I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 38th-ranked player: running back Devonta Freeman.
To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.
Total Score: 41/100
Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 47/100
Teams he is starter: 0 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 23 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +3
Positional Bonus: +3
Freeman sports potential to be an impact running back thanks to his abilities as a receiver and a capable pass protector given his size. In today’s NFL where passing is the premium, these skills ensure that Freeman should have a long, productive career.
The biggest concerns and question marks surrounding Freeman is how effective a runner he will be. There is no doubt that at the very least, he should be a capable change-of-pace and complementary back in the NFL, but the Falcons hope that he becomes much more than that.
Freeman possesses good speed and quickness, and runs hard for a player with his smaller stature and frame, but similar statements were made about Jacquizz Rodgers when he came into the league three years ago. While Rodgers has been a productive backup in Atlanta, he has done little to date to suggest that he has the potential to be a lead back for an NFL team.
At the very least, Freeman should be in a position to fill the shoes of retired running back Jason Snelling as an occasional change-of-pace back that will give starter Steven Jackson and Rodgers a breather.
Last year, Snelling saw the majority of his playing time during a five-week period where Steven Jackson was injured. During that span, Snelling averaged about 28.4 snaps per game according to premium website Pro Football Focus. In the other nine games he played, Snelling averaged 10.1 snaps and only a tenth of those snaps required him to tote the rock. In 2012, Snelling averaged about 14.5 snaps per game as the Falcons’ third-string tailback. Overall, Snelling was an underused player in Dirk Koetter’s offense.
Snelling performed in other areas that made up for his lack of usage on offense, namely on special teams. It remains to be seen whether or not the Falcons will employ Freeman frequently in that area. Rodgers has been a regular on the Falcons’ special teams units since his arrival in Atlanta, but given the fact that down the road the team envisions Freeman for a much bigger role, perhaps they would see the need for him to earn his place on special teams as unnecessary. If that is the case, coupled with his being utilized in a similar fashion as Snelling, it could make for a relatively quiet rookie season for Freeman.
But on the other hand, he could just as easily have a big year if he can fully take advantage of whatever opportunities come his way. It’s just as conceivable that if Freeman can add the home-run element to the Falcons ground attack, by year’s end he could be seeing significantly more reps than Rodgers does. To a point where he could be challenging Jackson for the biggest workload in a fashion similar to how Giovani Bernard saw more playing time than BenJarvus Green-Ellis did with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013. While Green-Ellis handled the majority of the carries, Bernard earned more overall playing time due to his versatility to contribute in the passing game and that he always seemed a big play waiting to happen. While Jackson is a significantly better player on third downs than Green-Ellis is, the simple reality is that Jackson’s prowess in that arena is not what it once was. And if that’s the case, there’s an opportunity for Freeman, who clearly has a future in Atlanta, to make his mark. If he’s in any way reminiscent of Bernard, then you can expect the Falcons to take full advantage.