Fantasy Football: Devonta Freeman Is an Easy Buy at His Current Cost
The fantasy football industry is always chasing the next greatest thing. Breakout predictions and sleeper articles flood everyone’s timelines in hopes of getting in on a stud before everyone else does. Meanwhile, offenses that have already been explosive for years, such as the attack of the Atlanta Falcons, are being pushed aside.
The Falcons' offense has ranked inside the top-10 of schedule-adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) in each of the last three seasons. They are led by an MVP-caliber quarterback in Matt Ryan and finished sixth in total yards per game and tied for eighth in points per game in 2018.
We have a dominant offense that can move the ball at will and put up points, so why wouldn’t we want their starting running back in fantasy football?
Devonta Freeman Recency Bias
The short answer is recency bias. Devonta Freeman played in just two games for the Falcons last season, and neither outing left a good impression. Freeman touched the ball only 19 times all year, finished outside the top 110 running backs in Rushing NEP per carry and managed a meager 35.34 percent Rushing Success Rate. Ouch. But small samples are never a good idea, so let’s look at his 2017 season.
Among backs with at least 150 carries in 2017, Freeman ranked seventh in Rushing NEP per carry with a second-ranked 46.43 percent Success Rate. He was also a savant catching the ball out of the backfield, with an 11th-ranked 0.31 Receiving NEP per target (minimum 30 targets).
Some people may be skeptical of those numbers, and rightfully so. Freeman has been in a dominant offense every year of his career, which could skew his production. But Freeman wiped the floor with Tevin Coleman in both Rushing NEP per carry and Success Rate in both seasons they played together. He was the better runner, and it wasn’t even close.
Coleman has been a favorite of the fantasy community ever since he landed in the NFL, so Freeman topping him on the ground should help contextualize just how good he is.
Now that we know Freeman is a borderline elite back when healthy and is in a good offense, let’s address the elephant in the room: the offensive line.
Upgraded Offensive Line
The Falcons' offensive line ranked 22nd in run blocking, according to Football Outsiders. Their running backs were stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage at a ridiculous rate of 25.3 percent, the second-highest in football. The team recognized its deficiencies and invested heavily in the trenches in the offseason.
Atlanta signed four offensive linemen when free agency hit. They also added guard Chris Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary with two first-round picks in the NFL Draft. While continuity and cohesion are important factors in offensive line play, Atlanta is making an effort with the seventh-most money tied up there.
In addition to what should be an improved offensive line, the Falcons are expecting great things from Freeman this season. Coleman has been a pain for both Freeman and fantasy gamers alike, but that won’t be a problem in 2019, as he followed Kyle Shanahan to the San Francisco 49ers. That leaves Ito Smith as the only threat to a potential bell-cow season from Freeman.
Fortunately for Freeman, Smith posted a brutal Rushing NEP per carry of -0.05. While the offensive line can shoulder some of the blame, Smith evaded a tackle on only 21.4 percent of his touches, according to PlayerProfiler, which ranked 39th among running backs. Smith’s inefficiency on the ground may force Atlanta into giving Freeman a significant opportunity share this season.
Fantasy gamers can’t fall victim to fear-based drafting. Freeman is good at football. We know that he will get a lot of touches in an explosive offense this year. We also know the Falcons invested in improving their offensive line.All reports indicate that Freeman is fully healed from the groin injury that cost him his 2018 campaign. If that holds true, he has a chance to smash value at his third-round redraft average draft position -- he's the RB17 and coming off the board, on average, at 3.07 in PPR formats, per Fantasy Football Calculator -- and could return to the RB1 (top-12) territory. Fade the injury narrative and buy the first-round upside at a third-round cost.