A year removed from hosting the NFC title game, the Falcons were one of the biggest disappointments in the league in 2013. After losing 12 regular season games total from 2010-2012, they dropped 12 last season and were just as disappointing for fake football. With a year of damage control, will Atlanta return to both real and fake football glory in 2014?
2014 Falcons Schedule
|1||New Orleans Saints|
|3||Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|5||@||New York Giants|
|10||@||Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|14||@||Green Bay Packers|
|16||@||New Orleans Saints|
As usual, take any strength of schedule analysis done this early with a grain of salt, but the Falcons draw a ton of good defensive fronts this season. That will put an offensive line to the test that allowed Matt Ryan to be sacked 44 times in 2013 after only taking 54 sacks in 2011 and 2012 combined. They will be getting Sam Baker back from injury and they selected Jake Matthews in the first round to take over the right tackle position. This unit will be critical to the Falcons offense recovering in 2014.
Before we get into Ryan himself, let’s pause and reset something that came up in the Cowboys preview. It’s a dangerous game to desire the pursuit of chasing fantasy points that stem from being attached to horrible defenses. Look at where Atlanta’s defense ranked in a few categories in 2012 and where they finished in 2013.
The Falcons were a bad defense in 2012 that covered themselves up because they forced a high amount of turnovers. In 2013, they didn’t budge in Yards per Play, Yards per Carry, even sack rate, but without forcing those turnovers it destroyed their points allowed total. That had a ripple effect on the offense as they were forced often into off script offense, here’s how the offense faired compared to 2012.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has flipped his approach since joining the Falcons adjusting to personnel and overall team style from his days in Jacksonville. He’s a reminder that good coordinators adjust to the players they have, not vice versa. Take a peek at his play calling splits from his seven seasons calling plays.
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Matt Ryan Bouncing Back?
One of the most curious draft selections I see so far this offseason is the selection of Ryan in the seventh round in front of a cluster of mid to late quarterbacks. The same words of caution I use on Tony Romo are applied to his situation as well as Ryan posted only five top 12 weeks in 2013, mostly due to having to perform in terrible offensive script. He ranked 26th in fantasy points per aimed attempt (FPAT), tied with Case Keenum and Carson Palmer and below Matt Flynn and Mike Glennon.
Many will point to the injury of Julio Jones as the death knell for Ryan’s performance overall, but he still had five weeks of elite receiver production to start the season and another elite five weeks from a healthy Roddy White to close the campaign.
He also had Tony Gonzalez all season and his loss is being downplayed as significant for Ryan. Since 2008, when Gonzalez and Ryan each joined the Falcons, the Hall of Fame tight end has accounted for 19.1 percent of Ryan’s fantasy output passing. To further the importance of Gonzo for Ryan, once the Falcons acquired Julio Jones in 2011, Gonzalez’s fantasy output has gone up to accounting for 22.5 percent of his output.
Matt Ryan Fantasy Distribution Per Player Since 2011
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Losing a player that nearly accounts for a quarter of all of your fantasy points over a three season stretch is pretty important. Not only from a fantasy sense, but from a real football sense. Ryan is losing a player that ranked sixth in the NFL in third down receptions since they’ve joined forces.
Third Down Target/Reception Leaders Since 2008
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The other big loss area for Ryan in losing Gonzalez is in the red zone. Since 2008, Gonzalez amassed 108 red zone targets from Ryan, converting 33 (30.6 percent) for scores. Those targets make 21.7 percent of all red zone targets in the offense, an number that climbed once Jones joined the roster in 2011 to 22.7 percent when he converted 22 of 63 targets (34.9 percent) for scores. A lot has been made of Ryan getting Jones back this year and his splits when Jones is in the field, but Gonzalez and Jones had a harmonious relationship that made each other, and Ryan, better.
Let’s be clear, I’m not burying Ryan as he’s going to have fine totals when 2014 ends and has potential to regain the front half of 2012 output if the additions of Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai make a large impact in stopping the run. But even with a full strength Jones and White, the loss of Gonzalez in conjunction with what I expect to another trying season due to lack of defensive depth is enough to make me question investing any equity into Ryan this season if his current price remains in the front pack of mid-round quarterbacks. Ryan has arbitrage plays all over the board in Jay Cutler and Carson Palmer, so I can hold off on his production.
Gonzalez was so good that Koetter immediately declared they were going to try and replace him with two players, which may work with the personnel they have. They’ll try to make up his yardage by using more three receiver sets with Harry Douglas, who has his own rule created for being able to replace yardage as Fantasy Douche notes. Douglas grabbed 85 passes and totaled 1,057 yards in 2013, but one thing he doesn’t do is score touchdowns. He’s scored just six times on his 207 career receptions and has been a poor red zone producer. In 2013, he failed to convert any of his 14 red zone targets for touchdowns, and has converted only three of 34 targets there in his career. It’s extremely hard to envision Douglas besting his 2013 totals in any capacity, so don’t be fooled into thinking this “role change” will lead to much counting fantasy production.
