Football season is obviously the best time of the year; there’s no debate about it. With fall in the air and the weather getting cooler, the NFL season always provides a warm and comforting embrace. One of the best parts about football season is the fantasy football that comes with it.
The game of fantasy football has turned into a monster over the years, to the point where it’s now an $18.6 billion market according to figures from sports management degree hub. August and early September is fantasy football draft season, with avid players all around the country eagerly building their rosters in an attempt to win prizes and/or earn bragging rights over their friends.
I’ll let you know now that I am among those who are obsessed with fantasy football, to the point where I’ll have the computer on and tracking my players while simultaneously watching the Falcons game on television every Sunday.
Today I’m speaking to all of the fantasy football players out there, whether you’re a veteran of the game or are just trying it out for the first time. This will be one of many fantasy football articles I write out over the course of the season, specifically looking at how Falcons players are faring. With this being the first of those articles, I’ll look at around where you should take each of the big named Falcons in your fantasy drafts.
Please note, I’m basing this entirely on 12-team standard leagues, using default scoring systems.
Julio Jones (Last Season: 1444 Receiving Yards, 3 Receiving Touchdowns; 15 rushing yards: 163.9 Points) - Early Second Round
Julio Jones has been a very well-known commodity in the fantasy community for a long time now: he’s been getting selected in the first two rounds of fantasy drafts for the past five years, and this year should be no different.
Jones burned some people who drafted him near the summit of fantasy drafts last season. He was, on average, the second wide receiver taken with an ADP (Average Draft Position) inside the top five for most leagues. When you select somebody with that kind of premium pick, you expect him to finish as one of the three highest-scoring players at his position at the very least. In a game where touchdowns are worth the price of gold, however, Jones failed to live up to this expectation.
Despite only collecting three touchdowns, Julio still finished as the WR6 in NFL.com Standard Scoring Leagues. The main reason for this was because he was second in the NFL in receiving yards, which is something he should be able to replicate this upcoming season. As a result, Jones provides a safe floor as a solid WR1 (barring injury of course, but nobody can predict that).
Julio will have some monstrous games over the course of the year, but will disappear for a decent number of matchups as well (last season he scored a Herculean 38.8 points in week 12 against Tampa Bay and then had just 2.4 points against Minnesota the next week). Because of these inconsistencies, I can’t advise selecting him in the first round. He’s the fifth best WR on my board after Antonio Brown, Deandre Hopkins, Odell Beckham and Keenan Allen and I’d strongly advise taking any of those WRs over Jones if you have the opportunity (that’s not even mentioning all of the RBs that you should take before him).
I’d expect Jones to rack up at least 1,400 yards once again this season, and his touchdown total should increase as well through positive regression alone. Because he doesn’t have a track record of prolific touchdown scoring seasons and continues to be used as a decoy in the red zone (catching one total red zone TD last year), I’d expect something in the range of six to seven TDs this season. Take him at any point in the second round and feel good about it, because he has a proven high floor and a potentially monumental ceiling if the Falcons start utilizing him in the red zone more.
Devonta Freeman (Last Season: 865 Rushing Yards, 7 Rushing Touchdowns; 317 Receiving Yards, 1 Receiving Touchdown: 164.2 Points) - Middle Second Round
Other than Matt Ryan, nobody in Atlanta’s offense suffered a greater fantasy football regression in 2017 than the running backs — Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
After being a locked-in RB1-level player in both 2015 and 2016 (including the overall RB1 in 2015), scoring at least 13 total TDs and rushing for over 1000 yards in both seasons, a sporadic offense and a concussion saw Freeman dip to RB13 in 2017, just outside RB1 range. I wouldn’t worry too much about that drop-off in regards to this season, however, as the three games Freeman missed due to injury changed the entire complexion of his final ranking.
In the 13 games he did play, Freeman averaged 12.6 points per game. If you were to plug that average into the three games he missed, Freeman would have scored 201.70 points over the course of a full healthy season in Standard Scoring Leagues — that would have made him the RB8. I know that every player deals with injuries and knocks, especially at the RB position, but this showcases that Freeman was still among the elite RBs in fantasy football despite the regression and injuries last year.
