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2013 Team Report: Atlanta Falcons

Quarterbacks

Starter: Matt Ryan
Backup(s): Dominique Davis, Sean Renfree [R]

Starting QB: Matt Ryan has improved (significantly) as a passer in each of the last three years, going from 3,705 yards passing with 28 TDs and just nine interceptions thrown three years ago to 4,177 yards passing, 29 TDs and 12 interceptions thrown two years ago and finishing 2012 with 4,719 yards passing, with 32 TDs and 14 interceptions thrown. Ryan finished as the fifth-best fantasy quarterback in the league last year. He's been among the top-ten fantasy quarterbacks for three straight seasons, playing in all 16 games for the past three years. Ryan is just now entering the prime years of his career at 28 years of age. The addition of Steven Jackson in free agency gives him a good three-down running back with outstanding pass catching skills (40-50 receptions per season are a norm for Jackson) which should help Ryan continue his strong showings as a fantasy quarterback. Under Ryan's leadership, the Falcons finished first in the NFC South last year with a 13-3 regular season record, earning a first-round bye, and won a playoff game vs. the Seahawks during the divisional round before losing to San Francisco in the NFC conference championship game.

Backup QB: Dominique Davis has risen from an undrafted free agent (East Carolina) to claim the #2 roster spot at quarterback for the Falcons during the coming 2013 season. He had a fine 2012 preseason, with 33/56 for 402 yards passing, three TDs and three interceptions thrown. Davis is noted for having a stong arm and good athleticism, and the team is happy enough with him that they let last year's backup, Luke McCown, depart to divisional rival New Orleans during free agency. Rookie Sean Renfree (Duke) was NFL Network's Mike Mayock's sleeper QB of the 2013 draft, and the Falcons scooped him up in the seventh round of the draft at pick #43 (249 overall). Renfree is a high-percentage passer, who hit 282/434 (64.9% completion percentage) for 2,891 yards passing, 14 TDs and 11 interceptions for Duke during 2011 and 297/442 (67.2% completion percentage) for 3.113 yards, 19 TDs and 10 interceptions during 2012. Renfree tore his right (throwing arm) pectoral muscle during Duke's bowl game last winter, but he is expected to be ready for Falcons' training camp this year. Renfree did practice and play during training camp, but suffered an undisclosed injury in the final preseason game and landed on IR for 2013.

Running Backs

Starter: Steven Jackson
Backup(s): Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling, Antone Smith
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: Steven Jackson arrived in Atlanta via free agency on March 14, 2013, signing a three-year contract with the Falcons. He's had eight straight 1,000+ yards-rushing seasons (nine years in the league), and will be 30 on July 22nd, 2013. He's accumulated 2,397/10,144/56 rushing (4.2 yards per carry) during his career, with 406/3,316/8 receiving to date. During his final season in St. Louis, Jackson posted 257/1,042/4 rushing and 38/321/0 receiving to finish as the 17th-ranked fantasy running back in the league. He's been a top-20 fantasy back for the last eight years, but has a high of six total TDs per season over the past three campaigns (part of the lack of TDs has been due to the Rams' offensive woes, however). This year, Jackson will play on a much more powerful offense in Atlanta compared to the mediocre-to-sub-par St. Louis attacks he's been a part of since Sam Bradford has faltered in his development at quarterback for the Rams. The Falcons, who lost in the NFC championship round last year, are in a win-now mode and figure to feature Jackson heavily as the upgrade over Michael Turner at starting running back this year.

Backup RBs: Jacquizz Rodgers is an excellent change-of-pace back for the Falcons, with 94/36281 rushing and 53/402/1 receiving for Atlanta last year and 151/567/2 rushing and 74/590/2 receiving so far during his two-year career. He'll be mixed into the offense to complement Steven Jackson this year. Jason Snelling is a utility running back who has stepped into the starting lineup on occasions during his career, with 82 games played over six seasons, including 16 last year - he's rushed for 319/1,256/7 and snagged 139/1,033/6 receiving over the years. Snelling provides veteran depth and injury insurance for the Falcons year-to-year. Antone Smith is a rarely-utilized Falcon who has been with the team for three years (34 games played, 1/-3/0 rushing with zero receptions).

