Falcons' running back depth entering 2019 season

COVER 9 @9: A look at the running backs behind Freeman

1.  Running back depth. The Falcons are ecstatic about the return of running back Devonta Freeman.

“Free looks terrific,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

The Falcons are also pleased with the depth behind Freeman in Ito Smith, Brian Hill, Kenjon Barner, Tony Brooks-James and Qadree Ollison. 

“As far as a group goes, from the first guy to the last guy, it’s probably as connected as we can be,” Quinn said. “The combination of Ito, Brian, Kenjon and Tony, Quadree, all of them have some unique stuff about them. But that group has been really impressive.”

In five of the past six NFL drafts, the Falcons have selected a running back.

Smith, a fourth-round pick in 2018, is projected to take over role as Freeman’s primary backup with Tevin Coleman now in San Francisco. 

“Like anything in this league, you stack things on top of each other,” running backs coach David Brock said. “He’s now looking to stack his second year of top of his first.”

Smith played in 14 games and rushed 90 times for 315 yards and four touchdowns before his season ended with knee surgery. 

“Plenty of room for growth,” Brock said. “He’s a really smart player. Works incredibly hard at what he does. He’s talented and I think he’s going to have another great opportunity with Devonta back healthy in the building and working with him.

“That’s such a huge advantage in terms of a really good player trying to mentor you and kind of help you pull forward.”

The Falcons though Smith had a strong rookie season.

“Again, he showed that the moment was not too big,” Brock said. “He had some really big runs for us. Had some great touchdown runs for us. We are anticipating him having a terrific group.”

Hill, a fifth-round pick (156th overall) in 2017, will have to hold off rookie Ollison and Brooks-James to earn the third running back spot.

In three of Quinn’s four seasons, the Falcons opened the season with three running backs. In 2017, they opened with four running backs, but Hill was inactive for the game against the Bears.

Ollison was selected in the fifth round (152nd overall) of the 2019 draft. 

Hill, who has changed his jersey number to 23 this offseason, finally received an opportunity late last season and ran with authority. He was cut in 2017 and picked up by the Bengals. He came back to the Falcons’ practice squad before playing in 10 games last season.

After being the 15th running back taken, Hill declared himself the best back in the 2017 draft. He has some catching up to do as Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffery, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Tarik Cohen and Marlon Mack are off to fine starts to their careers. 

Hill had 20 carries for 157 yards last season, including a 60-yard run and a fumble. 

“When you look at what Brian’s done here in-game, you’d have to be impressed with what he was able to do for us at the end of the year,” running backs coach David Brock said. “At the core, this league is a production league. So, he’s got a phenomenal opportunity in OTAs now and going into the summer and training camp to show exactly what type of player that he is and build on what he did in the those games at the end of the year.”

Brock, like most coaches, is keeping an open mind. 

“You certainly look at the opportunity that he got and his ability to make the most of it,” Brock said. “I focus on the production and all of the good things that he did, the energy he brought and how hard he played. I don’t focus on the fumble, because that’s correctable.”

Brock wouldn’t say if Hill was the forgotten back on the roster.

“I’m excited about what he does,” Brock said. “There is not a player in our room that’s a forgotten player. There’s not a player in our room that isn’t thought to be deserving of being there and deserving of the opportunity to help us try to be the best team we can be.”

Ollison was one of the standouts on the first day of minicamp on Tuesday. 

“He’s done a really nice job, coming from Pitt he was very well prepared,” Brock said. “He played in this style offense. He’s run a lot of these runs. I think he’s a really good runner.”

Ollison, at 6-feet-1 and 228 pounds, is a bigger back. 

“He certainly is a big physical player,” Brock said. “He can protect. His hands have been really good. He’s done a nice job with a limited menu of things so far, I’m very encouraged. We are looking forward to seeing him develop and work on those things he needs to work on to be the type of pro that we’ll need him to be, but he’s done a terrific job.” 

2. White to the Ring of honor.  Dynamic wide receiver Roddy White, the Atlanta Falcons’ all-time leading receiver, will be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor, according to a White’s social media.

