Gut Check #223
By Matt Waldman
July 14th, 2011

The Weekly Gut Check examines the players, strategies and guidelines fantasy football owners use to make personnel decisions.

The Weekly Gut Check examines the players, strategies and guidelines fantasy football owners use to make personnel decisions.

Dangerous Plays -Quarterbacks

You may not believe it, but I'm a reasonably cautious guy. I look both ways when I cross the street. I buckle my seatbelt. I wear a helmet when I ride my bicycle. My computer has virus protection and I update it weekly.

If base-jumping from a cliff for the first time was a metaphor for my general risk-taking behavior in life, I think most people would consider me a cautious dude if they had an up-close view of my decision-making process.

I tend to examine as many of the negative outcomes as possible. I want to learn about the equipment I'll be using to make a safe landing. And once I've done all the legwork I can do, I'll still walk slowly to the edge, stare into the abyss, and question my ultimate decision before I make the leap.

I would guess that this aspect of my life -and not the hours I spend watching film -is what drives my wife crazy. Despite this tendency, most people in my life outside of fantasy football (and yes, incredibly I do have one - barely) don't usually see my cautious nature.

They just see me leaping from big cliffs.

This month, I'm writing about players who are the equivalent of a cliff that isn't safe for base-jumping, but less cautious people are taking the leap. This week, I'm profiling a signal caller who presents more risk than reward at his current ADP. I call this series "Dangerous Plays."

Last year's "Dangerous Plays" at quarterback were Philip Rivers and Kevin Kolb. Despite losing Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates for much of the season, Rivers was great. While his current ADP of 3.10 is a little high for my taste, especially when fantasy owners are drafting him ahead of Drew Brees, I can't add him to this list again in 2011.

Kolb's 2010 season burned his share of fantasy owners. In addition to the injury bug, Kolb wasn't impressive in the pocket. This should have been expected because most quarterbacks need time on the field to find their groove. Kolb may still need more time, but at least this year he's not touted as a borderline top-10 fantasy quarterback.

At least not until he joins Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona, then I bet we'll be hearing from the Kolb bandwagon drivers.

This year, my one Dangerous Play at quarterback is an early, mid-round selection. There is always a point in the draft after the big-name quarterbacks come off the board where fantasy owners target 1-2 players who are regarded as the potential "next big thing." These owners don't want to invest an early-round pick on Manning, Brees, Vick, or Brady, but they are afraid to get stuck with Manning's little brother, Cutler, or a young quarterback like Freeman, Bradford or Stafford.

This year that "sure thing," in these circles is Matt Ryan. However, I think fantasy owners are at least a year too early. I don't think the Ryan Bandwagon has the map or the fuel to deliver an express ride to elite fantasy production.

Matt Ryan - ADP 6.05

Better risks: Ben Roethlisberger - 7.02, Jay Cutler - 9.10, and Sam Bradford - 10.10

Note: Average draft position data is from Fantasy Football Calculator's reports on July 11.

Ryan is the on average the ninth quarterback picked on most draft boards. In terms of ranking I think this is about right. However, I think his 6.05 ADP is too high. I don't believe there will be enough of a points gap to separate Ryan at 6.05 with the quarterbacks I mentioned above who are getting picked later.

I think the gap between Ryan's ranking and his corresponding draft position reflects a public sentiment I just mentioned, Ryan is regarded as one of the last "sure things," at the position. I think this is a mistake that could cost a fantasy owner at least one good player and as many as three if they choose Ryan this early.

The Falcons quarterback is a good NFL player, but when it comes to the idea of Ryan becoming an elite stat producer this year I think a lot of fantasy owners are like flies drawn to manure.

The problem is perception. Ryan's intangibles have been drawn comparisons to Tom Brady. Any time you compare an emerging talent with a great player it generates a lot of media buzz.

Then draft a player with Julio Jones' potential and the Ryan Hype further intensifies. Now fans believe that the Falcons are going to throw the ball a lot more in 2011. And it doesn't help that Roddy White told the local media that Atlanta is going to be the second act of The Greatest Show on Turf.

