While Matt Ryan enjoyed an MVP season, Alex Mack got a ton of credit for the team’s offensive resurgence in 2016, and Julio Jones remains a beast. For all that, Devonta Freeman was still one of the team’s most vital offensive cogs, and one of the best fantasy running backs of all.
Freeman’s rise has been nothing short of extraordinary. He’s gone from a fourth round running back who couldn’t get many snaps behind an aging Steven Jackson to one of the league’s brightest lights at the position, and his fantasy stock has risen accordingly.
Here’s a look at last year’s production and what we expect this year.
Standard: 14.5 ppg
2016 Rank: 5th-8th, depending on metrics
Let’s put Freeman’s fantastic 2016 in its proper context: He had a top ten fantasy year for a running back while sharing touches with Tevin Coleman, who most teams in the league would kill to have as a starting back. You can jeer Freeman for his seemingly tone-deaf public comments about contracts and the Super Bowl, or for that missed block, but don’t for a second deny that he’s a phenomenal player who has worked his ass off to become this good. He’s a true fantasy asset, and with everyone starving for quality backs, his second straight top ten finish made him a godsend.
From a fantasy standpoint, Freeman is also one of the more reliable backs in football, as he gets plenty of touches, is very productive with them, and plays in one of the NFL’s best offenses. Tevin Coleman did take a very real bite out of his apple in 2016, increasing his per game scoring averages by about 10 points, while Freeman lost about 2 ppg in standard formats and almost 4 ppg in PPR.
That’s a minor quibble considering Freeman more than justified his draft position, and there’s absolutely no chance he’ll be a well-kept secret or underrated pickup going forward.
There are reasons to think that Freeman won’t top last year’s production, and may even suffer a slight dip in numbers. Coleman’s share of targets in the passing game could go up, Austin Hooper figures to get a major tick up in receptions, and Taylor Gabriel should be more involved. All of that could cut into Freeman’s receiving production, which is a very big part of his game. He should get about the same number of touches on the ground, however, and is a good bet to score 8-12 touhdowns on the ground, which makes him extremely valuable. If you’re in a scoring-only format, you want Freeman, not Coleman.
That cautionary note is basically just to ensure you don’t overdraft Freeman, but there are still only a handful of backs that figure to be more productive, and that’s because they don’t need to share the load with a back like Coleman. He’s still extremely worth drafting.
Ultimately, though, if you can snag Freeman in the second or third round of your draft—unlikely, but could happen—you should do it. If healthy, he’s one of the best bets in the NFL for double digit scores and well over 1,000 yards between the ground and air.