FLOWERY BRANCH — Devonta Freeman believes he is next in line to be the Falcons’ starting running back.
He has made an early statement that he won’t be outworked for the job.
The team released veteran Steven Jackson, the starter the last two years. Backup Jacquizz Rodgers signed with the Bears.
Freeman is the leading returning rusher with 248 yards and one touchdown as a rookie.
Following the Falcons’ first day of organized team activities, new coach Dan Quinn said “I love the competitive attitude that Devonta brings.”
Freeman said he worked through the offseason to be ready for this opportunity. Quinn has noticed.
“To me, having the best offseason you’ve ever had, he’s one of the guys who is like ‘Here coach, I’m ready,’” Quinn said.
“He wanted to be the first at doing everything. That told you the competitor he is.”
The first at everything?
That includes being the first back to take a handoff from Matt Ryan.
Atlanta drafted running back Tevin Coleman from Indiana in the third round. Only minutes after being drafted, Coleman said “I’m going to come in there and I’m going to get the starting spot.”
Coleman also said “whoever is in the starting spot, they’re going to have to work because I’m coming in there and working right away.”
Too late. Freeman already was working to protect his place in line as the leading returning rusher.
“I take a lot of pride in that,” Freeman said. “This means a lot to me. This has always been my dream. I never had a dream to come to the NFL and play second to no man.”
Freeman spent the offseason working with a trainer in Miami.
“I didn’t really take a break,” he said. “I went hard. … I just went full-throttle. I didn’t take days off. Football is all I know and all I love. … I was always working.”
Quinn said he knew Freeman had “terrific hands” when he was drafted out of Florida State.
“Now to add what he is doing in the run game, I can’t wait to watch him work,” Quinn said. “He doesn’t back down from anything. That’s one of the things I like about Devonta the most. He gets every challenge and ‘Yep, I’m ready for the next one.’ That’s one of the things I really do admire about him and his game.”
Antone Smith, who has shown big-play potential, especially as a receiver out of the backfield, also returns at running back. Another option is Jerome Smith, a second-year player from Syracuse.
NOTES: Wearing No. 44, OLB Vic Beasley, the No. 8 overall pick in the NFL draft, participated even though he has not signed with the team. Quinn said Beasley, the former Clemson star, DE Adrian Clayborn and OLB Kroy Biermann stood out in third-down pass-rush drills.
Among players who were rehabbing with the training staff and not cleared to participate were S William Moore (shoulder), OT Sam Baker (knee), CB Dezmen Southward (knee), RB Antone Smith (leg), LB Brooks Reed (groin), C Joe Hawley (knee) and OT Jake Matthews (foot).