2020 Fantasy Preview: Atlanta Falcons
2019 was a story of two halves for the Falcons. They started out 1-7 with their defense giving up 27 or more points in six of those losses. Head Coach Dan Quinn was on the hot seat and it was not a good look for a team with a good amount of name-value throughout their roster. After their Week 9 bye, the Falcons went 6-2 to close out the season, rallying to save Quinn’s job for another year. During that last eight-game stretch the defense gave up more than 27 points only one time and the offense scored 25 or more points in five of those eight games. Statistically, the Falcons were top-five in both passing attempts and passing yards while they were a bottom-five unit in rushing attempts and rushing yards.
Looking at 2020, the Falcons look to build off of their impressive second half of last season. Their offensive skill position group is not deep and might be worse than last season. They still have veteran Matt Ryan at quarterback and brought in Todd Gurley to replace Devonta Freeman at running back. At wide receiver, they are top-heavy with the dynamic duo of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley but not much depth behind them. At tight-end, they replaced breakout star Austin Hooper with sleeper Hayden Hurst from Baltimore. Their offensive line isn’t great and their defense had some turnover in the offseason and they will hope to improve on last year’s performance.
ADP: 83.5, QB8
Matt Ryan has been the QB2 in fantasy football in 2 out of the last 4 seasons. Last year he finished around QB10 on a point per game basis. He led the league in passing attempts, was fifth in yards, and eighth in touchdown passes. The offensive line for Ryan isn’t great but has a chance to be average. That would be an improvement over last year, where he was 24th in protection rate a season ago per FantasyData. When he did have a clean pocket he had the third-best completion percentage among quarterbacks. His offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter returns for his fifth season (2nd consecutive) coaching Ryan and the Falcons offense.
For 2020, Ryan is positioned to lead or be near the top of the league in pass attempts once again. Under Koetter, Ryan has been top-three or better in passing attempts in three out of his four seasons. He also has finished no worse than seventh in passing yards during that time. Despite being third among quarterbacks in red-zone attempts last year Ryan finished eighth in passing touchdowns thanks to a woeful 51.1% completion percentage inside the 20 (36th among QB’s). Ryan is being drafted as the eighth quarterback off the board right now and has upside for more in my opinion. He is a safe bet to be a top-10/12 producer with so much volume, and if he can have some positive touchdown regression from a year ago he can push to be a top-five option at the position once again.
Hurst steps into Hooper’s vacated tight end spot seamlessly and gives the Falcons a legit third option in the passing game. The defense is still poor, thus Ryan and the Falcons are in a lot of shootouts/come from behind games. Ryan leads the league in attempts, yards, and is top-five in touchdown passes on his way to a top-3 fantasy quarterback season.
Hurst does not do much in his first year with the Falcons and one of Jones or Ridley gets injured, giving Ryan only one true option in the passing game. His offensive line doesn’t improve and the running game is still poor. He finishes top-10 in attempts and yards while his touchdown percentage remains poor, and finishes in the QB10-15 range.
2020 Projection: 608 attempts, 407 completions, 4,500 yards, 28 touchdowns, 13 interceptions
ADP: 22, RB15
Last year, Todd Gurley played on an above-average offense that threw a lot more than they ran it with the Rams and now he goes to the Falcons where the situation is very similar. The Rams had a poor run-blocking offensive line and the Falcons did as well last year. Gurley himself wasn’t very efficient with his touches (3.8 yards per carry and ranked 48th among RB’s in yards per touch) but he did have 14 overall touchdowns (tied for fifth among running backs). That led him to be the RB14 in PPR leagues and Devonta Freeman finished as the RB20 for these Falcons a year ago. Last year, Freeman was top-10 in both targets and receptions among running backs and that is a place Gurley can improve on from last year as he was outside the top-30 in both of those aspects. It is concerning that he led all running backs with nine drops, per FantasyData. If he continues to struggle in the passing game, there’s a chance he may lose third-down playing time to one of the other Falcons’ running backs. Last year Freeman averaged just over 17 touches per game and Gurley averaged just under 17 per game so expect a similar workload with not much depth behind him. I don’t view Gurley as a good value at his current ADP, as he is going to be running behind a mediocre offensive line again, struggled in the passing game last year, and has some touchdown regression coming his way. Gurley should be drafted as mid/low RB2 rather than a high-end RB2.
The Falcons’ offensive line is better than expected and Gurley is more explosive/elusive than he was last year. He is a true three-down back on one of the leagues best offenses and becomes the third-weapon for Matt Ryan in this offense. Goes over 1,200 combined yards and touchdown regression does not hit him this year. Top-10 running back is in his range of outcomes.
Gurley further declines in his skillset while the Falcons offensive line struggles to open holes from him. He loses third-down work to one of the backs behind him and he becomes no more than a touchdown dependant two-down back. That would make him an RB3 for most weeks.
