While the Atlanta Falcons may not have been a good team by NFL standards, they were a good fantasy team. If you owned a prominent weapon on the Falcons, you mostly came away happy with what you got. However, there were some exceptions to that. Most notably, QB Matt Ryan and RB Devonta Freeman. Atlanta’s TE Austin Hooper finished as the sixth-ranked TE, even though he missed three games during the season. At WR, Julio Jones did what Julio Jones does, put up another top 12 fantasy finish at his position.
Meanwhile, his cohort, Calvin Ridley, finished the 27th overall WR in PPR formats, further cementing him in this offense. Let’s not forget the defense: guys like LB Deion Jones and DT Grady Jarrett performed well for their IDP owners. Overall, it was a solid year for the Falcons on the fantasy side of things.
This offseason has been a bit of a hectic one for Atlanta. The Falcons have witnessed a mass exodus of players, whether it was a player to another team in Free Agency or having to cut a player. Hooper left town and got big-time money from the Cleveland Browns. They also cut Freeman, LB Vic Beasley, and CB Desmond Trufant, who all started last year. While they did lose a lot, they also made some key additions. They signed RB Todd Gurley, traded for TE Hayden Hurst, and signed DE Dante Fowler in free agency.
I, sort of, touched on it earlier, but if you owned Matt Ryan in 2019, you weren’t satisfied with what you got. If you were in a startup draft in any format, whether it was a standard, PPR, Superflex, or IDP league, you paid top tier price to get Ryan on your team last offseason. That was because Ryan finished as a top-three QB in 2018, and people believed he could replicate it again in 2019, but they were wrong. He repaid you by finishing as the 11th ranked QB on the year. He threw for nine fewer TDs than the year prior (35 down to 26), doubled the number of interceptions (seven up to 14), and passed for 458 yards less. It shocked many Ryan owners, and several are still left searching for a reason as to why this happened.
The weapons were the same, and the Falcons spent numerous draft picks an offensive lineman in 2019’s NFL Draft. Things seemed to be on a good path for the QB. However, people ignored the change at Offensive Coordinator last offseason. The Falcons hired previous Tampa Bay Buccaneers HC Dirk Koetter. The new play-caller was a familiar one as he had already been an OC for Ryan earlier. Thus, people thought that Ryan would maintain his level of play in 2018 and carry it over to 2019, but, as we know, that wasn’t the case.
A Much Improved 2020 Season is Coming
In just the last five years, Ryan has had three different OC’s calling plays. First, it was Kyle Shanahan for two years, then it was Steve Sarkisian for the following two years, and then it was Koetter last year. In the first year of each’s tenure, Ryan played horribly in the first year with a new play-caller.
(The first line is Ryan’s first year with Shanahan, the second is Ryan’s first year with Sarkisian, and the last line is Ryan’s first year with Koetter(2019)).
(The first line is Ryan’s second with Shanahan and the second line is Ryan’s second year with Sarkisian).
You can identify a trend there. Ryan steps up his game in a play-callers second year, no matter how much he struggled in the pairs’ first year together. When he has a year or more experience under his belt with an OC, great things happen, and the stats show us that.
What Does That Mean for 2020?
I expect Ryan to have a stellar 2020 season. Sure, he previously worked with Koetter earlier in his career, but things change over time. These two weren’t going to click immediately. They were going to need time to get reacquainted with each other. Expect Ryan to be a top-8 QB for your fantasy team again.
The only name worth mentioning in this backfield is Gurley. New to the Falcons, but not Atlanta’, Gurley is coming off the down year he had with the Rams in 2019. The Rams offense took a step back, and a big part of that was Gurley’s presence or the lack thereof.
Due to arthritis in his surgically repaired knee, the Rams made it a priority to limit Gurley’s touches in 2019. They accomplished just that as Gurley saw the lowest amount of rush attempts in his career (223). He also saw the second-lowest amount of targets (49) and receptions (31) of his career in the passing game. Still, Gurley managed to play and start in every game, but one. Last season was certainly not one of Gurley’s better showings, but don’t expect that again in 2020. Expect Gurley to be a top-tier RB once again in 2020 and finish as a top 12 RB in PPR scoring formats.
