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2016 Team Report: Atlanta Falcons

Quarterbacks

Starter: Matt Ryan
Backup(s): Matt Schaub

Starting QB: Matt Ryan stated on April 19 that he is much more comfortable in Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan's scheme entering this season after spending 2015 learning the new system. The Falcon's pass offense went from 4,553 net passing yards (fifth in the NFL) with 28 TDs (11th in the NFL) and 15 interceptions thrown during 2014 to 4,382 net yards passing (sixth in the NFL) with 21 TDs thrown (23rd in the NFL) and 17 interceptions tossed during 2015. The drop-off was evident in Ryan's numbers as well, which went from 415/628 for 4,694 yards passing, 28 TDs and 14 interceptions thrown during 2014 (seventh-ranked fantasy quarterback in the land) to 407/614 for 4,591 yards passing, 21 TDs and 16 interceptions thrown (18th-ranked fantasy quarterback) - the 21 TDs were the least he's thrown in a regular season since his rookie campaign during 2008 and 11 less than his current career record of 32 passing TDs thrown during 2012 (he also set his career passing yards record that year with 4,719). However, there are reasons to hope for improvement here in 2016 - Ryan acquired a younger #2 wide receiver to complement Julio Jones when 26-year old Mohamed Sanu was brought in from Cincinnati via free agency to replace an aging Roddy White. Also during the NFL Draft Stanford tight end Austin Hooper arrived to bolster the tight end position, giving Atlanta another pass-catching option to go with Jacob Tamme. As Ryan noted on April 19, he now has a year in the Kyle Shanahan offense and the familiarity will help the Falcons' offense to take off from the word go this year. The team found a solid starting running back in Devonta Freeman last season, and he is a good pass-catcher with 97 targets for 73/578/3 receiving to his credit during 2015. Assuming that Sanu and Hooper fit into the offense well during 2016, the Falcons' passing attack should soar back into the top-10-most-productive among NFL units.

Backup QB: Matt Schaub is a former NFL starter who had his career-best years while in Houston circa 2009-2010 - he was with the Falcons to begin his NFL career from 2004-2006 when he was a backup to Michael Vick. Since his career apex in Houston he has endured a long span of games in which he has thrown a high number of interceptions, which has relegated Schaub to backup status in Atlanta once again.

Running Backs

Starter: Devonta Freeman
Backup(s): Tevin Coleman, Terron Ward, Brandon Wilds [R], Cyrus Gray
Fullback(s): Patrick DiMarco

Starting RB: Devonta Freeman exploded for over 1,600 yards combined and 14 total touchdowns during his sophomore NFL campaign, posting 264/1,061/11 rushing while handling 97 targets for 73/578/3 receiving over 15 games played, and established him as the surprise #1 fantasy running back in the land last season. It was a far cry from his rookie showing of 65/245/1 rushing with 38 targets for 30/225/1 receiving. Freeman was dominant during the first half of the 2015 season, posting four games over 100 yards rushing during the five-week span from Weeks Three through Seven, scoring six TDs in weeks Three (30/141/3 rushing with 5/52/0 receiving) and Four (14/68/3 rushing with 5/81/0 receiving). During the second half of the season he slowed down, with no games over 100 yards rushing (he had four games with 100 or more yards combined, though) and his scores came as singletons during the second half of the year, with two rushing TDs and two receiving TDs from weeks 8-17. Heading into the third training camp of his NFL career, Freeman is penciled in as the starter for the Falcons and has the strongest grip on the starting job, but he will have to hold off the explosive Tevin Coleman to remain the Falcons' #1 running back. Stay tuned to how their camp battle for touches progresses during mandatory mini-camp June 14-16, July/August training camp and the August pre-season games - Freeman will need to play well to keep Coleman on the bench.