With reports surfacing that the Falcons are looking to get Tevin Coleman more involved in the passing game, Freeman takes a slight value hit, as he’s the main player whom this would negatively affect. However, the former fourth-round pick out of Florida State still provides a very sturdy fantasy floor because of how prolific Atlanta has been at moving the ball downfield in every season since 2015 (something that shouldn’t change this year), and how many red zone scoring opportunities this has led to. On the flip side, his ceiling is capped due to the presence of Coleman. If Coleman were to miss any time, Freeman’s production would be near the summit of fantasy RBs (in the lone game without Coleman last season, Freeman scored a season-high 25.4 points in week 15 against the Bucs).
Freeman’s health will be called into question because of how bruising his running style is, but if healthy, we should expect to see another season of double-digit TDs and 1300+ yards from scrimmage, like in 2015 and 2016. I’d take the likes of Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook (higher ceiling RBs in the same range) above Freeman, but would take Devonta over guys like LeSean McCoy (depleted offense in Buffalo and legal troubles which could lead to a suspension) and A.J. Green (Andy Dalton is still throwing him the ball).
Tevin Coleman (Last Season: 625 Rushing Yards, 5 Rushing Touchdowns; 299 Receiving Yards, 3 Receiving Touchdowns: 140.7 Points) - Seventh Round
Tevin Coleman isn’t your average backup running back, regarding both reality and fantasy. Usually, when a RB isn’t even at the top of his team’s depth chart he isn’t looked at as anything more than bench fodder and a possible handcuff in case of injury or suspension to the primary RB. Coleman, however, gets enough opportunity in the Atlanta offense to have standalone flex starter appeal.
With Devonta Freeman’s presence at the top of the depth chart, Coleman’s ceiling on a week to week basis is capped. If Freeman were ever to miss time, however, Teco would immediately get catapulted into the RB2 conversation.
Last season, Coleman finished as the RB22 in NFL.com Standard Scoring Leagues, that was good enough to make him a back-end RB2 (top 12 scoring RBs are considered RB1s, the next 12 are considered RB2s). The reason he finished so much more highly ranked than expected coming into the season was because of the opportunity he received when Freeman was injured in weeks 10-12. He had three of his four highest scoring outputs in those three weeks and averaged 16.1 points per game in those contests, as opposed to 7.7 points in the other 12 games he played in.
Coleman suffered a regression from the 11 touchdowns he scored in 2016 because that just wasn’t sustainable. The regression wasn’t as drastic as I expected it to be going into the season because of the opportunity he received as a featured back in weeks 10-12, scoring four times in those three games. With more of an emphasis on getting him involved in the passing game this year, Coleman’s expected uptick in receiving yards should help make up for another anticipated regression in touchdowns scored.
Coleman has some standalone value as a flex option based on the matchup even when Freeman is healthy, as he had seven games of at least 8.4 points scored in games where he had to share the backfield. The seventh round, where you can take him as your primary RB off the bench and plug him in as a flex or a bye week fill-in, is a good place to target Coleman. If Freeman were to ever go down at any point in the season, Tevin Coleman would immediately become a high-end RB2 and a must-start in Atlanta’s prolific offense.
Matt Ryan (Last Season: 4095 Passing Yards, 20 Touchdowns, 12 Interceptions; 143 Rushing Yards: 228.1 Points) - 10th Round
Matt Ryan came out of nowhere to be the second highest scoring fantasy quarterback in his 2016 MVP season, finishing second in both passing yards and passing touchdowns that year. The expectations were high going into last year as Ryan had a fifth-round ADP, but everybody who selected him ended up being disappointed with the result.
A regression was expected with the departure of Kyle Shanahan, but very few people expected Ryan to throw for nearly 900 yards and 18 touchdowns less in a fully healthy 2017 campaign. As a result, Ryan finished as the overall QB15, not even good enough to register as a QB1-level player despite being selected as one of the top five players at the position in many leagues.
Ryan was very good for the Falcons in real life last season, but his lack of abundantly rich statistics saw him put up consistently mediocre production in fantasy football. He didn’t have a single game where he scored 20+ fantasy points while putting up single digits three separate weeks. The main reason for this was because he failed to register a single 3+ touchdown game, something he achieved seven times in 2016.
