HOUSTON -- When it comes to hitting pay dirt, few NFL players are as accomplished as Devonta Freeman, who has reached the end zone 27 times over the past two seasons.
Freeman, a fourth-round draft choice in 2014 who has earned a pair of Pro Bowl selections in his short career, has one more season remaining on his rookie deal, at a bargain rate of $800,000 (including bonuses). The back, though, has only been eligible to renegotiate his contract since the start of the calendar year.
In an interview with NFL.com, Freeman affirmed that he is hoping to land a contract extension after the season and conceded that sharing the workload with second-year halfback Tevin Coleman throughout the 2016 season has been a source of frustration, even as he cherishes his team's success.
"Oh, I'm certainly struggling with it, just because I'm a competitor," Freeman said. "I just want to be around the ball as much as I can, to help the team win. Now we're in the Super Bowl, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I don't know how many carries or touches I'm gonna get going into this game, but I'm gonna try to make the most of every opportunity I get."
After Super Sunday, Freeman's focus will be on landing a new deal that makes him one of the league's highest-paid backs. Campbell said she has already reached out to the Falcons without receiving a response and plans to press the matter in February.
"During the season it has been frustrating for Devonta," Campbell said. "He has been trying to establish himself as a top-three back in the league, and yet when you look at his snaps, he gets significantly less opportunity than the others vying to be in that category.
"Yet he has made his case nonetheless. He is versatile. He's durable. He's productive. And he's a team player -- he has played his role and helped his team go to the Super Bowl. Despite not being able to get the notoriety we all would have wanted for him this season, I think a serious argument can be made that he is a top-three back, and he should be compensated accordingly. Over the offseason, the priority is getting something done. And if not? Hey, we've been underestimated before, but sometimes when you get underestimated, people end up having to pay."
On Monday, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told NFL.com he was receptive to such discussions, saying, "We're extremely encouraged by Devonta, as a player and a person on this team. And people like Devonta are the guys we want to be here for a long time. As we will with a number of our players, we'll address (his contract situation) after the season."
For Freeman, the decision will be simple: Take the best deal he can get from the Falcons before the start of 2017, or try to force the issue. The strategies available to him in that scenario could include holding out, requesting a trade or simply playing out the fourth and final year of his rookie deal, which would allow him to become an unrestricted free agent (unless the Falcons were to apply the franchise tag) a year from now.
While Campbell said she has planned for every contingency, both she and her client are optimistic they'll get a deal done that keeps him in Atlanta.
"I would love to get it done, cause I'm comfortable here. It's family. I love the fans, the atmosphere, the organization, the community, the place where I stay, Lenox Mall ... it feels like home."
At the same time, Freeman admitted that the uncertainty over his future is a source of stress.
"Of course it is," he said, "because when you play running back, you look at your position, you look at history, and then you compare it with how you feel every week -- it's such a brutal position. We take so many hits. When you get the opportunity to get some money, you want to put yourself in position to max out, to get as much as you can, because the lifespan of a running back is not long."
In the meantime, the 5-foot-8, 206-pound Freeman is determined to make his case, even as he questions his workload, or lack thereof. In 2015, Freeman ran for 1,056 yards on 265 carries and caught 73 passes for 578 yards. This season, despite playing 16 games instead of 15, he got fewer touches, gaining 1,079 yards on 227 carries and catching 54 balls for 462 yards. Coleman, a third-round draft choice in 2015, carried the ball 118 times for 520 yards and had 31 receptions for 421 yards, scoring a combined 11 touchdowns to Freeman's 13.
"I just feel like it gives me another reason to have a chip on my shoulder, and something to be working towards," Freeman said. "I'm not in this game to be average. I'm not in this game to be mediocre, or the second-best running back. I'm in this to be the best at my position.
"At the end of the day, numbers don't lie. I'm a fourth-rounder. I'm not supposed to make the Pro Bowl. I've been told I can't do things so many times -- because of where I came from, because of my size, because of where I was drafted. I don't worry about it, because I know I'm one of a kind. A chip will never not be on my shoulder."
From Campbell's perspective, Freeman's quest to establish himself as the Falcons' primary option is part of a career-long pattern. At Florida State, where he helped the Seminoles win a national championship before declaring for the NFL following his junior season, Freeman often rotated with two other backs.
"I think he questions (sharing touches with Coleman), just being a competitor, but this has kind of been his story since he started playing football," Campbell said. "He has always shared reps, if he's even the starter at all. When you're playing football, you're looking for that moment when it's your time to shine. But for him, when he thinks he's there, things keep coming up, 'Not yet.'
"When you've got friends and family back home saying, 'They're playing you,' or other players in the league saying, 'They're trying you' ... I tell him, 'This is what they mean by the business of the NFL; this is what they mean by next man up.'
"I don't know where (the Falcons') head is, other than what the play-calling has been since the beginning of the season. He loves the team he's with, and you hope the team he's with values him. And if not, that's OK -- someone else will."
"Patience and timing are everything," he said. "I've got a family to feed, and I don't want to struggle anymore. Now, I can see it, feel it, taste it. But I've got to finish strong and not think about the money this week -- we've got too much to play for. After that, well, I feel like I've done my part. Now, hopefully, I'll get rewarded."