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Devonta Freeman
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Falcons Fantasy Preview

by John Daigle
Updated On: July 10, 2020, 3:26 pm ET

2018 Stats (Rank)

Total Offense: 6,266 yards (6th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 47 (8th)
Offensive Plays: 1,010 (18th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 659 (5th)
Rush Attempts: 351 (30th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 63 (26th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 179 (6th)

Coaching Staff

The Falcons drastically underachieved in ’18 following numerous injuries to their defense, but ex-OC Steve Sarkisian was ultimately (and perhaps justifiably) the offseason scapegoat following another year of predictive play-calling and early red zone struggles. Unfortunately for Atlanta, the hiring of former Bucs HC Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator leaves much to be desired. A disciple of the “Air Coryell” scheme, Koetter stripped at-the-time Bucs OC Todd Monken of his play-calling duties following a 5-of-6 loss stretch at the halfway point despite Tampa’s 28.6 points per game and aggressive 10.1 yards per attempt through the air on first down, the latter category being a staple of the “Air Raid” tree Monken bloomed from. The Bucs averaged a full touchdown less per game (20.8) and mere 8.1 YPA throwing on first down the rest of the way. Now whitelisted to instill and carry out HC Dan Quinn’s ground-and-pound play-calling mantra, we should fully expect Atlanta’s offense to steer clear of their 63% pass play rate (seventh-overall) in neutral game scripts from last year and instead lean on their subpar running attack in an attempt to stay “balanced” on offense. Koetter confirmed as much prior to the team’s mandatory minicamp in June.

Passing Game

QB: Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub
WR: Julio Jones, Russell Gage
WR: Calvin Ridley, Marcus Green
WR: Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy
TE: Austin Hooper, Logan Paulsen

Even in a letdown seven-win season, it’s impossible to pin the blame on Ryan as his yards per attempt (8.1), touchdown percentage (5.8%) and raw passing yards (4,924) were all the second-highest outputs of his 11-year career. Needless to say, his completion percentage when kept clean (74.2%) was still far superior to his completion rate under pressure (57.5%) last year, which undoubtedly led to the selections of No. 14 overall pick Chris Lindstrom and OT Kaleb McGary at the back-end of the first-round; both who graded out in the top-10 in pass-blocking and pressure rate at Pro Football Focus in their final collegiate year. Warren Sharp projects the Falcons to open the year with the eighth-hardest schedule of pass defenses through Week 8, but experience a shift to the third-easiest calendar of opponents following the team’s Week 9 bye. The difference this year essentially comes down to how Ryan is being valued in fantasy drafts. Whereas the veteran’s Average Draft Position settled at a fruitful spot in the 9th/10th-round last year, he’s currently coming off the board as the QB6 in the 6th/7th-round of early Best-Ball leagues. There’s an argument to be made that his schedule (albeit catching the Cardinals sans Patrick Peterson) and play-calling regression will keep him from a top-10 finish.

Only one year after experiencing the wrong side of touchdown variance, Jones was thought to be headed in that same direction with a goose egg from pay dirt through the first seven weeks despite top-two marks in targets (81), air yards (1,140), and Pro Football Focus’ predictive Yards Per Route Run metric (2.93). That oversight changed following the team’s Week 8 bye as the Falcons made a concerted effort to get Jones involved, seeing his targets inside the 20 spike from a total of three in their first seven games to the second-most in the league (12) from Week 9 on. Purposely involved less to avoid further damage to his hips and ribs over the final three games, 2018’s receiving-yardage leader enters the new year as an undisputed top-five receiving option in both re-draft and Best-Ball leagues alongside DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams, Michael Thomas, and Odell Beckham. Even concerns of Atlanta’s aforementioned play-calling shouldn’t sink Jones any further than fantasy’s WR6 when the smoke clears.