The second phase of replacing Gonzalez is his scoring ability and they will attempt to do that with sophomore tight end Levine Toilolo. Toilolo is a sycamore, standing at 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds and turned two of his six red zone looks into scores as a rookie. He’s not going to be much of a factor outside of that area, making him the Atlanta version of Joseph Fauria for fantasy owners. If he’s effective in his role, that frees up defenses from focusing their efforts on Jones near the paint, something that has gone up and down to start his career.
Jones was on an ungodly pace throughout the opening five weeks of 2013. Using the Games Splits App available at RotoViz, see for yourself.
That was alongside a hobbled White, but that was a glimpse of the ceiling that Jones possesses, which is why the equity required to acquire him remains so high. His foot injury will be something that he will carry for his entire career, but his ADP has yet to reflect any of that risk associated with it. I’m still totally fine with using a top 15 selection on him because when he can play, he’s as good as A.J. Green has been on a per game basis to start their careers. His injury is reason enough to be cautious with his selection or select a player with fewer red flags in your early rounds, but this is a player that can win your league, which is why his price hasn’t budged.
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White dealt with a high ankle sprain suffered in the preseason but he finished 2013 nearly as well as Jones started it. Using the same Games Splits App, check out the damage caused by White over that final five game run when he was finally at full strength.
If you recall the third down reception chart in support of Gonzalez you likely already noticed that White was tops on that list. He’s also a mega bargain right now, as Tony DelSignore points out. White is a PPR Gibraltar that you can acquire possibly as your second or third receiver this summer that makes too much sense to pass up considering he stands to benefit the most from the absence of Gonzalez as Ryan’s best underneath option.
The Backs: Who Will Rise Up?
I was one of the people who was down on Steven Jackson a year ago because his redraft value was inflated. Now, he’s dirt cheap and it feels like an overcorrection. He’ll be 31 this July and still has an extra year on the deal he signed last offseason. Jackson missed five weeks with a quad injury last year, but he had only missed two games over the previous four seasons. When he returned, he came back to what was then a throw away season to face Arizona, Carolina, Seattle, and Tampa Bay his first month back from injury who were killers up front for fantasy run games. From week 12 on though, he caught some consistency and was RB19 or higher in four of the final five weeks through week 16, scoring 6 TDs over that stretch.
Gone are the 20 carry games and I don’t project this team being good enough to support those. I could absolutely see Jackson posting a similar line to what Fred Jackson was able to accomplish though in 2013 on an underwhelming club and splitting backfield use. With him tweaking a hamstring already in camp, there’s fair value there for him to trump his price tag if he’s ready to go week one like Atlanta claims. With his age and recent soft tissue injury history, his durability is a concern.
Koetter has always used his backs in the passing game and this backfield has plenty of bodies that will contribute in keeping that trend alive. Since 2007, backs have accounted for nearly 26 percent of all receptions in an offense helmed by Keotter.
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That will likely earn Jacquizz Rodgers some playing time, but it’s clear that after three seasons he’s only a change of pace back. He enters the final year of his rookie contract coming off of back-to-back seasons with 50 receptions, but has turned 247 career carries into only 899 yards (3.6 YPC) and only four rushing scores. The best case to be made for him is if Douglas were to go down and he was used as the underneath yardage eater in a higher capacity than expected from the start of the season.
I anticipate his role to be limited to only a pass catcher this season as Atlanta drafted Devonta Freeman. Josh Collacchi covered Freeman earlier in his rookie profile and points out that he’s a capable back in all facets of an offense. For 2014, there’s a little too early wishful thinking as owners are ready to throw dirt on Jackson, but he would definitely be the main backup in the running department. I see him in a similar situation to that of Donald Brown in San Diego for this season, as the backup to both roles in the offense. He could definitely supplant Rodgers at some point, but without an injury, he will remain a bench stash for this season.
2014 Fantasy Relevant Projections
Best Option to Crash through their projection without injury: Jackson – this team is pretty clear cut, they are going to rely on their stars on offense. If the actual team is more successful than I believe they are, then Jackson’s opportunity becomes even greater.
Biggest Risk to fall through their projection: White – becoming a reception reliant roster smoother is still in the range of outcomes, whether we believe the end is near or not. Passing the torch to Jones and his age are still in the cards to possibly derail major output.
Best Waiver Wire Option: Freeman – Not really a waivers option, but may be at some point in the season. Other than Freeman, there’s little to be excited about with the depth of this club, as we found out in 2013, even if major injuries occur. The rookie back is the only player I’m interested in if that happens.