The Atlanta Falcon’s epic Super Bowl collapse will, unfortunately, overshadow their historic regular season.
Aside from the memorable 34-28 meltdown in Super Bowl LI, the Falcons (11-5) exceeded expectations. Coming off a 2015 season in which the team started 5-0 before losing 8 of its last 11, the Falcons faced the NFL’s toughest schedule. Most of this success is attributed to the team’s explosive offense.
The 2016 Falcons put up a league-most 540 points, outscoring the second place team by nearly 100 points and ranking them the seventh highest scoring team in NFL history. Adjusting rapidly under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, MVP Matt Ryan demonstrated a remarkable ability to spread the football around. He threw touchdowns to 13 different players, a first in league history.
While the offense dominated the headlines, the Falcons’ young, energetic defense improved just enough to stay competitive. Anchored by NFL sack leader Vic Beasley Jr., the defense started four rookies and three second-year players by the season’s end.
This continued maturity of the defense combined with an already potent offense may help the Falcons to avoid the cursed Super Bowl “hangover,” where no team since 1994 has lost the Super Bowl and then returned to the championship game the following season. While the Falcons appear primed for another title run, questions still linger, especially after the departure of Shanahan, who is now the head coach in San Francisco.
Below are the 2017 fantasy outlooks for each offensive player on the depth chart.
Quarterback Depth Chart
The only way to describe Matt Ryan’s season is career-defining.
In 2016, the nine-year veteran posted career highs in completion percentage (69.9), total yards (4,944), average yards per completion (9.26) and touchdowns (38). He also finished with a 117.1 passer rating despite never eclipsing 100.0 before last year. Only throwing seven interceptions, that was the fewest of Ryan’s career and put him in rare company; he became one of only three players in NFL history to throw for 3,500-plus yard and fewer than 10 interceptions.
Named the season’s MVP, Ryan was even more valuable to fantasy owners. Coming off a disappointing 2015 campaign where he rated as the 19th quarterback in standard scoring leagues, Ryan re-emerged this past season as the no. 2 overall scorer in all of fantasy. His 334 standard points included eight 20-point games.
Ryan’s transformation shouldn’t be seen as a blip but rather a trend moving forward. An improved supporting cast and a more efficient deep ball will make his performance easily repeatable in 2017. While offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s departure may be a difficult adjustment, draft Ryan knowing he is top option at his position.
An aging, backup quarterback just isn’t an attractive fantasy option. He's firmly behind Matt Ryan on the depth chart.
Entering his 14th NFL season, Matt Schaub threw a career-high 4,770 passing yards during his 2009 Pro Bowl season with the Houston Texans. Last season, the 36-year-old quarterback tallied just 16 yards total. Even though he played in only four games and attempted just three passes all season, the Falcons’ and Schaub reached a new deal this off-season that will keep him with in Atlanta.
Although having a reliable veteran backup is critical for any team’s chances, it holds little value for fantasy purposes. Even if Matt Ryan, who has played in all 16 games every year except one, does get injured, there are better waiver wire options available. Even the Falcon’s excellent skill players can’t justify rostering Schaub.
Running Back Depth Chart
Devonta Freeman opened the 2015 season as a backup until an injury forced him into the lead-back role. Since then, he has ran away with the starting job.
After becoming the highest-scoring running back in 2015, Freeman racked up 216 standard fantasy points last year. This ranked him seventh among running backs. Although this may appear to be a small dip, Freeman’s 2016 season was perhaps his best. In addition to 11 touchdowns and a second consecutive 1,000-yard season, Freeman was much more efficient, improving his average per carry by nearly a full yard.
This production, paired with the fact that he’s played in all but one game over his three seasons, makes Freeman one of the safest options in all fantasy formats. He also finished fifth in receptions among running backs, giving him a boost in PPR leagues. While the presence of fellow back Tevin Coleman and the loss of fullback Patrick DiMarco, who ranked first in blocking metrics last year, could hurt Freeman’s value, confidently select him as high as the fourth running back off the board in all 2017 fantasy drafts.
