FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Fourth-round selection Devonta Freeman said he felt like the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft when he saw the opportunity awaiting him with the Atlanta Falcons.
The former Florida State running back said his path to immediate playing time and a chance to be Atlanta’s future starter make him believe he landed with the right team.
“When I got drafted, I just felt so relieved,” Freeman said Saturday.
“Coming into the draft, I wanted to go second, third round,” he added, “but God had better plans for me. I feel like this plan is going to work out the best, better than guys that got picked ahead of me.”
Falcons starter Steven Jackson will be 31 when the 2014 season begins. Longtime backup Jason Snelling has retired. Jacquizz Rodgers is still young but has never reached 100 carries in any of his three seasons.
Coach Mike Smith says the 5-foot-8, 208-pound Freeman may look like a change-of-pace back, but has the strength to run inside.
Freeman said his size is an advantage as he avoided tacklers to become Florida State’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn, another former Falcons back, in 1996.
“I can make guys miss in small areas, small creases,” Freeman said. “For my size, I feel like I’m physical. I can have a good impact. I run downhill more than I do outside. I feel I can stick it in there in short yardage, in third-and-inches and stuff like that to get the good yard.”
Smith said Freeman showed he has the skills to be a lead back in the three-day rookie minicamp that ended Sunday.
“We’ve got to find out what Devonta can do,” Smith said. “To me, if he can step up and be a good pass protector, he’s got the chance to be a three-down back.”
That “if” from the coach is a big point for Freeman. He knows he must earn the trust of quarterback Matt Ryan.
“If you can block and protect that million-dollar quarterback, that’s the main thing,” he said. “That’s first. Catching and running, I feel like that’s the easy part of it. But blocking, that’s something that you’ve got to have heart and stuff for. I take a lot of pride in that, so that’s one of the things I’m going to work on the most.”
The Falcons’ options at running back also include Antone Smith and former Syracuse star Jerome Smith, who signed as an undrafted rookie.
Freeman ran for 1,016 yards in 2013 despite sharing carries with Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr. He didn’t like Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher’s three-RB system until he realized the plan, which kept his legs fresh, also made him more attractive to NFL teams.
“At first I was kind of like, ‘Man, I wish I could get the ball every play,”’ Freeman said. “Now it all makes sense. Coach had a plan for me. I’m a running back. The less attempts, the better for me.”
NOTES: The team announced the signings of five draft picks: LB Prince Shembo, CB Ricardo Allen, LB Marquis Spruill, LB Yawin Smallwood and LB Tyler Starr. Shembo was a fourth-round pick, Allen and Spruill were fifth-round selections, and Smallwood and Starr were taken in the seventh round. ... Mike Smith said he doesn’t expect WR Julio Jones (foot surgery) and LB Sean Weatherspoon (knee) to participate in offseason activities or next month’s full-team minicamp. The goal is to have both ready for training camp. S Zeke Motta (neck surgery) also isn’t ready for on-field team drills.
Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman stretches during hte NFL football teams rookie minicamp Sunday, May 18, 2014 in Flowery Branch, Ga. When Freeman was selected by Atlanta in the fourth round, he said he "felt like the first pick of the first round" due to the opportunity he sees with the Falcons. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)×
Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman runs drills during the teams NFL football rookie minicamp football practice Sunday, May 18, 2014 in Flowery Branch, Ga. When Freeman was selected by Atlanta in the fourth round, he said he "felt like the first pick of the first round" due to the opportunity he sees with the Falcons. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)×