NFL Football

Falcons' Freeman encouraged by progress with injured knee

(AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

By CHARLES ODUM

AP Sports Writer

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) After struggling with a knee injury late last season, Devonta Freeman says he is on track to returning to the form that made him the NFL's highest-paid running back.

Freeman missed two games for the Atlanta Falcons last season following his second concussion in four months. Then a sprained right knee cut into his production in the last few games of 2017. The injury helped to keep him from his third straight season with 1,000 yards rushing. It also helped to stop the Falcons' bid for a return trip to the Super Bowl.

No offseason surgery was necessary, and Freeman said Wednesday his knee is feeling better.

"I'm able to do a lot of things I couldn't do back in January and February, running, cutting, sprinting, getting a little stronger," Freeman said.

Freeman said he's "making harder cuts" and "sprinting a little faster" in his offseason workouts .

He said he wants to be "100 percent healthy" for the team's minicamp in June and training camp in July.

"Be able to be ready for game one," he said.

Two straight Pro Bowl seasons earned Freeman a five-year, $41.25 million extension before the 2017 season. It was the top overall salary package for any NFL running back. Only Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell has a higher average salary.

Health problems quickly followed Freeman's big new deal.

He spent the last two weeks of the preseason in concussion protocol before suffering another concussion on the second play of Atlanta's 27-7 win over Dallas on Nov. 12. He missed the next two games but returned with three strong games, including a season-high 126 yards rushing at Tampa Bay on Dec. 18.

The knee injury helped to limit Freeman's production the rest of the season. He was held to a combined 59 yards rushing in the final two regular-season games and then managed only seven yards on 10 carries in a playoff loss to Philadelphia.

Following the season, Freeman said he feared he would need surgery on the right knee. No surgery was needed, so he has focused on rebuilding strength through his offseason program.

Freeman's health will be a key for Atlanta's offense, which led the league in scoring in 2016 before falling to mid-pack in the league last year. The Falcons will be closely watching Freeman's health, as top backup Tevin Coleman is entering the final year of his contract.

The Falcons selected running back Ito Smith from Southern Mississippi in the fourth round of last week's NFL draft. Smith is expected to replace Terron Ward as the team's third running back, behind Freeman and Coleman.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff said Smith was not drafted to be a safety net if the team can't re-sign Coleman.

"That's not what we're looking back," Dimitroff said Saturday. "We're looking at him being a nice addition in that third position."

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Updated May 2, 2018

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