Thu May 23 5:15pm ET
By CHARLES ODUM
AP Sports Writer
Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman takes a handoff from quarterback Matt Ryan as offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter looks on during NFL football practice Thursday, May 23, 2019, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (AP Photo/John Amis)
Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman walks off the field after NFL football practice Thursday, May 23, 2019, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (AP Photo/John Amis)
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) passes during NFL football practice Thursday, May 23, 2019, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (AP Photo/John Amis)
Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman runs drills during NFL football practice Thursday, May 23, 2019, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (AP Photo/John Amis)
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) The highlight of the Atlanta Falcons' first week of organized team activities has been Devonta Freeman's return to the field.
''It's been a long time,'' said coach Dan Quinn.
Freeman looked explosive in Thursday's practice, the first OTAs session open to reporters. Having Freeman again flash his dual-threat skills at running back is good news for the Falcons' hopes of returning to the playoffs.
Knee and groin injuries limited Freeman to only two games last season . The Falcons had a long list of season-ending injuries, including both safeties and both guards, but losing Freeman had perhaps the biggest impact on the team's fall to a 7-9 finish.
Without Freeman, the Falcons' ground game was stagnant , ranking only 27th in the league. The Falcons' other top running back, Tevin Coleman, signed with San Francisco as a free agent, so it was important to see Freeman in his No. 24 red jersey lining up beside quarterback Matt Ryan this week.
''It's awesome,'' Ryan said. ''Free is such a dynamic player. ... He looks great.''
The Falcons are still waiting for starting safeties Ricardo Allen (torn Achilles tendon) and Keanu Neal (knee) to complete their comebacks from 2018 injuries. Both worked on a side field with trainers but could be ready for training camp.
Freeman, 27, emerged with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2015 and 2016. He had a combined 127 catches those two years, making him even more valuable.
Freeman has struggled to stay on the field since signing a five-year, $41.25 million contract before the 2017 season. At the time it was the NFL's richest contract for a running back. The deal's total value still ranks third for his position, behind Todd Gurley ($57.5 million) and Le'Veon Bell ($52.5 million).
The big contract brought great expectations, making two straight years of injury woes even more frustrating. He missed two games in 2017 following his second concussion of the year, including one in the preseason, and also was slowed by a knee injury. He was limited to 68 yards rushing in two games in 2018.
Freeman's trademark smile was back on Thursday, when he said the joy in football has returned.
''It felt good just to be out here running around and having fun,'' he said. ''This is fun. Just having fun running around brought back memories of when I was a kid, playing in the middle of the field. It was fun.''
Football wasn't fun for Freeman last season. He suffered a bruised right knee in the season-opening loss at Philadelphia, forcing him to miss three games. Then he landed on injured reserve with the groin injury.
''It was tough,'' Freeman said. ''At the time I couldn't see the blessing that God had for me. But it was definitely tough not being able to go out there and compete and battle with my brothers. Just seeing all those guys, every time I watched a game, it was like `Man, that was a missed opportunity for me.' I definitely took it to heart. I learned a lot from it, though.''
Freeman has not been restricted this week but said ''I'm still getting better.''
Freeman's grin made his coach also smile.
''It's been awesome having Free back on the field and be back to having him look like himself,'' Quinn said, adding ''to see the energy that he brings has been good.''
NOTES: OTAs are voluntary. Among players not participating: WR Julio Jones, DT Grady Jarrett, OLB Vic Beasley Jr. and LB Deion Jones. Quinn said he has been in contact with each of the four. He said Julio Jones and Deion Jones ''are still working on some rehab.'' He said Beasley is training on his own and is expected by minicamp. Jarrett signed his $15.209 million franchise tag which prevented him from signing elsewhere as a free agent. He set career highs with six sacks and three forced fumbles last season. Julio Jones missed OTAs and the mandatory minicamp last year before reporting for training camp with a promise from the team his contract would be reworked this year. Those talks are ongoing.
No deal soon for Ezekiel Elliott Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott is unlikely to get an extension in 2019 or next offseason, in the opinion of ESPN.com's Dan Graziano. Elliott's option for 2020 is worth $9.099 million, and the team feels good about franchise tag numbers on him in 2021.