The Stats

When you look at Ryan's 2010 stats, there's a sense that his production bolsters the idea of a continuing trend upward:

2010
Games
Comp
Att
Yds
TDs
INTs
Rush
Ryds
TDs
Fpts
Totals
16
357
571
3705
28
9
46
122
0
300.4
Week
Opp
Comp
Att
Yds
TDs
INTs
Rush
Ryds
TDs
Fpts
1
PIT
27
44
252
0
1
2
4
0
11.0
2
ARI
21
32
225
3
0
6
6
0
26.9
3
NO
19
30
228
2
0
6
26
0
24.0
4
SF
26
43
273
1
2
4
15
0
16.1
5
CLE
16
28
187
1
0
5
5
0
14.8
6
PHI
23
42
250
2
1
1
3
0
20.8
7
CIN
24
33
299
3
1
1
5
0
28.4
9
TB
24
36
235
1
0
3
5
0
17.2
10
BAL
32
50
316
3
0
1
5
0
31.3
11
STL
26
39
253
2
0
1
8
0
23.4
12
GB
24
28
197
1
0
0
0
0
14.8
13
TB
18
36
205
2
2
3
-3
0
15.9
14
CAR
20
34
227
1
1
1
4
0
14.8
15
SEA
20
35
174
3
1
6
6
0
22.3
16
NO
15
29
148
1
0
4
26
0
15.0
17
CAR
22
32
236
2
0
2
7
0
22.5

Ryan's 28 scores to 9 interceptions and his 9 games with multiple touchdowns is encouraging. However, let's look at his divisional games. Ryan only had a multiple touchdown performance in 50 percent of those contests.

That's still a pretty good stat, but not when you consider the context that in any of those outings Ryan didn't surpass 240 yards. Bottom line, he only exceeded 18 fantasy points in 2 of those 6 matchups. I don't see any of these NFC South defensive units getting worse in 2011 and I'm not convinced the Falcons offense got that much better.

The Rookie

The public sentiment is that the Falcons' passing game is going to get better immediately because of the addition of Julio Jones. There's no doubt that Alabama star has the skills to become a 1000-yard receiver. He just needs to make the transition to the NFL game.

Sounds simple, too simple if you ask me. I don't think Jones has as smooth of a transition as many expect. He'll be a quality rookie, but not one who approaches a level of production that draws Mike Williams comparisons.

At Alabama, Jones had issues with dropped passes after contact, specifically passes where he sees the defender approaching him. Those drops also occurred in situations where Jones' hands and arms are hit during the act of the reception. I don't think this problem is going to disappear immediately.

In fact, it might get a little worse before it gets better.

In the current incarnation of the Falcons offense, receivers run a lot of timing routes: outs, digs, and hooks. Roddy White made a living on outs against bracket coverage last year. One of Michael Jenkins' more frequently targeted routes was the intermediate dig.

Matt Ryan has strong accuracy on these routes. The reason is these routes generally work off play action on first and second down. Ryan's pocket stays clean due to the run action that throws opposing defenses off balance.

These routes require the receiver to make a catch in tight coverage. The dig route is one of the most frequently targeted routes that Michael Jenkins ran during the past two seasons. It requires the receiver to catch the ball near an oncoming defender or with the defender touching the receiver's arms.

You can draw the conclusion I'm getting at here: Jones will need to address his problem quickly or he will be splitting time with Michael Jenkins rather than starting his rookie year.

Then there's the Falcons offense. There has been no true installation of a new system due to the lockout and the lack of mini camp will put rookies behind. Even if Jones has been working with Matt Ryan, it likely means they are practicing with the same offense as last year. That system worked off the running game and quick passing.

The Deep Ball

Another issue is the deep ball. Ryan ranked 20th among quarterbacks in completion percentage (31%) for passes attempted over 20 yards.

Rnk
Quarterback
Team
Att
Comp
Percent
1
Vince Young
TEN
35
16
45.71%
2
David Garrard
JAX
51
23
45.10%
3
Matt Schaub
HST
48
21
43.75%
4
Philip Rivers
SD
68
29
42.65%
5
Drew Brees
NO
76
32
42.11%
6
Michael Vick
PHI
65
27
41.54%
7
Eli Manning
NYG
73
30
41.10%
8
Kerry Collins
TEN
44
18
40.91%
9
Derek Anderson
ARZ
47
19
40.43%
10
Aaron Rodgers
GB
86
33
38.37%
11
Kyle Orton
DEN
73
27
36.99%
12
Tom Brady
NE
49
18
36.73%
13
Ben Roethlisberger
PIT
69
25
36.23%
14
Matt Hasselbeck
SEA
76
26
34.21%
15
Donovan McNabb
WAS
60
20
33.33%
16
Brett Favre
MIN
46
15
32.61%
17
Sam Bradford
SL
40
13
32.50%
18
Josh Freeman
TB
72
23
31.94%
19
Shaun Hill
DET
47
15
31.91%
20
Matt Ryan
ATL
51
16
31.37%
21
Colt McCoy
CLV
32
10
31.25%
22
Peyton Manning
IND
95
29
30.53%
23
Joe Flacco
BLT
86
26
30.23%
24
Carson Palmer
CIN
54
16
29.63%
25
Ryan Fitzpatrick
BUF
69
20
28.99%
26
Mark Sanchez
NYJ
74
21
28.38%
27
Jason Campbell
OAK
51
14
27.45%
28
Jay Cutler
CHI
64
17
26.56%
29
Chad Henne
MIA
40
10
25.00%
30
Alex D. Smith
SF
36
9
25.00%
31
Matt Cassel
KC
57
14
24.56%

