The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown: Devonta Freeman (2019 Fantasy Football)

Jul 18, 2019

Just how much upside does Freeman have for fantasy owners this year?

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The Good

The Talent
Since Devonta Freeman became a featured player in 2015 he has put up impressive numbers. He has had volume. In these four seasons, Freeman has averaged 14.9 carries per game and 4.6 targets per game. He has had efficiency. Freeman has averaged 4.4 yards per carry and 8.2 yards per reception over this span (his yards per reception has increased every year except 2018 when he only played two games). He finds the end zone. Freeman has 35 touchdowns in 47 games since 2015. This is roughly 12 touchdowns in a 16 game season. From 2015-2017 his half-PPR fantasy points per game finishes were first, seventh, and 12th. He is still only 27 years old and is coming off a long rest period in which his body was allowed to heal. If he is all the way recovered from his injuries, he should be just as quick and agile as he was from 2015-2017.

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No Tevin Coleman
Tevin was selected by the Atlanta Falcons in the 3rd round of the NFL Draft in 2015. Let’s look at what Tevin Coleman did over the same time span of 2015-2017. He averaged 9.0 carries per game and 2.0 targets per game. Coleman’s carries per game progressed from 7.3, to 9.1,to 10.4 over these three years. Even more importantly, as Coleman became more involved in 2016 and 2017 he found the end zone 19 times in 28 games. This equates to about 11 touchdowns over a 16 game season. Taking a look at the splits for Devonta Freeman with Coleman in and out of the lineup from 2015-2017 shows just how much value Coleman siphoned away from Freeman.

2015-2017 16 Game Pace
Freeman Splits Games Snaps Rush Att Rush Yds YPC Rush TD Tgt Rec Rec Yds YPR Rec TD FPPG
With Tevin Coleman 37 657 231 1018 4.4 9 74 58 449 7.7 2 14.9
Without Tevin Coleman 8 806 306 1300 4.2 18 76 58 638 11.0 4 22.2

Ito Smith will soak up some of the extra volume that Freeman gained while playing without Coleman, but likely not all of it. Freeman’s 16 game pace for touchdowns was doubled from 11 to 22 with Coleman out of the lineup. He got an extra 4.7 carries per game and was targeted deeper downfield in the passing game. If Ito Smith soaks up 75%-85% of the work that Coleman had, we are still looking at Freeman as an RB1 in fantasy as long as he stays healthy. If Ito takes even less of the Coleman role, Freeman has top 5 running back potential in 2019.

The Bad

Dirk Koetter
Koetter was re-hired by the Falcons as offensive coordinator for 2019. He held the same position with the Falcons from 2012-2014. He then went on to become the offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Bucs in 2015 and then their head coach from 2016-2018. Let’s take a look at how the starting running backs performed under Koetter from 2012-2018.

Season Name Team Att Rush Yds Rush TD YPC Tgt Rec Rec Yds Rec TD YPR Games FPPG
2012 Michael Turner ATL 223 803 10 3.6 25 18 128 1 7.1 16 10.5
2013 Steven Jackson ATL 155 540 6 3.5 46 30 195 1 6.5 12 10.9
2014 Steven Jackson ATL 190 707 6 3.7 22 19 148 0 7.8 15 8.7
2015 Doug Martin TB 288 1402 6 4.9 43 33 271 1 8.2 16 14.1
2016 Doug Martin TB 144 421 3 2.9 16 14 134 0 9.6 8 10.1
2017 Doug Martin TB 138 405 3 2.9 16 9 84 0 9.3 11 6.5
2018 Peyton Barber TB 234 871 5 3.7 24 20 92 1 4.6 16 8.9
Total 1372 5149 39 3.8 192 143 1052 4 7.4 94 10.1

There was only one good season for a starting fantasy running back in their time under Koetter. Doug Martin finished 10th in fantasy points per game in 2015 and his 14.1 points per game would have been good for 11th among running backs in 2018. What running backs have done under Koetter looks pretty terrible, but it isn’t the most exciting list of running backs either. Michael Turner and Steven Jackson were both in the twilight of their career. Doug Martin has been up and down throughout his whole career and seems to have a strange pattern in his fantasy seasons. Good, bad, bad, good, bad, bad, good. We won’t even talk about Peyton Barber. While Koetter seems like an obvious downgrade from Steve Sarkisian, it will be only the second highly talented running back in their prime that Koetter has had in this time span.

Opposition for Targets
Though Coleman didn’t have much effect on Freeman’s targets (as seen in the splits table above), the Falcons are likely fielding their best pass-catching talent since Freeman came into the league. After Julio Jones, you have Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu, Austin Hooper, and Ito Smith. Calvin Ridley exploded onto the scene last year with 15 catches, 264 receiving yards and six touchdowns in games two through four last season. His pace slowed down after this, but he was still a huge part of the offense. He clearly looked like an aspiring top talent wide receiver in the NFL. Even with increasing competition for targets, Mohamed Sanu still saw 94 targets last season and turned in the most receiving yards in any season of his career (838). Austin Hooper also took a step forward last season and saw a career-high 87 targets and 660 receiving yards. Ito Smith probably won’t be as good of a receiver out of the backfield as Tevin Coleman, but he still saw 29 targets in his rookie season with Freeman on the shelf. If Freeman falls in the receiving pecking order and only sees 2-3 targets per game it will drastically reduce his ceiling and give him almost no shot at a top 5 running back finish.

The Unknown

Injury Concerns
Freeman has had multiple concussions, a sprained PCL and MCL, a knee bruise which caused him to miss three games, a bone bruise on his foot, and finally sports-hernia surgery in 2018 causing him to miss the final 11 games of the season. Even with all of these injuries, last season was the first time Freeman missed significant time due to an injury. In fact, he only missed three games total in his first four seasons. So even with a laundry list of ailments in a five-year career, Freeman seems willing to play through most minor to medium injuries. Until you see a player in live game action, it is hard to tell if they are 100% back from injury. Hopefully we get our answer in the preseason.

Ito Smith Role
Ito has been discussed throughout this article. His replacement of Tevin Coleman as the backup could have various effects on this offense. What will Ito Smith‘s role in this offense be? If he does get significantly less run than Tevin Coleman did, how does the offense adjust? Atlanta will either lean more heavily on Freeman or go to a more pass-heavy attack. We will have to listen to reports out of training camp on how many reps Ito Smith is getting with the first string and then see what happens in Week 3 of the preseason.

Summary

Devonta Freeman is a talented running back who has been an RB1 on a points per game metric in all three years from 2015-2017 (include #1 overall RB in 2015). 2015 was the first year of Tevin Coleman‘s career, and also the least involved he was in his time with the Falcons. Coleman not being on the team potentially opens up huge opportunity for Freeman. Just how much opportunity will largely depend on Ito Smith‘s role in the offense. Even if Atlanta isn’t willing to give Ito Smith a significant amount of touches, will Koetter let Freeman feast upon as many touches as he can handle, or will they be concerned about re-injury after missing most of last season? The Falcons are loaded with pass catchers and may not need to lean on the run game as heavily as it has in Freeman’s healthy seasons. Lastly, the change in offensive coordinator is almost certainly a downgrade for Freeman. Koetter has not had the most success as an OC or HC in producing top running backs for fantasy or real-life purposes. This offense should be high powered and I think the goods outweigh the bads and the unknown. I have Freeman ranked as my 13th RB for the 2019 season and I am willing to take him in the turn of the second and third round of drafts.

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Steven Roy is a featured writer for FantasyPros. For more from Steven, check out his archive and follow him @Rockhead_Roy.

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