In 2019, Matt Ryan had another season that resembled his past.
He completed just over 66% of his passes and threw for 4,466 yards.
Unfortunately, in comparison with 2018, his touchdown rate came
down and his interception rate doubled. The offense as a whole
was not as efficient, particularly in the rushing game, as Devonta
Freeman struggled with health and general ineffectiveness.
There is hope that 2020 will be a more successful season in Atlanta.
First, the entire offensive line (of which every member was a
first-round pick) comes in healthy. They will have an opportunity
to grow and improve together, which should help both the running
and passing game. Second, this is offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s
second season with the Falcons, and there have been reports that
he is much more comfortable with the offense and its direction.
Finally, the skill players around Ryan appear to be upgraded,
with Todd Gurley in for Freeman and Calvin Ridley with another
year of development under his belt.
The Falcons did lose Austin Hooper in free agency, and he was
a bit of a security blanket for Ryan last season. But they brought
in Hayden Hurst to replace him, and outside of the two needing
to establish chemistry, there should not be much of a drop-off
there. If the key players can stay healthy this season, it could
be a prolific season for Ryan making him a very solid mid-to-late
round pick in fantasy.
It’s been a strange career for Gurley. He entered the league
with a lot of hype and showed up immediately, rushing for 1,106
yards and 10 touchdowns as a rookie. Then he had a terrible second
season, albeit under Jeff Fisher. Then he had two fantastic seasons
under Sean McVay, scoring 19 and then 21 touchdowns. He was the
most sought-after fantasy football player during that stretch.
But the whispers started about his troublesome knee during the
end of that 2018 season, when he was used sparingly in favor of
C.J. Anderson (who had just been signed off the street). Then
entering 2019, the Rams drafted Darrell Henderson and many thought
that the two would split carries evenly. However, Henderson could
not get on the field and Gurley remained the workhorse back, logging
But he was not nearly as effective, averaging only 3.8 yards
per carry (after 4.7 and 4.9 in 2017 & 2018). His usage in
the passing game also plummeted, as he went from 87 & 81 targets
in the two previous seasons to 49 targets in 2019. Whether Gurley’s
decreased effectiveness had more to do with the offense as a whole
regressing or with Gurley himself losing some of his burst is
difficult to ascertain. He certainly appeared a step slower, but
that can be hard to judge outside of a team context, and it is
true that his offensive line was much worse in 2019.
The Falcons are betting on a return to his 2018 form. They have
a better offensive line, as well as a more accomplished quarterback
and receiver group. This should keep defenses from being able
to stack the box against Gurley, and the line should give him
more room to work. It will become evident quickly if his knee
is hampering him or not, as he has an excellent opportunity in
this offense to produce in a big way. In only 14 games last season,
Devonta Freeman received 70 targets, and if those all get passed
to Gurley that would help him return to being one of the top backs
in the league, particularly in PPR fantasy scoring.
In the end, Gurley is a boom-bust option, as his 2020 season
will depend so heavily on his health. The Falcons are likely to
give him plenty of work and not worry too much about the future,
since Gurley is on a one-year deal. If there is a time for him
to prove he is still an elite back, this is going to be it.
The Falcons have several backs who could end up as the No.2 option
behind Gurley, but I would guess the winner of that competition
will be Brian Hill. He received more opportunities than his competition
last season (Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison). While either of those
backs could emerge as the top backup to Gurley, Hill has more
experience and seems the smarter bet. He averaged 4.1 yards per
carry last season and scored twice, looking mostly capable in
The reason we might need to pay attention to Hill, or to another
of these backs should one emerge, is that Gurley’s health
is in question. If he were to go down with an injury, whether
for a week or half the season, Hill or the back that emerges as
the starter would have immediate fantasy value. Whoever starts
for the Falcons is in an excellent position to produce in an offense
that is effective passing the ball and has a good offensive line.
In deep leagues, it is likely smart for the Gurley owner to grab
Hill as an insurance policy.
Julio Jones is one of the top wide receivers of the past decade.
He has produced annually and has been durable, playing in fewer
than 13 games only once. He has racked up 797 receptions for over
12,000 yards in his 9 seasons. He and Matt Ryan seem to be fully
on the same page, and they are extremely effective together. We
should expect more of the same from Jones this season.
It is true that he recently turned 31, but there have been no
signs that he is slowing down due to age. He looked as dynamic
as ever last season, and put up 99 receptions for 1,394 yards.
