Should I Draft Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman?

The Atlanta Falcons drafted Davonta Freeman in the 4th round of the 2014 NFL Draft, with the 103rd overall pick. The team drafted Tevin Coleman in the 3rd round of the 2015 Draft, with the 73rd overall pick.

The question is: which is the better prospect?

That question depends on which type of league you play in: redraft or keeper league. I’ll discuss the question from both perspectives. For the keeper format, I’ll discuss the dynasty league, since I assume none of the Falcons RBs would be kept in a keeper league involving a few elite players being kept.

After I analyze the major candidates, I’ll give a wild card as a deep, deep sleeper. Some dynasty leagues draft way down the list for projects and long range prospects. I have a name those owners might like.

As of Week 8 of 2015, the answer is obvious: Devonta Freeman. Whether that holds true for the coming seasons, I don’t know. Much of what I wrote back in the summer still holds, though Freeman has become a fantasy juggernaut in the 1st half of the 2015 NFL season.

For those who want to look deeper into this question, let’s take a quick look at the leading candidates: Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman.

Devonta Freeman Scouting Report

Height: 5’8″
Weight: 205
40-Time: 4.58
College: Florida State Seminoles
Years Pro: 2
Jersey Number: 24
Ave. Redraft Position: 154
Ave. Keeper Position: 119

Devonta Freeman Bio Pic

Devonta Freeman Began Training Camp As the Starter, But Nagging Injuries Limited His Reps

Devonta Freeman was drafted to be a scatback and a change of pace for Steven Jackson last year. He is built low to the ground, is shifty, and is likely to settle into a role as a punt returner. The team had Devin Hester on the roster, so he did very little in the way of kickoff or punt returns last year.

Freeman had 65 carries for 248 yards in his rookie season, which translates to a 3.88 yards per carry average. He also had 31 receptions for 225 yards, which is a 7.75 yards per reception average. He scored 1 rushing touchdown and 1 receiving touchdown on the year.

When I use the term “scatback”, I tend to think of running backs who are neither big or fast. They get by on their ability to catch the ball, then make cuts and shift gears quickly. The main difference in a scatback and a player like Darren Sproles (in his prime) is that the scatback does not have gamebreaking speed. That seems to describe Devonta Freeman pretty well.

Devonta Freeman is a player who can be useful as a checkdown. He cannot be a three-down runner in the NFL, because he doesn’t have the size nor the game-breaking speed. NFL star running backs need either one, or both.

Tevin Coleman Scouting Report

Height: 6’1″
Weight: 205
40-Time: 4.40
College: Indiana Hoosiers
Years Pro: Rookie
Jersey Number: 26
Ave. Redraft Position: 84
Ave. Keeper Position: 50

Tevin Coleman Bio Pic

Tevin Coleman Is Considered the Current Heir Apparent at Running Back, But Injuries Have Hampered His Progress

Tevin Coleman is considered by many to be the heir apparent as the Atlanta Falcons’ starting running back. He is being drafted as if he will fill that capacity one day. In redraft leagues, the decision is a great deal more complicated. Owners overdraft rookies every year, thinking they’ll be a star from Week 1. But the Randy Moss and Adrian Peterson stories are few and far between.

Last year’s success of rookie receivers like Odell Beckham Jr. and Kelvin Benjamin is certain to keep people drafting rookies high. There’s a certain logic to it, but the question is whether Tevin Coleman is that kind of player.

Tevin Coleman has good NFL size, though not great size. He is a little thin for an NFL runner and runs upright, so arm tackles and nagging injuries could be a key. On the other hand, if he can add 10 pounds of bulk and maintain his speed, Coleman could become an NFL star.

Greg Gabriel, former Director of College Scouting for the Chicago Bears, said he believed Tevin Coleman was the best running back entering the NFL Draft. He had Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon as the #2 pick, but said he thought Tevin Coleman would have had more yards from the line of scrimmage than Gordon behind the Badgers’ offensive line. Instead, he played on a 4-8 Indiana Hoosiers team and still was a standout in the Big Ten.

Playing against the same competition as Melvin Gordon, Coleman compiled over 2,000 yards from the line of scrimmage. Melvin Gordon had a massive 2,500 yards, but that was behind one of the best lines in NCAA football.

Gabriel pointed out that Tevin Coleman is a boom or bust player. Part of that is playing on a team which has made it to one bowl game in the past 20 years. Part of it might be his fault. Coleman showed in highlight clips he can hit the hole when it was there. His speed through the hole is compelling.

While the highlights display that talent, you don’t see as many wicked cuts or broken tackles. To be a star in the NFL, speed alone is not enough. You need to either break tackles or break ankles with your cutting ability.

Redraft Value: Falcons Running Corps

All that I said about Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman earlier is going to be a bit skewed during the 2015 season. Devonta Freeman has one big advantage over Tevin Coleman: he’s been a year in the system. Before training camp, he had the role of starting running back in his grasp. Unfortunately, injuries muddled things up.

In fact, both Freeman and Coleman have been battling injuries. That make the situation murky. Freeman has missed the preseason, while Coleman missed the first two games and played only in a limited fashion in the third game. The lack of activity makes it hard to assess both players.

My gut instinct is the injury to Coleman hurts his early season contributions more than it does Freeman. The reason is simple: Tevin Coleman is a rookie. He hasn’t had a year in the system to learn the offense on a fundamental level and get up to NFL speed. He’s likely to be learning during regular season games, which means his progress is slow.

