At his best, Devonta Freeman was one of the most impactful running backs in the NFL, a slasher who could get through just the tiniest of creases and turn it into a big gain. The 5-8, 208-pound tailback was a key contributor in the Falcons’ 2016 Super Bowl season, producing a second consecutive 1,000-yard season with 11 touchdowns and pairing with Tevin Coleman as one of the league’s best one-two punches.
But that was then and this is now: the 28-year-old Freeman hasn’t played a full season since and was released by the Falcons after rushing for just 656 yards and two touchdowns last season.
Freeman insists there is still good football in him, and he’s anxious to convince those who question whether his NFL shelf life might soon be over. The Giants can only hope Freeman can summon the best of what he once was as they move on without Saquon Barkley, who was lost to a season-ending knee injury last Sunday in Chicago.
"I know I still have a lot in the tank," said Freeman, who signed a one-year deal worth up to $3 million earlier this week. "This was a great opportunity at the right time, coming in and trying to compete to work to get a job and continue to get better."
Freeman was in Philadelphia getting a look-see from the Eagles when Barkley was hurt, and once the Giants contacted him, he knew this would be the right fit. The Seahawks had previously expressed interest in Freeman, but a Giants team without Barkley figures to give Freeman the best chance to recapture the form that once made him one of the league’s best.
"I just want to go out and have fun," he said. "It’s a long season, a tough season, so just try to stay healthy, win one game at a time and when it’s all said and done, hopefully win the big game."
OK, so maybe he’s being overly optimistic/delusional about winning the big game – i.e. the Super Bowl – with this team. It's not happening. The Giants are 0-2, already thin at the skill positions with injuries to Barkley and wide receiver Sterling Shepard and they’re not yet ready to match up with the NFL’s best. But a rejuvenated Freeman can certainly help right the ship, as long as he can get back to a reasonable version of what he once was.
That may be expecting a lot, though. He and Coleman nearly had a reunion this weekend now that Coleman is with the 49ers. But a knee injury against the Jets likely will keep him out Sunday. That leaves Freeman as the last man standing – for now, anyway.
"A lot of ball left, a lot of games to be played," Freeman said. "I’m fortunate and blessed to be on this team. This is a young team, and I’m happy about the opportunity and I just think there’s a lot of growth for this team, for myself. I’m here just to help contribute as much as I can and help these guys out. That’s the main thing."
Coach Joe Judge wouldn’t divulge his plans with Freeman, nor would he say which of his backs – Wayne Gallman, Dion Lewis or Freeman – would start the game. When asked if he might go with an empty backfield to start the game, Judge joked, "I’ve got to call my bookie in Vegas first, then I’ll let you know."
It could very well be a running-back-by-committee approach, something that Freeman had before with the Falcons. He’s all-in with whatever the Giants need from him.
"Whatever I’m asked to do," he said, "I just try to take advantage of my opportunity and contribute as much as I can."
And as for the idea that he’s getting too old to play, Freeman said age is relative.
"I feel like it’s all up to you, the way you take care of your body," he said. "You can be as young as you want to be."