Sports

​Friday Film Room: Devonta Freeman

The Falcons running back has been the most valuable player in fantasy football. Can he keep it up?

by Christopher Harris
Oct 9 2015, 7:38pm

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2015 fantasy football MVP after one month is Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman. And it isn't close.

For the season's first two weeks, Freeman was mostly a pass catcher getting stuffed regularly on runs and losing early-down work to rookie Tevin Coleman. But after Coleman broke ribs in Week 2, Freeman took over as an every-down player and has blown up the NFL over his past two games: 54 scrimmage touches for 342 yards and six (six!) touchdowns. On average, Freeman was selected 107th in fantasy drafts this summer. How has this happened? And will it continue?

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Here's some context. Freeman is 5'8" and 206 pounds and quicker than he is fast. Before this two-game breakout, he reminded me of a poor man's Andre Ellington: a good receiver with open-field elusiveness, but not someone who'd be likely to hold up to every-down pounding. That said, Freeman is also just around Ray Rice's size, and Rice was a terrific feature back for four years. The Falcons also changed to Kyle Shanahan's playbook this winter, and Shanny Jr. has overseen the fantasy emergences of Arian Foster, Alfred Morris and Isaiah Crowell in three stops as a coordinator. There's a direct correlation between Shanahan's preferred zone-blocking scheme, and Freeman's ascendancy:

This kind of outside run—which came in Week 3 against the Cowboys—has been the Falcons' prime currency the past two weeks. The entire offensive line fires right and the play is blocked to perfection. Fullback Patrick DiMarco cuts off the Dallas defensive end, and left tackle Ryan Schraeder gets to the second level and blows up the middle linebacker. This is an early-game 16-yard gain that caught the Cowboys defense anchored, thinking vertically rather than laterally. And this kind of attack, in which the Falcons try and get Freeman to the perimeter as quickly as possible, has been the team's principal approach. The past two games, Freeman has 44 rushing attempts, and 32 of those have been run outside the Falcons guards.

There's a reason for this. Unless a smaller back is unexpectedly powerful with his lower body—think Maurice Jones-Drew—he tends to be a perimeter player. That's why we have the idea that players shaped like Freeman should be third-down guys. They don't typically have the power necessary to break free of tacklers, and tacklers come in greater abundance when you run right up the gut. Yes, sure, a preternatural talent like Barry Sanders can carry it 300 times a year anyplace you want him to run, but most human beings can't evade people like he could. Stays for feature backs Freeman's size are usually short:

However, over this two-week sample size, a funny thing has happened to the Falcons offense: it's clicked in just about every way possible, and left the Cowboys and Texans defenses grasping air. It's impossible to consistently stack the box when you have to account for Julio Jones, so Freeman has been able to run against seven or fewer defenders in the box on 33 of his 44 carries. Against Houston Sunday, he never ran against eight in the box on a single play. And by now these defenses have seen Freeman's repertoire, and know Shanny Jr. primarily wants to get his diminutive running back to the perimeter, and they've started to overcompensate. Anticipating the finesse running plays that Freeman has run well, they've allowed up-the-gut runs and have looked rather shocked doing so:

This Week 4 play against the Texans is nominally a read-option, but defensive end Jadaveon Clowney doesn't actually believe Matt Ryan will keep the ball. He crashes down into the pile, but is hindered by DiMarco, who runs left while the entire offensive line fires right. This offensive line movement gives the idea of another zone stretch, but in fact this is a power play. Every defender is accounted for except for Texans linebacker Bernardrick McKinney, who is brutal here, failing to even touch Freeman despite being unblocked, probably because he's been schooled to stay home waiting for cut-back runs on Atlanta's bread-and-butter perimeter plays. What's been crazy is that four of Freeman's six rushing TDs in Weeks 3 and 4 have come on fairly simple line plunges, where the defense was out looking for all kinds of trickery and just got suckered.

By the way, it also helps that Freeman can do this:

That Freeman is quicker than linebacker Jack Crawford isn't a huge surprise. But this is a deceptively precise route in traffic, the timing with Ryan's throw is lovely, and Freeman snags the ball in a way not all runners can do: on the dead run. The tape is very kind to Freeman in this regard; he deserves every accolade he gets for being a strong receiver.

So what is Devonta Freeman? Is he a Rice type who'll prove his doubters wrong and stay an NFL feature back despite non-optimal size? My belief is that he is not. Maybe this is dumb faith in the law of averages, because players this short and light don't typically display the durability and consistency you need from a lead dog; for every Warrick Dunn or DeAngelo Williams, there are dozens of Deji Karims and Kendall Hunters. But the manner in which Freeman has made his bones these past two weeks doesn't feel like the stuff of a true feature back. A perimeter running game can absolutely be a foundational part of an offense in today's NFL, but it typically needs a tough cut-back runner who can muscle through creases, and I don't see that from Freeman. Those up-the-gut runs with which he's been surprising defenses feel a little like flukes to me, and that leaves the pure perimeter plays where Freeman simply runs to the sideline and never cuts back, and eventually I think NFL defenses will eat that up with speed.

Now, I admit that the Falcons are a well-oiled offensive machine at the moment, and I spent enough time picking apart a bad offensive line last week to acknowledge when I see a good line like Atlanta's. And Julio Jones simply wrecks most defensive plans, and leaves room for other Falcons players to make plays. So it's not impossible that Freeman continues his hot streak for a good long while. But I don't think he will. I ranked him quite high among running backs for Week 5 because sometimes it's stupid to bet into a hot streak. But I view him as a terrific sell-high candidate, if someone in your fantasy league wants to value him at a first-round level. I think Tevin Coleman will be heard from again, perhaps as soon as this week if he's cleared to play, and he's better suited for interior work. I think Freeman will eventually go back to platoon and passing-down work and be quite good at it. But his days as fantasy MVP are numbered.

Christopher Harris (@HarrisFootball) is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. He hosts the Harris Football Podcast every weekday. Find it on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn and most other podcast apps, as well as at www.HarrisFootball.com.