Many around the NFL won’t consider the Atlanta Falcons backfield as one of the most lethal and, in fact, some think the Birds potential is pretty limited. Head Coach Mike Smith has relied on Michael Turner as much as any player since he’s been the Falcons coach, some even say entirely too much. Turner was one of the biggest reasons for the Birds success the last four years, finishing near the top in rushing yards in the NFL every year except his injury year and making two trips to the Pro Bowl.
For all the talk of Turner slowing way down, he still eclipsed over 1,300 yards rushing the last two years. The Falcons workhorse also more than doubled his receiving yards total. However, anyone arguing that Turner hasn’t slowed down after hitting the 30 year old wall hasn’t been paying attention. He hits the hole much slower than he used to and goes down much easier than when he first came to Atlanta.
Like the rest of the 2011 team, Turner feasted on weak teams and non-existent against top tier teams: Green Bay (56 rush yards), Houston (44), New Orleans (39), and New York in Playoffs (41). Some of that certainly wasn’t his fault and, to be fair, the rest of the team took on that identity as well. Quite a few fans even thought it was time to let Turner and his $7.5 million cap hit go, but knowing Smith that was never going to happen.
It came as somewhat of a surprise when the Falcons re-signed Jason Snelling as he was about to become an unrestricted free agent last year. It was a very pleasant event getting Snelling for 3 years and at roughly $4 million dollars. Snelling has been a fan favorite for his versatility, toughness (returned after broken jaw in playoff game), and production with limited opportunities. The vast majority of fans love Snelling, but the only issue is that he is too much like Turner and the idea of having a running back tandem or trio only makes sense when you have complementary backs.
The big buzz in the Falcons backfield resides with second year man Jacquizz Rodgers. He dazzled with limited touches last year as a rookie. His stats won’t blow you away, but if you watched him run last year he was a tough and shifty runner that could make people miss, get the tough yards (sealed the win in Detroit), and showed massive potential in the pass game. In one of the plays of the year, Rodgers hauled in a beautiful 31 yard over-the-shoulder touchdown pass in a comeback win in Carolina. While not having homerun threat speed, many are expecting a big year from “Quizz.”
A look at how the running back carries (hopefully) might be split in 2012:
As mentioned above, Turner has slowed way down as of late. He’s still got some gas left in the tank, as he’s gone over 1,300 yards rushing the last two years, but he should definitely have his touches limited to keep him fresh over the season, but also to get Rodgers and Snelling, both much better in the pass game, more touches.
Like many other offensive players, Turner may have simply a victim of Mularkey’s extreme predictable and vanilla play-calling, but saving reducing Turner’s carries is a win-win across the board. He’s under contract for this year and next, and if Smith wants to keep him for his entire contract, saving his body and endurance is the best way to go. Ultimately, Turner’s effectiveness has slowed and his lack of potential in the pass game puts the onus on the Falcons to find ways of getting more explosive in the backfield. Hopeful Carry Split = 40%
The big hope for Falcons fans this year lies with the second year Rodgers. He flashed some serious potential as a rookie, even though he was rarely seen from in Mularkey’s offense. While not possessing top-flight speed, he added a nice complement to the bruising and laborious type of running styles. He showed a quickness not seen since the days of Warrick Dunn. The versatility was a nice change of pace where defenses seemingly couldn’t predict what was coming, such as seeing Turner in the game knowing he wouldn’t a pass.
He may not be the fastest running back in the NFL, but he surely has more upside as a multidimensional back which has become very popular in the NFL with the emergence of players like Ray Rice and Lesean McCoy having so much success as both a runner and receiver. Smith thinks he could be a feature back, but even if his frame couldn’t support that much use, he definitely should get the most looks of any of the running backs. Hopeful Carry Split = 35%
Fans know that Turner and Rodgers will get their touches, so the most intriguing back heading into 2012 is Jason Snelling. Some thought that Snelling may have played his final down for the Falcons as he headed into free agency, they were high on Rodgers going forward, and they were intent on keeping Turner. It was a pretty pleasant surprise to see him re-upped with Atlanta for a very reasonable price. The question now is “when and where will Snelling’s touches come?”
Some thought that Snelling may be in line to take over for Ovie Mughelli at fullback, giving more athleticism to the position in terms of running and passing, while being able to see the field on a more regular basis. That speculation ended quickly when the Falcons selected the best fullback in the draft in Bradie Ewing. Snelling certainly hasn’t gotten the carries that Turner has, but he definitely gives it his all and some fans even believe he hits the hole harder than Turner, while also providing a very good option in the passing game. The issue isn’t Snelling, but the fact that he and Turner are extremely similar in their running styles make many wonder how there will be enough touches to go around. Some teams have made a three-man rotation at RB work, but most go with a tandem. The thought among many is that Snelling will receive the least of carries among the three, even though it may not be the best idea. Hopeful Carry Split = 25%
Most fans wanted some homerun speed injected in the Falcons backfield heading into 2012. Although Turner, Rodgers, and Snelling are all quality backs, none of them possess that game-breaking speed that other teams have. Some hoped a potential for a guy like Antone Smith, who’s flashed speed at times, to get some looks this year. With the Falcons sticking with Turner and bringing back Snelling to pair with Rodgers, that hope has basically been extinguished. Teams may can swing a 3 man rotation at running back, but finding enough touches for a 4th one is next to impossible. With other areas potentially needing more depth, like defensive end and offensive line, the Falcons may decide to keep only 4 total running backs (including fullback) instead of 5. Carry Split = 0%
1) What’s your hopeful spit at running back in 2012?
2) Are you comfortable with a Turner, Rodgers, and Snelling rotation?
3) Can Turner have another good year or has he peaked?
4) Who should get the most touches at running back?
5) Should the Falcons have let one of the 3 go?
6) Is there enough play-making ability in the backfield? Enough speed?
7) Where will Snelling’s touches come from?
8.) How many running backs should they keep on the 53 man roster?
9) Should there be some touches for a 4th RB speed back like Antone Smith?