ESPN Staff Writer
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — At the end of last season, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said he could envision a scenario in which the team would re-sign running back Tevin Coleman, even after inking starter Devonta Freeman to a long-term contract.
That scenario remains a possibility, according to coach Dan Quinn.
As the 4-9 Falcons dig deeper into the process of evaluating the roster approaching the offseason, it’s fair to wonder how the running back situation will come together in 2019. Asked Monday if he thought there was a chance of Freeman and Coleman being the team’s backfield duo of the future despite Coleman being in the last year of his rookie deal, Quinn didn’t rule it out.
“Yep. For sure,” Quinn said. “Everything’s on the table. When we’re in the scenario that we’re in, which we’re not very pleased at, you evaluate anything and everything. So, yeah, we’re certainly going to consider every single option in every way.”
Whether it all plays out that way remains a question mark, if not doubtful. Freeman, a two-time Pro Bowler, signed a five-year, $41.25 million extension ($22 million guaranteed) through 2022. But he knows nothing is certain about his future with the team despite the deal, especially when folks start throwing around trade scenarios.
Freeman played in just two games this season and remains on injured reserve following groin surgery. He is eligible to return for the Dec. 23 game at Carolina, although there is no guarantee he’ll be activated despite the optimism Quinn expressed last Friday.
“For us, the No. 1 thing is keep making progress,” Quinn said of Freeman’s status. “When we do that, then we’ll cross the bridge of what’s next in terms of him playing. But keep making progress, first.”
Freeman has had a variety of injuries, including multiple concussions and knee problems, which had left some league executives wondering about his durability. But the Falcons, ranked last in the league at 81.2 rushing yards per game, obviously would have fared much better with Freeman’s elusiveness and aggressiveness in the lineup. Not to mention Freeman runs routes like a receiver when asked to line up against linebackers. He has 37 touchdowns in 63 career games.
“Another player had said, ‘At the end of runs, he lets ’em know,’ and I thought that’s a clear illustration where he’s able to drop his shoulder on a guy to finish a run over his pads and downhill,” Quinn said of Freeman. “I think I love the fact that at the end of runs, he can really get downhill and finish. The 4-yard run goes for 8 yards. I’d say it’s his change of direction. When somebody is ready to size him up thinking they got the hit, the foot goes in the ground and he explodes. … He brings a lot of energy to the team.”
Quinn said all that without directly addressing if he has any concerns regarding Freeman’s long-term health.
At least one opponent believes the absence of Freeman has had a major effect on the Falcons.
“I think he’s an X factor for them,” said Sheldon Rankins, a star defensive tackle for the rival New Orleans Saints. “I think his ability to run on the edges as well as he does inside between the tackles, and his ability in the passing game, kind of takes the offense to a whole new dimension. Without him, they had to kind of go to a committee-type role, and you kind of saw they kind of threw the ball a lot more.
“And I think when that team is really rolling, you’ve seen in the past, is when they can feed their running backs and they can gash teams with the run game, the play-action pass, get Julio [Jones] deep and those guys. So I think [Freeman]’s an X factor for them, and they’ve obviously missed him this year. I know they’ll be happy whenever they can get him back.”
There are mixed reviews about Coleman around the league. One AFC head coach said back in February, “He’s a great complement to the starter, and he could fill the role of a starting running back because of his great speed and athleticism. Can’t discount his ability to score the football.”
Meanwhile, an NFC executive said recently he was surprised Coleman hadn’t shown a lot more fire and taken full advantage of starting in place of Freeman, which might indicate he is not ready to assume a starting role. Coleman has rushed for 559 yards and two touchdowns on 138 carries while starting 11 games. For his career, Coleman has 27 touchdowns in 53 games.
Coleman said during the season that he wants to remain with the Falcons. His agent, Adisa Bakari, is the same agent who represents Pittsburgh Steelers running back holdout Le’Veon Bell. So, it would be hard to imagine Coleman accepting a bargain deal if the chance exists for him to secure more money in free agency.
The Falcons have rookie fourth-round pick Ito Smith sharing the load with Coleman, and Smith gives the team a change-of-pace back who can get into the end zone (team-leading four rushing touchdowns). Smith, however, isn’t a guy anyone envisions being the Falcons’ workhorse back.
The Falcons have drafted a running back in four of the past five drafts — Freeman in 2014 (fourth round), Coleman in 2015 (third), Brian Hill in 2017 (fifth) and Smith in 2018 (fourth). The last free-agent running back the Falcons signed who made a significant impact was Michael Turner, who signed a six-year, $34.5 million deal ($15 million guarantee) in 2008. Turner had three 1,000-yard seasons and rushed for double-digit touchdowns in each of his five seasons with the team.
Quinn reiterated how important the running game is to success moving ahead, regardless of which players are carrying the load.
“It has to be a part of our identity — and a big part of that,” Quinn said. “I think it adds to the overall circle of the toughness of your team. But it also so clearly sets up the line of scrimmage like we’d like for the run game and the play-action to balance off of one another. Our identity is tied into that.”
The other important element, of course, is the play of the offensive line. In all fairness to both Coleman and Smith, the holes haven’t been there consistently this season, in large part, due to poor blocking. And if the Falcons plan to have success running the ball beyond this season, they’ll need to make sure they have linemen physically capable of getting the job done. They’ll probably need to address both guard spots, and the benching of Ryan Schraeder leaves doubts about the right tackle situation.
“There’s always things we can do to improve,” said center Alex Mack. “If we just block everybody, you could be back there. Unfortunately, [defenses] are good. That’s when you need a running back who is making people miss. Some of the runs are 100 percent on those guys doing really good things and making people miss.
“The better we can do to block people, the more space we can open up, the more we can run the ball.”
ESPN Saints Reporter Mike Triplett contributed to this story