Editor’s note: This is the seventh of a 10-part, position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ roster before the start of training camp.
When the Falcons open training camp on July 26, they will have a new running backs coach for the second straight year.
Bernie Parmalee replaced Keith Carter, who spent one season coaching the position after the legendary Bobby Turner left to join Kyle Shanahan with the 49ers. Carter left to become the offensive line coach for the Titans.
Parmalee, who starred at Ball State in the Mid-American Conference, is a former NFL player. He spent nine years with the Dolphins (1992-98) and Jets (1999-2000).
He’ll be tasked with keeping the running back combination of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman potent and finding a fullback to replace Derrick Coleman, who was not re-signed. He’s watched all of the film on Freeman and Coleman and took notes. Both will work on their craft and try to improve in pass protection.
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“Every day, we will have a plan,” Parmalee said. “We’ll continue to work on the things we do well and also have a plan to continue to develop the things we don’t do as well. As a running back, you can always improve in all areas.”
After dodging offseason knee surgery, Freeman, a two-time Pro Bowler, plans to bounce back from the toughest season of his career.
The explosive 25-year-old Coleman, 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, who was drafted in the third round (73rd overall) of the 2015 NFL draft, is set to enter the final year of his rookie contract.
Combined, Freeman and Coleman have been perhaps the most lethal running back combination in the league over the past two seasons.
Freeman’s 2017 season got off to a slow start when he suffered a concussion in the exhibition season. He suffered another concussion against the Cowboys in the fifth game of the season and suffered a knee injury against the Panthers in the regular-season finale that hobbled him some in the playoffs.
Banged-up and bruised, he continued to run with authority, but was not able to pile up Freeman-like statistics. After back-to-back seasons of compiling more than 1,500 all-purpose yards, he had 1,182 in 2017. In 2015, Freeman had 14 touchdowns and 12 in 2016. Last season, he had eight touchdowns.
Coleman rushed for a career-high 628 yards and five touchdowns last season. He also runs routes like a receiver, according to quarterback Matt Ryan. A nightmare for linebackers to cover, Coleman caught 27 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns.
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said he under-utilized the running backs in the passing game last season and plans to rectify that situation in 2018.
“I think as far as injuries and stuff, last year was one of the toughest seasons I had,” Freeman said. “Just because I had a few tough injuries that I tried to play through.”
Freeman returned to form after the concussions, but trying to play with the knee injury was problematic. In the divisional round playoff game against the Eagles, he was held to seven yards rushing on 10 carries and missed a blitz pickup in pass protection.
Coleman plans to continue to build on his career.
“For me, I just want to stay consistent in everything I do,” Coleman said. “Keep doing what I’m doing. For the offense, of course, we want to be the best offense. We want to definitely finish, keep the ball and make plays.”
The Falcons have added new wrinkles to the offense this offseason and some include the fast and powerful Coleman.
“They want to use me more,” Coleman said. “Line me up out wide and stuff like that. It’s going to be pretty cool.”
Coleman’s workload has increased each season. He had 89 touches (rushes and catches) as a rookie followed by 149 and 163 the next seasons.
“Now, we want to make sure that we’re really featuring him and Devonta in as many ways as we can,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “So, whether if it’s outside or leaving them in the backfield. The amount of catches and touches that we can get for those guys ... we know how explosive they are.”
The Falcons signed Freeman to a six-year, $43 million contract last season. Coleman has a base salary of $791,268 for the 2018 season and if the Falcons can’t work out an extension, he’ll become a free agent.
Teams rarely have two running backs with hefty contracts, although the Panthers did it with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Williams signed a five-year, $43 million deal in 2011. Stewart signed a five-year $36.5 million in 2013. The two were on the roster together from 2008-14.
Coleman is aware of his situation and knows a big payday is looming.
“I feel pretty good,” Coleman said. “I just want to keep getting better. Doing it day-by-day with myself. I just want to get better and be consistent. I know if I do that, everything will go my way and go how I want it to go.”
The Falcons also selected Ito Smith in the fourth round of the 2018 draft out of Southern Mississippi. He’ll get an opportunity to replace Terron Ward as the third running back. Smith ran for 2,874 yards with 27 touchdowns over his final two seasons.
Some of the draft analysts believe the Falcons over-drafted Smith, who was projected to go in the seventh round by NFLDraftScout.com.
He’s similar to Brian Hill, the running back the Falcons selected in the fifth round in the 2017 draft. He struggled and was released on Oct. 15. He was signed by the Bengals.
