Devonta Freeman Showing He's More Than Just a Change-of-Pace Back

Knox Bardeen@knoxbardeenNFC South Lead WriterMay 28, 2014

Atlanta Falcons rookie running back Devonta Freeman is shown during their rookie minicamp football practice Sunday, May 18, 2014 in Flowery Branch, Ga.  When Freeman was selected by Atlanta in the fourth round, he said he
John Bazemore/Associated Press

Genghis Khan was 5’8” and weighed 170 pounds, according to the wiki Deadliest Warrior, a site that also claimed he never lost a battle in his life. Joseph Stalin, according to HistoryOfRussia.org, was approximately 5’5”, while Napoleon Bonaparte was of similar stature to Stalin, according to Napoleon.org.

Khan, Stalin and Bonaparte all won battles, ruled over kingdoms and were notoriously fierce statesmen.

All the Atlanta Falcons are going to ask 5’8” rookie running back Devonta Freeman to do is run with the football and catch it sometimes, too. But that might not be his barrier of entry into regular work in the NFL in 2014.

"If you can block and protect that million-dollar quarterback, I mean, that's the main thing we like, protecting the guy," Freeman said on May 17, at the team’s practice facility during rookie minicamp. "Catching and running, I feel like that's the easy part of it. It just comes naturally. But blocking, that's something that you have to have heart and stuff. I take a lot of pride in that, so that's one of the things I'm going to work at the most."

Freeman rushed for 1,016 yards last year for the Florida State Seminoles, helping to lead them to a national championship. He also caught 22 passes for 278 yards and added a receiving touchdown onto his 14 rushing scores.

What you might not know about Freeman is, even at 5’8”, he’s already shown some blocking skills.

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Against the Maryland Terrapins, Freeman located a blitzing linebacker in this video and stood him up to create a pocket for Jameis Winston to throw. 

In another bit of evidence from the Maryland game last season, Freeman stood his ground and slowed down a pass-rusher. 

If Freeman doesn’t stand his ground to lock up a would-be pass-rusher, he can alleviate the threat by taking the threat out.

Here’s a little evidence supplied by Mike McGourty on Vine, and reported by Patrik Nohe of the Miami Herald. Freeman seemed to be fully aware that he can be a viable option in pass protection, and a bit of a trash talker while at Florida State.

I do talk trash sometimes. It was a blitz, I knew he was blitzing and I was just like ‘come on, I’ll block you,’ and he came and I blocked him, easy. It was obvious.

So you know the play I'm talking about?

Yeah I know exactly what you’re talking about,” he said, laughing.

When the Falcons selected Freeman in the fourth round, they obviously liked what they saw from him as a ball-carrier and pass-catching option. Freeman’s moxie in pass protection also had to show up. If it shows up at the next level, it will lead to playing time in the NFL.

“We've got some options, and we've got to find out what Devonta Freeman can do," said head coach Mike Smith about how playing time would be distributed among his running backs. "To me, if he can step up and be a good pass-protector, he's got the chance to be a three-down back."

That’s a bold statement. Can Freeman really handle the wear and tear of being on the field in every offensive situation? His pass-blocking is the only real question, because the first-year running back absolutely shined during the rookie minicamp sessions.

During the first two days of rookie minicamp, Freeman showed speed and quick bursts of acceleration as the group worked on grass. Freeman caught the ball with his hands, was always moving in the right direction and showed an ability to separate from a tackler.

On the final day of camp, weather forced the rookies inside to what is known as “The Barn,” Atlanta’s fixed-roof, indoor practice facility. Since the Falcons play in the Georgia Dome, Freeman’s practice session on turf was a telling moment. 

Freeman absolutely blew past the defense at just about every opportunity he got.

On turf, Freeman’s first step as he cut back into the line of scrimmage seemed quicker than everyone else’s. But what was really impressive was how quickly Freeman transitioned from “moving-through-traffic” speed to “open-field” speed. Freeman shifted into a higher gear amazingly fast. And on multiple occasions, an audible reaction was whispered by many in the media corps watching.

“Quizz can’t do that.”

I said those exact words as I watched Freeman cut through the line of scrimmage with the football. Others said it as Freeman bounced outside and blew past anyone trying to tackle the rookie.

It’s easy to compare Freeman to Jacquizz Rodgers because both running backs are short. But there’s another reason to look at what each runner brings to the table. The first person Freeman is going to steal touches from, if he can show he’s a running back that can block, is Rodgers.

Freeman is a bigger, faster and more explosive option to Rodgers. It’s plain and simple, if Freeman can pick up blitz schemes and stop them at the NFL level, he’s going to force his way into the Falcons’ game plan. And that means Rodgers is going to lose touches. 

Steven Jackson is still the top dog in Atlanta, but he only rushed for 543 yards last season and will turn 31 just prior to training camp. If Jackson can’t rebound from his worst season as a professional, and Freeman becomes the blocker he was in college, he might take touches away from Jackson as well. 

That’s not a dream scenario for the Falcons, because Atlanta wants Jackson to succeed. But knowing Freeman could be an option should nothing else work, makes this fourth-round pick a potential gem.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand at rookie minicamp in Flowery Branch, Georgia from May 16-18, 2014.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.

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