- Associated Press - Monday, August 28, 2017

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) - Devonta Freeman is slowly working his way back onto the field.

Freeman returned to practice Monday, but will be held out of the Falcons’ final preseason game this Thursday against Jacksonville to ensure he’s healthy by the start of the regular season.

“I felt good. I felt a little looser” he said.

Freeman is in the last stage of concussion protocol and was able to participate in individual non-contact drills and walk-throughs on Monday, but sat out during team drills.

Even if he’s cleared to return, he won’t play against the Jaguars.

The Falcons haven’t been in any rush to get Freeman back on the field during the preseason since he left practice Aug. 13 with concussion symptoms . He feels he’ll be ready for the regular season opener in Chicago on Sept. 10.

“I’m going into my fourth year in the NFL, you know your body, you know what it takes,” Freeman said. “I need to get back out there and start running, maybe get some contact, twist a little bit. I’m a professional; I know how to handle that.”

He said he hopes to start working in contact on Tuesday, but it’ll happen “probably later this week.”

Freeman missed the Falcons’ last two games while following concussion protocol. The injury came after he signed a five-year, $41.25 million extension with the Falcons, making him the league’s highest paid running back.

There haven’t been any setbacks in his recovery, said Freeman, who rushed for more than 1,000 years and had 11 touchdowns in each of the last two seasons.

Though he’ll miss his third consecutive preseason game, Freeman would likely not have played much Thursday even without the concussion. The game usually features mostly rookies and other bubble players fighting for final roster spots.

Sitting out has given Freeman the chance to help those players.

“I just always try to be their second eyes,” Freeman said. “Some stuff I may see that they can’t see, immediately when I come off the field I try to communicate with them what I saw and what I think could help them. It’s up to them to put it in their game. If they’re doing good and it works for them, that’s all that matters.”

Freeman was on the sidelines on Saturday during the Falcons’ 24-14 loss to the Cardinals.

“Mentally is helped me out lot” to be on the sidelines not playing, he said. “It made me realize how blessed I am. … It was definitely a reality check for me. I just took it all in.”

The offense amassed 237 yards in the loss.

“I think we could get better as a whole, as a team,” he said.

NOTES: Rookie running back Brian Hill left the game Saturday with an ankle injury, which could potentially hurt his chances to beat out Terron Ward for a backup spot behind Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Hill and Ward had been splitting carries throughout the preseason. Atlanta selected Hill in the fourth round in June’s NFL draft .

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For more AP NFL coverage: https://pro32.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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