2020 Projection: 205 rush attempts, 758 yards, 7 touchdowns, 2 fumbles; 61 targets, 46 receptions, 350 yards, 3 touchdowns
ADP: 15.6, WR5
Julio Jones is a model of consistency. He has finished as top-7 wide receiver in each of the last six seasons. He has averaged over 100 receptions and over 1,500 yards during that stretch as well. The one knock on him (and was in 2019 again) has been his touchdown production. He has hit double digits scores just once in his nine-year career. In 2019 he only had six touchdown receptions, despite him being a top-five receiver in receptions, yards, air yards, targets, and seventh in red zone receptions. Jones had the 10th best target share among wide receivers last year and the Falcons are missing 32% of Matt Ryan’s targets from a year ago. Julio could easily grab some more target share on the team that passed more than anyone else last season. He makes a great WR1 for any team and I would be happy to draft him at current ADP.
The Falcons defense continues to disappoint, leading to more shootouts and come from behind games for the Falcons. Ryan then leads the league in passing attempts again and Jones has a top-five target share among receivers. Last but not least, Ryan and Jones figure out these touchdown issues and Julio goes for double digits and becomes the number one fantasy wide receiver.
Jones does not see the target share increase as that gets spread around to other players. His touchdown woes continue and he just underwhelms overall. Low-end WR1 numbers instead of mid/high WR1.
2020 Projection: 162 targets, 104 receptions, 1,475 yards, 8 touchdowns
ADP 40.7 WR 16
Calvin Ridley was a mid-range WR2 in points per game last season and that is about where he is being drafted at the moment. It was a solid second-year for Ridley, as he increased his yards, yards per target, and yards per reception from his rookie year on only one additional target due to missing three games. He was top-14 at wide receiver in air yards per game, per target, and per reception making him a dangerous downfield option. In the three games that the Falcons were without both Hooper and Mohamed Sanu, Ridley was the WR3 in PPR leagues and was fourth at receiver in targets over that span. That is very encouraging as the Falcons have a lot of question marks behind Jones and Ridley. He seems like he will be the biggest beneficiary of the missing 32% of market share from 2019. Ridley only commanded 17.7% of Ryan’s targets in 2019, ranking just 55th among wide receivers. I love Ridley this year and think he is poised to be a low-end WR1/high-end WR2 week in and week out and would make for a great WR2.
Ridley stays healthy over a full season and commands a better target share in an offense that should be in the top-5 in passing attempts once again. He will continue his touchdown scoring prowess over Jones (Ridley has outscored Jones 17-14 over the last two years) by getting double digits again this season, and will finally break 1,000 yards receiving in his third-year in the league. He has mid-range WR1 in his possible outcomes.
Ridley does not see a bump in target share and remains a largely boom-or-bust type of player. He settles in as WR2/3 option that frustrates on a week-to-week basis.
2020 Projection: 110 targets, 75 receptions, 1,024 yards, 9 touchdowns
ADP: 77.7, TE8
Hayden Hurst was drafted in the first round in 2018 by the Baltimore Ravens, battled injuries early on, and quickly fell behind Mark Andrews and blocking tight end Nick Boyle on the depth chart. He was used sparingly the last two years and averaged two and three fantasy points per game in 2018 and 2019 respectively. With Hooper out of town, the Falcons traded for Hurst and the hype is real on him already. He is being drafted as the eighth tight end overall, just behind Evan Engram and ahead of Tyler Higbee and Hunter Henry. Hooper averaged 93 targets per year for the last two years and had 10 total touchdowns over that span as well. In 2019, Hooper had the second-highest target share on the Falcons behind Jones. Hooper was also fourth among tight ends in red-zone targets with 18, despite missing three games. It’s hard to see, with a limited offseason on a new team, Hurst stepping right into that significant of a target share and role at least initially. I like the upside on a team that passes more than anyone, and Hurst has shown success in his limited opportunities before. If you miss out on one of the elite options Hurst makes for a good later round target at tight end. Being drafted as the eighth tight end feels a little rich to me but he has top-five tight end upside in this offense so I don’t hate it.
Hurst comes in immediately and shows that he can be a legitimate third option to Ridley and Jones. He grabs most if not all of Hooper’s old target share and red zone work. Hurst breaks out as a top-five tight end in 2020 and pays off his pre-draft ADP.
Hurst is not on the same page to start the season with Ryan after this limited offseason. He falls significantly behind Jones and Ridley in targets and is in a weekly carousel with the third wide receiver and Gurley for third place in target share on the team. We can’t trust him on a weekly basis and he is a TE2/streamer type.
2020 Projection: 79 targets, 55 receptions, 635 yards, 4 touchdowns
Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis