New Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith ran a run-heavy, play-action system in Tennessee with rushing king Derrick Henry powering his way to consecutive yardage crowns over the past two seasons.
In 2021, former Carolina Panthers running back Mike Davis may get a shot at showing what he can do in a similar role, replacing RB Todd Gurley. This marks the fourth team the 28-year-old Davis has played for since entering the league in 2015, and it’s the first time he gets a chance to enter the season as the presumed starter.
While much can change between now and Week 1, Davis has no obvious competition for the bulk of the touches right now, and he enters an offensive system known for generating fantasy football success at his position. In Tennessee last season, Smith’s offense ran 51.8 percent of the time, which was the third-highest rate. The Titans were fourth in 2019 under his guidance. During the same window, Atlanta finished no better than 25th (2020) and was even dead last in 2019.
The Falcons have invested heavily in the offensive line in recent years, although the results haven’t been reflective of such. The offense lost center Alex Mack to free agency, and a pair of 2019 first-rounders on the right side have yet to fully materialize as being worth the commitment. Right guard Chris Lindstrom came into his own after an injury-marred rookie year, finishing with the fifth-highest ranking among his positional mates in 2020. Right tackle Kaleb McGary began last season much improved but faded down the stretch and saw his overall play slip as the year went along.
Matt Hennessy, a 2020 third-round selection, appears in line to assume Mack’s position, though some recent chatter says the team is still looking at the center market. Furthermore, the depth along the line, especially inside, is barren.
It will be interesting to see is if the Falcons try to make quarterback Matt Ryan fit the offensive designs of Smith more so than adjusting Smith’s playcalling to the nearly 36-year-old’s strengths. Bootlegs and rollouts aren’t exactly tops on the list of what Ryan is know for in his career, but in his defense, he handled Kyle Shanahan’s similar system several years back.
Currently on roster, running backs Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison are the only two with experience. It’s fair to believe Smith is ahead of Ollison and does have more speed to help complement Davis. That said, look for the Falcons to address the backfield in the upcoming NFL draft. There remains a respectable pool of change-of-pace running backs in free agency, too.
Fantasy football outlook
Going on the presumption Davis enters as the primary running back, he brings considerable versatility to the offense. A few curiosities arise, though: Why did it take him until his age-27 season and an injury to truly showcase his skills? How will Davis respond as being the top guy right out of the gates? Can the defense allow the offense to run late into contests? Aside from the defense, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley starring at wide receiver. Then there’s the worry about Smith — is he a great coordinator who’ll stink it up as a head coach?
In 2021, initially there will be offensive line concerns. Last year, however, we saw Davis find considerable success behind a similarly poor front five. ProFootballFocus ranked Carolina’s unit 18th-best and that of Atlanta 21st. If the Falcons can consistently get more from the right side of the line, look out for this being a possible fantasy football steal to come out of free agency.
The former Seattle, San Fran and Carolina back fits what the Falcons will implement on offense, and Davis showed off his hands with 59 receptions a year ago as he filled in for Christian McCaffrey over 12 starts. We had see a few flashes from Davis in past stops, albeit in limited action, and he played a role as Seattle’s third-down back in 2018 (34 receptions).
Since Davis has only two seasons with more than 68 carries, it’s probably unfair to point out his yards-per-carry average was 3.5 or less in those four years. During the two seasons with at least 112 attempts, he was good for 4.6 in ’18 and 3.9 last year. Much of last year’s issues can be attributed to the line and also being rarely able to establish a lead late in games when defenses are worn down.
Davis may be an alluring sleeper-like figure in draft circles. If for no other reason than being a new face in town at a coveted position, fantasy owners will find him intriguing. He probably gets less fanfare in casual leagues, yet some gamers will remember his contributions last year and immediately flock to him, assuming the situation is as good or better — it certainly could be better. Smith has the track record as an offensive mind (experienced with TEs and OL, so he knows blocking), and the weapons around Davis to prevent defenders from automatically keying on him each play.
Then there’s the aspect of this defense … it has to improve, and it should, to a degree. Incoming coordinator Dean Pees has found considerable success in his long NFL career. The personnel components remain suspect, though, and this could be a heavy focus in the NFL draft. Atlanta’s inability to keep points off the scoreboard could be Davis’ undoing on the ground. Through the air, though, he actually stands to benefit from a shaky line and sieve-like defense.
Gamers will be forced to decide if Davis worth the risk of an RB2 investment, provided he doesn’t see serious competition in the meantime, and the rest of the outlook hinges upon expectations for aspects out of his control. Davis will be a valued asset in PPR circles, and he is worthy of a weekly flex play as his floor, if the Falcons remain committed to him.