Extension coming? Where things stand with Falcons, Devonta Freeman

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- One of the bigger topics at the Atlanta Falcons' high-energy training camp is the contract status of running back Devonta Freeman.

With one year left on his contract at $1.797 million, Freeman has made it clear he wants an extension done as soon as possible. Sources with the Falcons say the team is holding daily conversations with Freeman’s agent, trying to get a deal done.

In the meantime, Freeman is participating in practices, not holding out like others around the league who aren’t satisfied with their deals. Teammates and coaches say he seems unaffected by the negotiations or their uncertain result, which the team views as a positive -- even helpful to the atmosphere around the talks.

After spending two days at Falcons camp and speaking to people close to the situation, I thought I’d take a look at some of the issues surrounding the Freeman talks and see if we could help make some sense of it to those on the outside wondering when (or if) a deal will get done.

Why does Freeman want a deal now?

Look back at the second sentence above. For a running back who averaged 1,070 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns the past two years, that $1.797 million salary isn’t enough. His situation is far different from that of Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell, who’s making $12.12 million this year as the Steelers’ franchise player. Bell can play it out and head to free agency next year knowing his worst-case scenario includes $12.12 million in guaranteed money.

If Freeman suffered a significant injury, he’d potentially never see his big payday. It’s kind of like the difference we discussed a few weeks ago between Oakland quarterback Derek Carr (who signed an extension) and Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins (who didn’t). Prior to completing his new deal, Carr was scheduled to make less than $1 million in 2017. Cousins is scheduled to make almost $24 million. Cousins had no need to do a deal immediately. Carr did. Bell doesn’t. Freeman does.

Do the Falcons want to do a deal now?

Yes, and that’s no small factor. Sometimes in these situations, you get a sense in talking to team officials that maybe they’re frustrated by the player’s asking price and are willing to walk away from the table. This is not the sense I got from the Falcons. They consider Freeman a “pillar” type of player and want to keep him around for a while. The Falcons, as well as Freeman, would be disappointed if they couldn’t get a deal done at some point before or during this season.

Is this a running back issue?

To a point, yes. The market for top running backs is weird. Bell is at $12.12 million this year, and the next-highest-paid running back is Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy, whose deal pays him a little more than $8 million per year on average. That’s a pretty big gap between No. 1 and No. 2, and whether the Falcons believe Freeman is worth more or less than McCoy, they’d obviously rather work off that number than Bell’s outlier.

Also, as those numbers illustrate, running back isn’t a premium position by NFL market standards. And in a salary-cap era, a team has to prioritize. The Falcons pay their MVP quarterback top-of-market money. They pay star wideout Julio Jones more than $14 million per year. They’re doling out high dollars to cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford and center Alex Mack. And within the next couple of years, left tackle Jake Matthews and pass-rusher Vic Beasley Jr. will need contract extensions. Both play premium positions. Freeman, from a market standpoint, does not. If he wants to set a new benchmark for running back pay, he may find that the Falcons can’t fit that into their future salary-cap plans.

What does it mean that he’s in camp and not holding out?

It speaks to the relationship between the player and the team. Freeman sees that guys like Trufant, Alford and Jones got their long-term deals at appropriate times and has evidence that the Falcons back up their words when they tell a player he’s important. If the negotiations were contentious, that could affect the ultimate outcome, especially since Freeman’s agent is a relatively inexperienced NFL contract negotiator.

With Freeman in camp, everybody’s looking each other in the eye and negotiating in good faith. No one’s taking public stances that make the other side look bad or leaking details in the media (unfortunately for us). In a vacuum, it’s fair to think this helps the chances for the outcome both sides want.

What’s likely to happen and when?

I came away thinking a deal is more likely than not, though not 100 percent certain. Even once the two sides agree on Freeman’s rightful place in the running back market, they’ll be haggling over structure, guaranteed money, three-year cash flow and all those things that make NFL contracts so complicated. This isn’t an easy deal to put together, given the position Freeman plays and the other high-salary factors on the Falcons’ roster. But unless Freeman’s going to insist on setting some sort of record that pushes the floor up for Bell, David Johnson and the near-future running back deals to come, or unless the Falcons are going to insist on low-balling him, the parameters shouldn’t be hard to figure out.

The details could take some time, though, which is why I came away thinking there are at least a couple of more weeks to go on this. I could be wrong. They could announce it Thursday. But my feeling is that there’s a fair bit of work yet to be done, and it could go either way.

My prediction is that a deal gets done no later than early September.