Under general manager Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons have made it a practice to re-sign their core players.
If players produce on the field, they are rewarded monetarily with a contract extension.
Running back Devonta Freeman, who was set to make $1.838 million on the last year of his rookie contract, agreed to a five-year, $41.25 million contract extension Wednesday.
“We are very pleased that we were able to get this extension done,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “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.”
The deal has a $15 million signing bonus and includes $22 million in guaranteed money. Because NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed, Freeman’s deal essentially is a three-year extension, with $26 million in the first three years.
The team did not expect any issues despite rumblings from Freeman’s agent, Kristin Campbell, that surfaced at the Super Bowl.
The deal, which averages $8.25 million, makes Freeman the highest paid running in the NFL. Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy was the highest paid running back on a five-year $40 million deal signed March 8, 2015. His deal averages $8 million a year.
“This is where I’ve always wanted to be,” Freeman said. “I want to thank (owner) Mr. (Arthur) Blank, Thomas and coach (Dan) Quinn for all of their support. I feel extremely blessed, but the work and grind are just beginning.”
The Falcons can now continue the blend of Freeman and Tevin Coleman at running back. Running back Brian Hill, who was selected in the fifth round of the draft, is battling Terron Ward for a backup spot. The Falcons will attempt to replace fullback Patrick DiMarco with Derrick Coleman, a former Seattle standout.
Freeman and Coleman, who combined for 1,599 rushing yards, and 85 receptions, 883 receiving yards and 24 combined touchdowns, helped power the Falcons to Super Bowl LI.
Hill rushed for 1,860 yards and scored 22 touchdowns last season, as a junior, and he caught 41 passes in three college seasons.
Ward was a solid backup in 2016. He had 31 carries for 151 yards (4.9 yards per carry).
The Falcons’ negotiations with Freeman were complicated by Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell’s decision to reject a five-year, $60 million contact offer. He’ll play this season for the franchise tag of $12.12 million.
Other contracts considered included: Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin (five-year, $35.75 million, $15 million guaranteed), Houston’s Lamar Miller (four years, $26 million, $14 million guaranteed) and Jacksonville’s Chris Ivory (five years, $32 million, $10 million guaranteed).
The Falcons clearly deemed Freeman, a two-time Pro Bowler, a better running back than Martin, Miller and Ivory.
The running back market was lowered this offseason by the following deals: New Orleans’ Adrian Peterson (two years, $7 million), Denver’s Jamaal Charles (one-year, $1 million), Oakland’s Marshawn Lynch (two-year, $16.5 million) and Seattle’s Eddie Lacy (one-year, $5.5 million).
Freeman was selected in the fourth round (103rd overall) of the 2014 draft out of Florida State.
The former staff used him as a third-down pass receiving back in 2014. He took over the position in 2015.
During his three seasons with the Falcons, Freeman has rushed for 2,383 rushing yards, including back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons in 2015 and 2016.
Freeman has also been a threat out of the backfield, catching 157 passes. His 3,175 total yards over the past two seasons ranks second in the NFL, behind his teammate Julio Jones.
After taking offensive tackle Jake Matthews in the first round, the Falcons made a couple of head-scratcher moves in the 2014 draft in picking Ra’Shede Hageman, a nose tackle to play defensive end in the second round, and picking a project safety in Dezmen Southward in the third round.
However, most of the draft analysts applauded the Freeman pick.
“I love Davonta Freeman,” ESPN’s Todd McShay said then. “I’ve heard (he’s) Ray Rice Jr., but I don’t quite see that. But he runs hard. ... He’s going to break some tackles. He runs with good pad level and he catches the ball effectively out of the backfield.”