Backup RBs: Tevin Coleman was slowed by a series of injuries during his rookie campaign (a hamstring injury; broken ribs; a concussion) which kept him sidelined while Devonta Freeman took over the featured job and ran away with it - however, Coleman did have a big game as the starter in Week 12 (18/110/0 rushing with two targets for zero receptions). Unfortunately, he converted just two of his 11 pass targets during regular season (2/14/0). Coleman will need to improve as a pass catcher this year if he is going to take significant touches away from Freeman. In comments on April 7, 2016 Atlanta head coach coach Dan Quinn said Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman make a 'unique combination.', but also noted that Coleman needs to prove he can 'be available'. 'In terms of him like running in the outside zone, seeing his reads and making his cuts, he was really on point,' Quinn said. 'He and Free together make a pretty unique combination.' Terron Ward saw spot duty in Week Four during 2015, producting 19/72/1 rushing with 1/18/0 receiving, but wound up the year with just 29/95/1 rushing and 13 targets for 9/73/0 receiving - he is a change-of-pace option but enters 2016 buried behind Freeman and Coleman on the depth chart. He's had an ankle injury hampering him most of the preseason. Brandon Wilds was a South Carolina Gamecock during his college career, and was signed as an undrafted free agent by Atlanta on May 2, 2016 - he struggled with durability in college and, though he has good straight-line speed, he isn't very elusive as a runner. Cyrus Gray joined the team on August 10, and is deep on the depth chart.

Fullback: Patrick DiMarco is primarily a lead-blocker - during his three years with Atlanta (2013-2015) he has handled 41 targets for 30/221/3 receiving but has logged just one carry for zero yards. He sees a handful of pass targets each year, but doesn't have enough touches per week to be a viable fantasy option.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu
Backups: Justin Hardy, Eric Weems, Devin Fuller [R], Nick Williams

Starting WRs: Julio Jones is in the prime years of his NFL career, seeing a ridiculous 203 targets for 136/1,871/8 receiving last season as the clear-cut #1 wide receiver during the first year Atlanta ran Kyle Shanahan's offensive system, which emphasizes the #1 wide receiver - as the system will be run in Atlanta again this year, there is no reason to expect a sudden drop-off for Jones. He could surpass his career-best, second-ranked-fantasy-wideout numbers from 2015 during the coming season. Matt Ryan is on record that he feels much more comfortable in the offense now that he has executed the system for a season - the needle may well be pointing up for Jones even given his 1,871 yards receiving from last season. Jones is just 27 years old and has missed just one game over the last two seasons. He seems set to dominate the opposition again during 2016. Also, new #2 wide receiver Mohamed Sanu is just that - a complimentary player who should threaten opposing defenses enough to keep them from triple-teaming Jones, but who is no threat to siphon off touches from Jones. Sanu's career-best numbers came during the 2014 season, when he handled 98 targets for 56/790/5 while with the Bengals (Marvin Jones was out for that campaign due to injury, elevating Sanu into the starting lineup). During 2015 Sanu's numbers dipped back down to 49 targets for 33/394/0 receiving in the third wide receiver role, though he did rush in two scores (10/71/2 rushing last season). Each year, Sanu received a handful of carries for the Bengals, but he only scored rushing TDs during the 2015 season.

Backup WRs: Justin Hardy is the likely third wide receiver for the Falcons this year, as Eric Weems is an adept special-teams player who only occasionally steps into the offensive lineup as a receivers (Weems had one reception for 11 yards last season). Hardy posted 36 targets for 21/194/0 receiving during his rookie season with the Falcons. Quarterback Matt Ryan praised Hardy on April 14, 2016 after a player-organized passing camp in Miami, saying 'He just looked so much more comfortable with all things,' Ryan said. 'He looked comfortable with himself; comfortable with his ability. I thought he was in great shape and had a really good three days down there.' Devin Fuller arrived to Atlanta via the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft - he is expected to mainly contribute on special teams during the coming season. Nick Williams was a surprise add to the 53-man roster last year, and his youth combined with the ability to contribute on special teams might get him on the roster this year over Weems.

Tight Ends

Starters: Jacob Tamme
Backups: Levine Toilolo; Austin Hooper [R], D.J. Tialavea

Jacob Tamme arrived to Atlanta in 2015 after two disappointing seasons in a row with Denver - 20/184/1 receiving was his high in receptions over those previous two seasons - but Tamme rejuvenated his career in Atlanta last year. 81 targets for 59/657/1 receiving landed him at 18th among all fantasy tight ends last year. During stretches of the 2015 season Tamme was playing second-fiddle to Julio Jones in the Falcons' passing game, but as usual Tamme was not a big factor in the red zone (his career high in TD receptions during a season is four, attained during 2010 while playing in Indianapolis - usually he bounces between one and two TD receptions per season). Tamme can score respectably in PPR leagues, but is problematic as an option in TD-only formats. Levine Toilolo is mostly utilized as a blocker (12 targets for 7/44/0 receiving last season) in the Kyle Shanahan-led offense now in play at Atlanta. Austin Hooper is a good receiving tight end drafted from Stanford back in April, 2016 - he isn't noted as a blocker, but may eat into the number of targets that Tamme sees during the latter half of 2016. During training camp, reports have indicated that Hooper is now a lock for the roster and Toilolo is battling D.J. Tialavea and Arthur Lynch for the #3 slot on the tight end roster. Austin Hooper is a developmental prospect for the Falcons, but he was highly productive for his Stanford team during two years of collegiate play - he capped his time at Stanford with a total of 74/937/8 receiving. Head coach Dan Quinn commented about his new rookie tight end on May 10: 'The biggest thing for us is we saw the separation and the ability for him to break off in the option routes and the one-on-one option. We certainly intend to use him in that way.' The team has also signaled they want Hooper to help the team improve in the red-zone, something that isn't a strength for Tamme.

