QB Matt Ryan
(2013 QB Rank—#9, 21.0 FPts/G)
Atlanta continued its transition to a more open passing offense in 2013 as Matt Ryan set career highs in pass attempts, completions and interceptions. Expect more of the same from the veteran signal caller in 2014. In fact, he might be even better, considering the 26 TDs he threw last year were his lowest total since 2009. If Ryan is to be a top-five fantasy quarterback this year it will start with a healthier offensive line. First-round draft pick Jake Matthews will be plugged in at right tackle, while Sam Baker returns from a knee injury on the left side. Additionally, Jon Asamoah was brought in from Kansas City to help inside, and the whole group will be coached up by Mike Tice. New faces do not always translate into success, but Atlanta has definitely upgraded its talent level across the line, which should translate into less sacks and more time for Atlanta’s offense to work downfield. Add the healthy return of Julio Jones’ dynamic playmaking ability, along with the steadiness of Roddy White, and Matt Ryan is likely to see his stock rise back to where it was before injuries derailed the offense. It also doesn’t hurt to have a pair of running backs who could combine to catch 100 balls in Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers. Surrounded by playmakers, Ryan has a good shot at posting his second career 30-TD season and should be taken after Brees, Rodgers and Manning are called on draft day.
RB Steven Jackson
(2013 RB Rank—#32, 9.6 FPts/G)
Steven Jackson is one of the tougher players to project for 2014. Muddying analysis of his seeming decline is the fact that he was hurt and playing behind a less-than-stellar offensive line in 2013. Atlanta’s willingness to forge ahead with Jackson atop the depth chart despite plenty of wear and a possible breakdown means Atlanta’s brass either likes the team’s depth at the position or feels Jackson has something left in the gas tank. For now, fantasy owners should expect Jackson to be fine to open the season and maintain his role as the primary running back on first and second downs. Jacquizz Rodgers has shown enough ability to get regular touches, but head coach Mike Smith has never displayed much of a desire to let him shoulder the load on a consistent basis. With Jackson’s playing time relatively safe barring injury, he should average roughly 15 touches per contest on the ground and through the air. Remembering that Jackson failed to reach pay dirt until week 12 last season, fantasy owners may let him slip in drafts a little further than he should, but that may not be wise. He is a tad bit safer in PPR leagues, but remains an RB3 with slight upside in standard formats.
RB Jacquizz Rodgers
(2013 RB Rank—#42, 6.1 FPts/G)
Although Jacquizz Rodgers has seemed to out-produce Steven Jackson in limited action, he’s never been able to gain enough carries to be a reliable source of fantasy production. His pass-catching abilities have allowed him to tally back-to-back 50-reception seasons, and another could be in store for him. The team drafted Devonta Freeman out of Florida State to add depth and upside for the future, but he shouldn’t be much of a threat to Rodgers this season. Entering the final season of his rookie deal, Rodgers should be plenty motivated to carve out a bigger role in Atlanta or elsewhere. Although he may see an uptick in his carries, his role is likely to remain unchanged for 2014, making him a flex option in PPR leagues and an RB4 or RB5 in traditional formats.
RB Devonta Freeman
(2013 RB Rank—N/A)
Devonta Freeman was drafted as a potential replacement for Steven Jackson and his all-around game seems to hint at potential feature back status given his sturdy build and explosiveness, pass-catching skills and blocking ability. That being said, he is still very much a rookie and is not projected to have much of a role this year. Fantasy owners in dynasty formats should keep an eye on the former Seminole, as he does offer plenty of intrigue as a dual-threat option on a formidable offense in the not-too-distant future.
WR Julio Jones
(2013 WR Rank—#64, 14.1 FPts/G)
Julio Jones was well on his way to posting a terrific fantasy campaign in 2013 before a foot injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season. The only limiting factor for Jones in 2014 is his health, which has kept him limited in OTAs to this point. He has had plenty of recovery time since the surgery and is already running routes, so fantasy owners should feel fine drafting him among the elite receivers at his position. Matt Ryan threw to Jones 60 times in only five games last season. That number represented nearly half of Jones’ season total in 2012. Jones will garner plenty of attention from opposing defenses, but that isn’t likely to prevent Matt Ryan from finding him down the field. The stars are aligning for Jones to have a career season so long as he can stave off the injury bug.
WR Roddy White
(2013 WR Rank—#52, 6.9 FPts/G)
This season will mark Roddy White’s 10th year in the NFL as he tries to rebound from an uninspiring 2013 that saw him injured and scoring only 1 TD through week 10. However, there are reasons to be optimistic on draft day. White posted respectable fantasy numbers over the final five weeks of last season and will take over as the primary possession option now that Tony Gonzalez has decided to retire. The team has decided to keep him out of OTAs but that decision was purely preventative, aimed at reducing the workload of one of Matt Ryan’s favorite targets. Prior to 2013, White was one of the most reliable sources of targets and receptions for fantasy owners, and though he will not be the No. 1 receiving option on his team, there is a good chance he surpasses 80 receptions and 1,000 yards for the seventh time in his career.
WR Harry Douglas
(2013 WR Rank—#32, 7.4 FPts/G)
Harry Douglas represents a bit of a fantasy wild card entering the 2014 season. Until 2013, Douglas had never caught 40 balls in a season. His production last year, finishing 15th in the NFL in receptions, was directly related to opportunity, and he will be the third receiver on the depth chart to open 2014. However, the Falcons’ passing offense has the potential to support three worthy fantasy receivers, especially with reports of the spread offense being integrated even more this year. In addition, the Falcons have brought in ex-Bear Devin Hester to handle special teams duties, which will free up Douglas to focus solely on offense. If nothing else, Douglas will have more trust from Matt Ryan and find enough targets to be fantasy relevant as a bye-week substitute. He is a WR3/4 with some upside considering the offense and potential injury risk of Jones and White.
TE Levine Toilolo
(2013 TE Rank—#57, 1.8 FPts/G)
Tony Gonzalez leaves some rather large shoes to fill and fantasy owners need to do what the Falcons have done: Move on and look elsewhere for offensive output. A fourth-round pick in 2013, Levine Toilolo is expected to be a more traditional blocking tight end that won’t have much fantasy value this year. He will likely find a way to notch a score or three in red zone packages, but he won’t be a reliable enough source of fantasy production to be anything more than a desperation play in deep formats.