The 2020 Falcons are set to face a brutal offensive schedule. Matt Ryan should be the betting favorite to lead the league in pass attempts as Atlanta tries to keep pace on the scoreboard. The table is set for Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley to both turn in top 12 WR fantasy performances across all formats. The backfield is shaky with reports of a noticeable limp from Todd Gurley. Hayden Hurst has an opportunity to make noise in box scores but is far from guaranteed to do so.
Sharp Football’s Strength of Schedule:
- Mid-tier in terms of opponent’s overall defensive efficiency
- 3rd toughest blend of passing defenses
- 3rd toughest in terms of opponent’s defensive passing efficiency
- 8th toughest blend of rushing defenses
- 13th softest in terms of opponent’s defensive rushing efficiency
- The toughest in terms of opponent’s offensive efficiency
- The toughest in term of opponent’s offensive passing efficiency
- The toughest blend of passing offenses
- Mid-tier in terms of opponent’s offensive rushing efficiency
- 11th toughest blend of rushing offenses
In all 4 of the seasons that OC Dirk Koetter has been with the Falcons (2012-2014 and 2019), Matt Ryan has finished top 6 in pass attempts and cleared the 600 pass attempt mark every time. Ryan delivered top 12 finishes in three of those four seasons, with one outlier QB15 finish. With the aforementioned brutal schedule of opposing offenses, barring injury, Ryan is a lock to once again throw the ball over 600 times and bring home top 12 fantasy numbers. The veteran QB finished 10th in Completion Percentage Over Expected last year, showing his accuracy is still on point.
When drafting Todd Gurley, his degenerative left knee has to be on one’s mind. According to Vaughn McClure of ESPN on August 12th, Gurley was walking with a noticeable limp at practice. However, he was able to turn on the jets during drills, reportedly moving well. It’s likely one of two outcomes occur: The Falcons, bereft of quality depth at the position, load Gurley’s plate up with 20+ touches per game—potentially five or more of those coming via targets. Receptions average almost twice as many yards than carries do. This option would likely result in Gurley’s knee giving out at some point during the season, with the potential for IR. The other outcome is that HC Dan Quinn puts Gurley on a snap count, in an attempt to reduce the risk of Gurley being rendered ineffective as the season progresses.
With Quinn stating that this option is on the table, Gurley’s ADP of 3.05, RB15 is a tough pill to swallow. It’s not unreasonable to think his touch count could be as low as 12-15 per game, with spikes of 18 or so from time to time. Perhaps the biggest factors for Gurley in 2020 are his contract and the expected gamescripts. Atlanta was only willing to sign the veteran back to a one-year deal, indicating that they don’t believe he has much in the way of career longevity with the degenerative knee. That could lead to them utilizing him frequently, given that if his knee does breakdown it won’t be their problem for long. And since this high-flying offense will be in go-mode all year long, they’re likely to put up a bevvy of points each week. We like running backs on high-scoring offenses due to their high-frequency of redzone touches.
The other backs of note: Qadree Ollison, Ito Smith, and Brian Hill. Ollison has operated as a goal-line battering thus far in his lone NFL season, rushing 22 times and scoring on 4 of them. He has 2 targets to his name. Ito Smith has fit the bill of a meek dual threat. Brain Hill saw a career high, 14 targets last year, but has largely been solely used as a rusher. Smith’s pass catching skill set makes him the best bet to see work between the 20s, in passing situations. Ollison will operate as a touchdown-vulture. Hill is likely to see work between the 20s as a rushing reliever. None are sexy options but Smith might return the most value, should Gurley get hurt, in PPR formats. All 3 are typically going undrafted.
The impact that the Falcons schedule will have on this team really can’t be overstated. Atlanta is staring down the barrel of the NFL’s most difficult schedule in terms of the opponent’s offensive efficiency. As Warren Sharp notes in his 2020 Football Preview, Sharp’s trademarked advanced metrics indicate that the defensive successes ATL experienced after relieving HC Dan Quinn of defensive play-calling duties mid-season are unsustainable. In short, the defense will allow opponents to score at well, setting both Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley up for monster 2020 workloads.
The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers had a very similar team build to the 2020 Falcons. The passing game ran through two wide receivers (Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster), a tight end (Vance McDonald), and a running back (James Conner). In its current state, Atlanta will feature WRs Julio and Ridley, TE Hayden Hurst, and RB Todd Gurley. In 2018, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster finished third (168) and fourth (166), respectively, in targets across the NFL. Fantasy-wise, they finished top eight in both .5PPR and full-point PPR. Coincidentally, QB Ben Roethlisberger finished first in the NFL in passing attempts with 675. Julio coming off the board at the Rounds 1 / 2 turn (WR5) in .5PPR is an appropriate price. Calvin Ridley being drafted at the 4.08, WR17 mark is an extreme value.
Laquon Treadwell and Russell Gage are only worth rostering if one of Julio or Ridley were to miss time.
Atlanta’s tight end position was a league winner last year as Austin Hooper, now with the Cleveland Browns, broke out with a .5PPR TE6 finish. With Hooper leaving, the Falcons traded for possible-bust/Baltimore Ravens 2018 1st Round pick TE Hayden Hurst. Hurst was handily outperformed by TE Mark Andrews in Baltimore. Although Hurst has made little noise in the box score through his two NFL seasons, it’s possible that he makes a third-year leap via passing game volume. Tight ends have shown that they typically take two to three years to become impact players in the NFL. Paying Hurst’s 9.03, TE12 cost is difficult to stomach. He’s coming at his ceiling value there, rather than his floor. If he earns even 80% of Austin Hooper’s 2019 97-target total though, he would likely return 9.03/TE12 value. Savvy drafters might prefer to wait on tight ends like Mike Gesicki or T.J. Hockenson in later rounds.
Backups Khari Lee and Luke Stocker are ignorable.
Younghoe Koo has struggled at times but the frequency with which the team will be in scoring position will be high. Koo is a volume-based option at kicker.
The Falcons defense will be constantly under duress — as will the opposing defense as the pace constantly is pushed due to the gamescript that results from two high-scoring teams. Although they will allow points, more passing attempts means more opportunities for sacks and interceptions. Atlanta’s D/ST will be a sneaky streaming option from time to time.