The Falcons handed Devonta Freeman a rewarding contract extension in the summer of 2017. The deal was for five years, $41.25 million, including $22 million in guarantees. At the time, it made Freeman the highest-paid running back in the league, which was soon shattered by Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell. Still, Freeman remains the third-highest paid at the position and has had back-to-back seasons altered by injuries, making 2019 a deciding one regarding his future with the team.
In 2017, it was a concussion and a knee that prevented him from looking like the back that went to consecutive Pro-Bowls in 2015 and 2016. Freeman managed to play in 14 games, only missing two with a concussion, but admitted after the season concluded that his knee had been bothering him into the playoffs. It was revealed following the Falcons loss to the Eagles in the Divisional round that Freeman was suffering from two different knee sprains.
Last season was even worse. Freeman was injured in the opening game against Philadelphia, returned in week five for a matchup with Pittsburgh, injured his groin and was placed on IR a couple of weeks later. Freeman finished 2018 with 14 total carries for 68 yards and 5 receptions for 23 yards.
As the new NFL year approaches, Dan Quinn refers to Devonta Freeman as one of those players who has a lot to prove this upcoming campaign. He told this to 247 Sports, “He’s doing well, I’m excited to get him back in the mix,” Quinn said. “He’s a factor in the run game for sure based on his slashing style but he’s also a really good receiver. He’s one of those guys who has a lot to prove and heading into the season that’s a good thing. [I told him] his lost year, make it matter.”
Freeman has never had the type of personality that needed any extra motivation. There is also no questioning the versatility he brings to the field. The former fourth-round pick out of Florida State has established himself as an excellent runner in between the tackles, explosive in the receiving game and a sure pass-blocker. The only obstacle has been his health.
With Tevin Coleman off to San Francisco, Ito Smith takes over the backup duties with nobody that instills confidence behind him. A Devonta Freeman injury in 2019 would be devastating if the Falcons opt not to pick up another running back in the draft. That is a decision the Falcons brass will be making three weeks from now, but the much more gut-wrenching judgment may come at season’s end.
Next year is the first year of Freeman’s contract where the Falcons can save some money by cutting him. It’s not a massive amount ($3 million) but enough to make the front office ponder it if Freeman can’t remain healthy. In the NFL, there may not be a more accurate statement; then “the best ability is availability.” Freeman needs to prove he can stay on the field if he wants the Falcons to pony up the remaining $27 million left on his contract from 2020-2022.
(Photo by Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire)