Will Devonta Freeman Continue Producing Like an Elite Fantasy Football Running Back?
Every year, it seems fantasy football leagues turn on one or two late-round draft picks or waiver-wire pickups.
Through six weeks, Freeman has been nothing short of an absolute fantasy monster. In half-PPR scoring formats, Freeman is easily the top running back, nearly 60 points better than the next best running back: Matt Forte.
But, as is natural in the week-to-week fantasy atmosphere, owners are simultaneously riding the wave of good feelings and bracing for the seemingly inevitable crash. It's natural to feel this way in fantasy football: a player is only as good as what he's doing for you that week.
Points don't carry over week-to-week, so it's natural to want to look at what Freeman will be moving forward.
Freeman in Historical Context
First, let's take a look at how Freeman's season compares historically. Our signature statistic, Net Expected Points (NEP), can help us gauge how much a particular player adds to or detracts from his team's expectation to score. You can read more in our glossary, but long story short, NEP shows how much a player is helping his team put up points.
Through six weeks, of players with at least 75 rushes, Freeman easily ranks number 1 in Rushing NEP per rush. Freeman's 0.23 Rushing NEP per carry is 0.08 better than the number-two player, Giovani Bernard (0.15), and nearly double the third-ranked rusher, Chris Ivory (0.12). Put another way, Freeman is so far ahead of the pack that if you cut his per-carry production per play in half, he'd still be near the top of the league.
In a historical context, the numbers are even more staggering.
Freeman is currently on pace for 282 carries. Among backs with at least 250 carries in a season since 2000, Freeman's Rushing NEP per carry would be best overall: better than Marshall Faulk in 2000 (0.20), better than Clinton Portis in 2002 (0.18), and yes, better than LaDanian Tomlinson in 2006 (0.17).
Only one back maintained a better per-carry mark over at least 100 rushes (Freeman has 106 so far): Marion Barber in 2006 (0.25 on 135 carries).
That should safely put in context Freeman's season so far.
Of course, it would be difficult to expect Freeman to continue running at this pace, simply because continuing at this pace would be one of the best seasons in NFL history.
Records are, as they say, made to be broken, but as a fantasy owner you can't bank on that production week-to-week. What you can bank on is simply this: even if Freeman is literally half the back he has been, he's still a top-five RB, and would still be putting up an elite season.
The numbers he's put up so far are practically unprecedented, and even a massive slowdown should be no problem.
The key to Freeman's value moving forward, however, and just how high it can be, is in the matchups.
Our NEP numbers can also be used to track defensive units -- our Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play can show how good a defense is against the run on a per-play and adjusted for strength of opponent.
Freeman's last four monster weeks came against Dallas (21st in the metric through Week 6), Houston (23rd), Washington (13th), and New Orleans (14th). The somewhat troubling news is that Freeman has yet to play a top-10 defense and put up one of his monster games.
The good news is that the next three weeks before the bye, Freeman gets to face Tennessee (31st), Tampa Bay (15th), and San Francisco (27th). Fantasy owners should be salivating at the pre-bye week matchups, but the truck doesn't stop rolling there.
The rest of the way, the Falcons don't face a single team we currently rank top-10 against the run. In fact, in the fantasy relevant weeks, they face only one team after the bye in the top-16 -- when they face Tampa Bay again in week 13. The schedule does not get harder for Freeman, and that's music to Freeman-owners' ears.
One variable in this fantasy equation is whether or not Tevin Coleman returns to being the bell cow he was in Week 1 (when he received 20 carries). Coleman has received two and four carries in each of the last two weeks since returning from injury.
That said, at the start of the season, this was clearly Coleman's job to lose. With Freeman running as effectively as he is, it's hard to be seriously concerned that, barring injury, Freeman is deprived of carries.
It's reasonable, however, to have trepidation. Clearly, the coaches saw something in Coleman in practice and training camp that landed him the job in the first place. Again, it's hard to justify taking carries away from Freeman at this stage, but it's not impossible.
The big question is whether or not Freeman is a top fantasy running back.
The metrics are there. Again, Freeman's pace is among the best in history. Even a serious step backwards in terms of efficiency would still have Freeman as an every-week starter -- unless he reverts back to his 2014 ways, when he compiled a league-worst Rushing NEP of -18.80 on a scant 65 carries.
However, it seems unlikely that such a serious step backwards is coming.
Freeman has an amazing schedule moving forward. Owners really could not ask for much more. It's possible that Coleman snags a few carries here and there, but with the pace Freeman is on and the defenses he gets to feast upon, there's no reason to doubt Freeman is an elite fantasy running back moving forward, barring something catastrophic.