Matt Ryan can provide a good return on investment if you take him as a QB2 in round 10 or later. I’d advise on waiting to draft a QB in general with how deep the position has become. There’s hope that Ryan will have an increased statistical output in his second year with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Atlanta’s field general provides a decent low risk-high reward play if you can get him late enough. I’d expect the yardage to be closer to 4,500 and the touchdowns in the range of 25-28 for Matt Ryan this season — that should be good enough to rank him among the 10 best QBs in fantasy football.
Mohamed Sanu (Last Season: 703 Receiving Yards, 5 Receiving Touchdowns; 51 Passing Yards, 1 Passing Touchdown; 10 Rushing Yards: 107.34 points) - 11th round
Mohamed Sanu and tight end Austin Hooper were the only players of significance to not suffer a statistical regression following Kyle Shanahan’s departure last season. Sanu put up even better numbers: registering 50 more receiving yards and two more total Touchdowns.
The Rutgers University alum ranked as the WR32 last season. He never put up a monstrous statistical game, but because of how spread out his touchdowns were (all six coming in six different games), Sanu put up some decent flex/WR2 production in a handful of weeks. He had at least 8.3 points or more seven different times, which provided a good return on investment to those who took him in the late rounds last season.
Unfortunately, I think this year we do see a regression in Sanu’s statistical and fantasy prospects. Even with my expectation of Ryan throwing for more yards and touchdowns, I don’t think Sanu will be the beneficiary. Julio Jones will get his yards and should see an uptick in touchdowns, Austin Hooper is expected to take a step forward in the offense, Tevin Coleman will likely see an increase in targets and receiving yards, and then you have Calvin Ridley, who is the most significant threat to Sanu’s statistics.
Ridley will immediately replace departed slot WR Taylor Gabriel, and he should be able to eat into Sanu’s targets a lot more than the speedster did. Gabriel was only the WR84 last season, totaling just 378 receiving yards and a lone touchdown. Ridley should have that by midseason at the very least, and he’s a lot more proficient in the moderate routes Sanu feasts on whereas Gabriel was mostly there to take the top off the defense.
Because he’s a veteran presence whom Matt Ryan trusts, and because he’s a better WR than a rookie Calvin Ridley is at the moment, you should still take Sanu to be a bench piece and bye week fill-in in the later rounds. You could do a lot worse than Mohamed Sanu when you have a starting fantasy wide receiver unavailable in a given week.
Calvin Ridley (Last Season: N/A) - 12th Round
It’s always tricky projecting how successful a rookie wide receiver will be in his first ever fantasy season. It’s not the same as projecting a big name rookie running back, who is sure to get a minimum number of touches barring injury. Instead, we have no idea how often Calvin Ridley will be targeted in Atlanta’s offense, especially early on as he transitions to NFL game speed.
One thing Ridley has going for him is the fact that he was the most polished rookie WR in his draft class and should theoretically make an instant impact. We all hope this is the case, but because he’ll be a third or fourth option in the passing game, it wouldn’t be wise to invest anything more than a late-round pick for the Alabama product in redraft leagues.
Ridley deserves premium pick consideration in dynasty leagues; his role will steadily grow through the years in Atlanta’s system, and he could replace Sanu as the team’s number two WR as early as next year.
In redraft leagues, however, Ridley won’t make the type of impact that would warrant slotting him into your starting lineup on a weekly basis. Much like Sanu, he should be looked at as a bye week fill-in or injury replacement with some flex appeal depending on the matchup.
Ridley possesses a higher ceiling than Sanu and very well could be a better option in the later stages of the season when he’s fully acclimated to the NFL. He also has a lower floor, however, particularly in the early stages of the season. Calvin Ridley will be a nice low risk/moderate reward gamble in the later stages of the draft.
Austin Hooper (Last Season: 526 Receiving Yards, 3 Receiving Touchdowns: 70.6 Points) - 14th Round
Expectations were so high for Austin Hooper going into last season. With his successful game in Super Bowl 51 and with Jacob Tamme no longer on the team, everything was set up for him to step into the starting TE role and having a wonderful season.