Fantasy Spin: Elliott remains one of the best options at the position in the first round of drafts.
Chicago Bears TE Adam Shaheen lost seven pounds during the offseason, did jiu-jitsu and focused on his core strength and flexibility in an effort to try and stay healthy in 2019.
Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan said Monday, June 24, he's happy with his team's selections of G Chris Lindstrom and OT Kaleb McGary in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. 'I'm really excited about those guys ... they're tough, they're physical, they move well and it's gonna be a lot of fun to play behind them,' Ryan said.
Fantasy Spin: Ryan was sacked 42 times in 2018, the most since 2013. Only seven quarterbacks were sacked more times than Ryan in 2018. Some extra time to make his reads could only help Ryan improve on a third-ranked interception percentage of 1.2 from last season.
Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan said Monday, June 24, he's excited to be reunited with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Koetter served as the Falcons offensive coordinator from 2012-14 before leaving to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers first as offensive coordinator in 2015, and then as head coach from 2016-18. He was re-hired on January 8 after being fired by the Buccaneers. He'll replace Steve Sarkisian, who spent the last two years as Atlanta's offensive coordinator.
Fantasy Spin: Ryan completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 13,928 yards and 86 touchdowns against 45 interceptions over Koetter's three-year run in Atlanta. Ryan was named to the Pro Bowl in 2012 and 2014. The 34-year-old is being taken as the sixth quarterback in standard (non-PPR) fantasy drafts. He's a safe option for those who don't like to gamble at QB.
Seattle Seahawks WR D.K. Metcalf has impressed QB Russell Wilson with his football knowledge so far as a rookie. 'Everybody knows about his ability to run and everything else, and jump and catch and all that. You guys have been talking about that for months, but I think more than anything else, it's his brain and how he processes information and how quickly he understands it. He's really intelligent. He really understands the game really well. He takes coaching really well. He gets extra work. He's a legit pro wide receiver. He's everything that everybody was talking about in terms of what he's capable of and more,' Wilson said.
Fantasy Spin: While Metcalf has done well to build an early bond with Wilson - and that's obviously a big deal - he still has questions to answer regarding his durability and ability to run precise routes. His talent makes him a fine dynasty asset, but Seattle's run-heavy offense figures to lower his ceiling and floor for fantasy purposes, at least in 2019.
Philadelphia Eagles DT Fletcher Cox (foot) told NJ.com's Zack Rosenblatt that 'everything is going good' and that his goal is to be ready for training camp. Cox sat out organized team activities while recovering from offseason foot surgery.
Dallas Cowboys WR Amari Cooper told reporters Monday, June 24, he isn't thinking about his expiring contract but stated,' I do want to be a Dallas Cowboy for a long time.'
Fantasy Spin: Cooper also said in a recent interview with Pro Football Talk his goal for 2019 is 2,000 receiving yards - which would be an NFL record. It's obviously an unrealistic goal, as the 25-year-old would have finished with just under 1,300 yards receiving if his nine-game totals with Dallas were extrapolated over a 16-game season. The good news for fantasy owners is he was also on a 94-catch and 10-touchdown pace with the Cowboys. If he can come close to those marks this season, he'll be a solid WR1.
Tennessee Titans QB Marcus Mariota has been encouraged to take fewer hits by general manager Jon Robinson. 'The thing I've stressed to him, and I know our coaches have stressed to him is, Let's live to play another play,' Robinson said. 'Don't take that hit. If you feel the pocket coming down on you and you take off running, and the 'backer is coming off of coverage and he's coming screaming at you, throw the ball away. It's OK to punt, we'll get another crack at it. That's the main thing, it's stressing to him - to try as best as possible, like all quarterbacks do, to avoid getting hit.'
Fantasy Spin: Mariota's durability has been a problem with nagging injuries throughout his career. It has suppressed him to a low-end QB1 in fantasy.
Indianapolis Colts WR Devin Funchess produced mixed results during organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp, according to beat writer Kevin Bowen, although head coach Frank Reich said he was 'very encouraged' by what he saw during spring practices. 'We knew right away, you could tell day one that he was smart. (He was) not going to have a problem grasping the system,' Reich said. 'Then it's just a question of getting used to the way we do things, the way we teach things and then our schemes. I just thought he showed a very high aptitude for that.'
