Tabeek's roster predictions: Falcons running backs

Several positions are up for grabs but here's an early guess at how the Atlanta Falcons' 53-man roster could look heading into 2020

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here belong to Matthew Tabeek and not the Atlanta Falcons, unless noted otherwise.

After a six-year run with Devonta Freeman as the primary runner in the backfield, the Falcons not only opted to change course, but they brought in a name that excited their fan base in a big way: former Georgia Bulldogs star Todd Gurley.

Gurley, 26, agreed to terms with the Falcons in early April and eventually signed his one-year prove-it deal worth a reported $6 million. This is a huge year for Gurley, who is tied with Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice (70 touchdowns) for the fourth-most total touchdowns through a player's first five seasons in NFL history.

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If he can generate more than 1,000 yards of total offense and score double-digit touchdowns (like he did in 2019 with the Rams), that's a win for the Falcons. Atlanta averaged 85.1 rushing yards per game in 2019, the third-fewest in the NFL.

Gurley joins Brian Hill, Ito Smith, Qadree Ollison and fullback Keith Smith – all returning players from 2019 – in the Falcons backfield.

OVERVIEW

An important stat to watch: Prior to 2019, Gurley averaged 1,278 rushing yards, 15 scores on the ground, 684 receiving yards and five receiving touchdowns. Also, noteworthy? Gurley averaged 18 attempts per game. In 2019, Gurley tallied 1,064 yards of total offense and 14 total touchdowns – and averaged 14 attempts per game, four less. That is significant to note because Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has reportedly said that he intends to give Gurley 15 to 25 touches per game in 2020. If that's how it plays out and Gurley can stay healthy, good things should happen for this offense.

Man on a mission: Brian Hill continues to evolve as a running back and transform himself physically. Hill, who is entering his fourth year in the league, has yet to establish himself as a lead back but he's still managing to catch the attention of Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who said, "He is 100 percent a guy on a mission. You see his speed at practice, his ability to catch has certainly improved." Hill rushed for 323 yards and scored two touchdowns on 78 carries in 2019. He also had 10 catches for 69 yards and a score. It appears, for now, Hill is the primary backup to Gurley.

Committed to the run: Back in March, the Falcons and fullback Keith Smith agreed to a three-year extension. Smith played in all 16 games last season and made five starts. He played the most snaps of his career (196), caught one pass for 13 yards and ran the ball five times for 8 yards – four of those resulted in first downs for the Falcons. Will Smith see an increased role in 2020? It would appear so, but time will tell.

How many backs will Falcons roll with? The Falcons have started the year with as few as three running backs (2018) to as many as five (2019). In 2017, they began the season with four running backs on the initial roster. Over the least three seasons they've carried one fullback. So, how many backs will they roll with in 2020? Health and needs at other position groups will affect certain groups, as will the expanded practice squad, which is now 16 players.

More than just good luck: For the first eight games of the season Qadree Ollison was inactive. The Falcons, concurrently, went 1-7. Ollison was active during the final eight games, saw action in the last seven and the Falcons also went 6-2. By no stretch of the imagination am I implying that Ollison was the difference-maker, but it was it was good to see the rookie more involved in the offense. Ollison rushed for 50 yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries. His four touchdowns were tied for the third-most rushing touchdowns by a rookie in franchise history.

RECENT HISTORY

Here are the number of running backs and fullbacks the Falcons have kept in previous seasons on the initial roster:

LOCKS

Here are the players who I think are locks to make the team (i.e., starters and key reserves) unless something unforeseen should happen (listed in alphabetical order):

  • Todd Gurley
  • Brian Hill
  • Qadree Ollison
  • Ito Smith
  • Keith Smith

ON THE BUBBLE

Here are the players who I think are still in the mix to make the team, could land on the practice squad or will be released (listed in alphabetical order):

  • Mikey Daniel
  • Craig Reynolds

PREDICTION

  • 2020 roster forecast: 4 running backs, 1 fullback

Tabeek's Take: I think the Falcons will go with four running backs and a fullback on their initial roster. Brian Hill will serve as Todd Gurley's primary backup while Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison each bring a different skillset to the table that the Falcons will utilize. The Falcons still like to employ a fullback in their offensive scheme and Keith Smith will be counted upon there.

  • Todd Gurley
  • Brian Hill
  • Qadree Ollison
  • Ito Smith
  • Keith Smith

PREDICTING THE 53-MAN ROSTER

A look at roster battle at the running back position. The views and opinions represented here and in the corresponding article belong to Matthew Tabeek and not the Atlanta Falcons, unless noted otherwise.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

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