Atlanta enters 2010 coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. It is no coincidence that the Falcons resurgence began the moment the team turned to general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith after the 2007 season.
In 2008, the team narrowly missed winning the NFC South crown, finishing 11-5, only to lose in the first round of the playoffs. Last year they overcame key injuries to quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner to finish 9-7, although they failed to win a wild card spot.
Despite being without Ryan for two games and Turner for five, the Falcons managed 340.4 yards of offense per game with offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey calling the plays. Mularkey’s offenses have featured a power running attack and a healthy dose of trick plays.
With Ryan and Turner healthy and slot receiver Harry Douglas back after missing all of last season with a torn ACL, the Falcons offense figures to be more explosive in 2010.
Look for Turner to return to his 2008 form, when he rushed for 1,699 yards and 16 touchdowns. He has admitted that his conditioning left something to be desired last year and that he was well over his playing weight of 244 pounds.
Entering his third year in the league, Ryan may be ready to enter the elite category of NFL quarterbacks, but for fantasy purposes he is constrained by the Falcons reliance on the run. With excellent targets in wide receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, Ryan has the ingredients for a breakout fantasy season, but he will need Mularkey’s cooperation in the play-calling department.
QB Matt Ryan
Ryan’s completion percentage fell to 58.3% in 2009, and although he threw 22 touchdowns, he failed to pass for over 3,000 yards, making him a mediocre fantasy play most of last season. He also suffered a nagging toe injury that seemed to hamper his abilities during the second half of the year. According to coaches, he’s running at full strength this offseason. The draft brought precious little to the Falcons passing game, meaning they will once again rely on Michael Jenkins at one starting position with Harry Douglas returning from injury to fulfill the slot receiver role. Adding a vertical threat in the draft would have enhanced Ryan’s fantasy prospects (fifth-round pick Kerry Meier is unlikely to fill that role), but we still expect a bounce-back fantasy performance for Ryan in 2010. Unfortunately, he remains a borderline fantasy starter.
RB Michael Turner
After a superb run in 2008, Turner fell back to earth in 2009. Poor conditioning and an ankle injury that forced him to miss five games and likely hampered his ability in three more were the often-cited reasons for his dropoff. He’s dropped fifteen pounds this offseason and expects to get out of the gate strong—something he failed to do in 2009. However, don’t expect the Falcons to stick the ball in his gut 376 times like they did two seasons ago. Reports out of Atlanta indicate that the Falcons plan to monitor his touches, and with quality backups in Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood, expect that to happen. Nonetheless, don’t be shocked if Turner is a top ten fantasy runner in 2010. Knock him down a notch in PPR leagues given his utter lack of ability in the passing game (22 receptions in six years).
RB Jason Snelling
Snelling had a surprisingly productive season in 2009 due to injuries to Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood. He proved himself to be a solid inside runner with some ability to make tacklers miss at the second level, as evidenced by his 613 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry average, and 4 rushing touchdowns. He was also solid as a receiver, catching 30 passes for 259 yards. Snelling is no threat to unseat Michael Turner as the Falcons starter, but he does figure to get the lion’s share of the work if Turner is injured. He is clearly more of a feature back than Jerious Norwood and the player you want as Turner’s handcuff.
RB Jerious Norwood
Coming off a mildly disappointing 2008 campaign where he lost touches due to the arrival of Michael Turner, Norwood was expected to regain his form in 2009. A hip injury prevented that from happening, and Norwood enters 2010 having to fight with Jason Snelling for the scraps that Turner leaves behind. Falcons coaches have stated that they want to involve all three of the team’s running backs, and if that happens, Norwood figures to benefit given that he is the team’s best receiver out of the backfield. However, promises of additional touches have been made before to Norwood and he’s yet to top 140 in a season. With Snelling having earned a role in the Falcons backfield, Norwood is unlikely to hit a career-high in touches in 2010.
WR Roddy White
White has averaged 85 catches, 1,245 yards, and 8 touchdowns over the last three years, making him one of the more consistent fantasy wideouts in the biz. He managed 11 touchdowns a year ago, finishing sixth among fantasy wide receivers, and I see no reason for any decline in his numbers heading into 2010. The Falcons failed to upgrade the slot receiver position this offseason, but with one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the game causing the defense concern, White should continue to see his fair share of single coverage outside the numbers.
WR Michael Jenkins
After four largely unproductive seasons, Jenkins came to life in 2008, topping 700 receiving yards for the first time while averaging a healthy 15.5 yards per catch. He seemed ready to take another step up in 2009, but that failed to materialize even though the Falcons lost slot receiver Harry Douglas early in the season and were forced to rely on veterans Marty Booker and Brian Finneran as replacements. Rather than increase Jenkins’ targets, the coaches turned to tight end Tony Gonzalez. With Douglas back and the team three deep at the running back position, look for Jenkins’ role to be even more marginalized in 2010.
TE Tony Gonzalez
Gonzalez had an off year in 2009 after making the jump from Kansas City to Atlanta. And what exactly is an “off year” for Gonzalez? How about 83 catches, 867 yards and 6 touchdowns—good for fifth among all fantasy tight ends. Despite quarterback Matt Ryan’s toe injury during the second half of the season, Gonzalez turned out to be a focal point of the Falcons passing game and should continue to see plenty of targets this season. Look for similar or better numbers from Gonzalez in 2010 if Ryan and running back Michael Turner can remain out of the training room.