Devonta Freeman, on the other hand, has been with the team for a year. While he is learning Kyle Shanahan’s offense anew, he does know the NFL better and is up to game speed. They say the NFL game is fast for most new players, and it takes 6 to 8 weeks to catch up to the speed of the game. (Quarterbacks claim the game “slows down” after 6 to 8 games, if you’re good.) The learning curve is less for runners, but still applies.

2015 Redraft Tip: Both are learning Kyle Shanahan’s offense, so an owner shouldn’t give Freeman too much of an advantage based on the above information. In fact, on the My Fantasy League average draft position list, Coleman is being drafted a full 35 positions higher than Freeman. A lot of that has to do with hardcore NFL fans drafting just after the NFL Draft, when rookies are at the peak of their allure. In my live drafting experience this year, the two each go in the 7th or 8th rounds in 12-team leagues. In fact, I’ve seen Freeman drafted first more times than not.

Dynasty Value: Falcons Running Corps

In a dynasty or keeper league, there is no decision. Tevin Coleman is much more valuable, and he is much more highly coveted. Again, the reason is simple: Tevin Coleman is seen as a franchise running back. He is a 3-down runner with high end speed and good size. Coleman is seen as a possible eventual starter in the NFL, but Freeman is simply a complimentary player.

Coleman received praise for a short touchdown run in the 2nd preseason game. Coaches said he deserved a game ball, which is a good indication they like what they’ve seen so far.

Kyle Shanahan’s offense is perfectly suited for Tevin Coleman, though. Shanahan takes the offense which was seen with the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl years, or the Houston Texans during the Gary Kubiak years. The idea is to create running lanes, then use a one-cut runner to hit the hole.

A bread-and-butter play in the Kyle Shanahan offense is to string the play out wide, then seal off a hole for the running back to hit cutting back…once. Players with the ability to hit the hole quickly, foot speed to break into the defensive backfield, and north-south decisiveness stand out in the system.

I see Tevin Coleman filling that role nicely.

2015 Dynasty Tip: In a keeper or dynasty league, Tevin Coleman as the back to draft. He could develop into a franchise running back. I don’t see Devonte Freeman filling that role in any capacity. You want to hit home runs with these picks. If you miss, move on and swing for the fences next year again. Drafting Tevin Coleman is the fantasy football equivalent of aiming for the bleachers.

Deep Sleeper Pick: Terron Ward

Height: 5’7″
Weight: 201
40-Time: 4.41
College: Oregon State Beavers
Years Pro: Rookie
Jersey Number: 33
Ave. Redraft Position: Not Applicable
Ave. Keeper Position: Not Applicable

Terron Ward Pic

Terron Ward Is Playing with the 1st Team Offense in Preseason, But the Falcons Have Yet to Add His Pic to His Bio Page…a Bad Sign

Here’s one bonus tip. For those in a dynasty league with a deep, deep roster, I suggest drafting Terron Ward late. Terron Ward is a rookie running back who is starting for the Atlanta Falcons in preseason games while Tevin Coleman and Devonte Freeman are nursing injuries.

By no means will he be starting when everyone is healthy. In fact, there’s a chance Terron Ward does not make the Falcons’ 53-man squad. He is battling Antone Smith for the role of 3rd string running back. Smith is a veteran, with all of its attendant advantages. Ward is a lightly-regarded rookie, but reasons exist to think he has the inside track to being kept.

For one thing, this is a new regime. Antone Smith was brought onto the team by the old regime; Terron Ward was chosen by Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan. As was mentioned earlier with Freeman, Antone Smith doesn’t have the advantage of knowing the offensive scheme better–this one is new. Terron Ward is a better punt return option, while he is also playing with the 1st team, which is a sure sign of favor.

The skeptic might say playing with the 1st team isn’t necessarily a sign of favor. Perhaps the new coaching staff wants a true evaluation of the younger player, but they reject him in the end. The key factor is: Terron Ward is playing quite well with this opportunity.

Terron Ward does not have the stature to be an every-down back in the NFL. At the same time, since the rule change in the 2004 offseason, players who run in space have had far more success in the NFL. Smallish receivers working in the slot do better, as evidenced by Wes Welker’s success. Smallish running backs do better, as evidenced by Darren Sproles’s success. In either case, these are extraordinary players, but the rules were changed at just the right time to help their careers.

I’m not comparing Terron Ward to Darren Sproles per say, but he has good 4.4 speed and looks strong for a man his size. One of the traits Sproles had going for him was his phenomenal strength. In a way, Sproles shared a trait with another small running back–Maurice Jones-Drew–who seemed to be as thick as he was tall.

2015 Dynasty Hint: Again, I’m not making the comparison to either of those players. But if you play in a 40-round keeper league where the last few rounds are littered with throwaway picks, I’d suggest you add someone like Terron Ward and cross your fingers he turns into something. I imagine Devonta Freeman would have to lose favor or get injured to make way for Ward, but if he were outplayed consistently, you never know a year from now.

Additional Fun Fact: Terron Ward is the younger brother of T.J. Ward, who was drafted by the Cleveland Browns and now starts at safety for the Denver Broncos.

That’s the way I see the Atlanta Falcons running back depth chart in late-August of 2015. Draft Tevin Coleman if you play in a dynasty league or keeper league. Consider Coleman and Devonta Freeman the 1A and 1B running backs in redraft leagues in 2015. Make the decision based on immediate need, or simply draft one a round or two after the other is drafted in your league.

The question of which Atlanta Falcons running back you should draft in 2015 depends on your team’s needs and the draft circumstances. You know your team better than I do, but use the handy information and tips above to inform your decision. Good luck drafting Falcons runners.