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Player Spotlight: Devonta Freeman

A detailed look at Devonta Freeman's fantasy prospects for 2016

As a Player

Devonta Freeman wasn’t a “wow” prospect in the 2014 NFL Draft, that’s for sure. He wasn’t a workhorse at Florida State, sharing the backfield with Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr. and never registering more than 173 carries in a season. And he showed poorly at his combine, with subpar speed, agility, and explosion scores despite weighing just 206 pounds. Still beloved by a healthy share of draftniks[1], Freeman had the look of a try-hard type who’d maximized his limited skill set, but could carve out an NFL niche as a versatile rotational back. Ultimately, the Falcons deemed Freeman worthy of a fourth-round pick – likely based on his receiving chops (22 catches as a part-time junior starter) and nose for the goal line (a sterling 7.4% career touchdown rate).

Freeman’s rookie year featured those passing game skills heavily, drawing 37 targets despite seeing just 22% of Falcons snaps. He entered 2015 as the presumptive favorite for passing down duties, but was widely expected to be supplanted as the lead back by third-round pick Tevin Coleman. Freeman was settling into the fantasy football community as a high-floor, low-ceiling rotational piece, a RB4 type suited for the middle rounds with the expectation of part-time work and very limited touchdown potential.

Of course, that’s laughable now. The exciting Coleman failed to make an impression before a Week 3 injury leveled his season, and Freeman exploded into the featured role, amassing 1,035 total yards over the next seven games. That sample size is fairly small on its face, but note that it dwarfed the best 2015 yardage stretches we saw from any other back in football. Not even phenom David Johnson could approach that over his electrifying late-season promotion. Coleman eventually returned to the field around midseason, but never came close to claiming much of a workload, and Freeman wound up 2015’s most productive back[2].

As a pure runner, Freeman doesn’t look particularly special, with 4.0 yards per rush across two NFL seasons and just eight carries (2.4%) going for 20+ yards. And his performance over the last five weeks of 2015 (3.1 yards per rush and 6.3 per reception) was uninspiring, to say the least. All the while, Coleman, with a year under his NFL belt, remains an enticing prospect who could certainly work his way into the offense. But let’s explore why those factors probably won’t really matter in Freeman’s quest to remain a high-level RB1.

Opportunity Knocks

That’s the bulk of the reason early fantasy drafters are slotting Freeman behind the likes of Todd Gurley and Adrian Peterson in their rankings: he’s not an exciting runner or athlete. But for our purposes, with all of that delicious volume, he doesn’t have to be. Freeman dominated the Falcons’ 2015 running game like only one NFL back managed to last year[3]:

 

RepGm*

Rush/Gm

TmMarkSh

DeAngelo Williams

12

14.8

90.8%

Devonta Freeman

12

19.9

84.2%

Thomas Rawls

6

21.0

83.4%

Adrian Peterson

17

20.6

80.8%

Todd Gurley

12

18.6

79.9%

Frank Gore

16

16.3

78.8%

Latavius Murray

16

16.0

76.6%

Jonathan Stewart

16

18.3

74.7%

David Johnson

7

17.1

71.0%

* Representative games are those that fit our criteria for inclusion; here, they are games in which the RB served as his team's clear featured back.

Those are some hardcore workhorses, and drafters should be ecstatic to see Freeman near the top of the list. And it’s even more encouraging that, despite his unimposing size, Freeman was a red zone dynamo in 2015. Only two RBs took more carries from inside the 10-yard line, and both played in all 16 games. All told, Freeman was handed the ball thrown to 29 times from there, good for over 40% of Falcons snaps. That’s a truly dominant level, on a par with the likes of fellow short yardage dominators like Peterson.

Still, for all of his rushing opportunity, it’s not hard to see the main source of Freeman’s immense fantasy value: he’s among the NFL’s three or four most relied-upon receiving backs. That’s absolutely huge; pass-catching backs almost always carry a healthy advantage over those who sit out the passing game, and it’s difficult to cobble together a fantasy RB1 projection without gobs of receptions. Over the last three years, of the 36 RB1 seasons posted, only six (17%) included fewer than 40 targets – and only two (6%) landed south of 35. And one of those two, Todd Gurley, played in just 13 games, meaning that only one RB1 from the last three years has fallen below 35 targets over a full season. Generally speaking, a running back needs a hefty passing game role to reach his full value.