He has never been a prolific touchdown scorer, but most of that
is due to offensive scheme and to the defense paying extra attention
to him near the goal line. He is an excellent pick in any fantasy
format, and even in dynasty leagues Jones should have a good enough
next three seasons to make him a solid pick.
The continued development of Calvin Ridley should only help Jones,
as defenses are able to double team him less. In addition, if
Gurley is more effective than Freeman, the defense will also have
to pay more attention to the running game, opening up more opportunities
for the receivers to get free in space. If Jones stays healthy,
production is all but guaranteed.
Calvin Ridley has less of the prototypical size for a No.1 wide
receiver than Jones (he is 6’1” and 190 pounds), but
he has produced very nicely in a No.2 role in his first two seasons.
With defenses having to account for Jones, Ridley has taken advantage,
producing 127 receptions and 17 touchdowns. He also only played
in 13 games last season, and his full 16-game pace was 77 receptions
for 1,066 yards and 8 touchdowns. That would have equated to 231
fantasy points, which would have meant he scored the 17th-most
points at the position.
His upside certainly seems to be a top-15 wide receiver, but
there are reasons for hesitation. First, he is being drafted at
WR14 currently, according to the most recent ADP (average draft
position) data. That means he is being drafted around his ceiling
already. With a stud receiver on the other side, his upside is
always going to be capped, assuming Jones continues to command
a monster target share. Further, his touchdown rate has been very
high in his first two seasons, but that can come back down quickly,
and seemingly for no reason. Touchdowns are simply not a “sticky
stat” one can depend on when projecting a player’s
statistics. And if his touchdown rate came down, he would likely
finish in the WR25 range, making him a reach at his current ADP.
He is an excellent route-runner and finds ways to get open, and
he has built up a solid rapport with his quarterback in a pass-happy
offense. So please don’t hear me saying he is a poor fantasy
option. On the contrary, he is an excellent option for the right
price. But expecting that he is going to explode this season and
be a top-12 fantasy wide receiver is likely wishful thinking.
Gage saw a nice jump in his second season, garnering lots of
slot work. He received 74 targets and had 49 catches for 446 yards
and a touchdown. I project him to continue in this slot role,
and he may get a bit more work with Ryan’s security blanket
Austin Hooper leaving in free agency. Hooper specialized in the
same general areas of the field as Gage works, so Gage could grab
some of the targets Hooper leaves behind. Likely Hayden Hurst,
the new starter at tight end, will soak up most of Hooper’s
vacated targets, but Gage does have an opportunity since he already
has worked with Ryan.
Gage is never going to command a large target share and is certainly
a role player, but in an offense that threw 684 passes last season,
he can certainly be a viable fantasy player – particularly
if he can get up to 85 targets. He is a player to keep in mind
in deep PPR leagues.
Hayden Hurst is another player who has seen an interesting start
to his career. His interesting journey began even before he was
drafted by the Ravens, as he tried his hand at a baseball career
before football. When that did not work out, he played at South
Carolina as an older player and succeeded. However, he was older
than the players around him, so it is difficult to tell if his
dominance in college will ever translate to the NFL level. He
is also already almost 27 years old, entering his third season
as a pro.
Although he was drafted in the first round by the Ravens, two
rounds before Mark Andrews, it was Andrews who dominated the tight
end targets. In 2019 Andrews saw 98 targets and was one of the
top fantasy tight ends, while Hurst only saw 39. However, Hurst
did produce nicely on those targets (30 receptions for 349 yards
and two touchdowns).
The Ravens traded Hurst to the Falcons this offseason since Andrews
is clearly their top tight end, and the Falcons are hoping Hurst
can replace Austin Hooper in this offense. This seems like it
should not be too difficult, since Hooper is not a special athlete
or talent overall. He benefited from the scheme and from the skill
players around him, often leading to him getting wide open. Hurst
flashed enough in his time with the Ravens to suggest he can fill
this same role effectively.
The main question mark has to do with how quickly he can learn
the offense, and how quickly he can establish a rapport with Matt
Ryan. The fact that he is older should actually help him as he
adjusts and learns the playbook, but the lack of an offseason
program might prevent him from getting off to a fast start. He
is a risky pick where he is being taken right now (early 7th round,
as the 8th tight end off the board). However, since Hooper was
on pace for 120 targets, 92 receptions, and 968 yards last season,
it might be a risk worth taking.