Is Devonta Freeman Really the Guy for the Atlanta Falcons?

With little in the way of competition, is Freeman ready to emerge as the feature back in an explosive Falcons offense?

If there was an MVP award for offseason hype, Devonta Freeman would certainly be in the running. After a subpar rookie season that saw the fourth-round pick accumulate only 473 total yards on 95 touches, expectations were seemingly tepid heading into the spring.

And then the offseason hype machine took over.

After the Falcons didn’t resign free agent Jacquizz Rodgers and released 31-year-old Steven Jackson, the new coaching staff began singing the praises of the 5’8, 206-pound Freeman. Head coach Dan Quinn started the affirmation by saying, “My first impression: I can feel the quickness… In our outside zone scheme I thought this is tailor-made for a guy who can really explode off the edge. I love this guy's competitive spirit."

Next, first-year offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan echoed that positive sentiment, stating that he “loved” Freeman as a college prospect and looked forward to evaluating on tape.

Not to be outdone, general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who drafted Freeman, said he believed the young back could “no question” serve as a full-time back in Atlanta’s new zone scheme.

So how did Freeman fare in 2014, and are his prospects heading into the 2015 season?

A Most Disappointing Year

We can begin by analyzing Freeman's season using numberFire’s unique metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP assigns a value to each play based on how much that play increased the team’s chances of scoring on the drive. Add up all these changes -– measured in expected points -– and you get a more accurate depiction of a players contribution to the team. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

Based on the numbers, Freeman’s rookie season was nothing short of disastrous as a runner. He posted a Rushing NEP of -18.80 on limited touches, a difficult feat that produced a terrible Rushing NEP per rush of -0.29. To put that in context, recent backs to post similar numbers would be David Wilson in 2013 (who lost two fumbles on only 44 rushes) and Ryan Williams in 2012, who also lost two fumbles on 58 rushes. Both players were coming off of serious injuries, playing on bad teams and were not on active rosters in 2014.

In fact, no historical comparison helped elevate the case of Freeman, with names like Rodney Thomas, Corell Buckhalter (in his final NFL season) and Chris Perry producing similar seasons in their careers. Not exactly a who’s who of NFL stars.

So while Freeman wasn’t the best running back the NFL 2014, he was (arguably) the worst.

On the surface, 65 carries for 248 yards doesn’t seem inherently tragic. While averaging 3.8 yards a carry isn’t great, it's far from indicative of career mediocrity. Yet with only one fumble contributing to his subpar Rushing NEP, his inability as a runner was on full display on a per play basis. Sure, there were a few highlight reel runs (although the one most people recognize was called back due to holding), but more often than not, Freeman was caught behind the line of scrimmage.

His inconsistency is a large reason that Freeman was consistently the fourth man in the Falcons rotation, failing to unseat Jacquizz Rodgers, journeyman Antone Smith and the aging Steven Jackson. When you are consistently being stopped for no gain or negative yards, it's hard to justify putting you on the field simply because you have more "juice" than the plodding Steven Jackson.

So where is the silver lining?

A Few Good Thoughts

It starts with opportunity. While Atlanta will presumably add a power back either in free agency or the draft, currently Freeman’s only competition for carries is 29-year-old Antone Smith. With Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers not expected back, 315 backfield touches are available for the taking. And while the coaching staff has no allegiance to Freeman, GM Thomas Dimitroff drafted the young back and will push to have him get his opportunity.

New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is also a reason for optimism, seemingly always churning out effective runners in his zone scheme. In 2008 it was Texans rookie Steve Slaton, a similarly sized back to Freeman who Shanahan coached to a 1,282-yard, 9-touchdown season. While injuries and coaching changes eventually derailed his career, his first season demonstrated the ability for a smaller back to be effective in that system, as well as his coach’s willingness to trust a young back.

As the offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins, Shanahan turned the slow-footed Alfred Morris into a fantasy football -- and real football -- star. Without his coach for the first time in 2014, Morris had his least effective season.

And in Cleveland last year, with no passing game to speak of, rookie running backs Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West combined for 1,280 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. And while they're Rushing NEP scores were average at best (-0.03 and -0.05 per play, respectively), it once again showcased the opportunity young backs have to produce in the Shanahan system.

Another promising note is Freeman’s ability in the passing game. He posted a 0.37 Reception NEP per target, besting the totals of excellent receiving backs like Matt Forte, Giovani Bernard and Jamaal Charles. In his first season, he secured 30 of 38 targets for 225 yards and a touchdown, numbers that project well in a featured role. And while Shanahan backs haven’t always been involved in the passing game, Slaton’s success demonstrated that the coach will play to the strengths of his players.

Finally, in spite of the numbers, Freeman does have talent. The fact is, the Falcons offensive line was a mess last year due to injuries, inexperience and a lack of talent. They ranked 29th in run blocking according to Pro Football Focus, and struggled all season to open lanes in the running game. The results weren’t pretty, but writing off the young back so soon seems premature.

My Fair Assessment

Yes, his preseason average draft position may be out of hand -- some early drafts have seen him go in the fourth and fifth rounds -- but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Freeman emerge as a useful RB2 next season in fantasy football. His skills are more suited to Shanahan’s zone scheme, a scheme that also seems to hide talent deficiencies on the offensive line. Freeman is a decisive runner with great quickness, and his ability to run inside and break tackles is above average for a back his size.

While his smallish frame may scare some, he is compactly built and is more Frank Gore than Giovani Bernard. His toughness and power on inside runs indicate he could be closer to being a feature player than most would think. That being said, he doesn’t have the size to take a 300-carry pounding, and the Falcons will surely be adding a power component to their backfield to ease the load.

Depending on what that investment is, don’t be surprised if you see Freeman with 200 combined touches next season. While the numbers were terrible last year (seriously, they were really bad), the system change and a healthier offensive line provide a bit of a fresh slate. With that being said, his value in early leagues being as high as Round 5 is simply hard to justify, no matter how optimistic you are. His inept 2014 performance provided no historical comparisons that would indicate a drastic improvement is around the corner, and his size and measurables (4.58 40-yard dash) profile him as more of a change-of-pace type back than a featured player, no matter what his coaches say. There are always exceptions, but you don't gamble on exceptions.

Is he worth a flier in fantasy leagues? Of course. But if you're drafting him to be a starter, your unbridled optimism is potentially spiraling out of control. Hope and change is a compelling message, but only when rooted in reality. And the reality for Devonta Freeman is that he has a long way to go before being a reliable fantasy -- and potentially real, on-the-field -- contributor.