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Falcons need options if Devonta Freeman isn't in their plans

The Atlanta Falcons like to talk about how much they love Devonta Freeman but have yet to say they are committed to the two-time Pro Bowler as their No. 1 running back option in 2020.

That's why so much speculation is swirling around the status of Freeman, who has three years and $21 million remaining on his contract. Although he could still be in the team’s plans, the Falcons need to investigate all options in case they decide to trade or release Freeman. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said the team had "legitimate discussions" about trading Freeman with the Lions last year. Not having him on the roster next season would provide $3.5 million in cap relief -- which isn’t a huge savings for the cap-strapped Falcons, who currently have around $6 million in salary-cap space. If anything, parting ways would be more about simply going in another direction at the position than how it impacts the team financially.

Freeman burst onto the scene in 2015 with the first of two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. But he finished last season with 656 rushing yards, averaging a career-low 3.6 yards per carry. He did pitch in 59 receptions for 410 yards and six total touchdowns. Whether Freeman is on the roster in 2019 or not, the Falcons need to find a way to ignite their stagnant running game. They finished last season 30th out of 32 teams in rushing yards per game (85.1) and 26th in rushing yards per play (3.76). The Falcons also tied for 29th in rushing attempts, in a pass-happy offense, with 362 rushes in 2019.

Dimitroff was asked what type of running back he is looking for to bolster the team.

"The importance of versatility, the important of quick-twitch explosiveness is important for that group of players," Dimitroff said. "The ability to catch the ball, and, of course, the ability to run.

"When I say versatility -- look, we had a guy we thought was a really good part of the run game [Tevin Coleman], and he ended up going to San Francisco. He's a fast guy."

So what's the next step? Here are the Falcons' options.

1) Draft an explosive back. Obviously, the Falcons need to investigate their draft options and see if they can find that home run hitter. ESPN's Todd McShay believes that guy is Georgia's D'Andre Swift, but notes Swift is likely a top-20 pick. The Falcons, currently with the 16th overall selection, are unlikely to invest such a high pick in a running back considering pass-rusher is their primary need.

The Falcons do have a pair of second-round picks (Nos. 47 and 55), so maybe they'll be enticed to consider a back with one of those selections. McShay puts Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins in the late first/early second-round category and ranks LSU's Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor in the second round.

"Dobbins had two drops against Clemson but catches the ball well on other tapes," McShay said. "He's a stud. Edward-Helaire, complete package. Really natural catching the ball. Great contact balance as a runner, too. [Taylor] has fumbling issues and struggles in pass pro but really explosive."

ESPN's Matt Bowen likes Zack Moss of Utah as a Day 2 guy because he has “great contact balance and the burst to hit the hole at the NFL level.” Some other names that have come up include Florida State's Cam Akers, who told the media the Falcons expressed strong interest in him, and Appalachian State's Darrynton Evans.

The highest the Falcons have drafted a running back over the past 10 years was Coleman in the third round of the 2015 draft.

2) Invest in a free agent: There aren't many options when you're talking about the explosiveness the Falcons are seeking. One name to keep an eye on is Kenyan Drake from the Arizona Cardinals. Drake had an 80-yard run against the Seattle Seahawks last season where he exploded past five defenders down the right sideline.

Drake is from Powder Springs, Georgia, and is represented by an agency -- Sports Trust Advisors -- based in Atlanta. The former Alabama back was a third-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins in 2016 then traded to the Cardinals.

For his career, Drake has averaged 4.8 yard per carry, including 5.2 yards per carry in eight games with Arizona. He has touchdown runs of 80, 66, 54 and 45 yards in his career and also had a 52-yard touchdown reception.

Dimitroff didn't speak about any specific free-agent running backs but did talk about the group, in general.

"There are some players out there that, of course, teams are looking at," Dimitroff said. "It will be interesting to see who becomes available."

The last time the Falcons went the free-agent route at running back was when they signed longtime St. Louis Ram Steven Jackson in 2013 at the age of 29. Dimitroff also pointed out how the Falcons signed the best running back on the market in 2008 when they got Michael Turner on a six-year, $34.5 million contract ($15 million guaranteed).

3) Work with current group of backs: What if Freeman remains on the roster? What if his agent convinces the Falcons he still has plenty of juice left to be a productive back in Dirk Koetter's offense?

The critics will say it's time to move on because of Freeman's injury history and the fact that he's not getting any younger (turns 28 on March 15). But maybe the Falcons will consider a running back-by-committee approach.

First and foremost, the Falcons have to re-examine the scheme and see what they can do better. Injuries along the offensive line and poor play at offensive guard didn't help matters. The Falcons ran more inside zone rather than the outside zone scheme that was so effective under Kyle Shanahan. And running to the weak side wasn't too effective. One of the Falcons' priorities is finding a blocking tight end who can hold up at the point of attack.

Ito Smith -- a smaller, elusive back -- was an effective backup before a concussion/neck injury landed him on injured reserve last November. The Falcons talk about players making that Year 2 jump, and Smith didn't get a chance to do so last season due to the injuries. So, it will be intriguing to see what a healthy Smith brings to the mix, although he's not the answer as the every-down back.

Maybe Qadree Ollison, a 2019 fifth-rounder who's more of a power back, makes a significant Year 2 leap after showing some flashes last season. The 6-foot-1, 232-pounder carried the ball just 22 times but had four touchdowns. Catching the ball is not his specialty.

The Falcons also have a decision to make on Brian Hill, who had some effective performances.

But everything appears to depend on what direction the Falcons go with Freeman.

"A guy like Free who is so important to the organization, of course you're always going to envision the idea of him being a part of what we're trying to do here," Dimitroff said. "He's always been an important part for us and continues to be an adept runner for us and an important part of our run game.

"That said, it's important for us to look at the whole package. There are other things, without getting into the minutia of the CBA, we just have a lot on our plate right now to try and figure out the direction we're going with a number of players. And Free, as a good as he is for us, is one of those guys that we have to continue to look at in that way."