Atlanta Falcons 2014 Rookie Scouting Report: Devonta Freeman
A breakdown of the Atlanta Falcons 2014 fourth-round selection, former Florida State running back Devonta Freeman.
College: Florida State
40 Time: 4.58 (Combine)
Three-Cone: 7.11 (Combine)
He was born on March 15, 1992 in Miami, Florida where he attended Miami Central High. Comes from a rough background, surrounded by crime and violence as a youth and was able to use drive to excel at football to help rise above it. Coached in Pop Warner football by Luther Campbell a.k.a. “Uncle Luke,” lead rapper in group 2 Live Crew.
As a true freshman at Florida State, he started the final seven games of the season and led the team in rushing with 579 yards on 120 carries (4.8 avg) and eight touchdowns. He had twice as many carries as the next tailback that season. Also caught 15 passes for 111 yards (7.4 avg). Began sophomore year again as a reserve player but would eventually start the final four games. Would once again lead team in rushing with 660 yards on 111 carries (5.9 avg) and eight scores. Only had one more carry and 20 more yards as the next tailback on roster (James Wilder, Jr.). Also had 10 receptions for 86 yards (8.6 avg) that season. As a junior, took over lead tailback duties full-time and started all 14 games. His 1,016 rushing yards led the team and also became first Florida State tailback since Warrick Dunn in 1996 to rush for over 1,000 yards. His 173 carries as a junior was also more than the next two backs combined. Averaged 5.9 yards per carry and had 14 touchdowns, along with 22 receptions for 278 yards (12.6 avg) and another touchdown. Earned first team All-ACC honors as a junior.
Noted for his work ethic, which allowed him to receive the majority of reps during his career despite not being considered the most talented running back on the roster.
2013 GAMES WATCHED
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The grading system is based on a 10-point scale: 1-pathetic, 2-poor, 3-weak, 4-below average, 5-average, 6-above average, 7-good, 8-very good, 9-excellent, 10-elite.
Speed (6.0) – Possesses good speed but is not going to run away from many NFL-level starters at linebacker and in the defensive backfield. Not a threat to take it the distance every time he touches the ball, but when he can get space is able to cover ground quickly and generate big plays from time to time.
Power (5.5) - Has a small, compact frame for his size which gives him some power to run over defenders, but not going to be a threat to consistently break tackles against NFL-caliber starters, particularly at linebacker. Runs hard, breaking arm tackles and getting under defenders due to his lower center of gravity, but will hardly run over anybody besides a cornerback or undersized safety. Does a nice job keeping his feet moving after contact, which can allow him to get an extra yard or two via effort.
Agility (7.0) - Shows nice burst and quickness in making his cuts, although he needs to run with better balance because he has a tendency to stumble when making his cuts. But can side-step defenders and does a pretty good job making the first defender in the hole or in space. Shows a nice jump cut and his smaller stature allows him to sneak through creases that other backs cannot.
Vision (7.0) - Shows the ability to find daylight in traffic. Is patient when hitting the hole and able to wait for holes to open, and does a nice job hitting them when they do. Does a nice job when running outside to get to the edge and hits hole, accelerating to top speed quickly. Has some difficulty finding daylight when running between the tackles and is much more effective on outside runs.
Hands (8.0) - Has strong hands that is able to adjust to poorly thrown passes, whether high or low. Does a nice job catching the ball away from his body, quickly securing it and turning upfield. A very reliable outlet and checkdown receiver in the flat or over the middle. Has the potential to be a dangerous option on screens.
Blocking (7.0) - Shows willingness as a blocker and generally does a good job hitting his assignments, better than most collegiate backs. Will square up a defender, but due to his lack of size he often will get knocked back or steam-rolled by defender. Needs to do a better job attacking defender and needs to add some muscle to more effectively block his man. Has a tendency to get in the way more than really neutralize a defender, although that is often more than sufficient for the quarterback’s purposes of buying an extra second to get rid of the ball.
Based off my own grading system on a 9-point scale.
Potential Starting Prospect (5.0) - Player that possesses starting potential, but are ideally targeted as key role players. If a backups on your roster, it’s an area of strength. More than capable of getting the job done if pressed into starting role. Expectations are typically that he will eventually become starters, albeit may need at least a year or two before to do so. A good value taken in the Top 100 or so picks.
Freeman projects easily as a third-down back at the next level. While his blocking can improve somewhat, he’ll get better at that once he gets more comfortable taking on NFL defenders. But he’s the type of player that can come in right away and steal snaps on third-down on a lot of teams and offer a bit of a change of pace as a runner.
The biggest knock on Freeman however is his lack of ideal explosiveness. He’s got some shake to him and accelerates quickly to and through the hole, which makes him look faster than what he really is. But his 40-yard dash time is likely reflective of his running speed, given I didn’t see him running away from that many defenders on tape, particularly when facing faster SEC defenders versus Auburn.
