2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: Atlanta Falcons
August 4, 2015 | Chet
2014 was another let down for the Atlanta Falcons, finishing 6-10. After a 4-12 season in 2013, Atlanta has now totaled just 10 wins since their 13-3 NFC Title Game run from 2012. With that disappointment; Atlanta in turn fired head coach Mike Smith after seven full seasons, who was the longest tenured head coach in franchise history. The defensive minded Dan Quinn was hired in his place, but will the Falcons be any different in 2015 than the past two seasons?
2015 Falcons Schedule
By now, you’re fully aware to just scratch the surface when looking at schedule analysis as there’s a lot of moving chairs year to year. That said, there’s still nothing scary at all when looking at the front half of the Falcons schedule, which looks rather appealing. Actually, the entire schedule could very well favor the passing game outside of a few spots, something that is still the strength of this offense.
With Smith fired, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter moved over to Tampa Bay, allowing the organization to bring in Kyle Shanahan to run this offense under Quinn. Quinn brought in Raheem Morris with him to turn around this defense as offensively Shanahan is already inheriting an offense that was in the top third or so in the league in multiple areas in 2014.
Atlanta is already a functional offense and they should have some positive regression on the way in terms of turning all of the yardage they stacked into actual scoring opportunities. Despite ranking 12th in the league in scoring, Atlanta ranked 26th in terms of red zone scoring opportunities. They were still the sixth best team in turning red zone trips to touchdowns (61.4 percent), but that mark wasn’t only low for a team producing those kinds of yards, it was also the lowest total of red zone scoring opportunities the team has had since Matt Ryan took over as the starter. I definitely believe we’ll see an uptick in actual scoring for this team in 2015 based on them bouncing back to previous opportunity totals.
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Grounding the Falcons
Perhaps the biggest allure in hiring Shanahan to guide this offense was because the passing game doesn’t need much work, rather it’s the Falcons running game that needs work as it’s been on life support. Atlanta’s running has been the least used and produced the fewest yardage over the past two seasons.
Shanahan and what his zone blocking scheme can do to ignite an offense has been well documented, but perhaps also a little overstated.
Like any scheme, results are still largely talent driven. If we’re going to credit Shanahan for unlocking fantasy gems like Steve Slaton in 2008 and Ryan Torain in 2010, it’s also still relevant to acknowledge that Slaton went from 4.8 yards per carry to 3.3 in year two and Torain went from 4.5 to 3.4 in the same exact system. Other elements were surely in play in both seasons, but their results ultimately met their talent level, something that’s rarely brought up when discussing Shanahan. He deserves some credit for also harnessing the abilities of Alfred Morris to start his career, but Morris was also a solid producer once Shanahan left as well. When it comes to incorporating past coordinator data into projections, there’s a slick slope to ski on. You’re looking for broad trends that cover various talent levels. I definitely still believe that Shanahan’s strengths as a coach revolve around his acumen in the rushing department, but I still stock talent as the vehicle for production over scheme in the majority of cases.
And despite the questionable talent level of this backfield with a beyond the grave Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rogers to along with holdovers Antone Smith and Devonta Freeman, the Falcons backfield was still 13th overall in standard scoring and 10th in PPR scoring. Even if you take away all of Smith’s five splash-play scores, they still come in at 15th for 2014. All four of those players each scored over 75 fantasy points on the season. For 2015, we’re expecting the pie to be split mostly between two backs with Smith peppered in again.
Atlanta went out and drafted rookie Tevin Coleman in the third round this spring as the fifth running back off of the board. Coleman arguably has more athletic acumen than any previous back under Shanahan has possessed, so there’s an opportunity for fireworks here if you do in fact subscribe to the narrative of Shanahan turning running game water into wine. I broke down Coleman prior to the draft here and while everything about Coleman’s shortcomings behind the line of scrimmage are a potential issue in a pure zone blocking scheme, I don’t have the arrogance in believing that Atlanta isn’t cognizant of the same areas of weakness and Shanahan will adapt a rushing attack to suit the overall ability of Coleman instead of just round pegging a square hole. He may lose passing game work to second year back Devonta Freeman, but in a soft division attached to a good passing game, I anticipate Coleman making an immediate impact.
