Falcons might have to restore running game without Tevin Coleman

INDIANAPOLIS -- Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff made a rather revealing stumble when talking about impending free-agent running back Tevin Coleman.

"Tevin's going to do well, wherever he is," Dimitroff told the media gathered Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine.

Dimitroff caught himself, stuttering for a moment before cleaning up his "wherever" reference.

"Whether he is with us or whether he goes somewhere else," Dimitroff said, leaving open the slightest possibility of Coleman's return.

Word around the combine is that Coleman isn't coming back.

Dimitroff, like Falcons coach Dan Quinn, typically takes an optimistic approach in such situations. But Dimitroff is also a realist when it comes to financial matters. He understands how difficult it would be to ink two running backs to lucrative contracts, particularly with hefty commitments already made to quarterback Matt Ryan, offensive tackle Jake Matthews and wide receiver Julio Jones, as well as a lucrative deal coming up for defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.

Remember, the Falcons already signed two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman to a five-year, $41.25 million extension ($22.05 million guaranteed) through 2022, an extension that puts Freeman third among all running backs in average per year at $8.25 million. Freeman is behind Todd Gurley's $14.375 million per year and David Johnson's $13 million per year.

Freeman, who played in two games last season before undergoing season-ending groin surgery, is expected to return fully healthy and back in his starting role in 2019, and Quinn expects Freeman to play with an edge. Meanwhile, Coleman seems likely to land a sizable deal elsewhere. He ranked No. 23 -- and was the No. 2 running back behind Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell -- in Kevin Seifert’s ranking of the top 50 free agents.

"Tevin Coleman, he's a really good football player and he did some great things for us this year, we feel," Dimitroff said. "Of course, it's never easy to sign someone like Free, like we did last year, and have two running backs that are going to be in the market at a high level, money-wise."

Coleman, a third-round draft pick in 2015, is certain to generate interest when free agency officially begins on March 13. He is represented by Adisa Bakari, the same agent who represents Steelers holdout Bell.

Former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, now the head coach in San Francisco, loved Coleman in Atlanta and helped him score a single-season high of 11 touchdowns in 2016. Don't be surprised if the 49ers express serious interest in Coleman despite signing Jerick McKinnon to a four-year, $30 million contract ($18 million guaranteed) last March.

"He's not Tevin Coleman," one NFC executive said of McKinnon. "Tevin Coleman might not be that first-level back -- he's no Gurley or Ezekiel Elliott -- but he's definitely that second-level back you can win with. It's his speed and his juice. He gives you instant juice. And he's got that experience. You can plug him in right away and play him. He's played in big games."

Said one NFC coach of Coleman, "He is a solid guy who can be a starter, but I think he is a better rotational guy. Who starts is up to the team. He's got a very good change of pace."

The Falcons made a Super Bowl after the 2016 season with Freeman and Coleman sharing the workload. Freeman accumulated 1,541 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns on 281 touches that season, while Coleman had 941 yards and 11 touchdowns on 149 touches.

Now the expectation is for Freeman to move forward with either Ito Smith or another back as his complement. The Falcons have confidence in Smith, who scored four touchdowns in 14 games as a rookie last season before undergoing surgery to repair meniscus damage.

The Falcons, who finished 7-9 last season, obviously missed Freeman on offense as they finished 27th in the league, with 98.3 rushing yards per game. (By comparison, the Falcons ranked fifth, averaging 120.5 ypg, in 2016.) Quinn's hope is that new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, known for his genius in the passing game, adapts to his personnel and puts together a balanced attack that utilizes Freeman's strengths in the running game. While Coleman thrived more with using his speed to get outside, Freeman's vision and unique cutback ability should allow the Falcons to have more variety in the run-play calls and use more inside-zone plays to go with the outside zone.

Freeman, who has played in all 16 games once in four seasons as the regular starter due to numerous injuries -- including multiple concussions -- needs to stay healthy. The Falcons seem likely to add a bigger back to the mix with Freeman (5-foot-8, 206) and Smith (5-foot-9, 195) being smaller backs.

"He's a great player," Ryan said of having Freeman back in the fold. "Anytime you add a great player back into the mix with a bunch of other guys that are great players, it's a good thing. And he's a dynamic player. He can make things happen in the passing game and in the running game. His ability to cut back, his ability to make people miss, his ability to run with power, all that stuff is good."

We'll see if Freeman can restore the Falcons' running game -- even without his tag team partner Coleman.