The Falcons offense has been passing focused for several years now. Long gone are the days of Michael Turner and controlling the clock. With Matt Ryan under center, this team looks to score in bunches and the nature of the running backs we’ve deployed reflects that. Devonta Freeman isn’t a 30 carry per game back. However, he’s a highly effective runner and pass catcher, which makes him a perfect fit for this offense.
Since he began getting the majority of snaps in 2015, he’s been a highly productive runner and receiver. In 2016, he pulled in 1,079 rushing yards with 11 touchdowns and 462 receiving yards with 2 touchdowns. That great season led to his new contract in 2017.
His big contract
In August of 2017, the Falcons recognized Devonta’s contributions by giving him a 5 year extension worth over $41 million with 22 of that guaranteed. At the time, it was one of the biggest contracts for a running back in NFL history. Given that Devonta is not a bellcow back, many people were surprised at the size of the deal, especially with Tevin Coleman serving as a capable backup behind him.
His age and productivity
Devonta has had over 1000 yards from scrimmage in the 2015 - 2017 seasons. He’s had double digit rushing touchdowns twice (11 in both 2015 and 2016) and has had 300 or more receiving yards 3 times (2015 thru 2017). Impressively, he’s averaged at least 4 yards per carry since 2015, and has a career mark of 4.3 ypc in his five years in Atlanta.
Unfortunately, his 2018 season was cut short after just 2 games. He landed on IR before he was able to contribute anything meaningful for the season. He also finished 2017 on somewhat of a down note as injuries and concussions dampened his productivity that year.
When healthy, Freeman is definitely a highly capable back with phenomenal vision and a disgusting ability to embarrass defenders with his twitchy athleticism. The only question recently has been how healthy he can be going forward.
Freeman will turn 27 in 2019. If you’re a believer in the 30-wall for running backs, that means he has 3 more years before his productivity should begin to see a decline. With Tevin Coleman a near certainty to leave in free agency, the Falcons will look towards Devonta to be their main guy again in 2019. However, promising rookie Ito Smith and second year back Brian Hill both showed impressive ability in 2018. Both guys should get meaningful snaps in 2019 to help keep Freeman fresh all year.
While Freeman’s contract makes it difficult to cut him in 2019, in 2020 the picture is different. The team can cut him in 2020 and save roughly 3.5 million in cap space (against 6M in dead money). In 2021, they’ll be able to save nearly 6.3 million against the cap (with 3M in dead money). Given his age and the great luck the Falcons have had in finding good running backs later in the draft, it seems highly unlikely that Freeman will get another contract with Atlanta. The last year of his deal is the 2022 season, though it would be somewhat surprising if he plays through the full length of this deal.
Given his recent health concerns and his age, it seems likely the Falcons will look to move on from Devonta either in 2020 or 2021. I just don’t see them keeping him around in 2022. If he has a strong 2019 season, that likely makes it easier for them to keep him around in 2020 as well. How he performs this year will likely dictate what happens with him in 2020 and beyond. At best, I think he has three years left with the Falcons, though a shorter stint is certainly possible.
What are your thoughts on Devonta and how long he may have left with the Falcons?