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2017 Team Report: Atlanta Falcons
Offensive PhilosophyWhile wunderkind offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has left the building, Atlanta has retained all the key personnel behind Matt Ryan's surprising MVP campaign. The Falcons offense is built first and foremost around the run; despite Ryan's brilliance, the team ranked just 26th in pass attempts in 2016. Backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are both very talented in their own right, and (to their owners' dismay), neither is likely to go away quietly in 2017 as the Falcons keep rolling with their proven committee approach to the position.
QuarterbacksStarter: Matt Ryan
Backup(s): Matt Schaub Starting QB: Ryan wound up the third-best fantasy quarterback in the land during 2016 (and took his team all the way to the Super Bowl in the playoffs), tossing 373/534 for 4,944 yards passing, 38 TDs and just seven interceptions (with 35/117/0 rushing) during regular season. Ryan set career-best marks in passing yardage, pass TDs and interceptions thrown during the phenomenal season. During his second season in the Kyle Shanahan system, Ryan bounced back from a sub-par 2015 campaign (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. However, Shanahan has since departed to become the head coach in San Francisco, and the Falcons turned to University of Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to take over their offense. Head coach Dan Quinn is on the record stating after hiring Sarkisian: 'We love the way that we attack, and it took a lot of work to put that system in place. We have a real emphasis now on how we can fit guys into that system. It's very important that we stay consistent with that.'. We saw Ryan take a step back in his first season under coordinator Shanahan, so some slippage from his career-highs during 2016 would appear to be a reasonable expectation in the first year of this new coordinator's regime as the team learns the nuances of Sarkisian's approach. 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. He threw three passes last season going 1/3 for 16 yards, zero TDs and zero interceptions thrown in his first season backing up Ryan. B.J. Daniels is a much-traveled QB/WR hybrid player who has spent time with Houston, Seattle, New York and Chicago during his short NFL career.
Running BacksStarter: Devonta Freeman
Backup(s): Tevin Coleman, Brian Hill [R], Terron Ward
Fullback(s): Derrick Coleman Starting RB: So far, so good for Devonta Freeman, who followed up a stellar 2015 campaign with a solid top-10 finish during 2016 (227/1,079/11 rushing with 65 targets for 54/462/2 receiving), checking in at sixth among all fantasy running backs. This, after Freeman exploded for over 1,600 yards combined and 14 total touchdowns during his 2015 NFL campaign, posting 264/1,061/11 rushing while handling 97 targets for 73/578/3 receiving over 15 games played, established him as the surprise #1 fantasy running back in the land that year. Like the rest of the Falcons' offense, he'll be working with a new offensive coordinator this year (Steve Sarkisian, see Matt Ryan's writeup above). In any case, Freeman has cemented his role as the lead back in Atlanta over the last two seasons - he should continue to get a heavy load of carries during 2017. Backup RBs: Tevin Coleman is a threat to break long-gainers every time he touches the football (118/520/8 rushing with 40 targets for 31/421/3 receiving during his 2016 campaign, sporting a very strong 4.4 yards per carry average). Coleman largely avoided the injury bug that had marred his rookie season during 2015 (87/392/1 rushing with 11 targets for 2/14/0 receiving) and vastly improved his receiving skills at the pro level last season. He is a strong #2 running back for the Falcons who does well when he catches the football in space. Brian Hill (drafted at #156 during the 2017 NFL draft) set many records at the University of Wyoming (4,287 rushing yards, averaging 5.53 yards per carry; 35 TDs scored) - and he has displayed reliable hands to this point in his career, going without a single fumble during 2016 while handling the ball 357 times. He'll likely serve as the Falcons' third running back while learning the pro game this season. Hill didnt catch a lot of footballs while at Wyoming, so he'll need to work on that aspect of his game at the next level. Terron Ward is a long-time Falcons' backup running back who has served spot duty as a starter when the injury bug has bitten the Falcons hard over the years - last season they called on him for 31/151/0 rushing and two targets for 1/11/0 receiving in his reserve role. Fullback: Coleman and Vainuku are going to battle it out in training camp - neither is expected to be particularly valuable in fantasy terms given the multi-faceted running back stable that the fullbacks will lead block for during 2017.