Second-string running backs are often only valuable as handcuffs. Unless you’re in the Falcons’ offense. Coleman is technical second on the Atlanta Falcons' running back depth chart, but he still has fantasy value.
Tevin Coleman, despite serving as the backup, was still the 17th rusher in standard scoring leagues. He was named the starter as a rookie going into the 2015 season, where he rushed 20 times for 80 yards in the opener. But, a rib injury in Week 2 sidelined him, and he has yet to get the job back.
Although he has increased his carries each year, Freeman still handles most of the workload. Freeman’s carries (227) nearly doubled Coleman’s totals. Coleman has also struggled to stay on the field, with injuries costing him a combined seven full games over his two seasons.
At worst, Coleman projects as a high-end handcuff. As long as he can stay healthy though, expect him to pick up even more opportunities this season. Even with an expanded role, it is hard to envision Coleman repeating another top-20 performance as long as Freeman is still active.
With tons of offensive weapons ahead of him, Terron Ward finds his value on the decline.
After signing with the Falcons as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2015, Ward appeared in 13 games and even added a touchdown. While he did score 15 standard fantasy points last season, he only played in five games. He was released once during the season before being eventually re-signed to the practice squad.
Having two key rushing contributors in front of him on the depth chart, Ward will continue to struggle to see any action. Don’t count of adding Ward to any fantasy rosters going forward.
Wide Receiver Depth Chart
Julio Jones simply dominates the ball.
Since his rookie year, Jones has had 96 or more targets in every season except one. In that season (2013), he only played five games due to injury. Jones led the league with 203 targets and 1,871 yards during the 2015 season. In that season, a third of all the Falcons’ passes went his way. Last year, Jones finished as the sixth wide receiver in standard leagues, seeing over 25 percent of the team’s targets.
Coming off toe surgery that is likely to cause him to miss the entire off-season, durability is the only thing that can stop Jones. Yet, this is only a minor concern.
Jones has routinely been selected early in fantasy drafts for most of his career, and he has routinely delivered. Jones is top-tier wide receiver capable of delivering first-round value every week based on his consistency and the volume of targets he gets.
The Falcons added Mohamed Sanu to provide another offensive playmaker. However, his real-life role was much greater than his fantasy contributions. While he may be #2 on the Falcons' wide receiver depth chart, he won't make much of an impact for your fantasy team.
While his presence did relieve some of the pressure off Julio Jones, Sanu slipped behind emerging star Taylor Gabriel by season’s end, making him a third option at best. Despite accumulating the highest receptions (59), the second-most yards and the second-highest touchdowns of his career, Sanu still barely ranked in the top 60 fantasy wide receivers in his first year with the team.
Feeling desperate for weapons, the Falcons gave him a five-year deal heading into last season. Sanu will undoubtedly retain some value, but it is unlikely he can live up to that massive contract. Quickly falling behind the team’s more dynamic receiving options, including its two running backs, Sanu’s ceiling is limited. Top 60 is within reach, yet a top 70 or 80 wide receiver is more realistic going into 2017.
Taylor Gabriel blew past everyone down the stretch last year.
Tallying 98 standard fantasy points in 2016, Gabriel racked up 90 of those after Week 8. This included his breakout Week 12 where he scored two touchdowns on four reception for 75 yards. Gabriel, who was released by the Cleveland Browns during the season, tied for a team-leading six receiving touchdowns despite only appearing in 13 games. He also rated seventh in the league for yards per reception.
A restricted free agent, the Falcons have already assigned the speedy wideout a second-round tender, signaling that Gabriel is a large part of their future plans. But, because of the depth at the team’s skill positions, his fantasy upside is restricted. He’ll be a top-50 play at his position, with the ability to produce more any given week due to his big-play ability.
In his two seasons, Justin Hardy has been consistent but underwhelming.
Justin Hardy has caught 21 passes each season with the Falcons. In 2015, these resulted in 194 yards, for an average of 9.2 yards per reception. Hardy netted 203 yards last season, averaging 9.5 yards per reception.
