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How Devonta Freeman’s contract extension impacts the Falcons running back position

Tevin Coleman, Brian Hill, and the need for more young backs.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons-Minicamp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Devonta Freeman got the contract he deserved, and while there are no guarantees in football or life, it looks like he’ll be here for a while wreaking his particular brand of havoc. That’s great news for the Falcons and their fans, and bad news for every defense that comes in contact with Free.

It does raise some questions that we’ll address now and then file away for later, because they’re not likely to become legitimate issues worth discussing until after the 2017 season, at minimum. The futures of players like Tevin Coleman and Brian Hill could certainly changed based on this contract, and we do want to keep that in mind.

As we noted earlier, Freeman’s contract is likely heavily guaranteed through the first 2-3 seasons, but after that the team will be able to make decisions based on how productive he has been and who else they have at the position. The immediate impact on the depth chart is virtually non-existent, but as is the case with any major contract, there are ripples here that will be felt within a couple of years.

Here are implications to keep in mind.

Devonta Freeman

The Falcons are sending a message here that runs contrary to a decade-plus of thinking in the NFL. Freeman is a running back, and one that has chiefly been successful in a zone blocking scheme. The league has been in the habit of treating those guys like they’re a dime a dozen.

The truth is, though, that really good running backs you can partially or completely build an offense around have become virtual impossible to find. Whether by incompetence, negligence, injury, or simple regression, most backs don’t last as full-time starters in this league longer than 2-3 years. If you get a special one like Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, David Johnson, or Freeman, it’s stupid to let that player go for a revolving door.

Freeman’s extension doesn’t change his role so much as re-affirm his value to this team, and thumb a nose or two at the NFL’s prevailing wisdom about the fungibility of backs. He’s still a lock for 200-plus carries, 40-50 receptions, and a ton of yards and scores. He’s an elite back, and now he’s finally being paid like one.

Tevin Coleman

The stud third year back turned into a lethal receiving threat in 2016 and remains an effective runner, albeit one who is less physical and has significantly less balance than Freeman. He would start for at least half the league right now, I’d wager, and the 49ers and Kyle Shanahan will likely snap him up if he ever makes it to free agency.

The contract extension for Freeman obviously increases the chances that he’ll do just that. Unless injury hits, Coleman should be good for 30-40 receptions and 100-plus carries each of the next two seasons, and if he continues to be productive with those touches, he’s going to look for and get a starting-caliber contract. The Falcons, who need to extend Jake Matthews soon and have to juggle their cap to accommodate big deals for Vic Beasley at minimum and possibly Taylor Gabriel and Ricardo Allen, may not be able to make the math work to keep both Coleman and Freeman around. Hard choices abound, as good as Coleman is, and I’d consider him no better than 50/50 to be here after the 2018 season.

That said, both backs have become truly vital for this offense, so it may be that the hard choices involve letting players like Gabriel and Allen walk in favor of younger players to keep the dynamic duo together. I’ll go on record now and say that I sincerely hope they find a way to keep both over the long haul. If they don’t, they’ll need to address the position with free agency or additional draft picks sooner than later.

One option that could be on the table is swapping Coleman for a draft choice next year, but that’s really only reasonable if one of the backups emerges and the team is convinced they’ll lose him in free agency following the 2018 season. It’s also difficult to get value for running backs, so I’d consider it a longshot, albeit one to keep in the back of your mind.

Brian Hill

The team’s playing hardball with Hill early, implying he’s not a lock to make the roster. Perhaps that’s true, but it’s also true that the Falcons would love for Hill to step up, seize a job, and make his case to be a long-term backup for this offense.

Hill’s a self-described violent runner who is physical, reasonably speedy, and was a man among boys in college. He was also a fine receiver, albeit on a limited basis, and showed enough blocking chops to think he’ll become at least an average option in pass protection at the NFL level. Add that package together and you have a back with some upside who would be a legitimate #2 on most teams that don’t have Tevin Coleman. If the Falcons don’t after 2018, Hill’s the logical choice to step in behind Freeman, but he has a long way to go and a lot to show before we get to that point.

Who will be #3?

Thomas Dimitroff has said before—and he and I agree—that you can find quality backs in the late rounds of draft classes, if not as undrafted free agents, and I expect that to be the guiding philosophy if the Falcons lose Coleman. In other words, don’t worry, they’ll figure it out if and when the time comes.