Is Devonta Freeman for Real?
What is it about shiny new things that seems to draw us in? Whether it’s the newest product from Apple or a breakout fantasy player, we seem to crowd around it each year and ooh and aah.
Our latest entry into the shiny new breakout player is actually a bit or a re-tread from last season. Devonta Freeman was a favorite of many fantasy pundits leading up to last season, but he was unable to find much success.
I found myself pondering the idea of inserting Freeman into lineups this year prior to Week 3 and again in Week 4, wondering, "Should I really start him?" A volume play, sure, I could see that. But didn't Steven Jackson have that same volume the last few years? And how "great" was he with those opportunities?
Freeman proved himself to be far more than a volume play over the last two weeks, though. By racking up seven rushing touchdowns through the first four games of this season, Freeman finds himself in rare territory. Per ProFootballReference.com, Ladainian Tomlinson (2005) and Priest Holmes (2002, 2003) are the only other players to have accomplished this feat dating back to the year 2000. Both of these greats used their respective hot starts to springboard themselves on to record-setting seasons.
In taking advantage of a great opportunity, Freeman has already accomplished this year what he failed to do last season. But is this for real? Can we expect Freeman to continue to perform at such an elite level for the remainder of the season?
Overcoming a Historically Bad Rookie Year
As I mentioned, Freeman came into his rookie year as a bit of a fantasy late-round darling. However, despite the early-season love and 31-year-old Steven Jackson's many attempts to hand him the job last season, Freeman failed to capitalize and struggled throughout the year.
Not only did Freeman fail to push Jackson for the starting job in Atlanta, he proved to be one of the least effective running backs in all of the league according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric.
If you're new to numberFire, NEP is the signature metric we use here. If you contribute to your team's chances of scoring above expectation, you receive a positive NEP, and a negative score when you do the opposite. You can read more about it in our glossary.
Freeman posted a Rushing NEP of -18.80 last season. To put that into context, among 73 running backs with at least 50 carries last season, Freeman was 68th in Rushing NEP, finishing behind such luminaries at the position as Trent Richardson and Donald Brown.
Despite his lackluster performance, there was reason for optimism heading into this season. Due to Atlanta's offensive line being absolutely atrocious last season -- they ranked 29th in run blocking according to Pro Football Focus -- many were willing to write off some of his in-season struggles. Additionally, incoming offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan gushed over him in the offseason.
However, just as the arrow was starting to point up for the diminutive running back, Atlanta changed course and brought in Tevin Coleman via the draft to supplant him. And after Week 1, Coleman appeared to have cemented himself as the lead back in Atlanta. The rookie running back racked up 20 carries and a respectable 4.0 yards per carry, while Freeman could only muster a meager 18 yards on his 10 carries.
Coleman's Week 2 injury, though, has re-opened the door for Freeman and lead to his recent fantasy explosion.
Is the Production Sustainable?
Of the 40 running backs who have recorded a Rushing NEP of -18.80 or lower between 2008-2013 while receiving at least 50 carries, only six went on to record at least 50 carries and a positive Rushing NEP the following season. However, as noted, what Freeman has working in his favor this season is a vastly improved offensive line and an offensive coordinator that has brought new life to this offense.
The offense as a whole has been spectacular, currently sitting third in the league with a schedule-adjusted NEP of 64.30. Julio Jones and Matt Ryan have been unstoppable, keeping safeties out of the box and creating scoring opportunities for Freeman.
With a Rushing NEP per play of 0.17 through the first four games, Freeman would have finished first last year among all running backs with at least 200 carries (we are currently projecting Freeman to total approximately 220 carries throughout the year). In fact, no running back with at least 200 carries finished with a Rushing NEP greater than .11. This tells us that while Freeman’s level of production is elite, it does seem unlikely that’d he’d be able to sustain such a high level of production over the course of a 16-game season.
For comparison, perennial fantasy stud Jamaal Charles was the owner of the far lower, but still league leading .11 Rushing NEP last season. Allowing for regression over the remaining three quarters of the season, we could still see Freeman finish among the fantasy elite at the position this season.
The Split Backfield Conundrum
Perhaps the biggest concern surrounding Freeman may be the uncertainty of his continued role in Atlanta’s offense. Rookie Tevin Coleman will be back soon, and the coaching staff seemed fond of him prior to his injury. The staff hasn’t released much speculation regarding the future of this backfield, but one has to believe that Freeman has won himself a larger share of the carries.
While Freeman has averaged 16.5 carries through four games this year, it’s seems far more reasonable that he’d end up closer to the 10-12 carry region once Coleman returns to the lineup. This staff seemed fine to work the two backs in tandem when healthy, and this could actually work in Freeman’s favor. Having previously secured passing down work, his recent production should have also locked up the all-important goal line opportunities as well. A 65-35 split when Coleman returns could keep Freeman fresh throughout the remainder of the season.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Ah, the million dollar question: what should you do with him in fantasy football?
Freeman has seemingly secured a pivotal role on one of the best offenses in the league and, as of this writing, our projections have him pegged as the number 10 running back for the rest of the season. As a result of his recent success, he’ll likely be tough to buy right now as his owners are certain to suffer from recency bias and over value their asset. As laid out previously, there's risk associated with him, so be wary of overpaying, as the asking price is likely to be similar to that of the truly elite at the position.
If you lean towards selling him, you should probably consider doing it now. If you can find a running back needy team willing to part ways with a low-end top receiver and an underperforming running back (such as Lamar Miller), I’d consider moving him.
But holding onto him is fine, too. His ability in the passing game should help reduce worries concerning game flow, and the NFC South defenses look as pliable as ever, Carolina excluded. Should we expect Freeman to compete for the top overall running back spot by year end? No, but he can still be a useful weekly back.
Let's just cross our fingers and hope this doesn't turn out like the Apple Watch.