The Atlanta Falcons have a dilemma on their hands.
Starting running back Devonta Freeman is currently nursing a knee injury and will be out for an undisclosed amount of time. Second-string RB Tevin Coleman has stepped in and has kept the offense moving, much like he has every time Freeman has been limited or unavailable in the past two years.
Both Freeman and Coleman are excellent running backs who would start on most teams. Both are Falcons draftees, in consecutive years. They’ve complemented each other well and have contributed to making Atlanta’s offense one of the most dynamic in the NFL over the past few seasons.
In a perfect world, Atlanta could afford to keep both in the long term. As we know as Falcons fans, however, the world is far from perfect. Rookie contracts get played out, and teams often have to let contributors go if they’re too strapped for cash.
Freeman parlayed consecutive Pro Bowl seasons in 2015 and 2016 into a 5 year/$41.25 million contract extension which made him the third highest-paid running back in the league at the time (he’s currently the fourth highest paid RB at the moment).
The writing was on the wall following this extension that Freeman was the team’s choice to keep, and that they would probably be fine with letting Coleman hit the free agency waters when the time came.
Things haven’t been as cut-and-dried as the team might’ve hoped following the extension, however. Freeman has dealt with his fair share of injuries after the new contract kicked in, which is not his fault but is unfortunate timing. He suffered a concussion in training camp last year, and then sustained another concussion which cost him two games in the middle of the season (well, more like three games, since the injury happened in the first series against the Dallas Cowboys in week 10).
Coleman picked up the baton and led the team as the featured back, scoring four touchdowns in the three games Freeman missed.
Freeman was then limited in the NFC Divisional Round matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles with an MCL and PCL sprain that wasn’t discovered by the public until after the game. He had 10 carries for seven yards in that matchup.
Coleman once again picked up the slack, taking the same 10 carries for 79 rushing yards and almost helping the team pull out a victory.
The start of the 2018 season has led to more of the same — Freeman is once again sidelined with a contusion on the same knee he hurt last year, and Coleman has once again seamlessly stepped into the featured back role.
Against the Panthers, the University of Indiana alum took 16 carries for 107 rushing yards and became the first player to rush for 100+ yards against Carolina in 22 games.
tevin coleman's next gen stats from the win over carolina. feed teco pic.twitter.com/kbmASOZK2a— charles mcdonald (lakers 0-0) (@FourVerts) September 18, 2018
All of these developments in the past year have us asking an uncomfortable question: did the Falcons pay the wrong running back?
The great debate
Freeman has done a lot for the franchise. He’s totaled over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in each of the past three seasons and has scored 35 touchdowns in that time period. When healthy, he’s arguably a top five running back in the NFL, and a more complete back than Coleman given his blocking ability.
The issue stems from the frightening injury history, however. Head and knee injuries on a running back whose running style is as vicious as Freeman’s doesn’t exactly breed confidence in a team and its fanbase.
The two concussions are what frighten me more than anything else. There’s a prevailing notion among many physicians that a three strike rule exists regarding concussions and long-term traumatic effects on a person’s life. Freeman is already on strike two.
On the flip side of things, Coleman hasn’t exactly been a picture of perfect health either. Running back is a grueling position to play, and Tevin has suffered his fair share of knocks. He’s missed eight games in his career, including one last year for his own concussion.
Remember, Freeman actually took over the starting RB job in 2015 because Coleman had an ankle injury which cost him two games, and then number 24 never relinquished his hold of that starting role.
What may make people more comfortable with Coleman’s ailments is the fact that that he doesn’t have any history of knee injuries. His finesse style of running, predicated on speed and elusiveness, also seems like it would translate better into the latter stages of a career. The concussion is once again concerning, but he’s on “strike one” so to speak.
Coleman has proven to be a capable starting running back when presented with the opportunity to either start or be given a starter-like workload. The Week 2 game against Carolina was just a taste of that. The Falcons are an impeccable 11-0 in games where Coleman gets at least 14 touches dating back to the 2016 season.
Another thing working in Coleman’s favor is the fact that he may be a lot fresher than his counterpart. Devonta Freeman has 826 carries in his career and 1038 total career touches (this includes the playoffs), compared to Tevin Coleman’s 439 career carries and 515 total career touches (playoffs included).
While Freeman is only one year older than Coleman, he has twice as much tread on his tires.
So where do we go from here? Is there any hope for the Falcons possibly bringing Coleman back or is he destined to hit free agency the way we all expected him to after Freeman signed his extension?
Before you suggest it, let me say that the Falcons can’t cut or trade Freeman after this season. They would incur a sizable dead cap hit which doesn’t make that scenario feasible. In reality, Atlanta can’t move on from Freeman until at least the 2020 offseason if they choose to go that route, and they’re doubtful to do so unless injuries continue to take a massive bit out of his production and limit his ability to suit up.
If the team has any hopes of keeping Coleman beyond this season, they’ll need his cooperation as much as anything else.
For one, they’ll have to pay him starter money because that’s what he’ll most likely demand on the open market. Around $8 million a year seems like a fair figure (that’s close to what Freeman makes). Coleman would have to agree to more of a back-loaded contract where he agrees to less cash in year one of the deal, but maybe more guaranteed money later on.
It’s achievable, but only if Coleman is okay with taking a smaller signing bonus than he would get elsewhere in year one and then a roster bonus in year two.
If Coleman does agree to that, then another stipulation would be that the Falcons have to trade or cut Freeman in that 2020 offseason, when the potential “out” comes up in his contract. They can keep both in 2019 because Coleman’s deal would be backloaded, but there’s no way to keep both in the long term. With rookie back Ito Smith looking great against the Panthers, it still seems unlikely that the Falcons will commit big money to two backs at the same time.
I’d like to get your thoughts on what the Falcons should do. You can vote on which running back you think the Birds should stick with in the long term, below:
What should the Falcons do regarding their running back situation?
This poll is closed
Keep Devonta Freeman and let Tevin Coleman go in free agency this offseason
Re-sign Tevin Coleman to a backloaded contract this offseason (with some convincing) and trade/cut Devonta Freeman in 2020