In that way, he reminds me a lot of current Falcon running back Jacquizz Rodgers. Freeman is probably a step faster than Quizz in terms of long-speed, but the two are similar in terms of their shorter stature, compact builds, and being more quick than fast. Rodgers also suffered from a lack of ideal size when it came to pass protection, but has been one of the team’s more consistent players in that regard over the past three seasons and now could be considered one of the league’s better third-down backs.
Freeman does possess upside to become more than Quizz, particularly as a lead tailback. But there may be a limit to how effective he can be on his own. While Freeman possesses the vision and quickness to create on his own, like Rodgers he will be heavily reliant on his offensive line to create space for him at the next level. He simply doesn’t possess the speed to really generate the big plays if he finds a crease like a Jamaal Charles or Ray Rice, nor the power to consistently get yards after contact like a Michael Turner or Marshawn Lynch. Thus a lot of Freeman’s success will be reliant on an offensive line that can consistently create space for him.
Because of his smaller nature and his more quick-than-fast running style, Freeman probably would benefit playing behind a zone-blocking line where he can attack the edges of the defense on zone runs like the stretch play. He’s best running to the outside, although he’s somewhat effective running between the tackles, but similar to Rodgers it’s not going to be his bread and butter. His quickness is much more effective when he’s in space, which he’s more likely to find running outside than inside. He seemed to be at his most effective when playing in single-back sets rather than I-formation.
Freeman can develop into a lead tailback at the next level, but he’s not going to be a true feature back. He’s more in line with a runner that splits carries as opposed to taking the lion’s share at the next level. The one thing that would make him the lead back is the fact that he’ll get more reps on passing downs than the other.
The comparison would be Giovani Bernard’s role in Cincinnati last year, splitting reps with BenJarvus Green-Ellis. While Green-Ellis received 50 more carries over the course of the season, Bernard made up for it in the passing game with 52 more receptions meaning he touched the ball slightly more times per game. Also Bernard doubled the amount of snaps Green-Ellis had in the passing game, putting him on the field for about 155 more plays over the course of the year.
But I want to reiterate that doesn’t mean I think Freeman is like Bernard, who I felt was a much more explosive runner that could do a better job creating on his own due to superior burst and quickness. But ultimately that is probably the ideal role for Freeman, as a part-time player.
Freeman’s addition gives the Falcons another reliable third-down option where they already have a good one in Rodgers. So it begs the question whether or not Freeman is here to challenge/replace Steven Jackson or Rodgers. Both Jackson and Rodgers are probably entering the final years in Atlanta, and thus Freeman will be in a prime position come 2015 to replace one or both of them.
Ultimately Freeman projects a little better to the NFL than Rodgers, but still likely will suffer from the same limitations: lack of size, lack of home run speed and playing behind the wrong offensive line.
The first two issues aren’t going to ever change, but the latter can. Like Rodgers, Freeman would likely benefit from the Falcons utilizing a lot more zone-blocking in their blocking scheme, which can often eliminate the need for great power and/or speed to be effective. There’s a reason why many of the later-round surprises like Alfred Morris or Arian Foster find success playing in that blocking scheme.
It’s hard for me to see Freeman as a true replacement for Jackson unless the Falcons make a significant revamp to their blocking scheme in 2014 or 2015. Otherwise, Freeman is likely only going to be a situational player that will need to split carries with a more powerful runner that can get the tough inside yards that he’s just not capable of getting on a consistent basis.
While Freeman could potentially add a little more muscle to help him in that capacity, making him into that sort of runner will likely wear him down and shorten his career.
Instead Freeman’s presence potentially makes Rodgers expendable next season if he should get a significant pay raise to play elsewhere in 2015. While Freeman is not going to be as valuable a third-down back this year as Rodgers is, by his second season he should be comfortable enough as the team’s top option in passing situations to slide in nicely.
Freeman should see some reps as a rookie, but the fact that he’ll still learning the offense and won’t be quite comfortable when the team goes to no-huddle will put a limit on how many snaps he gets. Unless there’s an injury, then all bets are off.
The best-case scenario for both Freeman and Rodgers to stick in Atlanta may be that the team intends to continue to be a pass-heavy offense and will use a committee system with three backs going forward. The easy comparison would be how the New Orleans Saints have gotten by with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram as a triumvirate of running backs the past few years. In that scenario, Freeman and Rodgers would split 80 percent or more of the passing reps as Thomas and Sproles have, with a running back to be named later filling the Ingram role as an inside runner/short-yardage back.
I just can’t see Freeman being that guy unless the team switches to a very zone-heavy blocking scheme, similar to how they were during the Jim Mora days when they were headed by Warrick Dunn.
Ultimately I think Freeman will become a valuable role player that will give the team good depth and provide the valuable splash play every now and then, but he’s not the heir apparent to Michael Turner as the guy that is going to make the Falcons offense go. Jackson isn’t that player at this point in his career, and I doubt Freeman will ever be it either.