Something has gotten into Devonta Freeman.
The Atlanta Falcons running back had a pep in his step from the moment he arrived as a fourth-round draft pick out of Florida State last season. Yet Freeman’s intensity appears to have elevated to another level as he prepares for the 2015 campaign.
You can feel it in his tone. The passion in his voice is infectious.
"I’ve got high expectations of myself," Freeman said. "I look at myself in the mirror every single day and I know what I can do. I know what I am. I know what I’m capable of doing. All I need is an opportunity.
"Personally, I want to be the man. I want to be the guy. I want to make my own name with the Atlanta Falcons. I want to go really, really far. I want to set the bar high. I just want to win a Super Bowl and maybe be the MVP one day. You just never know. I feel like I’m hungrier right now. I don’t know what’s gotten into me this offseason. I just feel like a whole new monster. And I ain’t just talking."
Maybe this transformation has something to do with the confidence the folks in charge expressed in him this offseason. New coach Dan Quinn, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan all took to the podium and proclaimed how Freeman has all the ability to thrive in his second season.
"It means a lot coming from the general manager, the head coach and the offensive coordinator because, of course, that means everything," Freeman said. "If you’re getting it from those guys, those guys are the big, top dogs. That just motivates me."
There is another source of inspiration for Freeman. It still burns at him how he was the ninth running back selected in last year’s draft. Only one of those backs – Cincinnati's Jeremy Hill -- had a true breakout season with 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns.
Freeman had a modest showing playing behind veteran Steven Jackson in what was at one point a four-back rotation, but he showed flashes of his great potential as both a runner and pass-catcher. He finished with 248 rushing yards, 225 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
" I’m still pissed off that I went in the fourth round and all those other running backs went before me," Freeman said. "There’s a different type of mindset I’ve been having. And I don’t think that chip is going to go anywhere because that’s always going to be in the back of my mind when I look back at reality --- every running back that got drafted before me. Even though it’s a blessing to be in the NFL, that chip is always going to be there."
Freeman should have ample opportunity to prove his worth. The Falcons will put more emphasis on the run game this coming season with Shanahan’s outside zone-blocking scheme. It’s the same type of system Freeman grew accustomed to both in high school and at Florida State, where he won a BCS title in 2013.
"You’ve got to one cut and get downhill," Freeman said. "The second thing is you’ve got options. The coach can’t tell you where the hole is going to hit, you know what I mean? You’ve got to read it. It’s going to be natural. I know how to run it pretty well."
Freeman also understands the possibility he'll have to share the load, possibly with a veteran running back. The Falcons cut ties with the aging Jackson, meaning the position could be a priority in free agency. Baltimore’s Justin Forsett is a player the Falcons might pursue, if the price is right. Plus the Falcons want to re-sign Antone Smith, who had five touchdowns on just 36 touches last season before breaking his leg.
"If they bring in a veteran back, I’m going to learn whatever I can learn from him," Freeman said. "I’m going to be open to him. I hope he will be open to me. My mindset is it’s a business and you’re going to compete regardless.
"I’m not the type a guy who is not going to talk to someone like that because we’re teammates. I’m going to do whatever it takes to push him. If I’m pushing him and he’s pushing me, that’s not going to do anything but bring our team to a higher level of success. And that’s what I want. I’m about trying to win championships. I’m not selfish at all. I played with three running backs at Florida State and I still got 1,000 yards, you know what I mean?"
Freeman has yet to talk to Shanahan but has had several conversations with Quinn and running backs coach Bobby Turner about his role.
"DQ, he’s all for it," Freeman said of Quinn. "He said, 'Man, I’m excited to work with you guys.' He was talking about the outside zone offense and he told me to just come ready to compete and be ready and prepared when my number is called. He was like 'Just come here in the best shape ever and do whatever it takes to get ready.'"
Freeman is doing just that, training daily in a park near the rugged "Pork 'N' Beans" projects where he grew up in Miami. The field is right near a middle school, and Freeman said he often invites kids to either work out with him or watch him go through his cone drills.
"I’m in the hood with it. I keep it real at all times," Freeman said. "When I come back, that motivates them. When I was coming up to the park as a kid, nobody was coming back. Nobody was giving autographs for the kids. I’m from one of the worst projects ever and I still drive by there to this day.
"I want to show them, I want to show everybody, that I’ve got that dog in me. I’ve been out here working hard. But I’m not going to keep talking about it. I’m just going to let the work speak for itself."