White did not immediately return a call to his cel phone. The team did not immediately confirm White’s tweet. 

White will go down in history as one of the franchise’s greatest players. It is no surprise that the four-time Pro Bowler will be added to the team’s Ring of Honor.

“Roddy is one of the greatest players to ever put on a Falcons uniform, and even more importantly he is a man of tremendous character that I and my entire family have profound personal affection and respect for,” said Falcons owner Arthur Blank at the time of White’s release in March of 2016. “I have developed a special relationship with him over the years.”

White was selected by the Falcons in the first-round (27th overall) of the 2005 NFL draft from Alabama-Birmingham. After a slow start to his career, White developed into the franchise’s most prolific receiver during the league’s evolution into more of a passing league.

White amassed 808 catches, 10,863 yards and 63 touchdowns over 11 seasons with the Falcons.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and White were one the league’s most productive duos from 2008-12, when White averaged 96 catches per season. He led the league with 115 catches in 2010 and followed up with 100 catches in 2011.

White appeared to be interferred with on the fourth-down play in the NFC championship game against San Francisco on Jan. 20, 2013 that could have propelled the team to its second Super Bowl appearance.

White’s original wide receivers coach was George Stewart. White got moving under his second position coach, Paul Petrino and continued to play at a high level under Terry Robiskie.

Warrick Dunn was the last player to go in the Ring of Honor in 2017. 

White will be just the 11th member of the exclusive group that includes running back William Andrews, quarterback Steve Bartkowski, linebacker Tommy Nobis, linebacker Jessie Tuggle, center Jeff Van Note, tackle Mike Kenn, defensive end Claude Humphrey, cornerback Deion Sanders and running back Gerald Riggs.

3. Camp Megatron. The deadline for Calvin Johnson’s free 11th annual wide receiver camp, for rising 9th to 12th graders, in Tyrone is Friday. Online Applications can be found at: https://form.jotform.com/90638201536151 Contact info: camps@calvinjohnsonjrfoundation.org

4. Ryan’s rap name is MRMD: MRMD – Matt Ryan Making Dollars – has a certain ring to it. Kind of like EPMD – Erick and Parrish Making Dollars. 

Ryan is the world’s 60th highest paid athlete, according to Forbes’ 2019 list of best-paid sports figures. 

The 2016 league MVP signed a five-year, $150 million deal — $100 million of it guaranteed — with Atlanta in 2018.

5. Minicamp standouts: Defensive tackle Deadrin Senat, defensive end John Cominsky, running back Qadree Ollison and backup quarterback Kurt Benkert were standouts on the first day of minicamp Tuesday, according to coach Dan Quinn. 

“I was excited to see Benkert get a good bit of work today,” Quinn said. “Ollison was another that I saw get a good bit of work at running back.”

Quinn and his staff met with the 23 rookies and the veterans acquired this offseason. The staff gave them a couple of things to improve on during the minicamp. 

Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley talks to the media after the first day of minicamp Tuesday in Flowery Branch. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter)

6. Jury out of Beasley. Still trying to process the Vic Beasley interview. He elected to workout with Bud Dupree, who’s also struggling early in his career, over working out with his head coach, who just happens to be a defensive line expert.

Somehow, that’s going to make him better.  

7. Injury report. Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is rehabbing and resting his feet. 

Also, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (precautionary reasons) and linebacker Deion Jones (foot) did not participate.

Free safety Ricardo Allen (Achilles) and cornerback Desmond Trufant (excused) were not at the early part of the practice. Allen showed up later.

Also, guard Adam Gettis, tight end Austin Hooper (ankle), defensive tackle Tyeler Davison (unknown injury) did not practice.

Cornerback Kendall Sheffield, defensive end Chris Odom and long snapper Josh Harris worked off to the side with the trainers. 

8.  Ryan, Deion Jones set to talk. Ryan and Deion Jones will be at the podium after practice today. 

9. Minicamp Depth chart: Falcons coach Dan Quinn has been pleased with the work of safety J.J. Wilcox, who’s been lining up at strong safety for Keanu Neal (knee) this offseason.

