Devonta Freeman to Regress in 2017?

Mark Wemken

The Atlanta Falcons had not even left NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas before it was publically announced that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan would be the San Francisco 49ers’ next head coach. Shanahan was an offensive guru that developed the Falcons’ unstoppable ‘Greatest Show on Turf 2.0’. Former USC coach Steve Sarkisian has been hired by the Falcons to replace the 37-year old Shanahan. Shanahan had been Atlanta’s offensive coordinator for just two seasons before earning himself a head coaching job.

In those two seasons, he has molded quarterback Matt Ryan into a league MVP, and he has transformed a former fourth-round draft pick into a fantasy football powerhouse. Running back Devonta Freeman has accumulated over 1,000 rushing yards and 50 receptions in each of the last two seasons under Shanahan. In his inaugural season, in which Shanahan was not the offensive coordinator, Freeman averaged just 3.8 yards per carry on 65 touches and scored one touchdown.

Freeman has been transformed into a PPR monster since the start of 2015. Only Detroit Lions’ pass-catching specialist Theo Riddick has more receptions among running backs than Freeman over that span. Turning a running back into a top receiver is something Shanahan has done more than once in his career. Freeman’s backfield mate Tevin Coleman was a strong receiver this past year as well. Coleman finished eighth among running backs in receiving yards despite catching only 31 balls.

Kyle Shanahan’s Impact on Devonta Freeman and Other RBs

In 2008, Shanahan heavily utilized then-rookie running back Steve Slaton in the passing game during his first season as an offensive coordinator with the Houston Texans. Slaton tallied 50 receptions that year, then followed up with 44 more in his sophomore campaign. After parting ways with the offensive mastermind, Slaton accumulated just 191 yards from scrimmage the rest of his career.

Fast-forward to Shanahan’s tenure with the Washington Redskins. Not only did he mold Roy Helu into 1,000 scrimmage yard running back, but he followed up his success with Helu by making a sixth-round draft pick in Alfred Morris a 1,600-yard rusher. Helu produced 80 receptions between his 2011 and 2013 campaigns, which is not including the 2012 season; he was only active in three games that year

Morris especially was a marvel under Shanahan. He averaged 205 standard fantasy points per season and an RB10 finish in his two seasons with Super Bowl champion Mike Shanahan’s son directing the offense. Since Shanahan and Morris parted ways, the 28-year-old power back has produced just 2,289 yards from scrimmage and 11 total touchdowns in three seasons. Morris’s average yards per attempt has declined by nearly 20 percent, and his fantasy points per season stat line have regressed by over 50 percent without Shanahan coaching him.

The only running back that has progressed since playing under Shanahan is Isaiah Crowell, who is looking to earn an even larger stake in the Cleveland Browns’ timeshare. Crowell set career highs in nearly every category last year including touches, scrimmage yards, receptions, and yards per attempt.

Out of the four RB1s that Kyle Shanahan has heavily utilized in his acclaimed offensive scheme for more than one season, every single one has suffered a severe backslide in production the following season. Two of the running backs (Slaton, Torain) never found consistent work in the NFL again. Based on this, it is fair to believe Shanahan makes otherwise average talent famous.

Tevin Coleman’s Impact on Freeman’s Value

tevin coleman

This puts Devonta Freeman and his owners in an awkward position. The fantasy football realm has never experienced a productive Freeman without Shanahan calling the plays. With Freeman eligible for a new contract at the end of the 2017 season, look for the Falcons to utilize the bigger, stronger, and faster Tevin Coleman, who earned himself a larger share of the snaps in 2016. Coleman has proven to be the more productive of the two when he has been on the field. Coleman holds a career average of about .85 standard fantasy points per touch; Freeman averages nearly one-tenth less in his career with around .74 fantasy points per touch.

Complementary to this, Freeman’s touches decreased by nearly 17 percent from 2015 to 2016. This is thanks mostly in part to Coleman’s increased role in the offense. Coleman missed four games in 2015, which opened the door for Freeman to run wild. The Indiana product missed one less game in 2016, and he saw his touches increase by nearly 42 percent. If he carries his increasing durability trend into 2017, Freeman’s share of touches will decrease once again. The Falcons’ backfield is just inches away from becoming a full blown RBBC situation. Given that Freeman will warrant a draft pick in the first round of most leagues, it is just far too likely he will not return on his investment without Kyle Shanahan calling the plays.

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