Fantasy Spin: To be fair, Funchess is learning a new system and getting acclimated to a new team, and he didn't have the luxury of working with Andrew Luck, who was held out of the offseason program. Funchess struggled with Jacoby Brissett, but he won't be working with him unless disaster strikes. Based on his struggles in 2018, Funch is only worth a late-round roster spot, but he could very well emerge as the No. 2 in Indy, and a decent WR4 or flex fantasy option sooner rather than later.
San Francisco 49ers RB Matt Breida will be in a crowded backfield heading into 2019 as long as everyone is healthy.
Fantasy Spin: Breida will be in a fierce battle in training camp and the preseason with Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon, Raheem Mostert and Jeffery Wilson. Coleman is considered the frontrunner at this point, so Breida might be battling McKinnon to be up during the regular season if everyone is healthy, as Mostert is considered a lock due to his prowess on special teams.
San Francisco 49ers RB Raheem Mostert is expected to be one of three running backs active during the regular season since he is the team's best special-teams player.
Fantasy Spin: Mostert has shown in the past that he can be effective running the ball, but that's unlikely to be his role in 2019 with the likes of Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida creating a logjam in the backfield. He has minimal fantasy appeal as long as everyone is healthy and ready to play.
San Francisco 49ers RB Jerick McKinnon (knee) is expected to receive clearance near the start of training camp, as he makes his way back from an anterior cruciate ligament injury.
Fantasy Spin: The Niners have depth at the position with Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson, so McKinnon won't be rushed back until he is 100 percent. It also wouldn't be surprising to see him as a healthy inactive early in the season as a precaution, as long as Coleman and Breida are healthy themselves. As such, McKinnon is a risky fantasy proposition heading into 2019.
San Francisco 49ers RB Tevin Coleman is considered the odds-on favorite to be the closest thing to a lead back, beat writer Matt Maiocco suggests, especially since he has a history in head coach Kyle Shanahan's system.
Fantasy Spin: Coleman was the only player among Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert to practice during the offseason, so he likely has a leg up, too. He is likely your best bet when diving into the San Francisco running back pool on draft day.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Ronald Jones said he is focused on putting last year behind him and earning his opportunities going forward. Jones also said that he has spent more time watching the veteran backs to learn how to be a pro and has simplified how he catches passes.
Fantasy Spin: Jones has received positive marks from the coaching staff this offseason, and it sounds like he is trying to put his disastrous rookie season behind him. Of course, it remains to be seen if he will ever produce on the field, but if he puts it all together, he could take over the Tampa Bay backfield and emerge as a RB2. He's a great lottery ticket to grab later in drafts.
Arizona Cardinals RB Chase Edmonds will have a 'really nice role in the offense' this season, according to head coach Kliff Kingsbury.
Fantasy Spin: Kingsbury has also said he plans to use David Johnson as the feature back, so Edmonds isn't likely to have a big enough role to be more than a handcuff for fantasy owners in redraft leagues. That being said, he is an intriguing stash candidate in dynasty formats.
Cincinnati Bengals QB Jeff Driskel will likely be cut if QB Ryan Finley plays well enough in the preseason to be used as the backup quarterback, according to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com.
New Orleans Saints QB Taysom Hill said he feels more comfortable with the responsibilities of being a wide receiver this season. 'I think it will be even easier because there was definitely a learning curve from a fundamental standpoint of getting out of breaks and routes and blocking all that I feel more comfortable doing that.'
Los Angeles Chargers TE Hunter Henry has been making impressive catches during spring practices, according to head coach Anthony Lynn. 'Hunter is just doing what Hunter Henry does,' Lynn said. 'He makes plays.'
Fantasy Spin: Henry's ability has never been questioned, but an injury derailed what was supposed to be a breakout 2018 campaign. A year later, his upside hasn't changed, and Henry should be viewed as a low-end TE1 candidate.
Baltimore Ravens TE Hayden Hurst (hamstring) was able to participate in minicamp after dealing with a hamstring injury during OTAs.
Detroit Lions DT A'Shawn Robinson (knee) was able to participate in minicamp, but he didn't seem as 'well conditioned' as the other defensive linemen, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.