On a roster loaded with capable receivers, there just isn’t enough opportunity to make him fantasy relevant. Don’t anticipate much room for improved production moving forward.
As an undrafted rookie free agent, Nick Williams has already been cut a total of three times by two different teams in just two seasons. Originally signed by the Washington Redskins, the Falcons picked up the second-year wideout before 2015. Last year, Williams only played in two games, hauling in five receptions for 59 yards.
Like some of the other Falcons wide receivers, Williams is primarily roster depth at this point. He has virtually no fantasy value and isn’t even a lock to make the team’s active roster this upcoming season.
Andre Roberts should get the first chance to return kicks. But, don’t expect much else.
Signing a one-year contract with the Falcons, Roberts will likely enter the season as fifth on the depth chart. Though he did haul in 64 catches for 759 yards in 2013 with the Arizona Cardinals, the 29-year-old receiver has only logged 25 receptions over the past two seasons combined.
However, the newly-acquired Roberts has found a niche in the return game. Last season, he returned 20 punts for 246 yards. His two touchdowns were tied for the league lead. His punt return average of 12.3 yards was third in the NFL.
Roberts has minimal value heading into 2017 outside of fantasy leagues that have additional points for return yards or touchdowns.
Tight End Depth Chart
Austin Hooper may be the starting tight end in only his second season.
In a promising rookie campaign, Hooper grabbed 19 catches and scored 40 fantasy points in standard leagues. While this was the highest on the team amongst tight ends, he split time and snaps last year with two other players. Now, with both of those becoming free agents, Hooper has an opportunity for a larger role.
Even if the Falcons choose to bring in another option, Hooper is still on the rise. His 14.3 yards per reception would have ranked him near the top at his position if he had played enough to qualify. He likely isn’t draftable in one tight end leagues just yet, but watch this situation closely. He may be worth a late-round stash in standard leagues and is a must-own in dynasty formats.
Boosted by a five-catch, 75-yard game in Week 2, Jacob Tamme was one of the top tight ends and a must-add on the waiver wire early in the 2016 season. That is, until he was placed on the injured reserve in November after requiring season-ending shoulder surgery.
Despite playing in only eight games, Tamme racked up his highest touchdown total since 2010. Beginning the year as the starter, the 31-year old may now find himself on the way out. Fellow tight end Austin Hooper’s emergence gives the Falcons a younger, cheaper alternative.
Rumors will continue to swirl as Tamme heads into free agency, but they have little impact of fantasy owners. Even if he finds a new home, he can’t offer much beyond an occasional touchdown.
Levine Toilolo had his best professional season in 2016.
Leading the team with 570 snaps, Toilolo registered 264 yards and two touchdowns. More impressively, he averaged 20.3 yards per reception. He did score 34 standard fantasy points, but 12 of those came in one week alone.
Although he’s never been a top talent at his position, he’s been consistent. After agreeing to a new, three year deal, Toilolo’s role should remain steady. Unless he can move past Austin Hooper and demand more targets, Toilolo is better left on the waiver wire. There are better tight ends with higher upsides available.
Joshua Perkins only registered nine fantasy points last year. And, all nine of those came in Week 16 at Carolina, where he grabbed two catches for 34 yards and a touchdown. Yet, there is still hope he may take a big jump soon.
While these numbers aren’t staggering, the Falcons expressed interest in what they saw from the undrafted rookie this past season. More importantly, he played at the University of Washington under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
He may not get much work this season, but Perkins has deep sleeper potential in dynasty leagues.
Kicker Depth Chart
After 15 seasons, Matt Bryant is still kicking it.
A quad injury cost Bryant six games and limited him to only 14 made field goals in 2015. Bryant returned to form in 2016, finishing as the top fantasy kicker. Missing only three field goals all year, two of those misses were from 50-plus yards. Bryant also made all nine attempts between 40-49 yards.
Bryant has been a top-12 kicker in four out of the past five years. At 41 years old, he likely will regress at some point, yet having the kicker on a prolific offense is a luxury for fantasy owners. Draft him if he’s available, but there will be other choices to pick up or stream as the season progresses.