In the most boring time of the offseason (AKA right about now), we—as fans and analysts—often find ourselves debating topics that are fairly nonsensical. Who will be the first UDFA cut in training camp? Will the Falcons’ keep 8 offensive linemen or 9? Is a hot dog really a sandwich?
But, there are also discussions which could have important ramifications for the future of this team. One of those such conversations has been about the Falcons’ plans to give RB Devonta Freeman a sizable contract extension this offseason.
One side argues that Freeman deserves to get paid because he’s been a top-5 RB for this team over the last two seasons. The other claims that the Falcons should let him walk because Coleman is the more dynamic player, and that recent draft pick Brian Hill could replicate Freeman’s role in the offense.
Freeman and Coleman are arguably the best RB tandem in the NFL, so it’s not surprising that there is a healthy debate over which is more important to the Falcons’ offensive success. Just watch this footage from the NFC Divisional playoff game—it’s easy see why the 1-2 punch is so devastatingly effective.
Let’s take a closer look at what each has done on the field over the last several years to see if we can get a more definitive picture of which is truly the more “valuable” RB.
Rushing: 265 carries, 1,056 yards, 4.0 YPA, 11 TD, 2 fumbles
Receiving: 73 receptions, 578 yards, 7.9 YPA, 3 TD
Rushing: 227 carries, 1,079 yards, 4.8 YPA, 11 TD, 1 fumble
Receiving: 54 receptions, 462 yards, 8.6 YPA, 2 TD
Freeman has been the Falcons’ lead back since taking over the role in 2015, where he enjoyed a breakout season in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. He followed that up with an even more successful season in 2016. Freeman isn’t the most athletic or dynamic player, but he possesses the elite vision and shiftiness in space that makes him a perfect fit in a zone-blocking scheme.
Throughout his career, he’s been an effective all-around back for Atlanta. He can run between the tackles and can bounce it outside. Freeman is also an above-average receiver and has become one of Matt Ryan’s favorite targets in the passing game. He’s become a focal point of the Falcons’ offense, and has proven that he can handle the load in back-to-back seasons.
Two underrated aspects of Freeman’s game are his ball security (only 1 fumble in 2016) and his durability (only one missed game in two seasons as the starter). He may not be the flashiest athlete or the most powerful runner, but there are no holes in his game and he has proven himself as one of the best, most consistent RBs in the NFL.
Rushing: 87 carries, 392 yards, 4.5 YPA, 1 TD, 3 fumbles
Receiving: 2 receptions, 14 yards. 7.0 YPA
Rushing: 118 carries, 520 yards, 4.4 YPA, 8 TD, 1 fumble
Receiving: 31 receptions, 421 yards, 13.6 YPA, 3 TD
Coleman is one of the more athletic RBs in the NFL and was drafted early in 2015 to become the Falcons’ featured back in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Coleman was neck-and-neck with Freeman in training camp before suffering an injury in the preseason. After Freeman took the job, Coleman mainly played in back-up duty in his rookie season.
A fierce competitor, Coleman worked to improve the areas of his game that were lacking: his receiving ability, his vision, and his balance. While he improved in all three areas during the 2016 season, no change was as striking as his transition to one of the best receiving backs in the league.
Coleman’s speed makes him almost impossible for LBs to cover, and his size makes him a handful for DBs. He’s an elite receiver out of the backfield, and the Falcons’ offensive creativity also gave him plenty of opportunities to line up in the slot and out wide. He’s a dynamic threat with the ball in his hands, and can score from anywhere on the field. However, he still needs to improve as a runner—his vision is lacking and he has a tendency to get tripped up more easily than he should.
Freeman vs. Coleman: Who has the advantage?
Based on their stats and the way they’ve played throughout their careers in Atlanta, let’s break down each RB’s advantages. Keep in mind, these are my opinion, but that opinion is based on watching both of these players extensively.
- Rushing ability
- Consistent production
- Ball security
- Athletic upside
- Receiving ability
To me, it’s pretty obvious why the Falcons’ have prioritized getting a contract done with Freeman. He’s shown just about everything you want out of a modern RB: versatility, consistency, durability, and ball security. Freeman also happens to be the one with his contract up at the end of the 2017 season, which probably has something to do with the rush to get his contract completed promptly.
The other part of this equation is that Freeman has shown that he’s the better runner thus far. Coleman has improved as a rusher since his rookie season, but he still isn’t quite up to snuff as a 10-15 carry-a-game player.
The truth is...both players are excellent, but in reality, you’re only likely to be able to keep one. Freeman has been the lead back for two straight seasons, and even though Coleman possesses more upside as a receiver and athlete, Freeman has been the more consistent, proven option.
It’s possible Coleman could improve this season and challenge Freeman for the lead role. With Atlanta prioritizing signing Freeman before the season, it’s apparent that they value him a great deal. That’s all without mentioning that Freeman has been an important member of the Brotherhood on and off the field.
So, to me, the more valuable player, at least at this point, is clearly Devonta Freeman. The Falcons should have him locked up long-term very soon. Even though Coleman is likely to find more money elsewhere at the end of his rookie deal, Atlanta will continue to enjoy their deadly two-headed RB attack for at least two more seasons.
What do you think about the Falcons’ situation at RB? Which of the two RBs is more valuable in your eyes?