I have good news and bad news. The good news is that decades of modeling the performances of NFL running backs suggests that Devonta Freeman could be in line for a huge year in his age 27 season. The bad news is that history also suggests that the downturn in performance for running backs comes soon thereafter.
Way back in 2014, ESPN’s Kevin Seifert broke down the cliff that running backs seem to hit after their age 27 season. He found that the average downturn in performance for wide receivers comes at age 32, while the average running back suffers a noticeable drop at age 28 and declines sharply from there. As Seifert notes, this has held up for a long time and factors into the way teams hand out contracts to running backs.
You can see that in Devonta Freeman’s contract, which offers an out (albeit an ugly one) as soon as 2020, when he’ll carry $6 million in dead money. That number goes down to $3 million in 2021 and vanishes entirely in the final year of his deal in 2022, when he’ll be 30. The Falcons gave this deal to Freeman understanding the history of the RB position quite well, and were banking that he’d be an asset at least through his age 28 season. That was a reasonable (if not always popular) bet at the time, given that Freeman had appeared in 47 of a possible 48 games up to that point and was one of the league’s better backs, but injuries have now complicated the picture considerably.
I’ve spent much of the offseason writing about the year I think Freeman’s set to have, even with Dirk Koetter’s shaky history with ground games during his career as an offensive coordinator. The reasons for that have a lot to do with his relatively fresh legs after playing in just two (very productive) games last year, his talent, and his fit for an offense that likes to throw the ball an awful lot. It would fit with the overarching history of the position if Freeman turned in a monster campaign in 2019, but whether he’ll continue to do so after that point is a very big, very open question.
Are there reasons for optimism in the team’s history? Dear reader, there really is only one.
Michael Turner is the obvious outlier for the Falcons. He turned in four unbelievably productive seasons as a runner before cratering at age 30 and finding himself out of the league the next year, but we have to remember that Turner came to Atlanta at age 26 with just 228 combined carries on his legs, and age 27 with just over 600. Freeman has 767 carries, and that’s more by dint of his injury last year than anything else.
Falcons great Gerald Riggs dropped off during his age 27 season, going from 1,300 yards to 800, and never again got back above 1,000. Jamal Anderson’s age 27 year was undone by a catastrophic injury, and while he did get back 1,000 yards in 2000, he never again came close to 4 yards per carry. William Andrews turned his last great season in at age 28 and only managed one more quiet year with the Falcons, which came at age 31 after a series of injuries.
The exception—and the shining example we’ll all hope for when it comes to Freeman—is the great Warrick Dunn. Dunn got to Atlanta at age 27 with 1,256 carries under his belt and 306 receptions and proceeded to put up nearly 6,000 yards on the ground and more than 1,600 through the air, and he did not noticeably slow down until his age 31 season. Expecting Freeman to be Dunn—who had never missed more than three games through his age 27 season—may be unreasonable, but Freeman has shown throughout his career in Atlanta that he’s good enough to punish teams for years to come if he can stay healthy.
Still, it’s hard to bet on an outlier. The Falcons were extraordinarily fortunate that Matt Bryant remained so effortlessly great after age 40 despite the history at his position, but kicker (and quarterback, where we hope Matt Ryan plays until he’s 40) do not offer the same caliber of physical challenge that awaits running backs, who have it rough out there.
The Falcons aren’t exactly ready to replace Freeman—he’s easily the most talented and proven back on this roster, and another injury this year would hurt a lot—but they’ve continually added interesting young talent to the roster, including Ito Smith in the fourth round last year, Brian Hill in the fifth round in 2017, and Qadree Ollison in the fifth round this year. That’s quality depth and gives them the ability to give Freeman a breather, but as mentioned above, the Falcons are hardly ignorant of the traditional performance history of the RB position, even if the Steven Jackson signing might have suggested otherwise. They’re also quietly giving themselves some options if Freeman can’t return to the world beater he was as recently as 2017, or if he can’t sustain that level of performance beyond the next season or two.
I suspect there is not a soul in this fanbase who doesn’t want to see Freeman return to form and dominate the Falcons’ backfield for years to come, becoming that rare great back to thrive for more than five seasons in Atlanta. History suggests that we ought to enjoy the next couple seasons of Freeman’s career and then take anything that follows it as a considerable bonus.