Hill was bigger and faster than Smith. Hill, at 6-1, 219 pounds to Smith’s 5-9 and 195 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds to Smith’s 4.49 in their combine workouts. Hill also had better change-of-direction numbers in the three-cone drill, 7.03 to 7.22 seconds. Smith had better explosion with a 37.5 inch vertical jump to Hill’s 34 inch jump and tested stronger than Hill with 22 lifts of 225 pounds to Hill’s 15.
“He’s (learned) the offense really well,” Parmalee said of Smith. “He worked hard and gravitates to the veteran guys. The good thing about Freeman and Coleman is that they have taken the young guys underneath their wings.”
The Falcons will have three inexperience players competing for the fullback position in Daniel Marx, Luke McNitt and Ricky Ortiz.
Parmalee said it was hard to evaluate the fullbacks over the offseason because they were not working in full pads.
“You develop the techniques, but the physicality of it, you have to wait to put the pads on,” Parmalee said. “When you put the pads on you can take that technique-work and put the physical aspect and the technique together. Usually, you should be a step ahead.”
If the three fail to impress, the Falcons will scan the waiver wire to see if any veteran fullbacks are cut at roster trimming time.
AJC correspondent Kennington Lloyd Smith III contributed to this story.
90-MAN ROSTER ANALYSIS
Part 1: Defensive Line
Part 2: Linebackers
Part 3: Cornerbacks
Part 4: Safeties
Part 5: Special teams
Part 6: Quarterbacks
Coming Wednesday: Wide receivers
Here’s a look at the projected depth chart heading into training camp:
WR 11 Julio Jones, 18, Calvin Ridley, 14 Justin Hardy, 13 Reggie Davis, 86 Lamar Jordan, 16 Taj Williams
LT 70 Jake Matthews, 68 Austin Pasztor, 76 Daniel Brunskill
LG 67 Andy Levitre, 63 Ben Garland, 64 Sean Harlow, 75 Jamil Douglas
C 51 Alex Mack, 63 Ben Garland, 61 J.C. Hassenauer
RG 65 Brandon Fusco, 71 Wes Schweitzer, 62 Salesi Uhatafe
RT 73 Ryan Schraeder, 74 Ty Sambrailo, 77 Matt Gono
TE 81 Austin Hooper, 82 Logan Paulsen, 85 Eric Saubert, 89 Alex Gray, 80 Troy Mangen, 87 Jaeden Graham
WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 17 Marvin Hall, 83 Russell Gage, 15 Christian Blake, 19 Dontez Byrd, 7 Devin Gray
QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub, 9 Grayson Garrett, 6 Kurt Benkert
RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 26 Tevin Coleman, 25 Ito Smith, 41 Terrence Magee, 32 Justin Crawford, 35 Malik Williams
FB 40 Daniel Marx, 43 Luke McNitt, 30 Ricky Ortiz
DE 98 Takk McKinley, 50 Brooks Reed, 79 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 96 Mackendy Cheridor
DT 99 Terrell McClain, 94 Deadrin Senat, 93 Garrison Smith,
DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 95 Jack Crawford, 92 Justin Zimmer, 99 Jon Cunningham
DE 44 Vic Beasley, 90 Derrick Shelby, 55 J’Terius Jones
WLB 42 Duke Riley, 54 Foyesade Oluokun
MLB 45 Deion Jones, 52 Emmanuel Ellerbe, 53 Emmanuel Smith
SLB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 36 Kemal Ishmael, 56 Anthony Winbush, 49 Richard Jarvis
CB 23 Robert Alford, 20 Isaiah Oliver, 28 Justin Bethel, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 39 Deante Burton
CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 34 Brian Poole, 35 Leon McFadden, 43 Chris Lammons
NB 34 Brian Poole, 27 Damontae Kazee, 42 Tyson Graham, 30 Joseph Putu
FS 37 Ricardo Allen, 27 Damontae Kazee, 38 Marcelis Branch, 41 Jason Hall
SS 22 Keanu Neal, Ron Parker, 35 Secdrick Cooper
K 3 Matt Bryant, 1 David Marvin
KO 5 Matt Bosher
P 5 Matt Bosher
KR 14 Justin Hardy, 17 Marvin Hall, 30 Ito Smith
PR 14 Justin Hardy, 16 Reggie Davis
LS 47 Josh Harris
H 5 Matt Bosher