FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- During the early stages of Atlanta Falcons' training camp, Devonta Freeman lined up wide left opposite speedy linebacker Jermaine Grace, shook himself free of Grace with a couple of quick steps at the line, then dipped inside as QB Matt Ryan completed a pass to rookie receiver Shawn Bane working inside-out.
To the casual observer, the drill was no big deal as Freeman didn’t even get his hands on the ball. But a closer breakdown showed just how effortlessly Freeman ran his route and how crafty he was with his footwork while establishing separation. He looked like any top-flight receiver, except Freeman, of course, is the Falcons’ top running back.
Make no mistake about it: Freeman firmly believes he can run routes just like a receiver and as well as, if not better than, any running back in the NFL.
"I’ve always felt like that," Freeman said. "That’s no disrespect to anyone, but I feel better than most people. I feel good at what I do in getting out of routes and getting out of my breaks. It’s just being an all-around player -- unlimited skill set. I can do anything. I believe in myself."
The Falcons certainly have faith in Freeman after sorely missing the two-time Pro Bowler for the majority of last season. He played in just two regular-season games while battling a number of injuries and finally was shelved for the year following core-muscle surgery.
The Falcons struggled to run the ball consistently without him, finishing 27th in the league with 98.3 rushing yards per game. Freeman’s return and a revamped offensive line could lead to better success running the ball. Plus, the Falcons hope to keep Freeman fresh with players behind him such as shifty Ito Smith, bigger-bodied rookie Qadree Ollison, or perhaps preseason standout Brian Hill. None of the others, however, are as dangerous as a pass-catcher as Freeman, whose career average per reception is 8.1 yards.
"First of all, it’s great to have him back," Ryan said of Freeman. "I think he’s a special player; really good with the ball in his hands. He’s a guy who’s an explosive player for us. If you can block the play for 4 or 5 yards, then he can make it a 25-yard gain. Same thing in the passing game. He’s just dynamic when he’s got the ball in his hands."
Freeman’s pass-catching ability is an added bonus to what is expected to be one of the league’s most high-powered offenses. During his cameo appearance in last week’s preseason game against the New York Jets, Freeman lined up at receiver when the Falcons went with an empty set. Once the regular season arrives, the Falcons will be able to create a lot of stress on defenses by spreading it out in such a manner using Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu, Austin Hooper, and Freeman.
“It’s fun, for me, watching Devonta Freeman doing some of the unique things he can do," wide receivers coach Raheem Morris said. "When you can get footballs in the playmakers’ hands, let them make plays."
So how did Freeman develop a knack for playing like a receiver? He reflected on his youth football days in Miami with the Liberty City Optimist Warriors under his mentor, Luther Campbell.
"Playing that little league football with Uncle Luke, you know when you’re young, you’re just an athlete," Freeman said. "You play everything and mostly, I played quarterback. So I always understood route running and how guys should run their routes.
“I stopped playing QB my sophomore year of high school because I always knew I wanted to be a running back, plus I knew I wasn’t going to be too tall. But it was good because I was able to see things like a quarterback. I try to understand the coverages and the disguises and the blitzes. I just try to be a QB on the field, even though I’ve got Matt Ryan to do what he do.’’
Freeman has 37 touchdowns in 63 career games, but some forget that his very first score was off a screen pass from Ryan against the Detroit Lions (2014). His offensive coordinator back then was the same as his coordinator now -- Dirk Koetter, who's back for his second stint with the Falcons.
"Dirk, when I first got here my rookie year, he utilized me in the screen game," Freeman said. "I got my first touchdown in London in the NFL, it was one of those screens that’s very familiar around the league. He used me in the pass game at receiver a lot."
Freeman, who ran 122 routes as a rookie under Koetter, caught 30 passes for 225 yards on 38 targets in ‘14 while backing up Steven Jackson. The very next season under Kyle Shanahan, Freeman had a career-high 73 receptions for 578 yards on 97 targets with three touchdowns and 425 yards after the catch. He was second on the team in receptions behind Jones’ 136.
Falcons offensive assistant Bernie Parmalee, who caught 168 passes as a running back during his nine-year NFL career, has watched Freeman continue to build upon his skills as a receiver. He pointed to how sharp Freeman runs choice routes out of the backfield against linebackers.
"He has the natural ability," Parmalee said. "First and foremost, he works at it. He understands how to get open. A lot of guys have all the talent but don’t know how to get open. They don’t know how to set people up.
"Not to mention he’s a really good listener. So when you’ve got a guy who has that talent and he listens and he works at it, I told him already he’s like a Swiss Army knife."
Now, a healthy Freeman looks primed to slice up defenses once again.