FLOWERY BRANCH -- Devonta Freeman, who's arguably the most underpaid player in the NFL today, made the right decision to report on time to Falcons' training camp. It reaffirmed his intention to minimize the potential distraction of his contract negotiations.
But this never was expected to be an easy negotiation and if it drags on it won't be a surprise. As good as Freeman is and as valuable as he is in the Falcons' offense, his overarching value to the team's future probably isn't as high as he wants to believe.
That's not meant as a shot at the fourth-year running back. He has far outplayed his rookie contract, which will pay him $1.797 million this season -- a total payout that ranks tied for 31st among NFL back (barely ahead of former Falcon Jacquizz Rodgers of Tampa Bay). Freeman has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons and in the last two years has combined for 3,175 rushing-receiving yards and 27 touchdowns.
But there are some football and economic realities his camp must come to terms with:
• Football reality: Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are the Falcons' offensive stars. In a pass-happy league where running backs have been devalued, it's questionable whether the Falcons place as high a value on Freeman as they do No. 2 receiver Mohamed Sanu, who last year signed a five-year, $32.5 million contract with $14 million guaranteed. (That's an important bar to remember in these negotiations). He's also not going to be paid on the same level as Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell (who likely will play for a $12.1 million franchise tag after rejecting a five-year offer) or Buffalo's LeSean McCoy (five years, $40.5 million with $18.25 guaranteed).
Another factor: Some consider Tevin Coleman, who shares running back duties, just as good as Freeman. Coleman is one of the fastest players on the team in the open field and his contract is up following the 2018 season (one year after Freeman). If the Falcons set the bar too high with Freeman's contract, it's going to be difficult to keep Coleman.
Finally, it's worth noting the Falcons drafted a running back in the fifth round, Brian Hill of Wyoming, who rushed for 1,860 yards and 22 touchdowns last season.
• Economic reality: Jones (five years, $71.3 million) and Desmond Trufant (five years, $68.7 million) have been given big deals. Ryan's deal has only two seasons left -- as does Coleman, left tackle Jake Matthews' and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (who had three sacks in the Super Bowl and is an emerging leader on the defense). Ryan is coming off an MVP season and logic says he will get a bundle (again). The Falcons presumably will want to get his deal done sometime next year. So again, fitting in a big contract for Freeman won't be easy.
It's a delicate situation because the Falcons don't want to lose Freeman but they also know they can't over-commit to him. And if this deal somehow falls apart, they'll survive.
Previously on Freeman: Falcons Freeman says he won't let negotiations affect him
Also previously: Falcons not 'trading' Freeman but Tweets forecast ugly negotiations
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