After the Week 1 game against the Bears, where he scored 18.8 fantasy points, Hooper generated plenty of hype as a viable TE1. Things went downhill after that game, however, as Atlanta’s starting tight end would register just three more games of 5.0 or more fantasy points.
Hooper comes into season three in the league with the expectation that he’ll take a step forward in Atlanta’s offense. While he didn’t regress in year two, he failed to live up to the expectations set on a third-round TE going into his second season in a prolific offense. If Hooper has a repeat of last season’s disappointing season, then the team may start looking at other options at the position.
Austin Hooper was the TE17 last season, registering as a TE2 at the shallowest position in fantasy football. Because of how good Atlanta’s offense and because he doesn’t have much competition at his position, Austin Hooper should still be drafted. I would advise taking him near the very end of your fantasy draft, and not as your starting tight end. Draft him as a TE2 with some decent TE1 upside.
Matt Bryant (Last Season: 45 PAT, 1 0-19 FG, 6 20-29 FG, 10 30-39 FG, 9 40-49 FG, 8 50+ FG: 153.0 Points) - 12th Round
The best part of fantasy football last season, as far as Falcons players are concerned, was the ageless wonder, Matt Bryant. In his age-42 season, Atlanta’s kicker was a relentless scoring machine, seemingly always picking up the spare points whenever the Falcons’ offense stalled out inside or near the red zone.
Bryant was the third highest scoring kicker in fantasy football last season, and that’s because he had ample opportunity. The Falcons generated a lot of yardage, finishing eighth in the NFL in total yards accumulated. They finished just 15th in total points scored, however. Steve Sarkisian’s offensive unit stalled out many times, and Bryant was always there to pick up the points.
The Baylor alum should get plenty of opportunities to take the field once again this year as Atlanta projects to be an elite offense. Don’t think that Bryant needs the Falcons to continue stalling out to be an elite kicker, either: the two highest scoring fantasy kickers last season, Greg Zuerlein of the Rams and Steven Gostkowski of the Patriots, both played for the two highest scoring and most successful offenses in the league last year. Two years ago when the Falcons were the highest scoring offense, Bryant was the K1 by an extensive margin.
Bryant generally makes the most of his opportunity when given the chance to kick. He converted 34 of his 39 Field Goal attempts last season and, most impressively, led the league with eight 50+ Field Goal makes (in nine attempts).
Many fantasy experts would advocate waiting until the 14th or 15th round to take a kicker. With someone as good as a Matt Bryant, however, a pick in the 12th round is still a worthy investment.
Defense (Last Season: 39 Sacks, 8 Interceptions, 8 Fumble Recoveries, 2 Touchdowns, 303 Points Allowed: 99.0 Points) - 15th Round
The Falcons’ defense was an excellent case study of fantasy vs. reality last season. Atlanta showcased a good defensive unit which finished top 10 in the NFL for the first time in over a decade. However, it finished as just the DEF22 in fantasy football last year.
There’s a simple explanation for why this happened — a lack of forced turnovers. Forcing the opposing team into a fourth down and a punt is great, but that doesn’t generate any fantasy points. Forcing turnovers is the foundation of fantasy football for a defense, and the Falcons didn’t do a very good job of that.
Atlanta finished last year as the fifth worst team in takeaways with just 16 last season (eight interceptions; eight fumble recoveries). Every team in that bottom five finished as one of the 11 worst scoring defenses in fantasy football. On the flip side, the Ravens and Jaguars had the most takeaways in the NFL last year and finished as the two highest scoring defenses in fantasy football as a result.
The only things that can remedy a lack of forced turnovers in fantasy football are defensive and return touchdowns which give a quick six-point boost, and a high quantity of sacks, each of which is worth one point. Unfortunately for the Falcons, they scored only two such touchdowns last season and were middle-of-the-road regarding total sacks with 39.
Atlanta’s defense is very young, and there is an expectation of progression for the unit. However, Dan Quinn’s group will have to do a better job of forcing turnovers, or they’ll end up being waiver wire fodder in fantasy leagues. I wouldn’t invest anything more than a last-round pick in the Falcons’ defense, if that. My advice is to actually stream defenses based on their matchups unless you end up with an elite turnover-forcing defense like Jacksonville’s.