Place Kicker

Matt Bryant, Shayne Graham: Bryant was put on injured reserve in December with a quad injury and he was a rough 14-for-18 on field goal attempts before that. Bryant had no attempts over 50 yards, but at least he converted all of his extra point attempts. Bryant is 40 years old and he has had leg tightness issues in the preseason, so the team signed Shayne Graham in case he isn't ready to open the regular season.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: J.D. McKissic, Eric Weems, Tevin Coleman

With long-time return specialist Devin Hester released earlier this offseason, Atlanta is staging a three-man competition for kickoff return duties between J.D. McKissic, Eric Weems, and Tevin Coleman.

Punt Returners: Eric Weems, Devin Fuller, J.D. McKissic

Eric Weems has filled in for Devin Hester in the past when he's been injured, and is the front-runner for the job this year after Hester's release.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Jake Matthews, LG Andy Levitre, C Alex Mack, RG Chris Chester, RT Ryan Schraeder
Key Backups: Mike Person, James Stone, Tom Compton

The Falcons were a below average group last season, but look to be widely improved, primarily due to the arrival of Pro Bowl center Alex Mack from Cleveland. Mack is an elite player at a position of importance. Left tackle Jake Matthews has been a professional from day one and Left guard Andy Levitre is a solid veteran. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder was honored with All Pro team accolades, primarily for his effectiveness in pass protection. Right guard Chris Chester does a good job, and the team rewarded his consistency with a new contract this offseason. Tom Compton and Mike Person should battle to be the swing tackle, both are decent players with game action. James Stone was asked to start last year but should provide a depth option behind all three interior sports. Overall the Falcons' line looks good on paper. As the players learn how to play with their new center, the sky is the limit. Tier Ranking: Top Tier.

Team Defense

19 sacks isn't even a half a season for a solid defense, but it was an entire season for a Falcons defense that is still trying to find a pass rush. They did tie for 10th in interceptions and gave up a respectable 21.6 points per game, but outside of games when they scored a defensive touchdown or two, they were close to useless in fantasy leagues. Atlanta also faces a schedule that includes the AFC and NFC West, so they will be a streaming D/ST that we will only even consider a few times in 2016.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Grady Jarrett, DT Tyson Jackson, DE Derrick Shelby, DE Brooks Reed
Backups: DE Ra'Shede Hageman, DE Adrian Clayborn, DE Malliciah Goodman, DE Dwight Freeney, DT Jonathan Babineaux

Starting DL: Dan Quinn enters his second season as Falcons head coach, and he will hope that another offseason of teaching his defensive scheme will be just the tonic for an improvement in 2016. The coach named Grady Jarrett the starter as nose tackle in a radio interview this offseason. He impressed the coaching staff in his rookie campaign on limited snaps and will anchor the defensive front. Alongside Jarrett will be somewhat disappointing veteran Tyson Jackson, who will be asked to be flexible in terms of gap responsibilities in Quinn's scheme. The edge rushers are slated to be veteran signing Derrick Shelby, who has impressed his new head coach this offseason, and Brooks Reed. The Falcons front line is subject to change, but Shelby has reportedly been very impressive in camp and should occupy an interior pass rushing role on third downs. Brooks Reed could be supplanted by Vic Beasley in certain packages, but provides a more sturdy force against the run than the second year pro.

