The Falcons join the Cardinals on the first day of team fantasy previews. What does Atlanta’s explosive offense have in store this season?
Last year, Matt Ryan took a significant statistical step back from his MVP campaign in 2016, as he threw for 849 fewer yards (4,944 to 4,095) and his touchdown-interception ratio went from 38:7 to 20:12. However, outside of some uncharacteristic mistakes in a Thursday Night game against the Saints, I don’t think Ryan’s actual play had a noticeable drop overall. And the Falcons certainly agree, as they made him the highest-paid player in NFL history with a five-year extension worth $150 million, including $100 million guaranteed.
Former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan won’t be coming back to orchestrate the attack, but with a year under his belt and another full offseason to learn, Steve Sarkisian will have a much better grasp on the system and personnel for Atlanta than he did in 2017. Plus, the Falcons have Alabama product Calvin Ridley joining the offense to hopefully add another dimension to the passing game. I think “Matty Ice” could throw for 500 more yards and ten more scores than he did a season ago, which would make him a solid QB1. When evaluating late-round options at quarterback, fantasy owners should keep in mind that Ryan’s floor is bolstered by one of the best supporting casts in the league.
Devonta Freeman has seen his carries and receptions decrease in each of the past two years following a breakout 2015 season, but he’s made up for it with added efficiency, including a combined 4.6 yards per carry in 2016 and 2017 and a career-high 8.8 yards per reception last year. Still just 26-years-old, we should see Freeman’s usual combination of video-game quickness and compact physicality on display this fall. I like him more in the third round than the second round of fantasy drafts, but expect another RB1/RB2 campaign for Freeman nonetheless.
The other half of Atlanta’s dynamic backfield duo, Tevin Coleman says he expects to be more involved in 2018 by “lining up out wide and stuff” more, which is great news for fantasy owners. Coleman has one of the best touchdown rates in the league over the past two years with 19 total scores on just 332 touches, and his ability to pickup chunk yardage has afforded him not only tremendous weekly upside, but also a healthy floor. Entering his age-25 season and a contract year, the former third-round pick is currently being drafted as the RB29, which I think is too low based on the expectation that he will get more touches in an explosive offense. And as always, if Freeman goes down, Coleman would be a high-end RB1 with league-winning upside.
The Falcons drafted Ito Smith in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, which suggests that they understandably won’t be willing to shell out big money to Tevin Coleman in 2019 after paying Devonta Freeman last year. Smith is the clear favorite for third running back duties, which could eventually lead to 8-10 touches a game if one of the co-starters went down, as Atlanta likes to rotate backs. However, unless both Freeman and Coleman get injured, I don’t think the rookie will have much fantasy value this season.
Julio Jones could be heading for a holdout if his contract isn’t addressed before training camp in a few weeks, but at this point, he and Matt Ryan should have enough chemistry to hopefully not miss a beat. Over the past four seasons (starting with the most recent), Jones has gone for lines of 88/1,444/3, 83/1,409/6, 136/1,871/8, and 104/1,593/6. Literally the only knock against Julio as a fantasy option is a lack of touchdowns, but it’s tough to score when defenders are shaded all around him in the red zone. The most dominant receiver in football should be an elite option once again in 2018.
There simply aren’t enough targets to go around for both Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu to be consistent fantasy options, and they will probably end up cancelling each other out with unpredictable production. If one were to emerge, I think it would be Ridley, a versatile deep threat out of Alabama who compliments Julio Jones and will be able to track down Matt Ryan’s deep ball in single coverage. Sanu will definitely remain a factor, but his impact will be more significant for the Falcons than it will be for fantasy owners. We’ll see what happens in the preseason, but consider them both late-round targets with a definite lean towards Ridley.
Justin Hardy should be Atlanta’s fourth wideout once again in 2018, and it’s a role that’s netted him 62 receptions for 618 yards and seven scores over the past three seasons with a remarkably steady 20+ receptions and 194+ yards every year. He will make some plays for Matt Ryan, but Hardy can be ignored in fantasy drafts this summer barring a slew of camp injuries.
A semi-popular breakout pick last summer, Austin Hooper caught 49 passes for 526 yards and three scores in 2017. However, the season numbers were boosted in Week 1 when Chicago’s defense had a couple blown coverages that allowed the Stanford product to go for 128 yards and a touchdown on just two receptions. It’s possible that adding Calvin Ridley to the offense and allowing Tevin Coleman to do more out wide will give Hooper more space to operate without the defense helping out, but there are other options I would rather target in fantasy leagues. I won’t draft him, but for those who want to buy in or stay on the bandwagon, Hooper doesn’t turn 24 until November.
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