Is Devonta Freeman An Undervalued Fantasy Football Running Back?

Is Devonta Freeman An Undervalued Fantasy Football Running Back? article feature image
Credit:

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Devonta Freeman

  • Devonta Freeman was a linchpin during the Atlanta Falcons' Super Bowl run. Can he return to fantasy football glory?
  • Ian Hartitz analyzes the running back's 2019 outlook and when he should be going in drafts.

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2019 season; this is part of that series.


The 2016 Falcons offense was one of the most productive units the game has ever seen: Its average of 33.8 points per game is good for the ninth-highest mark in NFL history.

Things haven’t been quite as great since offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left town. Neither the 2017 Falcons (22.1 PPG) nor 2018 Falcons (25.9 PPG) resembled a “bad” offense, but the high talent level involved makes the group’s middling results over the past two seasons a disappointment.

What follows is a breakdown on the offense’s bell-cow back Devonta Freeman, as well as what future fantasy football investors can expect from Atlanta’s rushing attack in 2019.

Devonta Freeman Is the Falcons’ Undisputed No. 1 Running Back

There are few players in the league regardless of position who can match Freeman’s pure tenacity in running through contact: 5-foot-8, 206-pound running backs aren’t supposed to be able to cause so many problems with their physicality and twitchy athleticism.

Devonta Freeman making defenders look silly >>> pic.twitter.com/ZPJgCCDuGY

— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) June 16, 2019

Freeman is undoubtedly #good at football and is positioned to work as the lead early-down and goal-line back in what could be one of the league’s better offenses.

The true game changer could be an enhanced receiving role: Freeman posted 73-578-3 and 54-462-2 receiving lines in 2015 and 2016, respectively, before totaling a 41-340-1 line in 16 games over the past two seasons.

It would make sense if the Falcons made an effort to boost Freeman’s receiving workload now that Tevin Coleman has moved on to San Francisco. Freeman isn’t quite as dynamic of a pure receiver compared as Coleman, but he’s still a handful for most linebackers and safeties in space.

Helping matters for everyone involved in the offense is that…

The 2019 Falcons Could Be a High-Scoring Group

There’s plenty to like about the Falcons when it comes to pure weapons on the offensive side of the ball. They’re also probably in a better spot as far as play-calling is concerned, as perennial scapegoat Steve Sarkisian has been replaced with former Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter.

Koetter served as offensive coordinator in Atlanta from 2012 to 2014 before spending the past four seasons as the head coach in Tampa Bay. The Falcons weren’t quite as prolific with Koetter calling plays as they were with Kyle Shanahan, but they were still fairly dominant over that stretch.

  • 2012: 26.2 points per game (seventh); 5.8 yards per play (sixth)
  • 2013: 22.1 PPG (20th); 5.4 YPP (14th)
  • 2014: 23.8 PPG (12th); 5.8 YPP (eighth)

The biggest potential problem is the Falcons offensive line. They’ve ranked No. 10, No. 8 and No. 24 in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards per rush from 2016 to 2018, respectively, but are only projected to have two starters return from last season’s underwhelming group.

Long-time left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack are each back. The rest of the group are all newcomers:

  • Left guard: Jamon Brown/James Carpenter
  • Right guard: 2019 No. 14 overall pick Chris Lindstrom
  • Right tackle: 2019 No. 31 overall pick Kaleb McGary

There’s certainly a chance that the addition of two first-round picks along with veterans like Brown and Carpenter could help take an average group to the next level. Still, it’s an unknown commodity that doesn’t have much depth.

The good news for Freeman is that he might just have a large enough workload to ball out regardless of whether his offensive line takes a step forward in 2019.

Freeman Looks a Lot like a Potential Three-Down Back

Freeman is locked in as the Falcons’ lead back, while Ito Smith appears to be set as the No. 2 option.

Freeman’s physical running style hasn’t done him many favors over the past two seasons, as he’s played just 16-of-32 regular-season games. Still, the Falcons consistently fed him the ball with great success whenever ex-teammate Coleman wasn’t able to suit up.

Devonta Freeman PPR weekly positional rank in eight games without Tevin Coleman since 2015 …

RB1
RB1
RB12
RB11
RB5
RB15
RB17
RB4

Average touches per game: 22.8

— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 26, 2019

The million dollar question is knowing just how involved Smith will be on a week-to-week basis. The most likely scenario would be him working as the offense’s 1b option, as he did behind Coleman during Freeman’s absence in 2018. This role produced an average of 9.4 combined rush attempts and targets per game for Smith from Weeks 2 to 17.

Smith did receive praise for his work at OTAs in June. His ability to impact games as a receiver, combined with potential for a bigger role in the event of another Freeman injury, makes him a solid late-round target in best ball.

The only other running backs on the current roster are journeyman Kenjon Barney, 2017 fifth-round pick Brian Hill and 2019 fifth-round pick Qadree Ollison. None of these backs appear to be any sort of threat to Freeman’s workload. Their best case scenario would rather be to unseat Smith (four yards per touch in 2018), who won’t necessarily see the same level of role Coleman had during his time as Freeman’s backup.

It seems likely that Freeman will share at least some of the workload with Smith or someone else, as only Peyton Barber in 2017 (254 touches) and Doug Martin in 2015 (321) managed to surpass 250 combined rush attempts and receptions during Koetter’s past seven seasons calling plays.

Still, the potential for an improved offense and enhanced workload makes Freeman a value at his current average draft position as the PPR RB15. He deserves top-three round consideration in season-long fantasy drafts as the top dog in one of the league’s better offenses.

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