And they believe that four linebackers bring depth to a position that’s been hurt by injuries to Sean Weatherspoon the last two years.
Atlanta drafted Freeman with the third pick of the fourth round of the NFL draft Saturday, picking up some insurance behind starter Steven Jackson and primary backup Jacquizz Rodgers.
The Falcons took Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen early in the fifth, but the rest of their picks were spent on linebackers.
Notre Dame’s Prince Shembo was selected late in the fourth, Syracuse’s Marquis Spruill late in the fifth and Connecticut’s Yawin Smallwood and South Dakota’s Tyler Starr both late in the seventh.
Atlanta traded a sixth-round pick and one of three seventh-round picks to Minnesota to move up and choose Spruill.
The Falcons had the lowest-ranked running game last year as a porous offensive line failed to open space for Jackson and Rodgers.
Freeman averaged nearly 5.9 yards on 173 carries to become Florida State’s first 1,000-yard rusher since former Falcons star Warrick Dunn did it for his third straight year in 1996.
He was a big reason why the Seminoles went unbeaten and took a three-point victory over Auburn in the national championship game.
Freeman said he doesn’t shy from being compared to Dunn, now a minority owner with the Falcons.
“I want to be great like he was,” Freeman said. “I want to give to the community. I want to speak to the community. I’m just happy to be a part of the Atlanta Falcons, but I just want to follow his footsteps. Me and him have so many similarities. I’m just lost for words.”
Backing up their promise to bulk up both sides of the line of scrimmage during the offseason, the Falcons drafted Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews No. 6 overall and Minnesota defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman early in the second.
In free agency, Atlanta has added defensive tackle Paul Soliai, defensive end Tyson Jackson and offensive guard Jon Asamoah.
The Falcons have put a big emphasis on getting more physical after finishing 4-12 and suffering their first losing record in six seasons under general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith.
Quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times and pressured 203 times, most in the NFL, and the defense fared no better, ranking last in third-down efficiency, second-worst against the run and third-fewest in sacks.
Adding four linebackers will provide plenty of competition for Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu, who earned starting jobs last season as undrafted rookie free agents.
Weatherspoon, a first-round pick four years ago, has missed 12 games over the last two years. He returns as the team’s lone every-down linebacker in coordinator Mike Nolan’s 4-3 scheme.
Before Saturday, Omar Gaither was the only other linebacker on the roster.
Shembo, 22, said he spoke at length with the Falcons and other NFL teams about an alleged sexual misconduct incident in 2010 that involved him and Lizzy Seeberg, a St. Mary’s College student who later committed suicide.
Shembo, who did not face charges, spoke publicly about the tragedy for the first time two months ago at the NFL combine.
On Saturday, Shembo tried to keep the focus on his future with the Falcons.
“Pretty much it was an unfortunate event,” Shembo said. “My name was pretty much cleared. It’s behind me now. I just want to focus on playing football for the Falcons.”
Shembo, speaking on a conference call with reporters, added that he feels remorse.
“Oh, of course,” he said. “I have a lot of remorse for the girl. Any time someone experiences death or dies, it’s always very sad, but I told you what I had to say before.”
Spruill, a team captain with the Orange, started all 13 games and had 14.5 tackles for minus yardage.
Shembo had 26 solo tackles and 5.5 sacks for the Irish and started all 13 games.
Allen holds the Purdue record with four interceptions returned for touchdowns.