Best Draft Value Running Back: Devonta Freeman
Average draft prices have eight running backs going in the first round currently. The demand is high for those at the top of their position. But there is one RB whose ADP is well after the first round who has a very real chance to finish better than Top 10. Devonta Freeman is currently being drafted in the fourth round as the 19th RB off the board. An improved offensive line, plenty of opportunities and a full bill of health, makes Freeman primed to get back to the top of the running back rankings.
Atlanta’s Focus Up Front
Going into the season, this unit had high hopes. But injuries shattered that dream quickly with Andry Levitre lost for the entire season. Guard Brandon Fusco also missed more than half of 2018. In January, ahead of the draft, head coach Dan Quinn alluded to 92.9 The Game’s Knox Bardeen that there were going shake up the offensive line this offseason.
“I’m comfortable at center and left tackle in the same way as you said,” said Quinn. “Past that, you scrub ever bit of it…”
The Falcons made true on that by signing veteran guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown early in the offseason. Then in the draft added Chris Lindstrom with the 14th overall pick. Lindstrom was the consensus top guard in the entire draft. Then they traded into the 31st overall pick to pick up offensive tackle Kaleb McGary, who is seen as an instant upgrade over Ryan Schraeder.
Adding two starting caliber vets is already a nice punch in the arm for Atlanta’s offensive line. Carpenter and Brown also both add some size as well. But the addition of youthful talent just shows that the organization is “all in” when it comes to the front line. With a commitment to the O-line, usually, comes a similar commitment to the run game. In that same radio program, Quinn went on to say,
“The run game closes the entire circle of toughness on your team. The better you’re able to run it, the better you defense is going to be able to stop the run.”
Which bring us to my next point;
Freeman is No. 1
… in Atlanta.
For the last four years, Freeman has split duties with Tevin Coleman. After Freeman’s big-time contract, the writing was on the wall that Coleman’s time was winding down in Atlanta. With Ito Smith showing some promise in limited 2018 action Coleman was allowed to walk in free agency. Smith, however, is not nearly the same threat to Freeman’s playing time as Coleman was. Posting a pedestrian 3.5 yards-per-attempt and only 5.6 yards-per-reception doesn’t scare me off of Freeman being a workhorse back.
Freeman’s career yards-per-attempt is just under a full yard better than Smiths, and his work in the passing game is much better being a full 2.5 yards-per-reception better. Smith is a great No.2 back to have on your NFL team. But Freeman is the real talent in that backfield.
If we just examine Freeman individually, you can see that he has consistently outproduced his opportunity every season he has been healthy. This lets us know that Freeman has been efficient with his touches. He made the most out of his timeshare with Tevin Coleman. With Coleman gone, Ito Smith will get some of those touches, but it also is going to expand opportunities for Freeman.
Freeman getting that workload behooves Matt Ryan and the Falcons.
Using the QB History tool, you can see that Ryan has been targeting the RB1 position well above the league average. Those targets spiked in 2015 and 2016, Freeman’s two best statistical seasons, one of which ended in the Super Bowl. In those two seasons in particular and before Freeman had some injury hiccups, Freeman had fantasy finishes as the RB1 and RB6 in fantasy.
With the Falcons not making any free agent or draft day splashes at running back, the primary workload is safely Freeman’s for 2019.
Plenty of Bed Rest
Freeman injured his foot and groin landing him on the IR in 2018. Limited to only two games before that, Freeman opted to undergo surgery and could have returned in Week 15 if Atlanta had anything real to play for. His outlook for 2019 is fully healthy and there isn’t any real reason to assume the worst moving forward. But don’t take my word for it. I asked our own in house injury expert, Ethan Turner about Devonta Freeman, who had this to say;
Freeman has had plenty of time to recover from a groin surgery he had, to repair a sports hernia last October. Research supports a return to play in two to four months with no significant decline in player performance post surgery. He will be ready to start 2019″
While his disappointing year last season suppresses his draft day value, I urge you to think of it as one season less of wear and tear.
Think about it this way, Freeman, who is only 27, has a career 964 total touches. That ranks 11th among active running backs and receivers. Four players, Le’Veon Bell (1,252), Todd Gurley (1,229), Melvin Gordon (1,079) and Ezekiel Elliott (1,002) all have more touches in fewer career games. That shows me there is still plenty of tread left on Freeman. He might just now be hitting his prime and has fresh legs under him, going into this season.
Recently I have been hearing that Freeman is “injury prone”. Really? Aside from 2018, Freeman has played in at least 14 games since his breakout 2015 season. One rough season does not make a player prone to injury and we shouldn’t let recency bias cloud our vision in the draft.
First Round Value for a Fourth Round Price
As I write this, Freeman’s ADP is 4.02 and tied with Mark Ingram. That type of value is what can win you fantasy championships. You can stock up top tier receivers and still snag an RB1 if you draft Freeman in the top of the fourth round.
Freeman has consistently put up first round talent numbers since taking the lead spot in Atlanta. His Points per Opportunity are right in line with other dual-threat studs like Le’Veon Bell and Melvin Gordon, who are both going consistently in the first round of drafts.
As your league mates draft jabronies like Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette who show no involvement in the passing game, in the third round, don’t panic. Sit back, relax, and casually snag Devonta Freeman as a pillar to your upcoming championship roster.