Dirty Bird?

Ryan Finley


“Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Before we get to the heavy fantasy mumbo jumbo, let’s talk about expectations as they relate to movies. Did you expect The Lego Movie to be anything more than a steaming pile of garbage? It had all the elements of a typically lazy kid’s movie – an oddball toy license, funky looking visuals and a name actor or two apparently out to pick up a check. Heck, look at the drivel we got with 2012’s Battleship. Against the odds, The Lego Movie turned out to be pretty darn good (even netting a 96% fresh on RottenTomatoes.com). While all the signs might have indicated otherwise, it was surprisingly fun and well-worth the time.

The point here is no matter how sure we might be of success or failure, there is always the chance of an unexpected outcome. Regardless of how much data you parse, how much film you watch, or how many experts you consult, occasionally we are all very wrong about a player. Devonta Freeman is a player very few expected to succeed. (Not to toot my own horn too much, but I did pick Freeman as my fantasy sleeper this year on DLF.) Even with three straight weeks of solid production, he still has quite a few doubters. Let’s look at some of the reasons that a lot of us may have been wrong about Freeman.

An Uninspiring 2014 Rookie Season

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This is a classic criticism of Freeman and it goes something like this, “He couldn’t even beat out Steven Jackson last year. Old man, slow as molasses Steven Jackson!” Freeman had a quite limited role in 2014 and his performance shouldn’t be used against him. But to understand why, we need to look at that season for the Falcons as a whole.

The team that had gone 4-12 in 2013 had much loftier expectations in 2014, and they went unmet, finishing at a dismal 6-10. But there is one very important note about the 2014 season for the Falcons – they were actually in contention all the way into the final regular season game. While the Falcons were horrible, so was every other team in the NFC South.

Looking at the 2014 preseason, Freeman actually looked showed flashes of what he could be in the league. He had 32 carries, 134 yards (4.2 YPC) and one touchdown while receiving significant work. More importantly, he averaged 13.3 yards per reception on 11 catches. But once the season started, things changed for Freeman and the Falcons.

What does a team in contention (known for a high powered passing offense) do at the running back position? They stick with the veteran. As aged as he was, the Falcons had to stick with the player they thought they could rely on and that was Steven Jackson. Freeman saw very little work in the first two games, aside from a couple of carries here or there. His first significant action came in the absolute blowout (56-14) of Tampa Bay in week 3. He went into that game as a clock-killer, nothing more. For the season, it was the only game where he received more than ten carries.

This lack of usage continued throughout the season. The 6-9 Falcons went into their week 17 showdown with the 6-8-1 Panthers with a chance to take that fugly division with a win. Because of that, Freeman didn’t even get the typical late-season workload many rookies on teams out of the hunt receive. They may have been the worst contenders ever, but the 6-9 Falcons were contenders all the same. In retrospect, perhaps his 2014 performance (or lack thereof) is more a product of limited carries than lack of talent.

The 2015 Draft

The next line of the “Anti Freeman Defense” usually has something to do with the most recent NFL Draft. It goes something like this, “They spent a third round pick on Tevin Coleman, and Shanny HAND PICKED his guy to run his offense!” Shanny refers to the new Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and the crux of this argument is Coleman was drafted one round higher than Freeman and that the new OC was allowed to pick and choose his running back. I don’t believe there are any solid indications this is the case.

We already established the Falcons had two disappointing years in a row leading up to the 2015 season. It led to longtime Falcons head coach Mike Smith being shown the door on “Black Monday” after the end of the 2014 season. There were rumors Smith was on the hot-seat most of the season, with come conjecture that he could have been fired during the Falcons bye in week nine, with the Falcons sitting at a shoddy 2-6. Smith managed to hang on until the end of the season, but that was it.

But Smith wasn’t the only Falcon higher up whose job was in jeopardy. Rumors flew during the off-season that general manager Thomas Dimitroff could also get the axe. While he wasn’t fired, he essentially received a demotion as Scott Pioli was put in charge of all player personnel for the Falcons. It was a major shakeup in the Falcons front office.

After the front office moves, the Falcons made a slam dunk of a hire in Dan Quinn from Pete Carroll’s staff in Seattle. Quinn was one of the top names throughout the off-season as multiple head coaching jobs were filled. Quinn also made a great hire at offensive coordinator with the young and talented Kyle Shanahan.

So, what does all this have to do with Devonta Freeman?

Do you think a brand new, young offensive coordinator, working for a brand new, first time head coach, who in turn is working for a shaken up front office, is going to get all that much say in personnel decisions? Dimitroff almost lost his job for bad personnel decisions and Pioli was put in place to make smarter choices in that area. Do you really think he’ll let Shanny “pick his guy?” I don’t see any way that happened.

But this only represents part of the draft argument. The other piece is the aforementioned argument that a fourth (Freeman) versus a third (Coleman) shows a significant difference in how the team values each player. While I do agree that this indicates a minor value difference  (and I think you can see that in how the carries were distributed early on) I don’t think it shows a massive gulf between the two. Now, if the Falcons had spent a first round pick on a running back, it would be quite a different situation. In any case, they waited until the third round and I think it’s possible that the Falcons were surprised how quickly running backs were coming off the board in this draft. I don’t think there are any indications Coleman was their absolute first choice.

The Wow Factor

This may be the knock against Freeman that has led many to continue to hesitate before buying in. Freeman doesn’t have amazing long speed (a 4.58 40 time,) he doesn’t have impressive size (5’ 8” and 206 pounds) and he doesn’t have obvious power. As fantasy owners, we like to be wowed by our players. We can’t get enough of the physical specimens and metric marvels, often to a fault. (I’m looking at you, Christine Michael and I see once again people are getting sucked into your vortex!) Conversely, I think we discount players who do NOT feature eye-popping skills.

That’s the thing with Freeman, he doesn’t blow you away. He isn’t ripping off 60-yard runs or bowling over 4 or 5 would be tacklers. But look what he’s done in the last three games – 362 yards rushing, seven rushing touchdowns and 177 yards receiving – that’s an average of nearly 180 total yards per game. Yes, there have been holes, but Freeman has exploited every one of those holes. He’s also done it against three good defenses. In short, this is no fluke.

He may not have top end speed or size, but he certainly has skill. Freeman has a knack for getting skinny through the hole and slipping by potential tacklers. He’s not blowing past defenders with top-end speed, but the burst through the hole is there and he’s showing great lateral agility. He’s also doing a great job in the passing game, both as a protector and weapon. In short, Freeman is doing it all right now. Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) is one of the best in the business when it comes to scouting and he wrote an excellent piece on Freeman’s skills last July.

We all do our best to make decisions based on the available evidence. But we also have to make sure we’re able to adjust to new information once it becomes available. Early season indications in Atlanta pointed to a backfield led by Coleman, but his injury opened the door for Freeman and he burst through it Tom Brady-style. Freeman may not have flashed much last year, he may have been drafted later than Coleman and he might not have astounding metrics, but what he has right now is undeniable momentum. Since there still are some doubters, you may still be able to get on board at a lower price.

Take the chance on Freeman.