After looking like a fringe running back entering his second season, Devonta Freeman caused serious stress for the impulsive portion of his fantasy owners. The “Dropped Devonta Freeman/Added Davante Adams”-type transactions flooded the fantasy world after Tevin Coleman opened the Falcons’ season as the starter and kept the job after Atlanta’s Monday-night debut.
What occurred next doesn’t need to be rehashed, but how it broke down does since it could shape how the Falcons manage their ground game in 2016.
Coleman did not earn his job back after going down with a Week 2 injury, but he did manage to finish with 392 rushing yards despite being relegated to a strict backup role and being limited to 12 games. The 2015 third-round pick finished with nearly 150 more rushing yards than Freeman did during his rookie season, and the latter was playing behind an aging Stephen Jackson.
Compared to Coleman’s situation a year later, that looked like a friendlier path into the backfield. While Coleman didn’t end up usurping Freeman after the breakout talent’s touchdown barrage, he did enough to make the words “tandem” and “combination” surface from Falcons decision-makers this offseason.
He’s going to be a factor this season and eat into Freeman’s workload. Atlanta’s coaching staff wants this to be much closer to a 50/50 split than it was last year, and owners — even those who don’t land Freeman early — need to be monitoring Coleman.
The 23-year-old runner is one of the highest-upside handcuffs there is this season, and the former Indiana prodigy should be grabbed in leagues of all sizes as a stash at the very least.
Coleman suffered injuries in September and December but averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Freeman, on nearly 175 more totes, posted a 4.0 per-carry average. The hierarchy here doesn’t look to change, although after what happened last year, that’s not out of the realm of possibility.
He of 73 receptions as well and 578 receiving yards, Freeman remains the more versatile back. But his sophomore slate’s game log shows why the Falcons want Coleman to form a committee with him.
After that initial burst of action in September and October, the former Florida State ball-carrier cooled off immensely. Usual workloads notwithstanding, Freeman floundered during the season’s second half as a runner, failing to exceed 3.5 yards per carry in six of the Falcons’ final seven games. The one game Freeman did eclipse that figure during that stretch featured him receiving just three totes before leaving a Nov. 22 game with a concussion.
When Freeman missed the following contest against the Colts, Coleman darted for 110 rushing yards — which were the most any Falcon gained on the ground in any game after Week 7 — and showed his promise remains, even if a steady role eluded him at the time.
Before dismissing Coleman’s chances of invading this backfield and ruining some of Freeman’s owners’ Sundays, examine his final season with the Hoosiers.
For an Indiana team that went 4-8 (1-7 in Big Ten play) in 2014, it somehow unleashed a 2,000-yard rusher. Coleman zoomed to 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns for the Big Ten basement bastion Hoosiers, averaging 7.5 yards per carry on 270 handoffs. A sophomore slate where he also averaged seven-plus yards per carry preceded that, so the talent shouldn’t be in question.
This wasn’t Melvin Gordon bludgeoning teams with Wisconsin, a run-centric team that plays with leads often. Coleman’s feat proved far more difficult, and it should illuminate drafters’ eyes.
The Falcons also added Pro Football Focus-approved center Alex Mack to a team that already housed one of the game’s top right tackles, Ryan Schraeder, and a top-10-selected left tackle in Jake Matthews. Atlanta will be better equipped to run in 2016.
The Freeman/Coleman split will be closer, so the B-side may have standalone value as a flex option or as a starter on bye weeks. Without Freeman regressing or suffering an untimely injury, the Coleman lottery ticket isn’t going to pay off big. But the second-year cog needs to be owned due to the talent and frequent praise he’s drawn from Dan Quinn or Thomas Dimitroff this offseason.
They want to preserve Freeman for the stretch run, and that will mean more of his backup throughout.
It’s hard to go wrong choosing a high-ceiling back who could also emerge as a reasonable floor option in the late rounds. That makes for good value at a juncture when longer-odds picks are going off draft boards.
Just make sure to be patient here after the managerial carnage this backfield caused last year.