When Devonta Freeman ended his news conference, he stepped down from the stage and proceeded to shake hands with every member of the media, even cameramen, thereby reaffirming both his unpretentious, humble nature and that he’s not the president of the United States.
Peace reigns today in the world of the Falcons’ top running back and, to listen to him Tuesday at the tail end of an offseason strength-and-conditioning program, that’s not going to change. Against the backdrop of contract negotiations and an overzealous tweeter in his camp (Luther Campbell), Freeman exhibited calm about the situation, surveying the media’s pursuit and picking out holes, as if carrying a football.
“I always wanted to be that guy who would never hold out and leave my guys out there working because I understand it’s a business, but I know what I signed up for at the same time,” he said. “You can’t walk around and act sad and have an attitude. That ain’t good for the team, especially when a lot of guys are looking up to you.”
So you would never hold out?
“No. I’m a player. I love football. It doesn’t matter what I did last year or how many Pro Bowls I’ve got. I want to be better. Hopefully, I’ll be a Hall of Famer, I’ll leave a legacy. Holding out, that’s not going to leave a legacy.”
And for another day in the Falcons’ front office, the angels sing.
The Falcons have one of those problems that’s good to have. They have two great running backs: Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Both fit their system. Both are outperforming their rookie contract. Either would be coveted on the open market. Sports Illustrated’s MMQB site recently listed both among the NFL’s top 10 backs.
So here’s the problem: Freeman is one year from unrestricted free agency, unless the Falcons sign him to an extension. He is scheduled to make nearly $1.8 million this season (tripling his 2016 salary), but a new deal could jump him north of $6 million annually. It’s a contract Freeman has earned, having made consecutive Pro Bowls. But Coleman, drafted one year later, also will need a new contract in two years, and NFL economics logic suggests they’re not going to pay two running backs top dollar. Rosters aren’t built that way, and they have Matt Ryan and Julio Jones on offense, and a blur of young defensive players that will need to be paid.
This is the byproduct of having a Super Bowl team and drafting well — and I realize those two things might seem foreign to an Atlanta sports fan.
Freeman is every bit as earnest and a team player as he projects. But his agent, Kristin Campbell, is somewhat of a novice at this. She has one client, Freeman, and draft picks generally are slotted in negotiations, so this is really her first NFL contract negotiation.
There already have been two slip-ups: 1) She chose Super Bowl week to make an issue of Freeman’s contract (“It’s time for the Falcons to pay him like the elite back he is,” which is true, just ill-time words); 2) Her husband, Luther Campbell, Freeman’s mentor from his days growing up in the projects in Miami, tweeted two months ago after the Falcons signed two players to extensions, “Matt Schaub 9 mil (Desmond) Trufant 14 mil no money left for Freeman looking like a Trade to me.”
Freeman seems to have a better grasp on how to publicly deal with things than the Campbells.
A trade isn’t happening, certainly not now. But the economics of the situation can’t be ignored.
Freeman smiled when asked about Campbell’s tweet and downplayed it: “He’s got to do what he do. I can’t control him. It didn’t bother me at all. As long as I’m not tweeting, I don’t care what anybody says.”
He said Campbell “doesn’t work for me.” True. But his wife does. So is there no concern by association?
“I can’t control how people take (a tweet),” Freeman said. “I communicate with my coaches, with Thomas and Arthur Blank. We’re all on the same page.”
Freeman is doing all the right things. Mentally, he’s trying to move on from the Super Bowl, like everybody else in the organization. (Good: He scored the game’s first touchdown on a brilliant cut around left end that froze New England linemen Malcom Brown. Bad: He missed a block on Dont’a Hightower that resulted in a fourth-quarter strip-sack of Ryan, breathing life into the Patriots’ comeback.)
“It’s one of those scars you remember forever,” Freeman said about the game.
Physically, he has improved his diet, cutting down on junk food, fried food and late-night meals. He has added about five pounds (“All muscle. No fat.”) and feels like he has more energy.
He also has consulted with several players who’ve gone through the negotiation process, including Jones.
“One thing he said is no matter what I do just to come in, work and try to get better,” he said. “If I take care of that, everything else will take care of itself.”