Last season was a devastating downfall for the Atlanta Falcons. After coming up just yards short of a Super Bowl appearance in 2012, the Falcons managed to finish 4-12 in 2013 and provide little fantasy relief in any league.
Let's not be hasty, though, in our attempt to write them off. Take a few things into account.
1) Roddy White suffered an ankle injury in preseason play that hindered him for most of the year.
2) Julio Jones only played five games, as he broke a screw in his foot from a prior surgery.
3) The offensive line was horrible, partly because of injuries.
Steven Jackson also missed four games. The decline wasn't entirely injury based, but it played a major role. There's reason to believe several Falcons can be valuable in fantasy football in 2014. Let's break down the positions.
Notable offseason losses: Tony Gonzalez
Notable offseason additions: Devonta Freeman, Devin Hester
Quarterbacks: Matt Ryan, T.J. Yates, Sean Renfree, Jeff Matthews
Matt Ryan ended 2013 as the No. 14 overall quarterback in standard leagues. After an impressive 2012, Ryan was weaponless at times last year and spent over half the season running for his life.
Regression is clear over the past two seasons, but Ryan still put up over 4,500 yards without Jones and White for weeks. Harry Douglas became his leading receiver. That's not an ideal situation for any quarterback.
Ryan finished nearly dead last among qualifying quarterbacks in average depth of throw, according to Pro Football Focus. With Jones out and White nursing his ankle injury, Ryan was forced to throw to short slant and flat routes working with Douglas and several other inexperienced receivers.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is known for utilizing a vertical passing game. We saw its dangers in 2012 as Ryan set career highs in multiple passing categories. The Falcons drafted Jake Matthews to presumably protect Ryan's blindside in the future, though the rookie will likely start at right tackle initially. They also added Jon Asamoah to play right guard, a position that was a revolving door last year. Add in O-line improvements with healthy receivers, and we should expect a return to 2012's numbers for Ryan.
According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Ryan is currently going in the seventh round of 12-team mock drafts. His average draft position (ADP) might rise over the next few months, but grabbing Ryan as the ninth or 10th quarterback in your draft would be a great get. He finished as a top 10 passer in standard leagues in 2011 and 2012. Expect the same this season, barring another ridiculous slew of injuries.
Atlanta recently traded for T.J. Yates, who should be the No. 2 quarterback throughout the season. If Ryan goes down, Yates would only be valuable in deep or two-QB leagues.
Running backs: Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Devonta Freeman, Antone Smith, Josh Vaughan
Since 2000, only 10 running backs 31 years or older have rushed for over 1,000 yards in a single season. Thomas Jones and Ricky Williams each eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark at 31 in 2009. They were the last backs to accomplish that feat.
Why is this relevant? Steven Jackson turns 31 next month. Prior to 2013, Jackson had finished with over 1,000 yards rushing for eight straight years. He missed four games last season and struggled to find room to run behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league. (Have we mentioned their blocking was terrible yet?)
Jackson took 17 carries in goal-to-go situations. Five of those carries came from the 1-yard line. He scored five of his six touchdowns in these scenarios. For a running back that's being drafted as the RB30 in mocks, the upside is there. Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman are smaller backs and not ideal fits for goal-line work. Jackson should continue to receive the goal-to-go carries.
Rodgers' workload is in jeopardy with the Falcons drafting Freeman. The rookie has been praised across the board by the Falcons coaches and front office. With Rodgers entering a contract year and Jackson likely finishing his career soon, Freeman is a great dynasty stash with some potential in standard leagues if Jackson misses time. Rodgers has back-to-back years with 50+ receptions. He might miss that mark with Freeman taking reps away, but he's worth a later-round flier in PPR leagues.
Wide receivers: Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas, Drew Davis, Darius Johnson, Devin Hester
Here's where you find the heart of the Falcons fantasy value. Julio Jones and Roddy White continue to rank among the top of the league in receiver value, and that trend will continue in 2014. Obviously Jones is the more coveted of the two. How good can he be?
Jones was on a monster pace to start his third NFL season. He caught 41 passes for 580 yards and two touchdowns in five games. Extrapolate those numbers into a full season, and Jones was shooting for 131 receptions, 1,856 yards and six touchdowns. Yes, those are unreal numbers that he probably wouldn't have reached, but you get the picture.
Jones finished No. 9 among receivers in standard leagues in his only full season (2012). Injuries have to be a concern for any owner, but he did play 13 games as a rookie, and last season's injury was somewhat of a freak occurrence. It's easy to label him injury prone. Consider the upside, though. Jones is a top-five receiver if he plays all 16 games, especially in the Falcons vertical offense.
White comes in as a WR21 according to recent mock draft trends. He was the No. 8 fantasy WR in 2011 and the No. 10 WR in 2012. He played in 13 games last season, but if you watched the Falcons play at all, you know he wasn't close to 100 percent for the majority of those games. White does not provide much value after the catch. That's not his game, though. He caught 70+ passes for first downs every season from 2010-2012. Ryan trusts him, and with Tony Gonzalez, another reliable first-down target, out of the picture, White will continue to be the go-to guy in those situations. Expect a bounce-back year. You'll get a steal if White falls a few rounds in your draft.
While these two wideouts spent a good amount of 2013 dealing with injuries, Harry Douglas was enjoying his best season yet. He was the No. 32 WR in standard leagues, catching 85 passes for 1,067 yards and two touchdowns. While some owners will want to ignore Douglas now that Jones and White are back to full health, there's hope for his potential in 2014.
Ryan threw 207 passes to slot wide receivers in 2013. Douglas saw 125 of those targets. We'll see more three-wide sets from the Falcons this season, and without a proven tight end in the mix, Douglas will be third in targets. Keep reading into the tight end section for more good news regarding Douglas' potential.
Devin Hester and Drew Davis are not going to make a fantasy impact. Even if injuries plague the Falcons receiving corps again, these guys aren't going to see enough targets to warrant owning. They're just not that good. Atlanta is letting Hester focus on returning kicks, the spot he's most valuable in.
Tight ends: Levine Toilolo, Bear Pascoe
I know what you're thinking. Who are these guys? Toilolo is the only one fantasy owners should even take note of. The 6-foot-8 giant caught 14 passes as a rookie. His production will go up as the Falcons starting tight end, but don't get overly excited. You're not finding a sleeper here. Why?
- Ryan threw 131 passes to tight ends in 2013
- 19 (yes, 19) of those attempts went to an in-line tight end.
- Toilolo is an in-line tight end.