The Atlanta Falcons locked up running back Devonta Freeman for the next five years on a contract extension that will make him the highest-paid back in the league, according to NFL Network’s Mike Silver. The $41.25 million deal has $22 million guarantees, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.
Freeman will average $8.25 million per year over the life of the contract, which makes him the top-paid running back in the NFL until LeVeon Bell signs his tender with the Steelers to the tune of $12.1 million for the 2017 season.
Freeman’s agent, Kristin Thompson, began publicly talking about an extension in the week leading up to the Super Bowl.
“It’s time for the Falcons to pay him like the elite back he is,” Campbell said via NFL.com. “I expect them to make him a priority this offseason, as he’s been an integral part of the dynamic offense that has gotten them to the Super Bowl.”
Freeman was drafted by the Falcons in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. He had a lackluster rookie season under Mike Smith and was buried on the depth chart behind Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers. But there was no sophomore slump for Freeman. His second season was a breakout year, and he finished with 1,056 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
He was about as productive during Atlanta’s Super Bowl run in 2016. Freeman had 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. He was also a key factor in the team’s diverse passing attack. Freeman had 462 receiving yards and two touchdowns through the air last season.
As a fourth-round selection, Freeman averaged $676,106 each year over the life of his rookie deal. His pay raise is more consistent with the top-10 stats he put up during the past two seasons.
Part of the reason Freeman wanted more money is to fulfill his plans to put his younger sisters through college.
"I want to pay for all of them to go to college," Freeman said, via ESPN’s Vaughn McClure. "Where I come from, school wasn’t as fun growing up. I want to try and show them and teach them that school is fun, if you do it the right way, if you go to school with a purpose.”
During Falcons OTAs, Freeman told the media that he had confidence a deal would get done. But it didn’t, and Freeman had no intention of holding out, and he wasn’t bitter that nothing was finalized by the time camp got underway.
"I just take it one day at a time," Freeman said. "(Campbell is) enjoying the process. We're all enjoying the process. It's an exciting moment. There's no need to have my head down because I'm happy. I'm still here in Atlanta. I'm still under contract. I'm still happy no matter what."
Dan Quinn noted that Freeman didn’t cause any problems as he worked through the negotiation process.
"I didn't have to but I definitely did," Quinn said of having a conversation with Freeman about his contract situation. "The reason I'm saying that is it isn't something that got sideways. It wasn't like I had to, but for most of the guys that are in that contract time, I definitely talk it through and I want to have open lines of communication with them.”
Freeman wants to stay with the Falcons for the rest of his career, and the extension is a step toward that goal.
“I want to end my career here,” Freeman said in February. “I love the atmosphere. I love the brotherhood. I love the people, the community I stay in, the malls, the restaurants, the food — I love everything about Atlanta. I want to be here.”
The timing is smart for Atlanta. The Pittsburgh Steelers failed to reach a long-term deal with Le’Veon Bell, who will make over $12 million under the franchise tag next season. Bell will likely set the running back market in free agency next year, and he won’t be cheap.
Part of the reason Atlanta’s offense was able to dismantle opposing defenses last year is the threat of Freeman out of the backfield. He’s quick and has excellent vision, and he’s a reliable receiver. He’s not easy to cover. The Falcons were wise to lock him up, and it’s a win-win situation for the team and Freeman.