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Can Zone Blocking Make Devonta Freeman a Star?


“Did you have to do this?
I was thinking that you could be trusted
Did you have to ruin
What was shiny, now it’s all rusted”

-Taylor Swift, Bad Blood


In today’s “thing where I write stuff and you read it because you it’s mid-February and basketball isn’t doing it for you, apparently,” I’ll attempt to answer the question “is there any chance at all Devonta Freeman ends up having fantasy value?”

Let’s start with a recap of what we already know about Freeman. He wasn’t a workhorse in college, and he’s small, slow, and has mediocre agility, so, not an inspiring start. It’s actually pretty unbelievable that an NFL team looked at someone with his athleticism and production profile and decided he was worth a fourth round pick. I also am not above speculating that, if he hadn’t played for the BCS National Champions his final collegiate season, Freeman wouldn’t even be on an NFL roster.

On the positive side, rehashing some of my old work  actually gives us a pretty favorable view of Freeman’s chances. I found that backs who aren’t athletic enough for any of the draftable profiles can still have success in stretch-zone schemes. Last season Justin Forsett became yet another example of a player with poor athleticism who was able to flourish in the scheme. Further, this piece on Lorenzo Taliaferro contains a list of successful backs to play in the stretch zone scheme who were just as unimpressive as Freeman was coming into the league.

Basically, my thinking at this point is that any back who’s in the range of being talented enough to be on an NFL roster can probably be successful in a stretch zone scheme if they’re able to make the reads and handle the mental side of the game, so if Freeman gets the starting job he should be productive. On the other hand, when the Shanahans first came to Washington, they went through a couple years of running back roulette, getting decent production out of a handful of players before eventually settling on Alfred Morris as a feature back. Then last year in Cleveland, where Kyle Shanahan was offensive coordinator, the Browns basically did the same thing, drunkenly splitting carries between Ben Tate, Isaiah Crowell, and Terrance West. If the Browns draft a back or sign pretty much anyone in free agency, figuring out the carry breakdown becomes throwing darts, assuming you aren’t at all talented at the game of darts.

With the knowledge we have today, assuming the Falcons don’t pick a back in the first two rounds or sign a big name guy (and I don’t think they will), Freeman has some chance to have value but it’s probably not something that’s so likely as to make him a screaming value. He might actually be a better pick in a draft-only format than regular leagues as there’s a relatively strong possibility he has a few top 24 weeks and then 10 weeks where he gets three carries or something.

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