With the NFL Draft and free agency having come and gone, we’ll break down all sorts of fantasy-relevant questions entering the 2018 season. Up next is a look at the Atlanta Falcons’ backfield committee under second-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
The Dan Quinn era in Atlanta has featured a consistently excellent running back committee between Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Per our NFL Trends tool, the Falcons have averaged the third- and fourth-most DraftKings and FanDuel points per game, respectively, with positive Plus/Minus averages on both sites since 2015.
Sarkisian Reduced Freeman’s Workload
Naturally, Steve Sarkisian has found a way to mess up a good thing. While Julio Jones was heavily featured in the red zone last season, Freeman’s stranglehold on the backfield was compromised.
The real loser from Steve Sarkisian? Devonta Freeman
Falcons RBBC when both healthy 2015-2016:
Coleman 7.8 rushes, 2 targets
Freeman 15 rushes, 5.5 targets
Coleman 9 rushes, 2.9 targets
Freeman 13.4 rushes 3.1 targets
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) June 8, 2018
Overall, Freeman posted three-year lows in basically every counting rushing and receiving metric, while Coleman surpassed 150 rushing attempts for the first time in his career. The Falcons made Freeman the league’s highest-paid running back before last season, and they aren’t going to simply hand the offense to Coleman but recent league-wide trends for running backs don’t paint the prettiest future outlook for Freeman.
- Freeman is the only workhorse back (20-plus combined rush attempts and targets per game) to stand 5-foot-9 or shorter and weigh fewer than 210 pounds.
- Freeman is one of just five backs to earn featured roles after being drafted in the fourth round or later since 2014.
- Freeman doesn’t possess any measurables that stand out among his peers.
The good news for Freeman is that he’s still expected to work as the No. 1 back on an offense with a top-six quarterback in QBR, along with the league’s eighth-best offensive line in adjusted line yards per rush.
Both Backs Dominate While the Other Is Sidelined
Both Freeman and Coleman remain just one injury away from reaching the nirvana that is a featured role on the Falcons. Freeman and Coleman have missed three and eight games, respectively, over the past three seasons, and unsurprisingly, they’ve each thrived during their respective opportunities to work as Atlanta’s workhorse.
- Freeman without Coleman: 19.1 rushes, 80.6 rushing yards, 4.8 targets, 39.9 receiving yards, 1.4 touchdowns per game in eight games
- Coleman without Freeman: 19.0 rushes, 83.3 rushing yards, 1.3 targets, 5.0 receiving yards, 1.0 touchdowns per game in three games
Freeman and Coleman each possess three-down ability that has been fully on display during their respective runs as the team’s featured back. Both have averaged at least a touchdown per game without the other in the fold. Freeman has consistently held a larger receiving role than Coleman throughout their careers, but it’d be surprising if the latter continues to offer such little production in the passing game while featured.
We can’t predict injuries with any certainty, but rostering either back in season-long leagues presents a comfortable second running back option with league-winning RB1 upside.
Targeting whichever one is healthy while the other is injured is almost essential in DFS, as Freeman and Coleman have averaged an additional 7.9 and 5.4 DraftKings points per game, respectively, while the other is sidelined.
Both Backs (And the Falcons) Are Undervalued
As of this writing, Freeman is the RB12 and Coleman the RB29 in average draft position. Their finishes in 2015-2017 indicate that those ADPs might be closer to their floor than ceiling:
- 2015: Freeman RB1, Coleman RB92
- 2016: Freeman RB6, Coleman RB19
- 2017: Freeman RB13, Coleman RB22
Even after missing two games and receiving a reduced workload, Freeman finished 2017 as a top-15 fantasy back.
Meanwhile, Coleman has provided top-25 value over the past two seasons, while proving capable of thriving with a three-down workload if Freeman misses additional time.
Changes at offensive coordinator, along with the natural aging of a roster, can help derail any offense. Still, this Falcons offense is just one season removed from averaging 33.8 points per game and working as the best offense in football. Both Freeman and Coleman have proven capable of returning value with Sarkisian commanding the offense, and a modest improvement from everyone involved could return both backs to fantasy glory.
You can use our tools to research more player- or team-specific questions for yourself, and be sure to check out The Action Network for more in-depth NFL analysis.
Pictured above: Tevin Coleman (left), Devonta Freeman (middle), Patrick DiMarco (right)
Photo Credit: Dale Zanine – USA TODAY Sports