What Can Devonta Freeman's Breakout Campaign Teach Us?

Freeman emerged as a fantasy stud in 2015. Can his path to stardom help us identify the next star?

“Fantasy football breakout player” is probably one of the most Googled phrases during the month of August. Everyone wants to get their mitts on the next soon-to-be star.

The thing is, fantasy football is unpredictable, random and crazy -- but that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop searching for our white whale, now does it?

One of my favorite things to do each offseason is to investigate the previous year’s breakout star and see if there’s anything I can put in my tool belt for the future. Were there any signs? What did he do the year before? Are there any players trending on a similar path who could break out this next season?

Unquestionably, this year’s breakout stud was Devonta Freeman, so let’s research how Devonta Freeman happened.

First-Year Woes

Prior to the 2015 season, Freeman was a running back some preseason rankings had outside of their top 100 overall players -- and for good reason. There were very few signs of an impending eruption.

A fourth-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Freeman had a front row seat on the struggle bus as a rookie in 2014. He carried the ball 65 times for 248 yards (3.8 yards per carry) and one score. He did catch 30 of 38 targets for 225 yards and another touchdown.

His traditional stats -- especially the meager yards-per-carry clip -- didn’t set off any “Hey, I’m going to explode” bells. 

Our signature Net Expected Points (NEP) metric didn’t like him, either. Actually, if the metric had feelings, it would have hated him.

NEP, in essence, looks at each down-and-distance situation on a football field and shows, depending on how a player performs, how that player did versus expectation. A 5-yard pickup on 3rd-and-3 is more valuable than a 5-yard gain on 3rd-and-10, right? NEP accounts for that.

Among backs with at least 60 carries in 2014, Freeman ranked dead last in Rushing NEP per carry with a clip of -0.29. Dead. Last. You can't make this stuff up! There were 67 running backs who had at least 60 rushing attempts, and he ranked 67th. 

His 24.62 percent Success Rate -- the percentage of carries that led to NEP gains -- dropped the bar even lower, ranking 1,077th among 1,079 running backs with at least 50 carries since 2000.

Admittedly, 65 carries is hardly a large enough sample size to draw set-in-stone conclusions, but he was a bad -- historically bad -- at running the football in 2014.

I’ll cut him a little slack. Freeman did rate decently well as a receiver, which is certainly a useful trait for any running back in today’s NFL. Among the 46 backs to see at least 30 targets, Freeman checked in 15th in Reception NEP per target.

Still, Freeman showed nothing as a rookie, outside of a good set of hands, to make you think he was going to become a monster less than 12 months later.

Sophomore Campaign

The first signs of a possible emergence came when Atlanta released an aging Steven Jackson and didn’t re-sign free agent Jacquizz Rodgers. Opportunity is a lot of the battle in fantasy, and it appeared Freeman was going to get a chance to be the lead guy.

Then Atlanta spent a third-round pick on running back Tevin Coleman. That selection sure felt like the window slamming shut on Freeman’s chances. Freeman stunk as a rookie, and the team -- under a new regime which didn't have anything to do with drafting Freeman, by the way -- went out and spent more draft capital on another running back a round before Freeman was taken the year prior.

There’s no other way to spin it: Coleman was the guy.

That thought was solidified when Atlanta named Coleman their Week 1 starter, relegating Freeman to passing-game duties.

Coleman severely outplayed Freeman in the opener, too. He turned 18 carries into 80 yards while Freeman carried the ball 10 times for 18 yards, adding 3 receptions for 29 yards. Freeman finished with -0.35 Rushing NEP per play while Coleman sat at -0.03 per play, which is basically the average mark for running backs because rushing isn't very efficient.

At this point, it seemed nearly impossible that Freeman would go HAM in 2015 -- emphasis on nearly

The Turning Point

Coleman started again in Week 2, totaling 32 yards and a touchdown on 9 carries, but he exited early with a rib injury.

Freeman got the start in Week 3 against the Dallas Cowboys -- and boom!

He torched the Cowboys for 141 yards and 3 touchdowns on 30 carries, adding another 52 yards on 5 receptions. It was by far the best performance of Freeman’s career. He finished the breakout game with a pristine 6.93 Rushing NEP and 0.24 Rushing NEP per carry.

Freeman was officially off to the races. He followed it up with 149 total yards and 3 more scores in Week 4, and he had at least 120 total yards in each of the next four games. From Week 3 to Week 6, Freeman found the end zone 9 times, which is downright stupid. 

Coleman didn’t see more than four carries in a game until Week 10, when Freeman sustained a first-quarter concussion. Freeman also missed Week 11, but once he was healthy, Coleman saw just 11 touches over the final three games.

Freeman wound up as the RB1 in PPR formats, racking up 303 points and outscoring second-place Adrian Peterson by a whopping 51 points. In terms of NEP, among backs with at least 100 carries, he finished seventh in Rushing NEP per carry at 0.02.

In the interest of being thorough, Freeman’s production took a significant dip when he returned in Week 12, something our own Brandon Gdula points out in his sweet Blind Player Comparisons article. Over the final five weeks, Freeman turned 97 carries into 297 yards (3.0 yards per carry) and 2 rushing touchdowns. He totaled -0.06 Rushing NEP per carry in that span.

What Can We Learn?

In searching for running backs who fit Freeman’s profile, I thought of Ameer Abdullah, Matt Jones and Melvin Gordon, a trio of backs who, to varying degrees, disappointed as rookies this past season.

Abdullah amassed 597 yards and 2 touchdowns on 143 carries. He also had 25 grabs for 183 yards and a score. Among the 44 backs with at least 100 carries, he ended the year ranked 24th in Rushing NEP per carry with a clip of -0.03. It wasn’t a great year, but Abdullah performed significantly better than Freeman did as a rookie. 

Gordon carried the ball 184 times for 681 yards and zero scores. He did catch 33 of 37 targets for 192 yards. Among backs with 100 carries, Gordon ended the year 43rd -- or next to last -- in Rushing NEP per play at -0.18.

Jones racked up 144 attempts for 490 yards and 3 touchdowns, hauling in 19 of 25 targets for 304 yards and another score. Jones is the one back with at least 100 carries to rank below Gordon in Rushing NEP per play, trailing by the smallest of margins.

As a refresher, Freeman's rookie totals were 248 yards and 1 score on 65 carries with 30 receptions (on 38 targets) for 225 yards and another touchdown.

They all fit the Freeman mold fairly well, although each saw significantly more carries than Freeman did as a rookie. Jones and Gordon struggled on the ground and ranked among the least efficient runners on a per-play basis. 

Jones showed the ability to be a productive receiver, though, which was a massive part of Freeman’s game in 2015 as he caught 73 passes for 578 yards and 3 scores. Jones' Reception NEP of 21.35 ranked 17th at the position. He did so on just 25 targets. His Reception NEP per target (0.85) ranked second among 103 backs with at least 10 targets.

Abdullah owned a Reception NEP of just 7.22 on 38 targets (0.19 per target, 81st among 103 backs with 10-plus looks). That was still better than Gordon's 0.13 per target on 37 targets, which ranked 91st.

Jones is the back with a rookie year most similar to Freeman's. While it’s unlikely he ends 2016 as the highest-scoring fantasy running back, all you have to do is look at the trail Freeman blazed to know crazier things have happened.