No one thought head coach Mike Smith was kidding when he said last week the Falcons will have some young players help them win games this season. After the contributions of first- and second-year players last season, there's no question the youth of Atlanta's roster is ready to play, and this year's crop of incoming rookies should definitely help. Perhaps no rookie this side of Jake Matthews is in a better position to contribute than running back Devonta Freeman.
Freeman's an athletic sparkplug that should infuse some new life into the run game, but before Freeman can be trusted on the field, he has to show he can hold up in pass protection, the first major hurdle for any young back in the NFL. Smith said Freeman's a short guy, but wouldn't classify him as small, saying he believes he's one of the strongest players on the team pound for pound. Excelling at pass protection, the coach said, is what will get the rookie on the field.
"That's probably the biggest that a running back has to go through in the NFL," Smith said. "They have to have a good feel in pass protection and it's very complicated with all the different looks they're going to be presented with in the regular season."
Freeman, who is as candid and open a player as you'll find, said the same sort of blocking demands were made of the running backs at Florida State. Those kind of expectations, he believes, will make his NFL transition as easy as blocking itself.
"Blocking is easy," Freeman said. "It was demanded at Florida State when I was playing football under Jimbo Fisher. It was always demanded. If you couldn't block, you couldn't play because if you have a Heisman quarterback and you let him get hit or hurt, you might be gone. It was something that was always demanded and I take a lot of pride in it."
Freeman isn't responsible for a Heisman-winning quarterback in Atlanta, but he has a franchise QB in Matt Ryan to protect. Ryan's answered questions about rookie running backs before and he's always agreed with his head coach. Ryan's feedback is the same as it's always been: do the little things well and you'll see the field.
"As a rookie, it can be overwhelming, but I think you have to remember why you have the opportunities in other areas because of what you do on the field," Ryan said. "My biggest thing would be remaining focused on playing well and doing what you need to do in terms of your preparation to be able to go out there and be successful."
The reception for Freeman has been favorable and he drew praise from Smith at the close of minicamp last week. The running back understands the head coach and the QB are two of the key figures in his attempt to earn playing time. Receiving praise from them is a positive, but the rookie is looking to keep the positive going and further grow the list of people that believe in him. "I always want to make an impression with everybody," Freeman said. "It means a lot coming from those guys because they decide who plays. Matt's got favorite targets, favorite runners. He has a lot to do with it and the head coach, it means a lot coming from him. I just take it and I just put it to the side and keep going. I'm just hungry."