After looking at the top additions the Atlanta Falcons made this past year, let’s talk about which player made the biggest leap from 2014 to 2015. That player would be none other than running back Devonta Freeman.
As a rookie in 2014, Freeman was largely an afterthought in the Falcons offense as he was utilized as a change-of-pace back to spell veteran Steven Jackson. Freeman touched the ball 95 times a year ago if counting both rushing attempts and receptions, and scored two touchdowns. His total touches ranked 58th among NFL running backs and his 473 yards from scrimmage (i.e. combined rushing and receiving yards) ranked 55th.
In 2015, Freeman became one of the league’s top running backs. He touched the ball 338 times, ranking second only behind Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in 2015. His 14 total touchdowns also was tied for the most of any player in the league in 2015 and exceeded all other running backs.
Freeman finished the year with 1,634 yards from scrimmage, which ranked third in the league, but on a per-game basis of 108.9 actually was the best in the league over Peterson and Tampa Bay Buccaneers back Doug Martin due to their playing one more game than him.
It’s hard to argue against Freeman earning this honor given that he went from a run-of-the-mill role player into one of the most productive running backs in the entire league. His performance on offense was only eclipsed by that of wide receiver Julio Jones this year, although one could make a compelling argument that Freeman was a far more consistent player throughout 2015 than Jones. It’s just that Jones had a few more dominant performances that eclipsed Freeman’s relatively solid body of work.
Other potential candidates for this honor that at least deserve mentions as runners up are: cornerback Robert Alford, safety Ricardo Allen, fullback Patrick DiMarco, offensive tackle Jake Matthews, defensive tackle Paul Soliai and linebacker Nate Stupar. Of that group, I’ll opt for Allen to officially get the “silver medal” and go into further detail why he is deserving of greater distinction.
Allen’s growth from 2014 to 2015 was the second most on the team behind Freeman thanks to getting exactly no playing time in his rookie season a year ago. He began the year on the practice squad, getting elevated to the active roster for the final two games of 2014, but being inactive in both contests.
Allen looked to be on the bubble entering the 2015 offseason with the hiring of new head coach Dan Quinn, due to the latter preferring bigger corners in his new defensive scheme that the 5’9″ Allen was unlikely to fit. Thankfully Allen was able to quickly adapt into a free safety and by the beginning the summer was poised to win the starting job.
Allen didn’t have a stellar 2015 season, performing at what would probably be considered league average level. But considering the context of playing a brand new position in what essentially amounted to his rookie season, it certainly qualified as an impressive debut. Allen led the Falcons with three interceptions with his best coming in a game-sealing pick against the Philadelphia Eagles to open 2015 with a Falcons victory.
To hear other people’s picks for the Falcons’ most improved player in 2015, listen to the awards episode of the FalcFans podcast.