Neal returned to practice by the end of Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and will get some work during the mandatory minicamp, which starts today and runs through Thursday.

Wilcox, who played at Georgia Southern, was selected in the third round (80th overall) of the 2013 draft by the Dallas Cowboys.

He played with the Colts and the Jets last season.

Wilcox has played in 77 NFL games and made 39 starts. 

He played for the Cowboys from 2013-16. He was with the Steelers in 2017.

Wide receiver Julio Jones, middle linebacker Deion Jones will attend, but will not work out because they are resting/rehabbing foot injuries. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and defensive end Vic Beasley will also be on hand. They did not participate in the offseason program.

Cornerback Desmond Trufant has been excused for personal reasons and tight end Austin Hooper (ankle) will be held out. 

One player making a bid to crack the revamped offensive line roster is second-year tackle Matt Gono.

“Gono has been somebody that’s had a good offseason,” Quinn told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’ve played him at two spots, guard and tackle. Last year he wasn’t ready for that and now he is.”

The offensive line group will be closely watched. 

“That group has very good competitiveness to it,” Quinn said. “I like the size. I like their movement. I’m hopeful that we’ve recaptured the essence of what we are looking for in that position.” 

Here’s a look the depth chart: 

Offense

WR 11 Julio Jones, 14, Justin Hardy, 83 Russell Gage, 13 Christian Blake, 16 Shawn Bane 

LT 70 Jake Matthews, 73 Matt Gono, 75 John Wetzel, 69 Lanard Bonner, 65 Jaelin Robinson 

LG 77 James Carpenter, 60 Adam Gettis, 73 Matt Gono 

C 51 Alex Mack, 71 Wes Schweitzer 61 Chandler Miller

RG 68 Jamon Brown, 63 Chris Lindstrom, 64 Sean Harlow

RT 74 Ty Sambrailo, 76 Kaleb McGary, 67 Devon Johnson

TE 81 Austin Hooper, 88 Luke Stocker, 82 Logan Paulsen, 85 Eric Saubert, 87 Jaeden Graham, 89 Alex Gray

WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 18 Calvin Ridley, 15 Devin Gray, 19 Kahlil Lewis, 7 C.J. Worton, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus

QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub, 6 Kurt Benkert

RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 25 Ito Smith, 23 Brian Hill, 32 Qadree Ollison, 38 Kenjon Barner, 30 Tony Brooks-James, 43 Marcus Green

FB 30 Ricky Ortiz, 88 Luke Stocker, 87 Jaeden Graham

Defense

DE 44 Vic Beasley Jr., 91 Chris Odom

DT 95 Jack Crawford, 96 Tyeler Davison, 94 Deadrin Senat, 50 John Cominsky, 77 Ra’Shede Hageman, 93 Michael Bennett

DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 79 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 92 Justin Zimmer

DE 98 Takk McKinley, 99 Adrian Clayborn, 50 John Cominsky

WLB 54 Foyesade Oluokun, 42 Duke Riley, 52 Yurik Bethune

MLB 45 Deion Jones, 55 Bruce Carter, 49 Tre Crawford, 46 Del’Shawn Phillips

SLB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 36 Kemal Ishmael, 53 Jermaine Grace, 48 Durrant Miles

CB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 23 Jayson Stanley

NCB 27 Damontae Kazee, 28 Jordan Miller

CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 39 Taveze Calhoun, 20 Kendall Sheffield, 32 Rashard Causey

FS 37 Ricardo Allen, 41 Sharrod Neasman, 34 Chris Cooper, 35 Jason Thompson, 43 Parker Baldwin

SS 22 Keanu Neal, 37 J.J. Wilcox, 40 Ryan Neal 

Specialists

K 4 Giorgio Tavecchio

KO 5 Matt Bosher

P 5 Matt Bosher

KR 38 Kenjon Barner, 18 Calvin Ridley

PR 38 Kenyon Barner, 3 Marcus Green, 16 Shawn Bane 

LS 47 Josh Harris, 48 Kyle Vasey

H 5 Matt Bosher 

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About the Author

D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter is the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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