Wide ReceiversStarters: Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu
Backups: Taylor Gabriel, Justin Hardy, Nick Williams, Andre Roberts Starting WRs: Julio Jones is in the prime years of his NFL career, as he proved in 2016 with an elite showing of 129 targets for 83/1,409/6 receiving (sixth-best fantasy wide receiver during 2016) over 14 games played. He did see a dip in targets during 2016 after handling a ridiculous 203 targets for 136/1,871/8 receiving during 2015. Jones is just 28 years old and has missed just three games over the last three seasons while going over 1,400 yards receiving in each of those campaigns (he had 163 targets for 104/1,593/6 receiving during 2014). He seems set to dominate the opposition again during 2017, even though the team is transitioning to a new offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian. #2 wide receiver Mohamed Sanu is just that - a complimentary player who threatened opposing defenses enough to keep them from triple-teaming Jones. Sanu will be 27 when the season starts - he is also in the heart of his NFL career. He set a career-high in receptions last season with 81 targets for 59/653/4 receiving, averaging a steady 11.1 yards per catch in his first season as a Falcon. Sanu's career-best yardage 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). Backup WRs: Taylor Gabriel was a pleasant surprise for Atlanta after he was let go by the Cleveland Browns at the end of the 2016 training camp and subsequently picked up by the Falcons - Gabriel brought a deep threat/vertical element to the Falcons' offense during 2016, racking up 50 targets for 35/579/6 receiving (with 4/51/1 rushing as well). The team wisely re-signed him to a $2.81 million, one-year deal on April 22. He is a great addition to the offense when the team elects to go with three wide receivers on any given down. Justin Hardy went from nine games played as a rookie in 2015 to a full-time player during 2016, logging 16 games played - however, he stayed stuck at 21 receptions again last season (21/194/0 receiving as a rookie; 21/203/4 last year). Hardy is a reserve/depth player entering the 2017 season, behind Jones, Sanu and Gabriel in the pecking order. Nick Williams enters his third season with the Falcons as a reserve option for the team - he saw the field in just two games last year and managed seven targets for 5/59/0 receiving.
Tight EndsStarters: Austin Hooper
Backups: Levine Toilolo, Eric Saubert [R] Jacob Tamme has left the squad, leaving Austin Hooper to ascend into the starting tight end role during 2017. Hooper was productive as a rookie during 2016, garnering 27 targets for 19/271/3 receiving. He did catch a TD in the Super Bowl (six targets for 3/32/1) and looks ready to assume the pass-catching tight end duties for the Falcons full time during 2017. Levine Toilolo is a huge (6'8", 265 lb) tight end who helps with the Falcons' run- and pass-blocking duties while also sneaking out for a couple of stealth TD catches each year (he handled 19 targets for 13/264/2 receiving during 2016). He's had two TD catches in three-of-four NFL seasons since arriving in Atlanta. Josh Perkins (five targets for 3/42/1 receiving during 2016) and D.J. Tialavea (one for 1/1/1) are both reserves at the tight end position who'll battle for a roster spot in training camp this season. Eric Saubert is an athletic receiving tight end project the team took in the fifth round who might not be able to be stashed on the practice squad if he has a good camp and preseason
Place KickerMatt Bryant: Matt Bryant led the league in points last year and should be drafted as one of the top five kickers in most leagues. He has made at least 29 field goals in three of his last four healthy years with the Falcons, and they trust him on long attempts, making 6-of-8 from 50+ last year and 7-of-10 in 2014. While the Falcons offense could take a step back with Steve Sarkisian replacing Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator, the net effect on Bryant should be minimal, or even positive. If his extra point attempts drop from 57 to a more reasonable number in the 40s, that should represent more field goal attempts to offset or even eclipse his point opportunity from 2016.