And just like with Danny Woodhead or Theo Riddick, drafting Freeman means drafting a true RB/WR package. One whose receiving boost is more than just a boost – it’s a quantum leap from one RB tier to the next. (Or even the next next). It’s important to remember that Freeman didn’t merely hold his own as a receiving back in 2015; he outright dominated his peers. He drew 97 targets[4], third-most in the league (behind only Woodhead and Riddick) and absurdly more than any other full-time back. In fact, among RBs who were also given 200+ carries, Matt Forte and Frank Gore tied for second with a distant 58. And Freeman missed two games, remember. 

As a result, it appears Freeman sits squarely in the Arian Foster/Le’Veon Bell subset of workhorse backs. They don’t merely work their way into their team’s game plans; rather, huge chunks of it are designed for and situated around them. That’s absurdly valuable in fantasy football, in terms of both a guy’s ceiling and his floor. Not only do these backs see the most volume, they’re woven so deeply into their offenses that replacing or diminishing their roles is often exceptionally difficult on the fly. Generally speaking, their usage is stronger and their leashes are longer than less versatile backs.

So it’s hard to see Coleman (or anyone) cutting too noticeably into Freeman’s massive workload. At no point during 2015 did Kyle Shanahan and the coaches tinker at all with Freeman’s pie, and 2016 has yet to bring any real personnel changes to the backfield. That leaves three undrafted bodies fighting for scraps at the bottom of the depth chart. None look the slightest bit likely to find an offensive role, let alone eat noticeably into the pie. Coleman should ascend to the 15-20% range of team rushes, but not even that would slow Freeman’s world-beating usage rates below the easy-RB1 mark.

Positives

  • An absolute volume king, likely to again flirt with 300 carries while providing a WR-like boost in receiving production
  • Faces little backfield competition and is on track to again dominate the Falcons running game at the very top level, offering a strong RB1 floor
  • Starts in an offense likely to progress toward the mean following an unusually poor season
  • Heavily used – and effective – in the red zone and near the goal line

Negatives

  • Not a special athlete or dynamic runner, limiting his rushing upside and possibly opening the door for electric second-year man Coleman to establish some role
  • Faded badly as a runner down the stretch last year, though it’s encouraging he didn’t lose opportunity in doing so
  • Should lose at least a little short-yardage opportunity; the Falcons ran the ball far more than average from inside the 10-yard line in 2015

Final Thoughts

Fantasy football running backs are defined overwhelmingly by opportunity, and it’s possible no one will have more in 2016 than Devonta Freeman. He brings the rushing dominance, pass game chops, and heavy red zone activity that often congeals into an easy RB1. Let your fellow owners back away due to his lack of rushing upside; fantasy football doesn’t award style points, and Freeman hits every box on the high-RB1 checklist.

Projections

 

Gm

Rush

RushYd

RushTD

Rec

RecYd

RecTD

Justin Howe

16

271

1057

10

63

490

2

David Dodds

16

215

875

8

58

476

3

Maurile Tremblay

16

267

1096

10

63

481

2

Jason Wood

16

230

1025

8

65

570

3

Bob Henry

16

215

885

9

65

505

2 

Other Viewpoints

The Footballguys are somewhat split on Freeman’s 2016 outlook, and you can dive into our takes in our Player Rankings and Comments section.

Jeff Tefertiller is giddy:

“I know I am high on Freeman, but his receiving ability offers a solid floor. Add in the TD spree from last year and there is hope for another great season.”

Matt Waldman is mindful of Coleman’s presence, but ultimately views Freeman as a safe second-round pick with room to overachieve:

“Freeman is a high-variance PPR RB1 and non-PPR RB2 who will likely come at a RB1 price. If Coleman doesn’t get in the way, Freeman could climb my board significantly.”

While Steve Holloway is bracing for Coleman spoil the party:

“My expectations are for Coleman to play better and reduce Freeman’s touches this season.”


[1] Not by me, though. From my 2014 draft notes, where I ranked Freeman 14th among the class’ RBs: “A tough runner who belies his frame, but certainly no power back. Average elusiveness and explosiveness through a hole; needs good blocking. No real second gear. Solid receiver, but often overmatched in pass pro.”

[2] In PPR formats.

[3] Among RBs who spent at least six games as his team’s clear lead back and took at least 75% of RB carries over that span.

[4] That’s wildly impressive on its own, but remember that Freeman was a part-timer for the season’s first two weeks and missed two midseason games.