Freeman ready to emerge as red-zone target

Knox Bardeen looks at how Devonta Freeman could become more involved in the offense this season.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga.

With the addition of Kyle Shanahan to design and run the new Falcons offense, changes are inevitable -- and welcomed.

Atlanta is expected to run the ball more in 2015 and offer greater balance in its approach to play calling. Not only should the running backs churn out more yardage on carries in Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme, expect them to be a big part of the passing attack.

Devonta Freeman touched the ball 95 times during his rookie season of 2014. Most (65) were running plays, but he also caught 30 passes and was targeted 37 times. As rookie running backs go, only two players in Falcons history -- Keith Jones (41, 1989) and William Andrews (39, 1979) -- pulled in more receptions.

Just as Andrews improved on his reception total the following season by 30 percent, Freeman should absolutely enhance his role as a receiver in Year 2.

"I love this whole system," said Freeman after Wednesday's training camp session. "I want to maximize this system as much as I can. I love it. [I love] the way they use me."

Through five camp sessions, the way Shanahan has used Freeman looks unquestionably different than last year. The second-year rusher has been split out wide as a receiver, and has been moved around pre-snap in multiple ways to get him out into routes versus different defenders. New head coach Dan Quinn has been enamored with Freeman's versatility.

“Outside in the backfield, as a running back he can catch terrifically," said Quinn. "We are going to feature him in all kinds of ways that give him some unique stuff that he can use. Whether it’s a line to the outside, or a motion to outside, or swinging out of the backfield, he can catch it out of all three. What a dangerous guy to be.”

Freeman showed just how dangerous on Wednesday when the Falcons worked on red-zone situations.

With the Falcons' offense set up on the 9-yard line, Freeman caught pass after pass. His first score came after he swung out into the flat on the left and hauled in a pass before he muscled his way into the end zone. Later in the session he (from the left side) he ran a superb quick slant and knifed into the end zone for his second score.

He just missed a third score when he was tackled near the goal line after catching a pass on the right side. During the entire session, three players were targeted frequently for scoring opportunities: Freeman, wide receiver Julio Jones and tight end Jacob Tamme.

It's natural for Jones and Tamme to catch passes in the end zone. But Freeman was rarely used as a red-zone target in 2014.

Of his 37 targets a year ago, only six came in the red zone. He was 5 for 6 on those plays and scored his only receiving touchdown of the season on a 7-yard, Week 8 completion against Detroit. But four receivers were targeted more frequently than Freeman in the red zone last season.

If offseason workouts have shown anything, Freeman could absolutely rank higher in the top five in 2015 among passing targets in the red zone.

"We've been going over it all spring; OTA's and stuff," said Freeman. "It's just showing Kyle how he can use me in the passing game. I want to be highly utilized, too. It means a lot when they’ve got that much trust in me, putting me in there and I make the plays."



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