Falcons running back Devonta Freeman rose to the top of his field last season, getting named to the Pro Bowl in his second NFL season.
That success gives him the benefit of the doubt with the coaching staff, but Freeman isn’t leaving anything for chance in the team’s mandatory, three-day mini-camp that began Tuesday.
“I compete with myself and max out every day,” he said. “Try to leave here drained every day, so it’s all about pushing yourself and seeing how far you can go as an individual.”
Freeman began last season as Atlanta’s No. 2 running back behind rookie Tevin Coleman, but a rib injury Coleman suffered in Week 2 gave Freeman the chance to take charge.
He ran for over 1,000 yards, finishing seventh in the NFL and tying for the league lead with 14 combined touchdowns.
Freeman isn’t counting on an automatic repeat. He said he must put in the work, even to retain his starting job.
“I’ve always been confident,” Freeman said. “I’ve still got a long ways to go. You’ve got to put the work in out here, but I do feel good about understanding the scheme that we run.”
The Falcons started 6-1 last year, but sputtered thereafter. Finishing 8-8, their biggest achievement was handing division rival Carolina, the eventual NFC champion, its only loss.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme thrives on stretch runs and play-action passes. Atlanta’s ground game struggled in the red zone after the first few weeks of the season.
“I want to say the first 12 times we had the ball inside the 10 we scored 11 touchdowns off run plays,” Shanahan said. But “when you start struggling to run the ball, you get a lot of four-man rushes. There’s seven guys in the end zone usually with four guys on a route, and it gets congested.”
The Falcons moved the ball adequately through the air, finishing with the league’s No. 6 passing attack, but they were just 19th in rushing.
Quarterback Matt Ryan likes the dual threat he and Coleman force on opponents. Freeman is compact at 5-foot-8, 206 pounds. He’s tough to tackle after one hit and changes speeds well. The 6-1, 210 Coleman has breakaway speed. If he gets into the second layer of a defense, he has the speed to outrun the coverage and score.
Ryan, though, considers Freeman the undisputed starter.
“Regardless of the situation, he’s going there and he knows one way to play, and that’s all out,” Ryan said. “When you have guys like that on your team, you always have a chance but even for young guys watching him — the way that he works, the way that he competes — that kind of stuff is contagious. It’s been really good for us.”
Freeman isn’t close to being satisfied. He says he “left a lot out on the field last year” as the team flopped in the second half of the season.
“I feel like I have so many ways to go until I become like where I want to be,” he said. “I never get complacent. As a team, I just think we have to keep coming out here and working to get better every day.”