Freeman is expected to open training camp at the starter, but regardless, he’s going to be in the fold and possibly have a major role whether or not Coleman ends up handling the bulk of carries. Freeman didn’t get a ton of burn as a rookie, totaling just 65 rushing attempts on the season to go along with 30 receptions. He had double digit rushing attempts in just one game, a week in which Atlanta led 35-0 at halftime. That small sample and the production that came along with it fits the archetype of back that Freeman profiles as, which is a change of pace, passing game asset. Not dissimilar from the player he is replacing in Rogers. As a runner, he may be better suited for that change of pace role, especially if his 2014 rushing touches are any indication for future production.
|Player||Att||2 Yd or Less||%||5+ Yds||%||10+ Yds||%|
That’s a very small sample to place full judgment in as far as 2015 goes, and with his pass catching ability, you don’t want to just bury his involvement due to those numbers. Nor do you want to assume he won’t be better, either. I still believe Coleman ultimately ends up shouldering the bulk of the rushing work for a lot of the reasons JJ Zachariason highlights here, but Kevin O’ Brien believes there’s already reason to believe Freeman will have a relevant fantasy floor regardless and you should buy in now while his ceiling is still potentially discounted.
The overall outlook for Atlanta’s strengths may also favor Freeman because the talent level of this offensive line is still one of the worst in the league and they may just be built to pass and keep passing. Jake Matthews was nothing short of a travesty as a rookie, and he’ll be lining up next to left guard journeyman Chris Chester who will be next to career back up Joe Hawley at center. That is a potentially disastrous left side of an offensive line if Matthews doesn’t improve to the level of his invested capital. The offensive line play may dictate what this team does and there stands a chance that this situation could be frustrating all season long pending game scripts.
Under the majority of scenarios, I’m very likely to have three running backs by the time either of these guys is currently being selected so I’m focused more on adding receivers at that stage. That’s why so far, even though I like the opportunity the Atlanta running backs have in this offense, they’ve yet to find my rosters. The way it stands today, Coleman is coming off of the board at RB32 while Freeman is at RB41. That’s a more than solid buying opportunity for your preference and almost undoubtedly lower than where the starter ends up going late August. As stated to start, I expect this offense to have many more scoring chances in 2015, so these backs are relevant. I’m still in the Coleman camp since his resume is just far more glowing than Freeman’s is and I still believe Freeman to be better suited as change of pace back. There’s a real shot that once Freeman opens camp as the starter, those two price points flip flop. In that scenario I’ll find Coleman’s lower ADP more enticing of the duo.
Year of the Julio
2014 was a career season for Julio Jones as he totaled 104 receptions for a franchise record 1,593 receiving yards. As crazy as it may sound around those numbers, it should’ve been a lot better. Jones started off the season on fire, posting three top-10 scoring weeks over his first five games, then failed to post another one until week 13. He scored just six times on the season and after scoring two times in week three, he didn’t score his next touchdown until week 12. Jones then closed the season with 100 or more yards in three of his final four games played (missing week 15), including a 259 yard bonanza to start the fantasy postseason.
Despite hitting a ceiling rut midseason, Jones remained uber-consistent as he had zero weeks outside of the top-48 of the position, something only Antonio Brown and Demaryius Thomas can claim. Jones had 50 or more receiving yards in every game on the season and has the second longest streak in NFL history as such with 24 consecutive games played topping 50 receiving yards (Antonio Brown has the longest streak ever currently at 32 games and counting). To begin his career, Jones has been a terror and while it may not hold up over time, he is the current all-time leader for receiving yardage per game of all players with at least 30 games played.
In terms of what he’s meant for Matt Ryan, Jones has propelled him into consistent QB1 status and despite playing alongside two great receivers in Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, has been the supreme target for Ryan for the quarterback’s career.
The one semi-buggaboo with Jones is that he’s been rather lackluster so far in the red zone, which is why we haven’t had a heavy handed touchdown scoring season from him yet. I opened with Atlanta’s struggles to reach the red zone and Jones was affected as just 7.4 percent of his targets on the season came in the red zone, the eighth lowest of all wide receivers with 50 or more targets. Jones profiles to excel in the red zone and some of his struggles in that area is that he just hasn’t been super-efficient on low volume in that area of the field. The one season in which he had traction on substantial targets there, he delivered.
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There’s already a lot of clamoring for Jones to be the number one receiver selected this summer and perhaps even the number one overall player. You’ll find no shortage of posts highlighting Shanahan and how the X receiver has performed in his offenses, but Jones already stood to inherit a wealth of targets from a good quarterback and is immensely talented. That talent level is something JJ Zachariason wants to point out as you should be drafting Jones based on those stellar credentials and not the narrative that Shanahan will push him into that elite status. I don’t see Shanahan changing the outlook for Jones very much, because I already have him as the top receiver based on Jones having every tool in place to have a WR1 overall season like his Equity Scores from C.D. Carter suggest he has in his range outcomes and we just haven’t gotten it yet as a complete package but rather in fractioned doses. There’s going to be a time when everything aligns sooner rather than later in that happening.
Roddy White will be turning 34-years old this November and is coming off of a solid bounce back WR2 campaign. His per game efficiency totals fell back in line to where they were in 2012 in some areas, but his overall output in the counting stat areas continued to showcase that he is in the twilight of the receiver we once knew him as.
