Falcons running back Devonta Freeman had plenty of time to contemplate what happened to him last season.
Injuries robbed him of the season, which ended with a sports hernia surgery after playing in only two games.
“It was tough because at the time I couldn’t see the blessing that God had for me,” Freeman said Thursday. “It was definitely tough not being able to go out there and battle and compete with my brothers.”
As the Falcons were sputtering to a 7-9 season after they were projected to be Super Bowl contenders, Freeman had a hard time watching the games.
“Just seeing all of those guys, every time I watched the games, I was like, ‘Man, that’s a missed (opportunity) for me,’” Freeman said. “I definitely took it to heart.
“I learned a lot from it. God does things for a reason, so it had to happen. I’m appreciative that it happened. Now, I’m just here to get better.”
Freeman was back in front of the line when the running backs were going through their drills. His presence has been contagious, according to coach Dan Quinn, running backs coach Dave Brock and quarterback Matt Ryan.
“It’s been awesome seeing Free back on the field,” Quinn said. “To see the energy that he brings has been good.”
Freeman uplifts all of the running backs.
“Certain people you’re around, they capture an energy,” Quinn explained. “He’s a multiplier of that when he’s around others. You forget about that in the pass game, the explosiveness that he has. The short plays that he turns into long ones because he can really (fake) out a safety or a linebacker. They feel the stress of having to guard him one-on-one.”
Brock, who was the assistant offensive line coach last season, is in his first season as the running backs coach with the Falcons.
“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.”
Ryan has noticed a uptick in the team’s pulse with the return of Freeman, who earned Pro Bowl status in 2015 and 2016.
“He was in the building quite a bit just doing everything he could to get himself ready to go,” Ryan said. “He looks great. He’s moving around really well. You can tell the energy and the excitement is there. He’s always been like that.
“You can feel it when he gets out on the field. It’s contagious. Guys around him feel that, too. It’s been great to have him back out on the field.”
Freeman rushed for 1,056 yards and an NFL-leading 11 touchdowns in 2015. He added 73 catches for 578 yards and three touchdowns.
In 2016, Freeman rushed for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns. He added 54 catches for 462 yards and two touchdowns.
In 2017, after suffering a concussion early in the exhibition season and another in the regular season, he rushed for 865 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games. He had 36 catches for 317 yards and one touchdown.
Freeman believes he can return to Pro Bowl status.
“The sky is the limit,” Freeman said.
He’s fully recovered from the groin, knee and calf injuries that were listed on the injury report last season before the surgery.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Freeman said. “I’m 100 percent. It feels good to be out there. The sky is the limit.”
Freeman, 27, learned the ropes from veteran Steven Jackson when he was a rookie in 2014.
Even though his sidekick Tevin Coleman has left to sign with San Francisco, Freeman is comfortable out front.
“I learned a lot from Steven Jackson, just listening to him,” Freeman said. “Seeing how he prepared. He was a true pro. Everyday he came to work.”
Freeman listened to Jackson, who was near the end of his stellar career that saw him rush for more than 11,000 yards.
“As a young guy, you always want somebody to look up to and have someone to talk to and ask questions,” Freeman said. “He was one of the guys that gave some very good advice. I took it and ran with it. I enjoyed my time here with him.”
Freeman also is reuniting with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who was with the Falcons in the same position in 2014.
“We always talk about it, it was my first touchdown,” Freeman said. “It was in London (against the Lions). It was a screen pass. It’s just good to have him back. He understands us and what we are trying to do.”
If Freeman can return to form after two down seasons, that would be a blessing for the Falcons.
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