It only took one year for Ridley to buck mentions of his lacking athleticism as the No. 26 overall pick broke the franchise record for most touchdown receptions in a single-season by a rookie (10), all the while ranking 37th among wideouts in YPRR (1.77) and matching Hooper for team-high regards in Next Gen Stats' average yards of separation at target (3.2). His first run in the league was not without its flaws, however, as Ridley buoyed his two games against New Orleans and, in particular, incumbent starter P.J. Williams into a 15/249/4 box-score but averaged a volatile 3.5/41.5/0.4 including eight single-digit fantasy outings against the rest of the league. For Best-Ball purposes, those high-ceiling weeks arguably keep the former Bama stud as a mid-range WR2. Those low-floor performances budge him to borderline WR2/3 territory in season-long formats.

Reportedly shopped for a third-round pick this offseason, Sanu stayed Atlanta’s high-efficiency slot wideout in hitting seven-year career-highs in receiving yards (838) as he ran 75.6% of his routes from the middle of the field. We should fully expect that number to regress since a forecasted uptick in two-wide sets would inevitably take Sanu off the field. Any (unlikely) midseason trade would only help Ridley’s outlook.

Fantasy’s TE6 through Week 14, Hooper saw just nine targets on a reduced snap count (59.6%) while playing through various knee and ankle injuries in Atlanta’s final three games. It was still an unexpected leap for the third-year pro — especially considering Ridley’s involvement in the offense — as Hooper followed up his 65 looks in ‘17 with the sixth-most targets among tight ends (88) last year. The Falcons yet again made no offseason upgrades to their tight end room, locking in the 24-year-old as a viable weekly starter in re-draft leagues if only for his unrivaled passing-down usage ahead of inline run-blocking specialist Logan Paulsen.

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Running Game
RB: Devonta Freeman, Ito Smith
OL (L-R): Jake Matthews, James Carpenter, Alex Mack, Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary

Tevin Coleman’s departure from Atlanta’s backfield leaves ample opportunity for Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith; a top-six mark in unaccounted for carries (179, 50.9%) including five totes inside the five-yard line, to be exact. Now entering his sixth season in the league, however, durability concerns linger for 26-year-old Freeman as the 5’8”, 208-pound lead back has dealt with three concussions, multiple ligament sprains to both knees, foot and groin injuries, and season-ending core-muscle surgery in the last two seasons alone. Reportedly a “full-go” for training camp, Freeman does appear to have a clean bill of health to start the year running behind a much-improved O-line comprised of two top-31 picks and offseason addition James Carpenter. Atlanta’s offensive trenches ranked 26th-overall in Football Outsiders’ Adjust Line Yards metric last season, but No. 2 in Open Field Yards — a clear indicator the Falcons depended heavily on their backs to create any amount of space. That won’t be the case in ’19. Still on the rise in Best-Ball drafts, Freeman’s currently slotted as my RB15 with an all-too-obvious high-end RB2 season in the cards if he musters 14 games.

Thrown into the fire following Freeman’s season-ending surgery, Smith seemingly busted with 6.8 carries on 36.7 percent of Atlanta’s offensive snaps in 12 games behind Coleman. The latter’s absence this upcoming year ensures the former fourth-rounder handle 1A duties in the event Freeman goes down — Coleman averaged 10.3 carries ahead of Smith in their stint together. Southern Miss’ all-time leader in yards from scrimmage, the Judge’s elusiveness, as proven by his 2.98 yards-after-contact average in his collegiate career, firmly plants him among Best-Ball’s RB4/5 candidates with room for a ceiling above expectations.

Win Total

Getting elite coverage LB Deion Jones (foot), FS Ricardo Allen (Achilles’) and SS Keanu Neal (ACL) back to start the year certainly helps on the surface, but Football Outsiders showed the Falcons with only 77.9 adjusted games lost — just 0.24 fewer than league average. Unless this offense banks a friendly location schedule that doesn’t place the team outdoors until November 17th and escapes from a not-so-friendly set of foes that includes the sixth-toughest schedule based on Opponent Vegas Win Totals, it’s hard to imagine Atlanta eclipsing their projected nine regular season wins on paper. Avoiding an 0-3 start out the gates (at Minnesota, against the Eagles, at Indy) would go a long way towards potentially cashing on the Over.