White may not be the perennial PPR Gibraltar we once knew, but he was still very solid as a weekly WR2-3 option as he turned in seven top-24 scoring weeks, which were the same total as Golden Tate and DeAndre Hopkins in two fewer games played with three top-12 scoring ones. He also had six weeks outside of the top-36, showing that he was still better served as your weekly WR3 than your second option.
Despite White slowing down Father Time a touch last season, he could potentially be a trap player if he’s unable to live off of easy scores again. Of White’s seven receiving scores on the season, six came from five yards and in, which were tied for the NFL lead with Randall Cobb. Unlike Jones, White was able to turn in similar low volume red zone looks into scores by posting the highest conversion rate of his career thus far.
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Since Atlanta has drafted Jones and he’s been the unquestioned top option in the passing game, White has been at 21.2 percent of the team targets in games he’s played. Atlanta threw to their wide receivers 69.7 percent of the time in 2014, fifth highest in the league. With no tight end presence on board once again, White should be in the area of 20 percent of the targets again, if not more.
It’s easy to still feel like White is a value trap. He was reliant on short touchdowns and high volume and now has a knee injury that sounds as if it will require maintenance all season long. Dr. Jeff Budoff eases the concerns regarding White’s knee and at WR33 pricing, you’re still getting a solid discount on a player C.D. Carter shows has a high probability to be a fantasy WR2 this season overall with those risks priced in. On teams where I have a volatile WR3, I may pursue White as a safer play counterpunch for weeks when I want to play from the floor up, but if he has to be my weekly WR3, then I’m shying a bit away.
The departure of Harry Douglas and his 74 targets a year ago allows Justin Hardy to step right into a role he’s familiar with and can be successful in on the intermediate level since he’s really just a bigger version of Douglas.
I broke down Hardy here prior to the draft, and although Jones and White occupied a massive piece of the team target share (46.2 percent in 2014), they each have missed games in the past two seasons. Hardy is a fine compliment to the offense and serviceable in a pinch if the top options go down for an abbreviated stint, but a complimentary piece is all he’s going to likely be as his profile suggests. Although he will never be a league winner, his attachment to a good quarterback, playing behind a 34-year old wide receiver in White who has been injured each of the past two seasons is enough to keep giving him a waiver wire pulse.
White may be best suited to win inside at this stage of his career, so in three wide sets we actually may see Leonard Hankerson win that third receiver job and keep Hardy at bay. Hankerson, the former third round selection by the Shanahan coached Redskins, is familiar with this offense and has been making some noise throughout the early summer after recovering fully from a knee injury that forced him to miss all but one game in 2014. Since Hardy’s main question mark is generating separation against NFL caliber defensive backs and his skill set is best suited to play on the interior as well, Hankerson can carve out a role strictly by offering tactical variance to the offense when Atlanta uses just three receivers and offers upside if White’s knee is more bulky than anticipated.
Devin Hester actually made a solid contribution to this team in 2014, not only in the return game, but also added 38 receptions for 504 yards and two scores. He’s basically the Antone Smith of this receiving unit that could skim just enough snaps and targets to prevent one of Hankerson or Hardy from being a real impact. Atlanta targeted their tight ends just 8.9 percent of the time in 2014, the lowest amount in the league. That’s something that doesn’t figure to change much this season. Levine Toilolo was a disaster as a pass catcher and all the team did to shore up that position was bring in veteran backups Tony Moeaki and Jacob Tamme who have combined for 42 catches, 427 yards and four scores over the past two seasons. No one here is on your redraft radar unless something drastically tilts.
Leaving Matty’s ADP on Ice
Matt Ryan turned in another ho-hum season, finishing as QB7 overall, his fourth QB7 or QB8 season over the past five years. He still was a relatively low ceiling player, turning in just two top-three scoring weeks and four top-six weeks, but was steady with eight top-12 ones and just four games in the bottom half of scoring.
As C.D. Carter illuiminates in his Equity Scores, that’s where we are with Ryan as a fantasy asset. He’s tough to invest into because he’s priced so accurately as a mid-round quarterback. He doesn’t offer a huge ceiling to return immense value at cost nor will he light that investment on fire. Not even the potential of Jones being the highest scoring receiver carries a ton of weight in propelling Ryan to a massive ceiling since Ryan’s current pricing is almost exclusive to Jones carrying it.
By no means is Ryan a poor selection at his price point, you know what you’re getting. But mid-round quarterbacks are definitely not my thing in fantasy as I’d rather just get an anchor or play from the ground up with a later stable of guys. When it comes to Ryan, you can land similar assets in Tony Romo, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers later on. I also prefer Eli Manning outright and he is much cheaper.