A Bounce-back Campaign
There are a few reasons why Gurley is due to have a bounce-back campaign in 2020. First and foremost, the Rams had invested a lot of money into Gurley and his future. Thus, when they got the news about his knee, they had an incentive to limit his touches to preserve him for the long-haul. He’s on the Falcons now, who only signed him to a one-year deal for $6 million. Meaning they don’t give a rip about Gurley’s future and are in win-now mode. That means Gurley will get the lion’s share of the backfield touches.
Secondly, last year the Rams limited what made Gurley great for fantasy, receptions in the passing game as he lost 32 targets and 28 receptions in the passing game. In total, he only accrued 49 targets and 31 receptions over the season. That brings me to Freeman, who started at RB for the falcons last year and missed two games. Even with losing two games, Freeman had 70 targets and 59 receptions. The Falcons will pass the ball to the RB, and I expect Gurley to thrive with the Falcons for that very reason.
Not much needs to be said about Julio. He’ll continue to do what he’s done every year of his career, and that’s being a top-end WR in any format. Last season, Julio eclipsed 1,300 receiving yards and paired that with 6 TDs off 99 receptions. I expect Julio to surpass those numbers with a more-improved Matt Ryan. With that said, more of this discussion should focus on the other receivers in this offense.
Ridley finished as the WR27 in PPR scoring last year and is a guy many people expect to break out in 2020. I stand with the dynasty community here as I’m also expecting Ridley to breakout in this upcoming season. With Hooper out of town, more targets should be heading Ridley’s way as he is more familiar with Ryan and the system then Hurst is. Ridley received 93 targets last year and caught 63 of those. More impressive is the fact that he averaged 13.7 yards per reception. If Ridley maintained that efficiency and got only 15 of Hoopers 97 targets, it would drastically change his value and make him a 1,000 yards or more receiver. I would expect Ridley to be a middling WR2 with those extra targets and maintained efficiency around WR20 overall. It’s not a significant jump, but those points matter.
Best of the Rest
The only other WR of note on the Falcons is Russell Gage. He is entering 2020 as the Falcons number three wide receiver on the depth chart. Last year, Gage collected 74 targets but only caught 49 of those and had 446 receiving yards with only one TD. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, and his fantasy production was below average. Gage will only be worthy of a start for your fantasy team next year if Julio or Ridley went down to injury. Outside of that, Gage doesn’t carry much value.
Hurst, the 25th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, will get his chance this upcoming season in Atlanta. He’s been on the Baltimore Ravens for the first few years of his career. Hurst has also been on the bench behind Mark Andrews, who was drafted a few rounds after him in 2018. Andrews was the better receiving option in Baltimore, but there is no one impeding Hurst in Atlanta.
He gets to suit up and immediately takes that mantle with a QB that loves to feature the TE. With Ryan, previous starting TE Austin Hooper has had a total of 185 targets over the past two seasons. That means he averaged 92.5 targets over the past two seasons. I’m not expecting that kind of involvement from Hurst, but I would expect a number near that, making Hurst a valuable asset. He’s hard to project, given that he hasn’t received over 40 targets in a season yet, so projecting him is a challenge. In a typical PPR scoring format, I think Hurst is a borderline TE1. However, in TE Premium leagues, I think he is a top 8 fantasy TE as the guaranteed workload is enough to bump him up in that format.
Last year, Falcons DT Grady Jarrett had another solid outing for your fantasy teams in Dan Quinn’s defensive scheme. He collected 7.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles on top of that. Jarrett has recently emerged as one of the best DT’s in football and is a solid anchor for your IDP team. He puts up consistent production as he always reeks have on opposing offenses while maintaining a clean bill of health as he has only missed two games in three seasons. Don’t worry about Jarrett in 2020 as he will continue to do what he’s done since he entered the league: produce well and doing it consistently.
