Nov 2, 2013; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back George Atkinson III (4) runs for a touchdown as Navy Midshipmen cornerback Brendon Clements (1) defends in the first quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
5. George Atkinson III – RB
George Atkinson III could be the best skill player of the UFA class this year for the Raiders. The son of Raider legend George Atkinson Jr, this running back out of Notre Dame enters training camp with an understanding of what it means to be a Raider, and a family legacy to live up to. Of course this alone is not enough to guarantee a roster spot, especially in a position group as deep and talented as the Raiders running backs. But Atkinson has the ability to do it.
A former Track and Field standout, the 6’1″ Atkinson has a long, smooth stride and great top-end speed. While not as powerful as Darren McFadden, he has a similar build and, like McFadden, excels as a straight line runner. He returned two kicks for touchdowns at Notre Dame and spent all three years there as a kick returner, amassing over 2,000 return yards at an average of 24.3 yards per return. While he was never the full-time starter at running back, Atkinson proved himself to be a dangerous change of pace back for Notre Dame as well, picking up 555 yards on only 93 carries in 2013 and averaging 6.2 yards per carry for his entire college career. In an early season start against a tough Oklahoma defense, Atkinson carried the ball 14 times for 148 yards including an 80 yard TD. Later in the year he had a 7 carry, 74 yard game against Navy, including a 41 yard 1st quarter TD run that was the first TD Navy had given up in the opening quarter all season.
While his ability as a receiving back is questionable (he only had 10 receptions at Notre Dame), with his speed and acceleration he could be a dangerous threat on screen passes. He has received criticism for being a poor broken-field runner, and his inability to secure the feature back role in college suggests that he may not be the type of player who can be consistently effective between the tackles. But on tape, he shows ability to read his blocks and explode out of his first cut; with injury question marks hanging over McFadden, Maurice Jones-Drew and Latavius Murray, it’s likely that McKenzie and Allen will want to keep an extra back on the roster to share some of the load. Atkinson will likely see a lot of action in the first two weeks of the preseason, and will excite fans and coaches with the ability he shows in these contests. In fact, Atkinson could very well be one of the key players to watch in these matchups. Atkinson’s ability as a kick returner will likely seal the deal, as he gives the Raiders a skilled, dangerous returner on kickoffs. When the Raiders do return to glory, it’s only fitting that they will do so with a George Atkinson on the roster.