Granted, this stat requires some context. Peyton Manning was 22nd overall with a lower percentage than Ryan. However, Manning attempted nearly twice as many deep throws. Ryan was in the bottom third of quarterbacks in deep pass attempts. The above table, which I got from Khaled Elsayed's blog post, validates my contention that the offense isn't deep-ball friendly. In fact, Elsayed's next table in his article reveals that Ryan was in the bottom three overall in percentage of deep ball attempts in 2010.

That stats also support what I've observed from every Falcons game for the past two seasons: Matt Ryan does not throw a great deep ball. He doesn't throw the ball well when he can't place a lot of arc under it. Even so, his high-arcing throws often lack the necessary anticipation for them to be accurate. Although Roddy White has true deep ball skill, a lot of his big gains in this offense come from throws where he breaks a tackle and gains most of his yardage after the catch.

A Specific Deficiency in Ryan's Game

There's another factor that the stats don't show about Matt Ryan and his performance in the deep passing game. There's a particular deficiency with Ryan's pocket presence. This may seem like heresy to those who hold the general perception that Ryan is Tom Brady-like in the pocket, but this comparison is a limited one that the media has stated too broadly.

Ryan, like Brady, will take a hit to deliver the football. He stands tough and tall in the pocket in those situations. He's poised in this sense. However, I've seen every game of Ryan's during the past two seasons and when Ryan has a specific issue with pressure.

When Ryan feels pressure or a jersey of another color cross his peripheral vision, the Falcons quarterback all too frequently drops his eyes from his receivers and overreacts to the defense. Although Ryan is not a mobile quarterback, he surprisingly reacts like one in these situations. He brings the ball down and often takes an erratic turn to escape the pressure he's feeling, which sometimes isn't there.

When Tom Brady (or Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and more frequently Mike Vick) feels pressure he slides away with his eyes still looking downfield and his body remains in a position to release the ball quickly. Brady has mastered the craft of subtly moving away from pressure in a constricting the pocket. Ryan will climb a pocket or throw into a defender's oncoming hit, but he has not yet mastered the skill to consistently avoid pressure and still look downfield.

This is a vital skill an effective deep ball quarterback must possess. A quarterback needs enough time to deliver an accurate ball on longer-developing routes. Sometimes he'll need to generate that time on his own, but without breaking the pocket and foiling the timing of the vertical route. This issue Ryan has with pressure is an underlying problem with his performance in the deep passing game.

None of this makes Matt Ryan a bad starting quarterback. He's a good NFL starter and he should continue to be one for a long time. It's just one factor that prevents him from becoming an elite producer at this stage of his career.

The Offensive System

Another is the offensive system. Look at the No.2 receiver in Atlanta for the past few years. Michael Jenkins' best season was a 50-777-3 total in 2008. The past two years Jenkins hasn't exceeded 50 catches, 635 yards, or 2 scores.

Some of this is attributable to the limitations of Jenkins. However, even if Jones wins the job outright from Jenkins, we're still looking at a wide receiver spot that hasn't exceeded 1000 yards during the Mike Smith era. This begs the question, is the offense really going to change this much with Julio Jones in a lockout-shortened offseason?

I don't think so.

Jones will likely see a lot of targets on slants, crosses, bubble screens, outs, and digs. These are routes where the Falcons will hope he can break free for big gains with his legs rather than consistently relying on the accuracy of Ryan's deep arm.

Having two players with strong after the catch skills can allow Ryan to adjust routes to get the right mismatch. But most of the great NFL passing offenses have at least three strong intermediate-deep threats in its arsenal. Tony Gonzalez is no longer that kind of tight end in the intermediate seam. Until the Falcons find that third player, I think Matt Ryan's 2010 season was close to his ceiling of statistical potential in this system.

At 6.05, I'm seeing more danger with selecting Ryan than value. Austin Collie, Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice, Marshawn Lynch, and Joseph Addai are more appealing to me in this range. The reason is that rather than selecting Ryan at 6.05, I can invest in a quality starting receiver or top-flight reserve runner with starter potential and still land a comparable fantasy producer in Roethlisberger, Cutler, or Bradford.

I like Matt Ryan the NFL player, but I think his fantasy value is inflated.

That makes him dangerous.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to waldman@footballguys.com.

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