The second most significant move of the offseason was the signing of DE Dante Fowler in free agency. Fowler just had a career year with the Rams, where he had 16 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles. He also had a fumble returned for a TD as well. In Atlanta, Fowler will be on the field a lot, given that they are one of the weakest pass-rushing teams in the NFL. There’s not one DE on the Falcons roster that is better or more talented then Fowler. Why is that significant?
Last year with the Rams, Fowler had a career year in almost every statistical category, but he also played more than he ever has. Fowler only topped an 80% snap percentage four times in the first three years of his career. Last season alone, Fowler doubled that playing in over 80% of snaps nine times. He came close to that number being 13 times as he finished in the 77%-79% range on four separate occasions. So, when Fowler is on the field for most snaps, he performs at an extremely high level. Thus, we should once again see similar numbers to last seasons.
Not much needs to be said about Falcons LB Deion Jones other than he is one of the best fantasy LBs in the NFL’s entirety. He has been healthy in all but one season in 2018, where he only played six games. He has had over 100 combined tackles every year but one (the year he was injured). We’ve already seen him collect more than 90 solo tackles once in his four seasons in the league, and he has surpassed more than eight tackles for loss in two seasons.
He is an athletic freak at LB that wreaks havoc on offenses and collects tackles at any insanely high clip, which leads to a surplus of fantasy points for your team. Next year will be no different, as I expect him to continue to be hyper-productive. One thing to keep an eye on, however, is his solo tackles. I expect those to shoot up to the mid to lower 90’s once again.
Entering the third year of his career, Falcons LB Foyesade Oluokun has been a solid fantasy piece to own. His rookie year, he eclipsed 90 combined tackles filling in for an injured Jones at LB, but he dropped off in his sophomore campaign in 2019. He only totaled 62 combined tackles (36 solos) and two tackles for loss. Granted, he only started three games. I would expect a lot more from Oluokun this year as the Falcons are expected to promote him into the starting lineup this offseason. He will fit in perfectly next to Jones as the pair will combine for over 200 tackles (solo and assisted tackles) next year.
Here’s where things get a little tricky on the Falcons roster. There secondary is weak, and the only person worth diving into is S Keanu Neal. He has only played in four games over the last two seasons after starting his career off with a bang. When healthy, Neal is a top tier guy at his position in fantasy and real life. He’s not a guy who is going to get you eight or more interceptions. Instead, Neal will get you 100 plus combined tackles (passed that benchmark in his first two seasons) and a decent amount of fumbles (eight in his first two years).
It’s unclear how much, if at all, the recent injuries will limit him, but he will need some time to get back into a rhythm. Thus, I’d expect him to be around a little more than 80 combined tackles and two fumbles in 2020. That’s certainly in the cards as long as he stays healthy and plays a full season.
In this fantasy forecast, I threw a lot of information and players out there. However, here are some things you should take away. Ryan will have a top 6 QB season, and Gurley should be a top 18 RB solely based on his expected workload. Julio will do what he usually does, and we’ll see Ridley take another step forward in this offense at WR, while Hurst will fill in for Hooper to a degree at TE, but still manage to be a solid fantasy TE. On the defensive side of things expect Jarrett, Fowler, and Jones to continue building on what they’ve already accomplished in the NFL, while Oluokun has a breakout year beside Jones. However, it will take Neal some time to regain his previous form. The Falcons are a team with flourishing young talent at almost every position valuable to any scoring format, but will most certainly be below .500 in the NFL. Why is that you ask? Well, that’s just what the Falcons do.
Make sure to follow me on twitter @DynastyWildcat to get more fantasy football content. I share some of the great content produced all around the fantasy community and my content like my first series called 20 Projections for 2020, published by Dynasty Nerds. If you have any fantasy football-related questions (Dynasty or Redraft), feel free to hit me up!
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