Falcons, their fans, won’t soon forget the Devonta Freeman lesson

Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (24) averaged a career-low 3.6 yards per carry last season.

The tale of (soon to be former) Falcons running back Devonta Freeman officially has completed its trip from inspiring to cautionary.

All the warnings that come with signing a player — a running back in particular — to a massive long-term deal seemingly have borne their sour fruit. All reports have the Falcons releasing the back that GM Thomas Dimitroff once called "one of a number of our pillar players on this team," with three years left on his contract. The pillar buckled before its time, but many running backs, especially those who are only 5-foot-8 and a biscuit or two over 200 pounds, are not built to code.

Freeman turned 28 Sunday, as was deemed too much of a drag on the team’s salary cap. We’ve heard too much about high-risk groups lately. In the football sense, that today includes certain high-priced running backs still on the shady side of 30.

In the harsh afterglow of hard numbers, Freeman post-big contract never was the same player as he was prior to signing it in the summer of 2017. He never again rushed for 1,000 or more yards as he had in the 2015 and ’16 seasons. He averaged nearly 16 carries and six catches a game over ‘15 and ’16, and only 13 carries and a little more than three catches a game average thereafter. And those number of games dwindled due to injury — head, knee, groin, foot — as he played in fewer games the three seasons following the contract than in the prior two. He has made a pair of Pro Bowls in his career, both before the big deal.

There are arguments to be made about how Freeman was deployed once Kyle Shanahan was no longer coordinating him, but simply watching him confirmed his fall-off went deeper than that. Be it a consequence of the injuries or age or even encroaching good sense, he did not seem to hit holes with a familiar burst and violence. He was off just a tick, and that’s all it took to play beneath his lofty pay grade.

Years ago, Freeman, when talking about the out-of-proportion physical nature of his running, said, “It’s like when LeBron James slam dunks over somebody and the whole crowd goes crazy, it’s that monster (coming out). When I run somebody over it feels like that.” That feeling became increasingly hard to come by.

Someone else surely will employ Freeman; there remains a gain or two to squeeze from him (although, for the life of me, I don’t see a natural fit now). Hard to imagine that we’ll ever see the same kind of consistent tornadic tendencies he once unleashed upon a game. Glimpses, yes. Sustained, season-shaping performances, doubtful.

Unless, of course, he somehow ends up with the Patriots, and he then he no doubt will reclaim every bit of misplaced burst, with more to spare.

Smitten by the Super Bowl year and an offense that was from another planet, the Falcons felt it imperative to pony up the five-year, $41 million extension. But Freeman never played to that level and given the nature of a salary-capped league, fans naturally began to wonder how that money could have been spent on a pass rush or a comfortable pocket for Matt Ryan.

At the time, the most off-putting part of the Freeman re-signing was the preamble, as his agent began lobbying for a new deal the week before the Super Bowl against New England. A most unwanted distraction. “It's time for the Falcons to pay him like the elite back he is,” Kristin Campbell said then. “I expect them to make him a priority this offseason, as he's been an integral part of the dynamic offense that has gotten them to the Super Bowl.”

That he was. When Freeman did sign in the summer of ’17, it was natural to wonder if the team would regret such an investment in a running back, a position that tends to burn brightly yet briefly, even among the stoutest of runners. There was the nagging doubt about possible diminishing returns and the spinning of worst- case scenarios — some of which actually materialized.

You couldn’t help but hope this would work, and the Falcons certainly were caught up in that emotion, too. Hope may not be a plan, but it naturally follows a player like Freeman. The man practiced and played with a big personality. His backstory, coming from a bad place in Miami to make it big in the NFL, never failed to uplift. And lest we forget, he was at his best a most popular and dynamic Falcon, as glorious to watch as any fireworks on the Fourth of July. To not acknowledge now just how versatile Freeman could be running and receiving out of the backfield would be an insult.

“Devonta embodies everything we are looking for in a Falcon and we are proud that he'll be able to spend his career here in Atlanta,” Dimitroff said back in 2017.

That career here was too brief and too uneventful at its close. It ends as many do, as a means to clearing cap space rather than as a key to a championship.

And we stand once more warned about the “B” side of the big signing.