Fantasy Football 32: Atlanta Falcons

Julio Jones

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

 

The 2013 campaign for the Atlanta Falcons was similar to that of the attack on Osgiliath on Lord of the Rings.

No one could defend, everyone got hurt.

All nerdy references aside, last season was a disaster for the Falcons. They saw their fair share of injuries, had one of the worst defenses in football and, as a result, finished with an uncharacteristic record of 4-12. The former offensive powerhouse took a step back, but entering 2014, there may not be an easier team to diagnose a bounceback season to.

Atlanta will return to a fantasy juggernaut once again.

Depth Chart

Falcon Depth Chart

Quarterback

Despite everything going wrong for him, Matt Ryan chugged along in 2013.

Let’s start with the loss of his best receiver in Julio Jones, a consistently ailing Roddy White, new running back Steven Jackson dealt with hamstring issues and, of course, the offensive line was atrocious. Last year, Ryan was sacked 44 times and the Falcons had the 24th-worst pass-blocking unit, according to Football Outsiders. And, via Matthew Berry, Ryan was pressured on 154 of his dropbacks, the most in the NFL and 31 more than second-place. Via Pro Football Focus, Ryan was under pressure on 41.3 percent of his dropbacks (5th-most), and eight of his 17 interceptions came in such situations. Meanwhile, the Falcons addressed the offensive line in the offseason, drafting Jake Matthews in the first round, while bringing in Jon Asamoah.

Despite being the most pressured quarterback in football last year, Ryan still managed to finish as a quarterback one, and if Julio didn’t go down, it would have been even better. During the first five weeks of the season, when Roddy and Julio were on the field together, Ryan was the 6th-best quarterback in fantasy football. As long as at least Julio can stay on the field, Ryan will continue to reap the benefits.

As you can see, using the RotoViz Game Splits app, Ryan is about four fantasy points per game better with Jones in the lineup.

ryan splits

 

Also, last year the only quarterback that threw the ball more than Ryan was Peyton Manning, as he set a career-high in pass attempts (651). Atlanta’s defense gives up big plays and tons of points, as the Falcons surrendered 27.7 points per game last year, the 6th-most in the NFL. Meanwhile, while the Falcons should be more competitive in 2014, Mike Clay of PFF projects them to still be the most pass-heavy team in football, throwing the ball 69 percent of the time.

Volume plus talent equals fantasy success, and Ryan should be a top-10 fantasy passer once again.

Running Back

We were all wrong.

After watching the plodding Michael Turner score plenty of touchdowns and finish as a top-10 fantasy back in two of the last four seasons, many assumed that Steven Jackson, an immensely more talented back, would just walk into production in a high-octane offense. However, the offensive line was bad, as Pro Football Focus rated them as the 26th run-blocking team in football. Then, to make matters worse, Jackson dealt with a nagging hamstring issue that sidelined him for four contests. It was the first time since his rookie year that Jackson failed to carry the ball 200 times, and his 3.5 yards per carry was the worst of his career. There could be a nice return in value in drafting Jackson this year, as you won’t have to draft him in the second round like you did a season ago. However, an age 31 running back on a team that is likely going to throw the ball a ton isn’t all that appealing to me.

That’s where Devonta Freeman comes in.

The Falcons selected the former FSU back in the fourth round of May’s draft, and I think he’ll instantly enter the season as the number two back on the depth chart. At 5’8″, 206 pounds, don’t call Freeman a scatback because you will be wrong. He’s a bowling ball style runner who initiates contact and runs with a low center of gravity. In fact, as Greg Pishek points out, 65.7 percent of Freeman’s carries last year came on inside runs. Also, he’s the best pass-blocking running back in this draft class, an important component to playing time as a rookie. And while I’m not saying this will be a 50/50 split, it wouldn’t surprise me if Freeman made a dent right away, as offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter implemented a dual-back approach in Jacksonville.

Jacksonville Jaguars Carries

As you see, the first year Koetter implemented the committee approach, Fred Taylor was 31 years-old, while upstart Maurice Jones-Drew was a second-year player. Jackson is 31-years old, and Freeman has tons of upside.

Dynasty owners are well aware, but don’t sleep on him in year one.

Wide Receiver

If he can stay healthy, Julio Jones will be an elite fantasy wide receiver.

Please, please, please.

Jones was off to a scorching start to the 2013 season, catching 41 balls for 580 yards and two touchdowns during his first five games. However, his broken foot ended his season, crushing the dreams of fantasy owners everywhere. Jones was one pace for almost 1,900 receiving yards and six touchdowns, which would have placed him among the top fantasy receivers in the game. During the first five games, he was targeted an insane 60 times, making for 12 looks per game. Atlanta is going to sling the ball all over the field, and Jones will receive the most looks.

Of course, there is some injury risk here, as Jones has missed nearly 30 percent of games throughout his short career.

Years after being looked at as an iron man, Roddy White finally was decommissioned in 2013. He missed three games, but even when he was on the field, it was ugly, as he tried to battle through an ankle sprain. Through Weeks 1-12 last year, White averaged an ugly 2.62 ESPN fantasy points per game, 104th among wideouts. However, when White returned to 100 percent, he was the same old stud, scoring 61 ESPN points between Weeks 13-17, good for a top-10 ranking during that span.

Finally, Harry Douglas could replace some of the production that Tony Gonzalez will leave behind, but it’ll take an injury for him to be really fantasy relevant.

Tight End

He’s gone.

Future Hall of Famer, Tony Gonzalez has finally decided to hang the cleats up, leaving a major hole in the Falcons offense. You cannot replace a guy like Gonzalez, who has finished as a top-10 fantasy tight end every season since (wait for it) 1997. That’s insane consistent production, and a guy like Levine Toilolo is not going to replicate anything close to that. Head coach Mike Smith called the tight end an “assist man”, stating he will try to set up other pass-catchers.

No thank you.

Adam Pfeifer is a lead fantasy sports writer for Rant Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @aPfeiferRS.


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