There were not many things that went well for the Atlanta Falcons in 2014, but the fourth round selection of Devonta Freeman will go down as one of the best decisions of that star-crossed year. Free was buried his rookie season behind Steven Jackson and company, but in brief glimpses we saw the player I got really excited about in summer 2014, the one with stellar vision and ability who just needed a shot.
It’s worth remembering that now because 2014 seems like a million years ago instead of just six seasons. That year was Dirk Koetter’s final one in Atlanta, as the team fired Mike Smith and Koetter landed a head coaching gig in Tampa Bay. It was just the beginning for Freeman, who was arguably one of the best backs in the entire NFL in 2016 and 2017, with injuries impacting the end of 2017 and wiping out most of his 2018 season.
Now the two are reunited. It’s difficult to project much of anything off that 2014 season—Freeman carried the ball 65 times for 248 yards and a touchdown, and reeled in 30 catches for 225 yards and another touchdown—but Koetter was clearly keen on Freeman being a major part of the offense over the long haul and got him involved in the passing game nice and early. If Freeman is truly healthy—always a big if when you’re dealing with the ten car pileup of injuries he suffered over the last couple of seasons—he shouldn’t lack for a role in the passing game or on the ground given the team’s stated commitment to the run.
With Tevin Coleman headed elsewhere, the competition for snaps for Freeman will be limited to Ito Smith, Qadree Ollison and Marcus Green, none of whom figure to take on featured roles unless Free is hurt again. The run game was never Koetter’s forte in Tampa Bay—which does have to be held against him, considering he had a significant voice in personnel and never quite wound up with a quality attack outside of one year of Doug Martin—but he never had the talent on the offensive line or at the position that he’ll have in Atlanta.
This is a roundabout way of saying that those “Freeman is poised for a resurgent season” and “Koetter’s eager to return to some familiar faces” storylines ought to converge in a big way for Freeman, and nothing short of injury ought to keep from enjoying the kind of big years he enjoyed in 2016 and 2017.