To the general confusion of Falcons fans everywhere, Atlanta didn’t take a back. Now what?
Atlanta’s draft class is being received pretty well by the fanbase, right now, if our poll here on the site is any indication. As of the time I’m writing this, close to 50% of respondents gave it a B, while another nearly 30% said A.
That doesn’t mean that fans don’t have reservations or questions about this class, though, and the one I’ve seen most frequently to this point is that it didn’t feature a running back. Atlanta signed veteran Mike Davis to lead the backfield, but the only other addition they’ve made to this point is Cordarrelle Patterson, who has spent most of his career primarily working as a receiver. The current depth chart features Davis, Qadree Ollison, Patterson, Tony Brooks-James, and as of last night,undrafted free agent Javian Hawkins out of Louisville. That means there’s a dearth of proven volume options behind Davis. It’s natural to wonder why the Falcons didn’t want to add a rookie back to that group, given that it was very logical to think they’d do so after adding Davis and cutting ties with Ito Smith.
Here’s what that lack of action might mean, and how the Falcons might attack the position in the coming days and weeks.
They love Mike Davis
This is the most obvious takeaway, and it’s been obvious since they signed him. Atlanta was rumored to have a back near the top of their offseason wishlist, and his 2020 season with Carolina illustrated why they wanted Davis in particular to lead the backfield. While he’s largely been in the shadow of other backs throughout his career, Davis was pressed into duty because of injury and was quietly very effective. Because he catches the ball pretty well and has the physicality to make plays work even when the blocking isn’t stellar, he should be able to handle a major workload in an Arthur Smith offense the will prize his toughness and versatility.
I don’t think it’s particularly disputable that they love Davis, and that likely convinced them they could, say, afford to move down five picks when Javontae Williams will still on the board. Also…
Qadree Ollison caught their eye
I have been sort of pooh-poohing this idea all offseason, not because I dislike Ollison, but because even the offensive coordinator he was hand-selected under didn’t seem to want to use him. Generally speaking, that’s not a great sign for your fortunes with a new regime.
We still don’t have any kind of real read on whether the Falcons like Ollison, but his physicality and straight line speed would seemingly make him a nice insurance option for Davis. The fact that Atlanta didn’t “reach,” per Arthur Smith, might be an indication that they didn’t view their depth at the position as a total wasteland. If that’s the case, it would almost have to be because of the presence of Ollison, given that Patterson is a very different kind of back.
Arthur Smith pointed out how discipline Terry Fontenot was in his first draft. For example, the RB position was a need heading in but they didn’t reach for need. The board set the draft.
— Kelsey Conway (@FalconsKelsey) May 1, 2021
They really like Javian Hawkins
The list of undrafted free agent backs with intriguing skillsets was short, but Hawkins certainly belonged on it. The way analysts talk about him reminds you a little bit of Tevin Coleman, who was also known for his speed coming out but was faced with questions about his potential in the passing game and ability to hold up under heavier workloads. That’s not to suggest the two are the same player at all, but Hawkins has the makings of a dangerous runner who can thrive in Arthur Smith’s scheme with time and opportunity, and with Patterson on a one year deal, he may get a chance down the line to expand his role in as a receiver.
New offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford saw a lot of him in Louisville and likely stumped for him, which couldn’t have hurt. Hawkins may not get a lot of that this year, but this feels like a great landing spot for him, and it’s not difficult for me to believe that Atlanta dialed him up as soon as they concluded the draft without adding a back.
All of this doesn’t even mention the Ball State bruiser Caleb Huntley, who also reportedly joined the Falcons as an undrafted free agent and could push Ollison.
They know there’s still depth available on the open market
If Atlanta doesn’t really love Ollison and would rather stash Hawkins as a gameday inactive or practice squad player for 2021, free agency is still a place they can add help once they have a little money to do so. Useful pass catching backs like Rex Burkhead and Duke Johnson are still out there, and former elite backs facing medical questions like Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell are still out there as well. Hell, our old friend Brian Hill can do a little bit of everything and has yet to find a new home, and none of these players figure to be particularly expensive by the summertime. Atlanta will have options.
In the end, it’s probably a combination of 2-3 of these factors. Atlanta repeatedly decided they liked other players than the top backs on the board, and snagging Hawkins after the draft gives them someone to develop while Davis leads the committee. If they’re shaky on Ollison they can still add free agent talent, but it feels like the Falcons concluded they could get by with affordable signings and upside pickups because they expect the scheme and offensive line to afford their backs an opportunity to shine. Hopefully that proves to be a smart bet for them.