Backup DL: Compared to last season's cast of characters, the Falcons' defensive line depth looks improved for 2016. Jonathan Babineaux enters his 12th season with the Falcons, and will be relied upon as a rotational player to spell the starting defensive tackle rotation. Third-year pro Ra'Shede Hageman will provide depth behind Grady Jarrett and Tyson Jackson, and the coaching staff will be hoping the talented but inconsistent Hageman can make a big leap in production this season. Veteran Adrian Clayborn played over 500 snaps last year and could see a similar amount in 2016 as a rotational player. Dwight Freeney performed well in limited snaps in Arizona last season; Atlanta could use a similar impact from the great pass rusher, who will act as a mentor to Vic Beasley.

Linebackers

Starters: WLB De'Vondre Campbell [R], MLB Deion Jones [R], SLB Vic Beasley
Backups: LB Paul Worrilow, LB Courtney Upshaw, LB Sean Weatherspoon, LB O'Brien Schofield, LB Laroy Reynolds, LB Philip Wheeler, LB Tyler Starr

Starting LBs: The Falcons brass handpicked LSU linebacker Deion Jones in the second round of the NFL Draft in a clear shot across the bow to Paul Worrilow. Jones is already being mooted as the Week 1 starter at middle linebacker, but the speedy, undersized linebacker will have to show he can handle play-calling duties and improve his run defense first. Worrilow has been the starter and a three-down player since the beginning of 2014 and the team may opt for his experience over Jones' youthful exuberance. The likelihood is that both Worrilow and Jones will see the majority of snaps. Vic Beasley has occupied the strong side linebacker role in training camp, with rookie De'Vondre Campbell playing the weak side. Clearly the Falcons want to increase their overall team speed, and that starts at linebacker with the rookie pairing of Campbell and Jones.

Backup LBs: The team is awash with options at linebacker, which is not a bad problem to have considering the lack of depth they have suffered with in recent seasons. Paul Worrilow will be locked in a battle for his starting role with Deion Jones until the opener by the sounds of things. There is a sense that Worrilow is being eased out of the lineup, but he will provide a valuable veteran presence even if he is ousted from his starting position. Former Falcon Sean Weatherspoon is a decent backup at weak side linebacker, but he only played a handful of snaps in Arizona last year and may not have the all-around game to play all three downs. The signing of Courtney Upshaw gives the team flexibility should Vic Beasley be kicked into a pass rushing role, with Upshaw presumably playing the Sam in those situations.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Desmond Trufant, CB Robert Alford, S Keanu Neal [R], S Ricardo Allen
Backups: S Kemal Ishmael, S Robenson Therezie, S Damien Parms, CB Akeem King, CB Jalen Collins, CB Demarcus Van Dyke, CB Brian Poole, CB CJ Goodwin

Starting DBs: One of the true shutdown level cornerbacks in the league, Desmond Trufant has been a thorn in the side of opposing offenses since arriving in Atlanta. Smooth and agile in transition with the ability to make plays on the football, Trufant's proficiency means his targets are low. The player to bear the brunt of that shift in targets is Robert Alford, who is the favorite to start opposite him. Alford has thus far failed to provide the Falcons with reliable production as the number two cornerback, but he should have the inside track on keeping his job after the news that Jalen Collins, who the team drafted last year, must serve a four-game suspension. After Collins returns, the team hopes he can handle the starting job, which would kick Alford inside to nickel corner. The Falcons' first round pick in this year's draft, Keanu Neal, is expected to step in right away at strong safety. Neal is going to be cast as the Kam Chancellor of Dan Quinn's defense, intimidating receivers and backs over the middle and playing a marauding, downhill part. Neal may have a tough transition initially adjusting to the speed of the game, but he projects as a mainstay of this talent-deficient defensive backfield. Alongside him Ricardo Allen is expected to reprise his role as starting free safety, where he played over 80% of the snaps last season. Not the most talented center-field option by any means, Allen nonetheless seems to have the trust of the coaching staff at a position group that looks fairly threadbare.

Backup DBs: Kemal Ishmael saw some spot duty last season at both safety spots, but his ceiling is as a below-average starter and a solid backup. Robenson Therezie played in fits and starts last year in his rookie campaign, but failed to make much of an impact. Among the cornerbacks, Jalen Collins will have to serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Collins did not endear himself to the coaching staff in an up and down rookie season, and this early absence may stunt his development, but they hope he ends up a starter, not a backup, by the end of the season, if not officially coming out of training camp. 2015 seventh-round pick Akeem King and speedy free agent pickup DeMarcus Van Dyke are the candidates to replace Collins during his suspension unless the team signs one of the veteran corners they have been trying out since the draft.

Last modified: 2016-08-30 19:54:05