QB Matt Ryan
Is this the year Ryan realizes his potential and becomes the top-notch starting quarterback many anticipated when he was taken with the third overall pick in 2008? Well, top-notch fantasy starting quarterback, I should say. As a starting NFL quarterback, Ryan has been nothing short of magnificent, turning the moribund Falcons into a perennial winner during his three-year stay in Atlanta, which included last year’s conference-leading 13-3 record. As a fantasy starter, he’s left something to be desired, however, with the Falcons’ conservative approach holding him back. At the 2011 draft, the team traded multiple picks to move up to the sixth spot so they could grab wide receiver Julio Jones. Jones should provide the Falcons with a nice compliment to Roddy White after the underperforming Michael Jenkins was shipped out. That bodes well for Ryan, as does the return of tight end Tony Gonzalez and the situation at running back—where the team has lost depth with the departure of Jerious Norwood. The question is whether Ryan and the Falcons will change their stripes. Head coach Mike Smith prefers a conservative offensive game plan, and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey doesn’t abandon the run quickly. In addition, Ryan hasn’t taken many risks downfield. Ryan ranks as a top-quality QB2 with upside if the chains come off, but that isn’t as likely as some believe.
RB Michael Turner
The fantasy shine has come off Turner a little bit since his outstanding first season as a Falcon in 2008, when he rushed for 1,699 yards and scored 17 touchdowns. That was quarterback Matt Ryan’s rookie year, and the team chose to lean heavily on Turner and the running game. Over the past two seasons, Turner has been good, averaging 83 rushing yards and 0.81 touchdowns per game. Last season, he finished as the ninth-ranked fantasy running back with 1,371 rushing yards and had his third consecutive season with double-digit touchdowns (12). The concerns with Turner are the heavy workload he has endured as a Falcon (averaging nearly 21 carries per game) and the team’s addition of wide receiver Julio Jones. While Jones is the shiny new toy, Turner is the proven producer, and the Falcons love to run. With Jason Snelling, Gartrell Johnson, and scatback Jacquizz Rodgers (the team’s fifth-round pick) behind Turner, look for him to once again top the 20-carry-per-game mark. Unfortunately, the heyday of 2008 isn’t likely to return, and Turner’s poor receiving skills limit him somewhat. Consider him a solid, low-end RB1 in 2011, and move him down a couple of notches in PPR leagues.
RB Jason Snelling
After testing the free agent waters and getting a lukewarm response from St. Louis, Kansas City, and the New York Giants, Snelling has returned home, signing a one-year contract to be Michael Turner’s backup. Snelling is a decent inside runner and possess better receiving skills than Turner but he is destined to be handcuff material unless injury provides him an opportunity.
RB Jacquizz Rodgers
I’m going to be honest, I don’t like scatbacks. Never have, never will. For fantasy purposes, that is. But what’s not to like about watching a Darren Sproles scoot by frustrated, burly defenders on his way to the house? Unfortunately, these guys are never trusted by their coaches to handle a big role in a team’s offense because of injury concerns. Rodgers is a sexy pick; he had some great production at Oregon State and he will likely make some highlight reels in the NFL. But he won’t make enough of them. He replaces Jerious Norwood as the team’s change-of-pace, third-down back, and Norwood’s production when he was healthy is Rodgers’ upside. Norwood’s best season saw him post 8.0 fantasy points per game. At best, Rodgers may emerge as a decent flex option in larger leagues.
WR Roddy White
You know what’s tough? Trying to find something interesting to write about the best fantasy producers, guys like Roddy White. I don’t need to convince you that White is a trustworthy pick and a great addition to your roster. You know that. You know that some rookie hotshot isn’t going to have a major impact on his targets. You know that tight end Tony Gonzalez really slowed down as the 2010 season wore on. You know that White led the league in targets in 2010 after finishing second in 2009. You know that he was the third-ranked fantasy wide receiver last season and that the two guys ahead of him (Brandon Lloyd and Dwayne Bowe) aren’t likely to repeat their performances. And you know that Michael Turner doesn’t have a proven backup on the roster, he can’t catch, and he has to come off the field at some point. What’s left to know? Barring injury—and White has never missed a game in his six-year career—he’s a lock to finish in the top five at wide receiver, and it will be no surprise if he finishes number one.
WR Julio Jones
With a hole opposite Roddy White, the Falcons gave up a bundle of 2011 and 2012 draft picks to move up to the sixth spot to select Jones. That tells you that they think he is good and that they need him. It might be assumed that, having given up so many picks, the Falcons are planning a big role for Jones this season, and that he shapes up as a solid fantasy wide receiver. Not so fast. The Falcons love to run, they have arguably the league’s best wide receiver in Roddy White, and tight end Tony Gonzalez remains a great option on short routes and as an outlet valve. In addition, Atlanta is coming off a 14-2 season and aren’t very likely to be playing from behind much in 2011. And we haven’t even gotten to the “rookie wide receivers rarely produce” angle. You need opportunity to rack up fantasy points, and Jones isn’t likely to get much of one. While he looks like Tarzan and may play like Tarzan one day, it won’t be in 2011. Consider him a great addition to your dynasty league roster, but he’s worth nothing more than a late-round pick in redraft leagues.
WR Harry Douglas
Douglas is expected to open the season as the team’s slot receiver, but he is coming off a disappointing 2010 season where he caught just 22 passes for 294 yards and a touchdown. The really disappointing stat, however, was that he caught a woeful 41.5 percent of his targets despite being targeted mainly on short and intermediate routes. Look for him to have a similar or reduced role in 2011, provided he holds on to his roster spot.
TE Tony Gonzalez
Gonzalez has been a dynamic tight end throughout his career and is clearly headed to the Hall of Fame, but the writing on the wall can’t be ignored. He is in serious decline. Sure, he caught 70 passes for 656 yards and six touchdowns last season, but if you watched the Falcons play, it was obvious he’s no longer the player he once was. His reception and yardage totals were the lowest since his second season in the league (14 years ago), his yard per reception was the lowest of his career, and his targets were his lowest since 2006. Of the 24 tight ends in the league with 40 or more receptions, Gonzalez had the third-lowest yards per reception. He’s a backup, folks, and probably a low-end one at that.