The Atlanta Falcons got strong production from Devonta Freeman in 2015, centering the need at running back on their desire to improve depth.
Freeman had a brilliant first half in 2015, producing an extraordinary 956 total yards and nine touchdowns during his first six starts from Weeks Three through Eight. The next best running back, Le’Veon Bell, produced 692 total yards during that same stretch of games.
However that production dipped thereafter when Freeman totaled 572 yards and four touchdowns in his final seven games in 2015. That figure was much closer to the middle of the pack among NFL running backs with 11 other backs topping his per-game average during that nine-week stretch.
Freeman also missed a game and the majority of another with a concussion. It all raises some questions about which stretch of games were more representative of Freeman’s value moving forward as well as whether he’s ideally suited to hold up to the immense workload he saw in 2015. Last year, Freeman’s 338 offensive touches ranked second in the league behind only Adrian Peterson (357). That’s a lot for a 206-pound running back, with the Falcons likely wanting to reduce his workload in the ground game while still maximizing his impact in the passing game.
That concern over durability and the need to lighten Freeman’s load is why it’s important moving forward that the Falcons have trustworthy depth. Right now that may not be the case with Tevin Coleman coming off a disappointing rookie season.
After opening the season as the starter, Coleman suffered his a rib injury in Week Two against the New York Giants, and thereafter only provided flashes of promise rather than substantial production. The biggest concern surrounding Coleman was his ball security as the rookie running back lost three fumbles over a six-game stretch that saw him touch the ball just 47 times.
Expectations are high that Coleman will make a significant jump going into his second NFL season, similar to what Freeman did this past year. Coleman will have to improve his ball security and become a bigger factor in the passing game if he is expected to be considered a reliable replacement for Freeman, should the latter find himself out of the lineup once again.
Once Freeman took over the starting job, Coleman was too often an afterthought in the offensive game plan, touching the ball more than four times only twice after his return from injury in Week Five. Those two games were the same ones where Freeman was unavailable due to his concussion. At the very least, Coleman needs to improve in order to carve out a bigger role as a complementary and change-of-pace back for the Falcons in 2016.
But despite his first-year struggles, there’s little reason for the Falcons to give up yet on Coleman. They’ll likely allow him ample opportunity to grow and develop heading into this season, which likely means that they won’t prioritize bringing in either a veteran or rookie that will push him for playing time.
Instead the Falcons will likely only focus on upgrading the competition for the third running back on the roster, which is the spot that former undrafted rookie Terron Ward currently holds. Ward impressed the team during training camp, but did little to translate that either preseason or regular-season games. He remains a work in progress but as is the case with Coleman, the Falcons are expected to give him the opportunity to show growth going into his second NFL season.
Given the youth of the position group, the Falcons could try and pick up a low-level veteran in free agency that could add value on third downs, which was the primary role that Ward filled when he saw action in 2015.
But more than likely with the desire to invest funds in other more pertinent positions of need, the Falcons might wind up settling for bringing in more undrafted competition to push Ward this summer. Successes with Ward and Antone Smith in recent memory suggest that it’s a relatively reliable option when looking for third-string runners.
Freeman is firmly entrenched as the starter, but the Falcons are looking for added production from their reserves at running back this season. That means the team will seek to bolster competition this summer but given the presence of the young and developing Coleman, there is no need for significant investment this offseason.