Let’s Not Bury Devonta Freeman Just Yet
Dearly beloved, we gather here today to honor the life of 2015’s top fantasy running back, Devonta Freeman. After leading many owners into the fantasy playoffs and championships last year, the deceased Mr. Freeman leaves behind…wait, he’s not dead? He’s at least injured, right?…No. He’s still the starting RB for the Atlanta Falcons? Their offensive line actually got better? Something doesn’t add up here; let’s stop digging Freeman’s grave and dig a bit deeper into what actually happened in 2015 and what is likely to happen in 2016.
The Freeman doubters inevitably point to 3 things when telling you to avoid him in 2016.
Argument 1: “2015 was a fluke that was carried by 4 unrepeatable weeks.”
Heading into 2015, the Atlanta Falcons weren’t exactly sure who was going to be their starting RB. They had 2014 4th Round pick Devonta Freeman, who did not have much opportunity his rookie year, and rookie 3rd Round pick, Tevin Coleman. The table was set for a full on 50/50 split heading into the preseason. However, both backs injured their hamstrings and it became more of a race to health. Coleman won. Coleman was the starting back for Weeks 1 and 2, but got hurt in the Week 2 game. This put the ball in Freeman’s hands and he answered the call. He proceeded to score more fantasy points over the next 4 weeks than all but 24 other RBs scored all season. In fact, Freeman scored more fantasy points in weeks 3-6 than any Atlanta RB had scored for a full season since 2012. Freeman was good, really good. So it’s easy to see why, when compared to those 4 weeks, the rest of season was considered a disappointment.[lptw_table id=”23105″ style=”default”]
Even still, the man ended the year as the top fantasy RB and by a wide margin. He outscored the #2 RB by 3 points per game and #3 guy by 5 PPG. Freeman haters love to tell you how bad he was without those 4 weeks. I say hush: he had those 4 weeks, you can’t take them away. That’s not how fantasy football works. He had them and they were glorious. But what about the rest of the season? While clearly, his rushing numbers were less than spectacular, in the new pass-first NFL, they aren’t that bad. Freeman averaged over 61 yards per game down that “terrible” stretch. Averaging 61 yards per game for 16 games would give him 975 yards. Rushing for 975 yards would make him a top 10 rusher in today’s NFL–how terrible. And I haven’t even mentioned his receiving stats. Freeman was still top 5 in targets, top 5 in receptions, and the #5 fantasy RB over the last 5 weeks, or what some call the fantasy playoffs. Too often we confuse good football with good fantasy football. The Falcons were terrible down the stretch, losing 6 of their last 8 games. What happens when teams lose? They run the ball less and throw it more. Freeman is clearly the Falcons’ preferred receiving back, and that gives him a great advantage coming into 2016.
Argument 2: “Tevin Coleman is a more talented running back.”
This argument is based on two things: Coleman’s stellar college numbers and the fact that he “won” the starting job heading into 2015. Let’s talk about the 2nd part first. As I mentioned, both backs were injured in training camp, but Coleman was able to play in the last two preseason games, Freeman missed all 4. Coleman got the job because he was healthier first. But then in Week 2 he had his own injury problems which put Devonta back into the starting role. Freeman made history and never gave the job back. Even after he missed Week 12 with a concussion, Freeman was promptly given back his starting role in Week 13. So if the Atlanta coaches felt like he was the best back, why does the voice of public opinion believe that Tevin Coleman is the better option? It must be Coleman’s great college numbers that prove it.
In his final college season, Tevin Coleman rushed for 2036 yards and 15 TDs for his Indiana Hoosiers. He had a very impressive 7.5 yards per carry that year. It was the 20th greatest rushing season in college football history behind guys like Barry Sanders, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Matt Forte, but college success does not equal professional success. Other names ahead of Coleman on that list include Kevin Smith, Andre Williams and Rashaan Salaam. At the end of the day, it does not matter how strong or fast you are, if you do not show it on Sunday nobody cares what you did on Saturdays, just ask those last 3 guys. It especially doesn’t help if you put the ball on the turf. The most telling stat of 2015 may be the most damning for Tevin Coleman. In just 87 carries, Coleman fumbled and lost the ball 3 times. This may not sound like a lot but when you consider no back in the league lost it more than 5 times, it is a bit scary. The easiest way to ensure you never see the ball as a RB is to give it away when you do get it. His blazing speed is questionable when you see a linebacker run him down and punch the ball out of his hands like we did against Minnesota in Week 12. After fumbling the ball 4 times his final year in college, there were questions about his small hands. After his rookie year, Coleman has done nothing to quiet those suspicions.
Argument 3: “A reduction in touches will lead to a fantasy letdown.”
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Tevin Coleman is ready for a bigger role in the Atlanta offense. Early word certainly sounds like Freeman should see fewer touches. I’m not sure that would necessarily be a bad thing for fantasy owners. First and foremost, the Falcons should be an improved team in 2016. They have a full year under their belt with both head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and added an elite center who already knows their offense, in Alex Mack. If the Falcons are winning games, there will be more touches for both RBs. If Freeman is not over-worked, he is less likely to lose steam at the end the year and it should greatly improve his productivity. Let’s take a look at a projected stat line that is quite generous to Coleman.[lptw_table id=”22933″ style=”default”]
This projection barely involves the Falcons running any more than they did in 2015 and gives Coleman 45% of the carries. With those numbers, Freeman would still be a top 5 back using 2015’s rankings. Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, and Jamaal Charles have all had their most productive fantasy seasons in years where they did not have their most career carries. If Coleman steps up, and the Falcons win games, there will be plenty of work to go around. In my projection, Tevin Coleman could end the year as a solid fantasy RB2.
I’ll leave you with this: #1 fantasy running backs tend to find themselves in the top 10 again the following year. Barring injury, and even with a 55/45 split, Freeman will be a solid RB1 and Coleman a good RB2. The risk is greatly over-hyped (like Tevin Coleman), and Devonta Freeman is a guy you want on your team, especially in PPR leagues. Freeman’s current ADP is 2nd round, 8th RB overall, and that is exactly where he belongs. Don’t wait on him; don’t avoid him. He is alive and well…draft him and enjoy your top 10 RB.
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