. All I care about is winning, but it's also fulfilling to have goals and expectations fulfilled. It's a good memory for me. It ended the season off on a good note for me."
Even though Snelling believes since he entered the league he's belonged, he feels last season helped materialize his own beliefs that he perhaps has a Turner-like mid-career breakout in him.
"I've been around a bit, and last year was my opportunity to really showcase and show that I do belong in this league," he said. "I had an opportunity to do it last year."
One of the ways Snelling looks to continue his career is by utilizing his underrated pass-catching skills out of the backfield. Overlooked last season was the running back's 30 catches for 259 yards and one touchdown. It's a point of pride for Snelling and something he's worked on, trying to escape the fullback-disguised-as-a-running back tag.
"I take pride in being a receiver out of the backfield and in my pass-protection skills," Snelling said. "That's one of my strengths and part of my diversity as a player. I work on those things hard. It's really just my ability as a result of my hard work to be able to be a pass catcher out of the backfield."
Inserting the running backs more into the passing game through eleven days of training camp appears to be part of the plan in 2010 for the Falcons. Turner has recently discussed his own expectations of being more involved catching passes and during last Friday's Friday Night Lights scrimmage, the short screen pass to the running backs found success more often than not.
Snelling believes the wrinkle can be effective this season and he's excited to be a part of it.
"We've definitely been working on getting the running backs the ball with more passes in their hands," Snelling said. "It's just being in the right places for the quarterback as an outlet and creating one-on-one matchups with linebackers. We want to be able to get the ball in the running back's hands without having a hand off. We look forward to having more catches as running backs this year because it's only going to help our team win."
No matter the role — featured back, backup, fullback, pass-catcher — Snelling says he approaches each week with a grip on the diversity of his expectations and with a similar mindset of a backup quarterback: expecting to play.
"I prepare myself to know both roles as a fullback and a tailback and to be able to fill in when I need to," Snelling said. "I practice like I'm going to be playing and starting each week. When my opportunity comes I'm ready and prepared."
Just like waiting to find a running lane in the chaos at midfield, Snelling approaches his career in the same fashion. Everyone needs their break and Snelling believes his came last season. He thinks what he accomplished in 2009 is just the jumping-off point in what he hopes is a Turner-like ascension.
"I guess filling in for Mike last year and having some success as a full-time running back," Snelling said, "I think that was kind of a statement to show that I can play in this league for a good, long time."