The Falcons' defense will get a couple of big-time players back in 2019, but, offensively, no return is more important than Devonta Freeman's.
Atlanta's two-time Pro Bowl running back missed all but two games last season, and his absence was notable at times with the Falcons struggling to find consistency on offense. Although just 5-foot-8 and a shade over 200 pounds, Freeman's physical style of running can jolt life into the Falcons on any given snap.
The offense in Atlanta has a group of skill players that rivals any in the NFL, but it's Freeman who could really push the Falcons over the top.
In 2015, Freeman's second in the NFL, he led the Falcons on the ground with 1,056 yards and 11 touchdowns on 265 carries. It was his first season as the No. 1 back for Atlanta, and those 265 carries remain the largest workload of Freeman's career. But Freeman proved up to the task that season, catching 73 passes for 578 yards and three touchdowns in addition to his numbers on the ground.
Freeman's performance in 2015 earned him his first Pro Bowl invitation, and it also proved just how valuable he could be for Atlanta's offense, which was searching for a spark at running back in the wake of Michael Turner's absence.
It was in 2016, however, that Freeman reached his highest peak yet in Atlanta. As a member of a record-setting offense, Freeman made things simply look easy on the ground. He once again topped the 1,000-yard mark, gaining 1,079 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns, but this time he did it on 38 fewer carries. Freeman averaged 5.5 yards per touch in 2016, which remains the best mark of his career.
The emergence of fellow running back Tevin Coleman provided a lethal duo for the Falcons, and opposing teams truly struggled defending the pair of backs. But Freeman was still the leader of the show for the Falcons.
With Freeman on the field in 2016, the Falcons averaged 752.25 yards more than the average NFL offense over a six-year span. That was the highest mark among all running backs that season, topping the likes of Le'Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott. Yes, the Falcons' historically efficient offense boosts those numbers for Freeman, but they help show his importance to a unit that was working at its best.
Yet Freeman's production for the Falcons isn't as important as how he achieves that production. Atlanta struggled to run the ball consistently without Freeman in 2018 partly because Coleman isn't as adept an inside runner as he is on outside zone plays. Coleman has been Atlanta's home-run hitter on outside plays, but it's Freeman who has been better on inside zone plays while still remaining dangerous when he reaches the edge.
The Falcons had difficulty running the ball in short-yardage situations in 2018. Atlanta ran the ball 26 times on a third or fourth down with 2 or fewer yards needed to convert the first down, and the Falcons gained a first down on 15 of those attempts, a 57.7 conversion percentage.
When Freeman was healthy for 14 games in 2017, the Falcons converted 74.2 percent of such scenarios. In 2016, Atlanta gained a first down 71.4 percent of the time. In 2015, that number was 66.7 percent.
So, not only have the Falcons run the ball better in short-yardage situations with Freeman healthy, but their success running the ball in those situations has increased alongside Freeman's growth as an NFL running back.
But the Falcons won't rely on Freeman alone to push the pile on a third-and-1. Rookie pick Qadree Ollison, who is 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, is expected to help pick up some of the slack in that area.
Besides, Freeman may be asked to handle more traditional running back responsibilities than he has in a while. Ito Smith received valuable work as the No. 2 back during his rookie season, and he will figure to slide into that same role behind Freeman, but it remains to be seen if he can pose as big a threat as Coleman did in that role. Brian Hill, Kenjon Barner and Ollison give the Falcons a lot of depth at running back, although its unclear what kind of niche they carve out.
What is clear is that this can be Freeman's time if he's up to the task. The versatility he brings as both a receiver and a runner should fit what the Falcons have done with this offense and what coordinator Dirk Koetter did in his previous stint in Atlanta.
Freeman has proven able to shoulder the load in the past, but back-to-back seasons with injuries have now made his durability a question. Thus far in 2019, he's looked crisp on the field and unburdened by any nagging injury. His ability to stay that way will be important for Atlanta this season.
Getting Freeman to hold back on game day might be out of the question, however, as he seems to relish landing a big hit at the end of his run. Besides, it's that type of physicality that Quinn likes to see on his offense.
Atlanta is ready to re-ignite its run game in 2019, and Freeman is the perfect spark.