The Falcons had the best offense in football last year. Matt Ryan won the Offensive MVP and Atlanta probably should have won the Super Bowl. Atlanta’s offense scored on over 55% of their drives and only turned the ball over 11 times. They punted just 48 times in the regular season, while scoring 58 touchdowns in 2016. This was a historically great offense.
Falcons’ fans, this is not going to keep up. First of all, the league’s premier offensive coordinator and play-caller, Kyle Shanahan, has left town to take on the monumental task of rebuilding the 49ers. Secondly, Atlanta more or less had zero injuries to their offensive line. As detailed in my Offensive Lines Going Backward, the Falcons are unlikely to be as strong upfront as they were in 2016. And while Ryan is most likely closer to the 2016 version rather than the struggling 2105 version that was new to Shanahan’s scheme, chances are that last year will be the best season of his career…which is nothing to sneeze at.
Now, while the Falcons are likely to regress on this side of the ball to some degree, that isn’t to imply that this will not be a high quality unit or that there isn’t an awful lot of fantasy points to mine from Atlanta’s offense. Austin Hooper is very much a breakout candidate and the Falcons are rightfully very pleased with their backfield of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Hopefully new offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, still keeps Atlanta’s outside zone blocking scheme as the foundation of the offense and continues to utilize play action a great deal off a lethal running game. Hopefully Sarkisian also continues to employ Freeman and Coleman as receiving threats very much as Shanahan did before him. Although, with all respect to Sarkisian, who has very little experience in the NFL, chances are that Shanahan is simply better at creating mismatches for Atlanta’s running backs as well as play calling and scheming overall.
But…what if Julio Jones were to fall to injury? We have seen Jones play through numerous injuries and still be very effective. But if he couldn’t dress for an extended stretch of games and the Falcons had to made due without the best wide receiver in football and a player that is very much on a Hall of Fame career path?
The simple answer is that this offense would fall like a lead balloon back to Earth. Jones is the straw that stirs the drink.
Of course every offense would love to have a superstar wideout like Jones, but it is particularly important in the Shanahan scheme. Think Brandon Marshall in Denver or Andre Johnson in Houston or even Pierre Garcon now with Shanahan in San Francisco. Garcon isn’t in the class of these others, but he will at least ably fill the #1 wide receiver role for now until the 49ers can acquire their true stud to make it all go.
Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel were fine additions to this high-powered offense, but by no means are either capable of consistently beating top coverage that they would have to face if Jones were out of the equation. They are very much complementary players. And while hopes are rightfully very high for Hooper, even his greatest of supporters don’t see him as a Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce-like difference maker that keeps opposing defensive coordinators up at night before facing the Falcons on Sunday. These receivers might see an increase in targets by default, but their efficiency per target surely would plummet dramatically.
Well how about that great Falcons run game? Without Jones, that too would slow down. The reasoning is simple. If Jones no longer is someone that defenses have to game plan to even slow down, then every defense that Atlanta faces will make stopping the run the very first priority. Freeman and Coleman would see much more attention closer to the line of scrimmage. That is undisputable.
Ryan’s numbers would plummet without Jones as well. Also, the number of hits he takes surely would increase as well with defenses blitzing him with more regularity.
In many of these “What If?” columns (and you should check out every one of course) the dominoes that fall when a great player goes down could provide opportunity for an unlikely player or two to step up. If Jones goes down, sell all your Falcons stock ASAP.
Sure, Hooper would see more attention from opposing defenses without Jones in the fold, but someone has to catch passes for the Falcons. Hooper is an ascending player that could possibly find himself a few extra touchdowns if Jones were sidelined.
Like Hooper, Sanu would still get volume. However, Sanu is pretty much the definition of a run of the mill number two wide receiver and really needs a star on the opposite side of him to maximize his potential.
The second you hear the news about Jones, shop last year’s MVP. Of course you won’t get what you paid to acquire Ryan in the first place, but without Jones in the fold, Ryan isn’t a top 12 quarterback.
Freeman would still have significant value, so you can’t give him away. But, he certainly would see a lot more attention from opposing defenses. Without Jones, the sledding would be awfully tough for Freeman.
The same is true of course for Coleman as Freeman. However, and this is somewhat of an unknown with a new offensive coordinator, maybe the Falcons would play Freeman and Coleman on the field together even more with Jones sidelined. Coleman can always break a big play and should see plenty of receptions, but if you can get something of value in return, send him packing.
Don’t go blowing all your FAAB money to pick up Gabriel if Jones were to go down. Any way you cut it, this is a defined role player and not a complete receiver. However, his playing time should spike without Jones and that could lead to several more huge plays. And huge plays can win you your fantasy week.