Kick and Punt ReturnersKick Returners: Andre Roberts, Justin Hardy Two years ago, Atlanta gave virtually all of their return duties to the legendary Devin Hester. Last year, Hester was gone and Atlanta gave virtually all of their return duties to Eric Weems. Now Weems has moved on, too. Vying for top returner honors are Justin Hardy, the team's most experienced returner, and the newly-signed Andre Roberts, who handled all returns for Detroit in 2016. Punt Returners: Andre Roberts, Justin Hardy Thanks in large part to Atlanta's preference to give all return duties to a single player, Hardy has never returned a punt in his NFL career. (He's only returned three kickoffs.) Nevertheless, given Atlanta's preference for a single returner, Hardy is likely to earn punt return duties as well as kickoffs... provided he can beat out newly-signed return specialist Andre Roberts.
Offensive LineProjected Starters: LT Jake Matthews, LG Andy Levitre, C Alex Mack, RG Wes Schweitzer, RT Ryan Schraeder LT Jake Matthews, LG Andy Levitre, C Alex Mack, RG Wes Schweitzer, RT Ryan Schraeder
Key Backups: Ben Garland, Austin Pasztor, Sean Harlow [R], Ty Sambrailo Center Alex Mack is the cornerstone of the Falcons' offensive line. Mack arrived in free agency from Cleveland last year and continued his Pro Bowl form, making his fourth career appearance as the NFC reserve center. The left side of Jake Matthews and Andy Levitre are mostly solid and right tackle Ryan Schraeder continues to perform at a relatively high level. Last year's right guard Chris Chester retired, and there is a battle between Wes Schweitzer and rookie Sean Harlow. The coaches have been talking Schweitzer up for his effort in off-season workouts. Ben Garland is a versatile backup (who also plays DT) . Overall, this line has the talent to rank among the best in football, should they resolve the right guard situation.
Team DefenseThe Falcons had a lightly regarded defense entering 2016, but they were boosted by an offense that often allowed them to play with a lead and the breakout of 2015 first-round pick Vic Beasley. 2017 will bring change as Marquand Manuel was promoted to defensive coordinator to take over for Richard Smith, who was relieved of his playcalling duties during the season. The team added Dontari Poe on a one year "prove it" deal to anchor the middle of the defensive line, which should help Grady Jarrett have even more one-on-ones after his dominating Super Bowl performance. First-round pick Takkarist McKinley will be recovering from shoulder surgery, but when ready, he should push Brooks Reed to provide a pass-rushing upgrade. The defense has continuity elsewhere, but the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to the 49ers to be their head coach could hurt the ability of the team to carry leads in most games. Still, the Falcons are deserving of their top 10-12 D/ST ADP and should be able to deliver on that cost, with some risk that they can't reproduce their league-leading five defensive scores from 2016.
Defensive LineStarters: NT Grady Jarrett, DE Brooks Reed, DE Adrian Clayborn, DT Dontari Poe
Backups: DE Jack Crawford, DE Derrick Shelby, DE Courtney Upshaw, DE Takkarist McKinley [R] Starting DL: The Falcons' defensive front, widely panned for their lack of pass rush just a season ago, flipped the script in 2016. While the offense set a record pace for efficiency in points per drive, the front four was able to feast and close games out. Leading the line was hulking 24-year-old defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who played every game and notched four sacks. Proving a thorn in the side of opposing offensive lines, Jarrett is poised to continue to be a boon for the Falcons on the interior in both a 2-gap and 1-gap role, depending on the alignment. Joining Jarrett on the interior is new signing Dontari Poe, who was picked up this offseason on a low-risk, one-year deal. When he wasn't tossing jump pass touchdowns, Poe was predominantly a 1-technique player in Kansas City, but reports suggest he could be moved around the line in Atlanta. Creating pressure off the edge will be the combination of Brooks Reed and Adrian Clayborn, with the always dangerous Vic Beasley coming in on obvious passing downs. Reed recorded just two sacks last season despite playing 15 games, and his frame (6'3'', 254 lbs) means he can sometimes be swallowed up by massive offensive tackles. Clayborn lends a mean streak to the line and although he missed a handful of games in 2016, he played a key role in the rotation. He will continue to do some of the grunt work and play 4-technique in Dan Quinn's scheme, which will ask him to be a 2-gapping presence, allowing the linebackers behind to make plays. Backup DL: Former premium pick Ra'Shede Hageman ended his disappointing tenure in Atlanta after the team parted ways with him over a domestic violence arrest. The former premium draft pick never reached his true potential. Jack Crawford, a former Cowboy, was signed this offseason to provide an intriguing change-up for the pass rush. The three-year deal suggests the Falcons like what they see from the 28-year-old, who could excel in a situational role. Derrick Shelby and Joe Vellano are depth options only. First round pick Takkarist McKinley should be a subpackage pass rusher early on, transitioning to a full-time role opposite Vic Beasley throughout the season.
