“It was tough because at the time I couldn’t see the blessing that God had for me,” Freeman said. “It was definitely tough not being able to go out there and battle and compete with my brothers.”
Freeman was slowed by concussions in 2017, and last season he was limited to playing in two games after he suffered knee and groin injuries. He had sports hernia surgery Oct. 18. Over the offseason, Freeman convinced his coaches that he’s fully recovered.
“Everybody can see what a dynamic player that he is and how productive of a player that he is,” running backs coach David Brock said. “But the things he brings in the building, the personality, the competitiveness and all of those intangibles that he brings to our team, they are back now with him back here healthy.”
With Tevin Coleman now with the 49ers, Freeman is the clear leader of the group.
“It’s refreshing because he’s such a valuable teammate here,” Brock said. “He’s a good player, there’s no doubt about that. All those other things are so critically important to what we do and how we do it.”
While the Falcons like all of Freeman’s intangibles, the team need him to lead a rebirth of the rushing attack.
The rushing attack averaged 98.3 yards per game, which was ranked 27th in the NFL last season.
The offensive line was ranked 31st of 32 teams in “stuffed runs” by Football Outsiders. “Stuffed runs” are the percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage.
“He’s been phenomenal,” Brock said. “Phenomenal in the meeting room. Great with his teammates. Great in the weight room. He’s done a good job in practice. I couldn’t be more pleased with where he is, his mindset and attitude have been really, really top-notch.”
Freeman, 27, is still young. He’s not up against the 30-year-old marker, where some running backs hit the NFL wall.
“Devonta, in this league, is a true elite three-down back,” Brock said. “He’s going to be an explosive, productive runner. He’s a weapon in the passing game. He’s a guy who’s going to win for you on third downs. He really is the total package.”
There is some depth behind Freeman.
“The combination of Ito (Smith), Brian (Hill), Kenyon (Barner) and Tony (Brooks-James), Quadree (Ollison), all of them have some unique stuff about them,” Quinn said. “But that group has been really impressive.”
In five of the past six NFL drafts, the Falcons have selected a running back.
Smith, a fourth-round pick in 2018, projects to take over role as Freeman’s primary backup.
Smith played in 14 games and rushed 90 times for 315 yards and four touchdowns before his season ended with knee surgery.
“Plenty of room for growth,” Brock said.
The Falcons thought Smith had a strong rookie season.
“Again, he showed that the moment was not too big,” Brock said. “He had some really big runs for us. Had some great touchdown runs for us. We are anticipating him having a terrific group.”
Hill, a fifth-round pick (156th overall) in 2017, will have to hold off rookie Ollison and Brooks-James to earn the third running back spot.
Ollison was selected in the fifth round (152nd overall) of the 2019 draft.
“He certainly is a big physical player,” Brock said. “He can protect.”
In three of Quinn’s four seasons, the Falcons opened the season with three running backs. In 2017, they opened with four, but Hill was inactive for the game against the Bears.
Running back depth: RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 25 Ito Smith, 23 Brian Hill, 32 Qadree Ollison, 38 Kenjon Barner, 30 Tony Brooks-James and 43 Marcus Green. FB 30 Ricky Ortiz, 88 Luke Stocker and 87 Jaeden Graham.
Who's returning: Freeman, Smith and Hill.
After two down seasons, Freeman will try to return to his Pro Bowl form of 2015 and 2016.
Who's gone: Coleman left in free agency and signed a two-year deal worth $8.5 million, with $5.25 million guaranteed, with San Francisco on March 15. Jeremy Langford was released.
Roster competitions: Hill will have to hold off Ollison to keep the third running back spot.
At fullback, Ortiz is in an uphill battle against Stocker, who’s a proven lead blocker.
“You need interchangeable pieces,” Brock said. “That will play itself out as we go through training camp.”
Position-by-position series: July 8: Special teams | July 9: Safeties | July 10: Cornerbacks | July 11: Linebackers | July 12: Defensive line | July 13: Quarterbacks | July 14: Offensive line | July 15: Wide receivers | July 16: Tight ends | July 17: Running backs
Subscribe to "The Bow Tie Chronicles" podcast with the AJC's D. Orlando Ledbetter on iTunes or on the new AJC sports podcasts page.