Juggernaut Index, No. 9: Matt Ryan the key to Falcons fantasy fortunes

Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/teams/atl" data-ylk="slk:Atlanta Falcons">Atlanta Falcons</a> fans have plenty of reasons to cheer entering 2018. This team should remain a fantasy fantasy-friendly group. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Atlanta Falcons fans have plenty of reasons to cheer entering 2018. This team should remain a fantasy fantasy-friendly group. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

It required no special expertise to predict regression from Matt Ryan last year. Ryan was coming off an MVP season in which he threw a touchdown pass on 7.1 percent of his attempts, well above his career rate. He’d also led the NFL in yards per attempt (9.3) and passer-rating (117.1), producing unsustainably high marks. His offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, had left for San Francisco, replaced by longtime college coach Steve Sarkisian. Regression was basically a given.

Still, few analysts imagined Ryan’s numbers would take such a dramatic hit. He passed for 849 fewer yards on essentially the same number of attempts (534 vs. 529) and his TD total slipped from 38 to 20. Ryan had finished as the No. 2 quarterback in fantasy in 2016, but ranked No. 15 last year. Not good.

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Despite the offensive slowdown, Atlanta nevertheless managed to go 10-6 in the regular season, then upset the Rams on the road in the playoffs. It’s not as if the year was a complete bust. This team’s offense remains loaded with talent and Ryan himself is one of the most productive passers in league history — he ranks fifth all-time in passing yards per game (264.5) and twelfth in passer-rating (93.4).

Ryan is entering his second season in Sarkisian’s offense, surrounded by a familiar supporting cast and saying all the right things

“Continuity in this league is sometimes hard to come by. There’s lots of change, but going into year two with Sark, his comfort level with our personnel, how to utilize guys and from a player’s standpoint — our comfort level with him — what he’s going to call in certain situations, I think we’re way ahead of where we were last year. And I think that’s going to benefit us when we get into those in-game situations of having a comfort level of what to expect.”

After last year’s dip in production, a bounce-back season now seems likely. We shouldn’t expect Ryan to return to 2016 levels, of course, but he might be able to split the difference between that season’s stats and last year’s. He’s thrown at least 26 touchdown passes in six different seasons and he’s topped 4500 passing yards in five campaigns. If he delivers a 4450-28-12 fantasy line, no one should be at all surprised. He’s a good bet to earn a profit at his recent draft price (ADP 109.7).

Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are still a terrific combo. A few additional touchdown connections would be welcomed by the fantasy community. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are still a terrific combo. A few additional touchdown connections would be welcomed by the fantasy community. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Julio Jones, still unreasonably great

Jones has caught at least 80 passes for over 1400 yards in each of the past four seasons, which is almost obscene. He’s averaged a ridiculous 104.5 receiving yards per game dating back to the 2013 season. If you’re the sort of fantasy manager who avoids him because you think he’s somehow TD-challenged, then you don’t deserve Julio. He’s simply one of the most gifted receivers in NFL history. Assuming Ryan’s touchdown rate climbs a few ticks in 2018, you can expect Jones to benefit. He ranked third at his position in targets inside the 10-yard line last season (11), so it’s not as if he’s off the radar in the red-zone. Draft with confidence near the R1/R2 turn.

Veteran wideout Mohamed Sanu returns for what’s likely to be another 650-5 season, and those numbers obviously have some value in mega leagues. He’s established himself as a reliable supporting receiver tied to an excellent offense. (Also, please note that Sanu is the best and most efficient passer in league history if you don’t care about sample size.) Taylor Gabriel relocated to Chicago in the offseason, but Atlanta drafted Calvin Ridley, one of most talented rookie receivers in the 2018 draft class. Ridley has a clear shot to make an immediate fantasy splash…

He was a productive receiver over multiple collegiate seasons at Alabama, and he’s an advanced route-runner with plenty of speed (4.43). Ridley is a priority player in dynasty. It’s not insane to hope for something like 750-plus yards and six scores. Ridley is reasonably priced in redraft, though not an obvious steal (WR48, ADP 122.4).

Atlanta’s top three wideouts are well ahead of the rest of names on the receiving depth chart, so there’s no need to mess around with Justin Hardy, the presumptive No. 4. Austin Hooper has plenty of growth potential, as he’s still only 23 years old. But at a position as deep and sleeper-rich as tight end, Hooper isn’t a player who needs to be targeted. He’s coming off a solid-if-unspectacular 49-526-3 season.

Someday, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are headed to the RBBC Hall of Fame. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Someday, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are headed to the RBBC Hall of Fame. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Freeman and Coleman remain an upper-tier RBBC

Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman remain stuck in committee, but both players have actually ranked as starting-quality fantasy backs in consecutive seasons. This is the rare RBBC arrangement that’s easily understood and consistently productive. Last season, Freeman averaged 14.0 carries and 3.6 targets per game in Sark’s offense, while Coleman averaged 10.4 and 2.6. The pair combined for 2109 scrimmage yards and 16 TDs last season.

Freeman’s receptions and targets aren’t what they used to be, back when Shanahan was his OC. These are his per-game receiving numbers over the past three seasons:

2015 – 6.5 targets, 4.9 REC, 38.5 yards
2016 – 4.1 targets, 3.4 REC, 28.9 yards
2017 – 3.6 targets, 2.6 REC, 22.6 yards

Three seasons ago, Freeman ranked third among all running backs in total targets. Last year, he was No. 23. So that’s not a great development for PPR purposes, nor is it helping the Falcons’ offense. He’s still a high-usage player near the end-zone, of course, ranking fifth in the league last season in carries inside the 5-yard line (15). Freeman is an efficient back who runs behind an excellent line, entirely deserving his second-round ADP (16.4).

Atlanta’s defense finished as a top-10 unit in terms of yards and points allowed in 2017, but the team generated only 16 takeaways. That’s not a recipe for fantasy relevance. The Falcons open their season with a rough slate of games — at PHI, CAR, NO, CIN, at PIT — so there’s no obvious reason to draft this D/ST in our game. Deion Jones and Keanu Neal are the notable IDPs, both worth early consideration.

2017 Offensive Stats & Ranks

Points per game – 22.1 (15th in NFL)
Pass YPG – 249.4 (8)
Rush YPG – 115.4 (13)
Yards per play – 5.8 (6)
Plays per game – 61.9 (24)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) Buffalo, 31) Miami, 30) NY Jets, 29) Baltimore, 28) Oakland, 27) Cleveland, 26) Indianapolis, 25) Washington, 24) Chicago, 23) Tennessee, 22) Jacksonville, 21) Dallas, 20) Tampa Bay, 19) Cincinnati, 18) Denver, 17) San Francisco, 16) Arizona, 15) Seattle, 14) Detroit, 13) Carolina, 12) Houston, 11) Philadelphia, 10) Green Bay, 9) Atlanta

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