The 2013 season for the Atlanta Falcons was like the attack on Osgiliath in Lord of the Rings– no one could defend and seemingly everyone was injured.
Nerd? You bet your butt I am.
But seriously. 2013 was a disaster for the Falcons, as their top-flight offense was shot down and the defense was one of the worst in all of football. A team that was a popular pick to represent the Super Bowl out of the NFC, Atlanta struggled heavily, but, of course, injury played a major role. The team lost Julio Jones for the season after Week 5, newly acquired Steven Jackson was banged up, and the offensive line was hurt and inexperienced. However, 2014 is going to be a much happier ending for Atlanta, especially quarterback Matt Ryan, who, considering his circumstances, wasn’t even all that bad.
Last year, the Falcons offensive line was– well, it was just bad. They 24th in the NFL in pass-blocking, according to Football Outsiders, and Ryan was pressured on 154 of his pass attempts last year, the most in the NFL and 31 more than the second-highest (via Matthew Berry). His throws were often rushed, he was hit when dropping back, you name it. Ryan was also sacked 44 times, the third-most among quarterbacks.
Luckily for Ryan, the Falcons addressed this issue in a big way. They selected Jake Matthews in the first round at number four, an elite pass protector. Once Matthews entered the Aggies starting lineup as a freshman in 2010, Texas A&M’s sacks per game decreased. The Falcons also added Jon Asamoah from Kansas City and hired Mike Tice as their offensive line coach.
According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan was under pressure on 41.3 percent of his dropbacks last year, the 5th-most among qualified signal callers. And when under pressure, he completed 56 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and eight of his 17 interceptions. So about half of his turnovers came when he was facing pressure. And still, despite being the most pressured passer in football, Ryan finished as the 10th-best fantasy quarterback. The improved offensive line is going to be huge for his prospects, and so will having an elite pass-blocking back in Devonta Freeman.
Of course, when healthy, the Falcons still have one of the top receiving corps in football. Julio Jones is a top-seven talent in this league, who was on pace for an absolute monster season. During his first five games, Jones hauled in 41 passes (8.2 per game) for 580 yards and two touchdowns. And during that same span, Ryan was fantasy’s number six quarterback. Then there’s Roddy White, who continues to get the job done, and, of course, he himself missed three games, and even when he was on the field, he wasn’t nearly 100 percent. And Harry Douglas serves as an outstanding third wide receiver for this unit. Sure, Tony Gonzalez is gone, but Ryan should still be fine, and if anything, it will allow other tight ends to block, as Gonzo led all tight ends in routes out of the slot, so he rarely blocked. Not to mention talented pass-catchers in the running game, Ryan has more than enough talent to utilize this year.
Only one quarterback in football through the ball more than Ryan last year.
His name is Peyton Manning.
Ryan threw the ball 651 times last year, and the Falcons as a team tossed the ball 41.2 times per game, the third-most in football. He’s always been a strong volume guy, ranking inside the top-seven in pass attempts every year since 2010. But last year was different. Atlanta needed him to chuck the ball all over the place because they had an inconsistent, banged up running game, and the offensive line ranked inside the bottom-seven in run blocking. And, of course, Atlanta’s horrid defense was a blessing in disguise for Ryan’s fantasy owners.
Seeing the Falcons down 27-10 in the second quarter was beautiful for his owners, as they knew the passes were coming in a big way. Last year, PFF ranked Atlanta’s secondary as the seventh-worst in football, allowing 27.7 points per game, the 7th-most in football, ironically. They didn’t make any moves to improve this unit, and they actually lost linebacker Sean Weatherspoon for the year to an Achilles injury. So there are no signs pointing towards this defense being much better, and there will be some games where they will need to score a lot of points (Saints twice, Lions, Bears, Packers, etc). Atlanta was ahead in games just 24 percent of the time last year, and if that trend remains, Ryan is going to throw the heck out of the ball again. Last year, Atlanta threw the ball 70 percent of the time, and with Dirk Koetter still calling the shots, they’ll remain one of the more pass-heavy teams in all of football.
Ryan is going to be this year’s version of Tony Romo— a quarterback drafted in the 7th or 8th round, but will be a lock for the top-10 and will throw the ball a ton. However, Ryan has top-five upside, and I’d take him ahead of guys that are being drafted before him like Nick Foles, Cam Newton and Tom Brady.