LinebackersStarters: MLB Deion Jones, SLB Vic Beasley, WLB Duke Riley [R]
Backups: LB Jermaine Grace, LB De'Vondre Campbell , S/LB Kemal Ishmael Starting LBs: After being considered a weakness of the Atlanta defense for so long, head coach Dan Quinn finally secured athletic players who could turn his Xs and Os on the chalkboard into sustained success on the field. The introduction of young duo Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell completely changed the Falcons defense, transforming it from a slow, sluggish unit into a dynamic, playmaking one. Jones endured some hiccups along the way in his first season, but proved to be a huge asset on the Super Bowl run. Campbell lacks the athletic profile and sheer speed of Jones, but he has the talent to contribute as a two-down player at the very least. Reports in minicamp have suggested that Campbell could switch to the strong side on early downs, after playing on the weak side last year. Technically a linebacker, Vic Beasley did most of his damage as an edge rusher in 2016 as he made short work of his competition. The speed rusher recorded 15.5 sacks to go along with 32 solo tackles as he terrorised opposing offensive tackles. He will continue to play the 'Leo' or openside pass rusher role in the Falcons' 4-3 under scheme. Backup LBs: Journeyman LaRoy Reynolds is the primary backup at middle linebacker and has bounced around a few teams. The dropoff between Deion Jones and Reynolds is a significant one. Courtney Upshaw has some versatility as an edge rusher and strongside linebacker, and the team's re-signing of him has to be a confidence boost. Tyler Starr is a special teams ace who is more a 'try hard' player. Duke Riley, the rookie out of LSU, will have his chance to affect the game against the pass, but may not be trusted to be more than that in his rookie year.
Defensive BacksStarters: CB Desmond Trufant, CB Robert Alford, S Keanu Neal, S Ricardo Allen
Backups: CB Jalen Collins (suspended), CB C.J. Goodwin, CB/S Brian Poole, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, S Sharrod Neasman, CB Damontae Kazee, DB Deji Olatoye Starting DBs: Desmond Trufant enters this season fresh off signing a new contract worth $69m that will presumably keep him with the Falcons for his best years. It places him among the league's best paid cornerbacks, and his level of play warrants it. His season ended prematurely in 2016 due to a torn pectoral muscle, but he is expected to be ready for training camp. Trufant's absence may have been a blessing in disguise for Robert Alford, who raised his game and played 1,080 snaps, recording 49 solo tackles and 19 pass breakups. Alford will continue to be the player opposing quarterbacks try to pick on, but his penchant for reading the game may have them thinking twice. After missing the first two weeks of his rookie season, Keanu Neal jumped in with both feet and set the league alight with his performances. A tone-setter on defense, something the Falcons had lacked for a few years, Neal racked up tackles for fun and was a big factor in the Super Bowl run. With Neal patrolling the short to intermediate range of the field, free safety Ricardo Allen is expected to continue in his role as the deeper player in the secondary. His defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel showered him with praise this offseason, saying he expected to see 'big things' this year. Backup DBs: Brian Poole was a revelation as a nickel cornerback for the team last year, sticking to receivers all over the field and making a lot of impact plays. Jalen Collins, who played well after coming off a suspension at the start of 2016, will miss 10 games in 2017 after suffering the same suspension. The Falcons brass voiced their displeasure at the repeat offence and once has to wonder how long Collins has left with the team. Kemal Ishmael will be the primary backup at safety, and could edge out imcumbent Ricardo Allen if things fall his way. Last modified: 2017-09-05 10:24:25