Freeman Vows to Play Second to No One

It didn’t take long for Tevin Coleman to display his confidence.   

Moments after being drafted by the Falcons, before he had a chance to learn much about his new surroundings, the University of Indiana graduate announced he’d begin his NFL career as Atlanta’s No. 1 running back.

“Whoever is the starting back, they don't have to work,” he said. “I'm coming in and working right away.”

Meanwhile, fellow RB Devonta Freeman was not only working — he was putting himself through a uniquely rigorous training program. The second year pro out of Florida State claimed he went “full-throttle” during his offseason regimen and didn’t take any days off.

Suffice it to say, he doesn’t plan on giving up his spot on the first-team offense.

“I take a lot of pride in (being the go-to guy),” Freeman said. "This has always been my dream. I never had a dream to come to the NFL and play second to (any) man."

Without a doubt, there will be some spirited, hard-fought competition between these two. Head coach Dan Quinn noted Coleman and Freeman are “absolutely battling for it,” and at present, it’s difficult to forecast how the situation will unfold.

For now, as Coleman eases his way into the organization, Freeman remains at the top of the depth chart. And while that could change at any time, it’d take quite an effort from Coleman to reshuffle the deck.

“I love the competitive attitude Devonta brings,” Quinn said. “To me, when you’re having one of the best offseasons you’ve ever had, he’s one of the guys like, ‘I’m here, coach. I’m ready.’ He wants to be the first to do everything, and that tells you what the competitor is.

“I can’t wait to watch him work. He doesn’t back down from anything. That’s one of things I love about Devonta the most. He just, every challenge, ‘Yep. I’m ready for the next one.’ That’s one of the things I really do admire about him and his game.”

This kind of situation is not uncharted territory for Freeman. At 5-foot-9, he’s always had to deal with concerns about his size; at Florida State, he and current Bengal James Wilder Jr. each vied for the bulk of the carries.

And last season, his first professional campaign, Freeman had to make his presence felt on a club that featured three other capable RBs in Steven Jackson, Antone Smith and Jacquizz Rodgers. Not an easy task, to say the least.

“I’ve been in competition my whole life,” he said. “Especially with great athletes, even at the little league. I was going to elementary class and there were guys who were real good — faster than me, stronger and bigger. But I feel like it developed me and helped me at this level.”

Freeman’s brief experience in the NFL might give him an early edge over Coleman. In 2014, he finished with 248 yards on the ground, 3.8 yards per carry and one rushing touchdown.

Atlanta’s depth prevented him from getting more than eight rushes in a single contest, but he seemed to progress steadily as the schedule wore on: Freeman’s best performance came during Week 16 in New Orleans, where he scampered for a 31-yard TD.

He also earned 48 receiving yards at the Superdome. Perhaps that was a sign of what’s to come.

Regardless of how the carries are distributed, Freeman has the tools needed to be a valuable asset in the passing game. Catching the ball was a strength of his in college and, though he hauled in 30 receptions as a rookie, the new coaching staff thinks he can evolve into a key target for Matt Ryan.

“He’s got terrific hands coming out of the backfield,” Quinn said. “What a weapon that can be. He runs good routes and has really good hands.”

A big reason why the Falcons like Coleman is his knowledge of the zone-blocking scheme. As a senior at Indiana he darted for more than 2,000 yards — many of which came from his ability to read blocks and use his “one-cut-and-go” move to break free. Kyle Shanahan’s system will look a lot like the one Coleman studied at Indiana, at least from his perspective.

But Freeman sees this new offense as the right fit for him, as well. And he should: The 23-year-old has great vision, can change directions quickly and doesn’t take long to reach top speed. Now that he’s had time to delve into the new playbook, he sees himself prospering as a sophomore.

“The way this offensive scheme is set up is perfect,” Freeman said. “You definitely got to be in shape, be able to run fast and make good reads. The outside zone scheme is great for us.

“I’m very happy and thankful that we got this offense. I want to try to maximize it myself — not just be one of the running backs.”

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