When the Falcons selected Devonta Freeman 103rd overall in this spring's draft, it was believed he could develop into solid NFL running back somewhere down the line. Maybe in a year from now, maybe two or three, he'd be ready to carve out a significant role in Atlanta.
A lot has changed since then. In April, Steven Jackson was healthy. That is no longer the case. Now, it appears the Falcons' RB depth will be rigorously tested in 2014, and this might be a serious issue -- perhaps a devastating one.
But so far, Freeman's provided reason for optimism. And it's been a treat to watch.
The 22-year-old has racked up 86 rushing yards on 16 attempts through two exhibition contests, good for 5.1 yards per carry. Of course, those numbers don't include his 23-yard touchdown against Houston that was called back for a penalty: an infraction that many consider questionable.
It's unwise to put too much stock in this relatively microscopic sample size, but only 10 running backs have more rushing yards than Freeman at this point in the exhibition schedule. This is worth pointing out.
Freeman certainly isn't among the 10 best at his position; he's not even close. Still, it's no coincidence he's that high on the leaderboard.
"Devonta is coming along fine," offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter told the AJC's D. Orlando Ledbetter on Aug. 7. "He runs hard, is eager, is willing, does not back down from anything. He can catch the ball, strong hands, fast. He's got all of the qualities."
The aforementioned numbers shouldn't be surprising to those who attended training camp. Fans, team personnel and media alike shared rave reviews about Freeman almost every day, as the young tailback looked more like a grizzled veteran than a wide-eyed rookie. Some, including yours truly, thought he displayed shades of fellow FSU alum and former Falcon Warrick Dunn.
It's tough (and a little unfair) to compare Freeman to a guy like Dunn, and they are far from the same player, but it's also tough to ignore the similarities. The quick feet, the vision, the open-field speed -- it's all there.
Indeed, Freeman has surpassed the kind of expectations typically bestowed upon a fourth round pick. Question is, can he perform at a high level against first team defenses? That we can't answer just yet.
Through two games, most of Freeman's snaps have come in the second halves, when opponents' starters have long been replaced. This less-than-stellar competition has definitely inflated his stats, but by how much? Hopefully we'll find out soon.
Week 3 of the preseason is generally when teams give their regulars the most playing time, and Freeman may see the field early on. In this writer's opinion, he's earned a crack at the Titans' best. No, Tennessee doesn't possess a dominant front seven, but Bernard Pollard & Co. can help us gauge where Freeman's at. This is what August is about, right?
However, if we go by the current depth chart, Freeman has to leapfrog Antone Smith and Jacquizz Rodgers, and that's easier said than done. The Falcons particularly like what they've seen from Smith, who flashed big play potential last year and has become something of a fan favorite.
True, Smith's 32 preseason yards on 11 rushes aren't remarkable, but don't be fooled by those paltry figures -- he's been turning a lot of heads. He too looked good in camp, and we can't totally discount the touchdowns he had called back against Miami: one a 35-yard catch, the other a 76-yard run.
The team could be ready to give him a good chunk of the carries -- a good thing for the Falcons, not the best thing for Freeman. At least not in the short-term.
It feels like the coaching staff is willing to take things slow with the Miami native, and that's OK. Odds are he won't get thrown into the fire on Week 1. He'll probably need to remain patient. But as long as he continues to develop the way he has over the last couple months, it'll be hard to keep him off the field by season's end.
The one knock on Freeman, and ostensibly the one issue holding him back, is his blocking. At just 5-foot-8, his height is a major disadvantage in this facet of the game, even if it doesn't affect him much (or at all) when he's handed the ball.
Given the current state of Atlanta's offensive line, Freeman needs to improve in this regard.
"I think that's the biggest adjustment for a running back going from college to the NFL," Koetter said of blocking. "He had a great college career but teams try to test rookie running backs. They've got those big outside linebackers. There's a lot of protections, there's a lot of calls. There's a learning curve. He's on the right track."
The harsh reality is the Falcons may never again be able to rely on Jackson, who just turned 31 and has been a workhorse for almost all of his 10-year NFL career. If Jackson has in fact hit the dreaded "running back wall," the triumvirate of Freeman, Rogers and Smith will need to find a way to compensate.
It's possible Freeman separates himself from the pack and blossoms in his rookie campaign. It's possible he doesn't see much action at all in 2014. Either way, it's easy to feel good about his future.
Freeman might not have the tools to be a star in this league, but for a fourth round pick, he already looks like a tremendous selection. This bodes well for Thomas Dimitroff, who really, really needs the 2014 draft to be a good one.