The Atlanta Falcons’ accomplishments this season were a testament to their success in drafts over the last few years. From Devonta Freeman and Jake Mathews to Desmond Trufant and Vic Beasley, General Manager Thomas Dimitrioff and his staff have done a solid job under the draft-and-develop philosophy. As the Falcons now attempt to move past their devastating Super Bowl defeat and continue to build through the draft, it will be imperative for the front office to also extend some of their key players. With Desmond Trufant recently signed to a 5 year extension, Devonta Freeman will be the next priority.
Justifying an Extension
The Falcons drafted Devonta Freeman in the 4th round of the 2014 NFL draft. During his rookie season, Freeman saw limited action as Steven Jackson was the lead back. The following season, after age caught up to Jackson and the Falcons released him, Freeman earned a starting role and has rushed for over a 1,000 yards and averaged over 500 receiving yards in each of the last two seasons. In addition, Freeman’s durability during this time has been quite remarkable as he has only missed 3% of games. That being said, as Freeman enters the last year of his 4 year rookie deal and is due $1.8M, it will be in the best interest for the Falcons and Freeman to work out an extension. A new deal by training camp will provide Freeman with injury protection and financial stability while the Falcons will avoid entering a bidding war if Freeman were to test free agency next year.
The Running Back Market
Before I forecast an extension for Freeman, it is important to have an understanding of the current Running Back Market. Over the last few years, as NFL offenses have become pass-heavy, the demand for Running Backs has diminished. This is not only evident through the lack of Running Backs selected in the first round, but also the mediocre salary teams are willing to commit to the position. For example, the average APY for the 10 highest paid Running Backs is $6.99M. When comparing this metric to other positional groups, only Fullbacks, Kickers, and Punters have a lower figure as seen in the graph below.
I also want to point out that the current highest paid RB, by average salary, is Le’Veon Bell at $12.12M. Second on the list, at $8.01M, is LeSean McCoy. The reason Bell’s salary is so much higher than McCoy’s and the rest of the RB market is because he is on the franchise tag. If the Steelers and Bell can reach a long term extension, Bell’s APY will likely drop to an APY that is more reflective of the current market. However, this is not to say that there can’t be outliers in the RB market. When a RB is a once-in-a-generation type player, like Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch, teams are willing to shock the market as the Vikings and Seahawks did a few years ago when they gave Peterson and Lynch a $14M APY and $12M APY respectively.
Circling back to Devonta Freeman, to project an extension we will need to analyze recently signed deals in the RB Market and understand the performance that warranted the deals. This will allow us to identify a few comparable players which will help in determining a benchmark for Freeman’s extension. That being said, the table below compares key performance metrics for Freeman and RBs who have recently signed new deals. One point to mention here is that the stats below are reflective of each RB’s performance two seasons leading up to his respective deal.
After analyzing the table above, it is clear that Devonta Freeman’s performance has justified a top of the market salary. As I wouldn’t put him in the same category as Le’Veon Bell, I believe Freeman’s production is similar to LeSean McCoy’s, Doug Martin’s, and DeMarco Murray’s production prior to their respective deals. That being said, I would expect the Falcons and Freeman’s agent to use the preceding three RBs as comparables during negotiations.
Projecting Devonta Freeman’s Extension
Below, I estimate Freeman’s extension:
- 4-year extension worth $31M in new money ($7.75M APY)
- $19M Total Guaranteed; $12.5M Fully Guaranteed which includes a $5M signing bonus
- 2019 Base Salary of $6.5M guaranteed for injury at signing. Salary becomes Fully Guaranteed after 3rd day of 2018 league year
- 1st Year Cash Flow: $5M
- 3-Year Cash Flow: $19M
In addition, the table below illustrates how Freeman’s extension racks up against his comparables. As you can see, I am projecting Freeman’s APY to exceed Doug Martin’s $7.15M and DeMarco Murray’s $6.375M figures while falling short of LeSean McCoy’s $8.01M figure.
Freeman and Martin
I am projecting Freeman’s APY to be higher than Martin’s APY as I believe Freeman has been more durable and consistent than Martin. Although Martin may have more upside in the ground game as he has had two seasons with over 1,400 rushing yards, Freeman’s success in the passing game and goal line situations are hard to overlook.
Freeman and Murray
I would be surprised if Freeman’s APY doesn’t clear Murray’s $6.375M figure. When Murray signed his deal with the Titans in 2016, he was 28 years old and had 1,127 career rushing attempts. On the other hand, Freeman is 25 years old and has half the rushing attempts and less wear and tear than Murray.
Freeman and McCoy
Days before the start of the 2015 NFL League Year, the Buffalo Bills traded for LeSean McCoy and signed him to a $40.05M deal over 5 years. His contract not only has the highest 1st year Cash Flow in the RB market at $16M, but also the second highest APY at $8.01M. While McCoy’s performance justified a top of the market deal, I believe the Bills overvalued his deal with player-friendly cash flows and bonuses. I would not anticipate the Falcons making the same mistake with Freeman. In addition, I also consider McCoy as the more talented RB.
Salary Cap Impact
The table below illustrates the impact of Freeman’s extension on the Falcon’s salary cap:
One thing I want to point out is that the Falcons will have approx. $1.7M in cap room after signing their 2017 draft picks. With such low cap space, I am projecting Freeman’s extension to have $0 roster bonus and a low 1st year cap hit. In addition, I want to point out in the later years of Freeman’s deal, his cap number slightly drop off. This would be beneficial for Freeman as it would increase his chance of playing out his entire deal.
Similar to any negotiation, there will certainly be a give-and-take between both parties. For example, if Freeman’s priority is to be recognized as one of the highest paid Running Backs by APY, the Atlanta Falcons will pay less guaranteed money for the higher APY or vice-versa. Furthermore, I believe one argument that could work in favor of the Falcons during negotiations relates to the fact that Freeman has not shown the huge upside year as Martin did during his two 1,400 yard seasons or as Murray did during his 1,800 yard season. To counter that, Freeman’s agent could argue that this is because Freeman has not had as many carries as he shares time with Tevin Coleman, as well as the fact that the Falcons have primarily been a passing offense the last two seasons. Ultimately, Freeman’s versatility, durability, and overall commitment to his team will certainly be difficult for the Falcons to pass up, and I would expect an extension before training camp.
Hardik Sanghavi graduated from DePaul University in 2016 with a major in finance and minor in accounting. During his time at DePaul, Hardik interned with ESPN Chicago and Priority Sports & Entertainment. He now works as a Commercial Underwriter in the Insurance Industry. You can follow him on twitter at @hardiks94.