Some draft analysts did a double-take when the Falcons did not select a running back in the most recent NFL draft.
“If I’m in the room, personally, I see this as an opportunity,” running backs coach Desmond Kitchings said on Monday. “This is an open (competition). Let’s go out here and compete.”
The Falcons finished last season ranked 27th in rushing and let their top three running backs – Todd Gurley, Brian Hill and Ito Smith – walk out the door. While, Gurley and Hill were not re-signed, Smith was unceremoniously cut after finishing the season as the No. 1 back.
Gurley and Smith remain un-signed and Hill signed with Tennessee.
Kitchings worked with offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford at N.C. State for three seasons (2016-18) and they’ll be charged with improving the rushing attack.
“At least there is one layer of communication that doesn’t have to happen because he and I have worked together before,” Kitchings said. “That’s not only in the run game, but that’s with protecting the quarterback. Which is a big (part) of playing running back as well.”
Kitchings wants his running backs to match the demeanor of the linemen.
“Running the football is an attitude and that’s going to start obviously up front, but we are a part of that as well,” Kitchings said. “It’s an attitude to come out and establish the line of scrimmage.”
The Falcons signed running back Mike Davis to a two-year, $5.5 million contract in free agency. Davis amassed 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the first time in his career in 2020.
“That’s one of his stronger attributes is that Mike does play the game physical, breaking tackles,” Kitchings said of Davis. “I think Mike also has some very good short-area change of direction and ability to make some guys miss in the open field.”
Davis has developed into a solid pass catcher.
“He’s a natural pass catcher which I think we can use to our advantage as well,” Kitchings said. “When you look at how we are set up, with some of the skill players we have on the perimeter…. (we can) create some matchup issues verses linebackers or potential safeties if they want to matchup with Mike.”
The Falcons are also counting on former wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson to play some running back.
“I don’t think he’s looked at as a gadget guy,” Kitchings said. “You look at the last two to three years of his career, he’s kind of evolved more into that running back (role).”
Patterson, a former first-round pick as a wide receiver back in 2013 by the Vikings, had a career-high 64 carries for 232 yards and a touchdown last season for the Bears. Back in 2018, he rushed 42 times for 228 yards and a touchdown for New England.
He’s carved out a niche in the NFL as one of the top kickoff returners and is a four-time All-Pro returner.
But the Falcons believe he can help them solve their running back situation.
“When you study his film, he runs like a running back,” Kitchings said. “I think some of that is attributed to his style as being a kick returner and the success he’s had there as a vertical, downhill guy that plays physical. I’m real excited about him.”
Patterson is 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds.
“He’s a big back with some good speed,” Kitchings said. “Obviously, he has the ability to catch the football out of the backfield and create some potential advantages/matchups for us in the passing game. That was a great toy to add to our group.”
Running back Qadree Ollison, who was only active for three games and played just 13 snaps in 2020, was retained.
“Ollison, some familiarity there, having played against him I believe it was 2017 at Pitt when I was at North Carolina State,” Kitchings said. “He had a productive career there. His running backs coach and I are good buddies. So, I’ve got some really good background on him.”
Ollison has to improve his pass protection.
“He’s a guy here in his third year, he should capitalize on his opportunity coming up to help us win some games next year,” Kitchings said. “Big body guy. Played in a pro-styled offense in college. Had some production here as a rookie. Hopefully, he can be productive for us going forward.”
The Falcons also have Tony Brooks-James and signed undrafted rookie free agents Javian Hawkins and Caleb Huntley.
“Hawkins brings an element that we don’t have in the room right now from the speed standpoint,” Kitchings said. " He has elite speed.”
Huntley played at Ball State and is from Locust Grove.
“He’s a bigger back with quick feet,” Kitchings said. “I’ve enjoyed getting to know the kid here through the process here. Real excited for his opportunity here as well.”
The Falcons drafted Avery Williams as a cornerback and return man, but said he would play some offense.
“Any way we can score points to win games, if he comes to my room, goes to the receiver room, heck he may go to the quarterbacks room,” Kitchings said. “If we are scoring points, I don’t care.”
Kitchings believes the running backs will be ready to prove themselves.
“I have some guys who should have a chip on their shoulders,” Kitchings said. “Mike (received) an opportunity last year, but he really hasn’t been a featured guy. Patterson is transitioning into his role.
“You have guys like Ollison, Tony Brook-James and the rookie free agents, they should be in here champing at the bit to prove that I’m a high caliber guy who can help this team win games as a ball-carrier, pass protector and pass receiver out of the backfield.”
AJC’S POSITION-BY-POSITION NFL DRAFT SERIES
QUARTERBACKS: How far will Justin Fields drop in draft? | Top 10 QBs
RUNNING BACKS: Plenty of prospects to pick from | Top 10 RBs
WIDE RECEIVERS: Draft deep with talent | Top 10 WRs
TIGHT ENDS: Ability to create mismatches is key | Top 10 TEs
OFFENSIVE TACKLES: A ‘nasty’ bunch | Top 10 OTs
OFFENSIVE GUARDS/CENTERS: The men in the middle | Top 10 C/OGs
END RUSHERS: Pass on this draft stock | Top 10 DEs
DEFENSIVE TACKLES: One star among lackluster block | Top 10 DTs
LINEBACKERS: Deep class for position | Top 10 LBs
CORNERBACKS: Plethora of options for first two rounds | Top 10 CBs
SAFETIES: Falcons likely will add position player | Top 10 Safeties
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