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The Turner Dilemma; Will Falcons Really Put The Burner On Low?
In his first year as the Falcons' offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter has been working to install a vertical-based scheme that relies on getting the ball into the hands of a lot of different playmakers. As Sports Xchange senior writer Len Pasquarelli recently reminded his readers, the emphasis in the offseason has largely revolved around the passing game.

From a Fantasy perspective, the focus has been on second-year wideout Julio Jones, if only because four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White has suggested he will likely catch fewer passes in 2012.

But Pasquarelli went on to note the diversity that Koetter has promised extends beyond just quarterback Matt Ryan and his talented corps of receivers. It refers, as well, to a running game that has leaned very heavily on ninth-year tailback Michael Turner in past seasons.

But we all expect Turner's workload will be reduced this season.

We expect it because all involved -- from general manager Thomas Dimitroff to head coach Mike Smith to Koetter and Falcons teammates -- have made it clear that will be the case.

"I think the thing we have to do as Michael gets a little older is to start putting him on a pitch count in terms of the numbers of carries," Smith said back in February. "We want to keep him as our feature back, but we need to make sure we some of the other guys carries as well."

Running backs coach Gerald Brown reiterated the point earlier this month.

"Michael has been our workhorse for a few years," Brown told D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We discussed the possibility of making sure that we monitor his reps so that he can stay strong for us through the season and into December."

As we've also heard time and time again this offseason, the presence of second-year man Jacquizz Rodgers is one reason for the desire to back off Turner. Jason Snelling's presence doesn't hurt either.

"This year [Rodgers] is going through the offseason and that is going to help him," Brown said. "Snell is a veteran. He's been there. When Michael is not in there, we feel comfortable with those guys being able to carry the load in both the run and the pass game."

So everybody is on board with the notion that Turner will play a lesser role. ... Except Turner.

"They always say that," Turner told Pasquarelli.

Given that stance, it's not surprising to learn that Turner, who turned 30 in February, is among the skeptics anxious to see how Koetter's blueprint evolves.

In the first four seasons of his NFL career, with San Diego, Turner was the backup to LaDainian Tomlinson. He averaged 57.0 attempts per season, never registered more than 80 carries a year and rubbed little tread off the tires.

Since signing with the Falcons in 2008 as a free agent, though, Turner has been much busier. Indeed, he has logged 300-plus carries in three of his four seasons, the exception in 2009, when an ankle injury sidelined him for five games. During the same period, only five other backs have posted as many as two 300-carry campaigns.

With 1,189 carries in the past four seasons, Turner has averaged 20.2 carries in his 57 starts in a Falcons' uniform.

According to Pasquarelli, the raw numbers from last season -- 1,340 yards, 11 touchdowns, a healthy 4.5-yard average (after slumping to 4.1 yards in '10), a half-dozen 100-yard games -- suggest that Turner can still carry the load. But the perception of many scouts in the league was that Turner, even though he posted 11 runs of 20 yards or more, was slower to the hole in 2011.

But the bigger issue for Turner seems to be the coming shift of offensive focus. Even if you're not buying into the notion that Turner is slowing down, there's no questioning the Falcons plan to be more vertical than they were under former coordinator Mike Mularkey.

White, who has five straight seasons of 80-plus receptions, including two consecutive years with 100 or more catches, probably will abdicate some of the workload to the explosive Jones. Atlanta will spread the field more. And the Falcons, for years one of the NFL's worst screen-pass teams, figure to throw the ball to the backs more in 2012.

That hasn't been Turner's forte.

In fact, the recently-released Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 notes that Turner has a chance to make history.

If he can rush for 638 yards before he catches four more passes, he will pass George Rogers as the most one-dimensional prominent running back NFL history.

Turner is closing in on 7,000 career rushing yards, yet he has only 51 career catches. Rogers finished his career in 1987 with 7,176 rushing yards and 55 receptions. That currently is the lowest reception total for any running back with at least 7,000 career rushing yards.

While Fantasy owners are painfully aware if his shortcomings as a receiver, Turner is coming off a season in which he recorded a career-high 17 receptions. But the numbers say there's no sense throwing screen passes to Turner. Rodgers is quicker and can make things happen when he catches passes.

According to's Pat Yasinskas, Koetter will have to be creative in carving out that role should Rodgers prove worthy -- as the coaching staff fully expects he will. The previous offense didn't have a lot of things designed for speed backs.

But Koetter fared pretty well with Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville, so Yasinskas believes he'll have no trouble coming up with plays that will take advantage of Rodgers' skills.

As for Turner's own skills? Is he really on the decline? Or are we paying too much attention to the talk?

Remember: If the Falcons really wanted him to, Turner could break the franchise record for carries this season (he needs 398 to do so). As unlikely as that seems, the 1,351 yards he needs to break the all-time yardage record isn't out of the question. Also, if can manage double digit TDs in 2012, Turner will move into fifth place on the team's all-time scoring list.

Still,'s Greg Rosenthal contends we're seeing the downward phase of Turner's career.

Rosenthal explained: "[Turner] beats up on bad teams -- which is great for Fantasy owners -- but struggles badly against top defenses. ..."

And that's why the coaching staff is said to be so keen on getting Rodgers more involved in the offense. They believe his speed and play-making ability will give them more options.

So add this to the list of situations worthy of some attention as training camps open in coming days.

I'll be following up as needed but I'll also remind you that our Staff Rankings Matrix will help you get a handle on our position regarding the full range of Fantasy prospects heading into August. We will, of course, be updating as needed from now until Week 1.