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Roddy White, Julio Jones
Backups: Harry Douglas, Drew Davis, Kevin Cone

Starting WRs: Roddy White (153 targets for 92/1,351/7 receiving last season) and Julio Jones (138 targets for 79/1,198/10 receiving last season) have become one of the most valuable starting wide receiver tandems in the NFL. They are locked in as wide receivers #1A and #1B for this attack. Since Jones joined the Falcons, he's finished in the top twenty among fantasy wide receivers, with 54/959/8 his rookie season (17th) and then last year's totals placed him ninth. White finished 2012 as the 10th-ranked fantasy receiver, after being eigth in the NFL during 2011 (191 targets for 100/1,296/8 receiving). This is an explosive combination of receiving talent that has been very simpatico since the two players joined forces on the Falcons two years ago. Even before Jones arrived in Atlanta, White has been a fantasy force, with five straight finishes among the top-10 fantasy wide receivers in the league - he's been in synch with Matt Ryan since Ryan joined the team.

Backup WRs: Harry Douglas is a very capable third wide receiver, who has compiled 64 targets for 39/498/1 receiving during 2011 (when Julio Jones joined the mix in Atlanta) and then 62 targets for 38/396/1 during 2012 - Douglas has only missed one game during his four year career. If Roddy White or Julio Jones were to miss time during 2013 for whatever reason, Douglas would be the player to own or grab off the waiver wire. Drew Davis (seven targets for 4/40/1 last year) and Kevin Cone (one target for zero catches during 2012) are depth players who have little role in the offense when White, Jones and Douglas are healthy.

Tight Ends

Starters: Tony Gonzalez
Backups: Levine Toilolo

Tony Gonzalez had another fine season for the Falcons last year, with 131 targets for 93/930/8 receiving, finishing as the third-best fantasy tight end in the league. He is a lock to be the starter at tight end for the Falcons, who are in win-now mode. The Falcons, who advanced to the NFC championship last year, managed to convince Gonzalez to delay his retirement for one more year this past offseason - he'll once again be Matt Ryan's security blanket/outlet receiver during 2013. Gonzalez has been among the top-five fantasy tight ends during three of his four seasons in Atlanta, with an eighth-place finish during 2010, and he hasn't missed a game for the Falcons during his four years in town. Gonzalez is one of the most consistent fantasy tight ends in history, finishing out of the top-ten among fantasy recievers once in his entire 16-year career (during 1997, his rookie season), and has racked up 1,242 receptions for 14,268 yards receiving and 103 TDs to date. Gonzalez has missed two regular-season games during a span of 256 possible appearances (he's played in 254 regular-season games). Languishing behind Tony Gonzalez, Levine Toilolo figures to not see much (if any) action during Gonzalez's swan song season in the NFL.

Place Kicker

Matt Bryant: Kicker Matt Bryant comes off a busy 2012 season in which he made 33 of 38 field goals, including 4 of 4 from 50+ yards. The specialist trio remains intact for 2013, as long snapper Josh Harris and holder/punter/kickoff-specialist Matt Bosher are also back. After six straight years near the middle of the pack, the Falcons jumped up to 5th place in kicker scoring opportunities last year.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Devin Hester, Jacquizz Rodgers, Javier Arenas

Though running back Jacquizz Rodgers was solid for the last two seasons as the Falcons returner, the addition of Devin Hester will push Rodgers into a backup role. The 31-year old Hester showed no signs of being slowed by age as he maintained a 27.6 yard per return average in his final season with the Bears, and regularly was kicked away from by opposing coaches. Another new addition to the team, Javier Arenas, could be used as a backup if the team wishes to focus Rodgers on his running back duties.

Punt Returners: Devin Hester, Robert McClain, Harry Douglas, Robert Alford

With Devin Hester taking over both primary returner jobs, the biggest question mark in Atlanta is who will handle backup duties. The team started with receiver Harry Douglas in 2013 before the injury to Julio Jones made the team leery of injury risk to Douglas. Robert McClain handled the job for the remainder of the year and should compete with Douglas now that Julio Jones should return. Much was thought of rookie cornerback Robert Alford at the time, but his chance at the job was cut short by a fumble. He might be given another shot at the backup job this season.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Sam Baker, LG Justin Blalock, C Peter Konz, RG Garrett Reynolds, RT Lamar Holmes
Key Backups: T Mike Johnson, G Jacques McClendon, G Phillipkeith Manley, C Joe Hawley

The obvious question with the Atlanta Falcons offensive line is how can a team that win 13 games and be so successful on offense, have such a lowly ranked offensive line? The short answer is that the Falcons offensive line was actually pretty good. However they lost their starting center to retirement, their starting right tackle to free agency, and they made no major moves to backfill these losses. At left tackle, Sam Baker is a serviceable option most of the time. Baker is prone to lapses in protection and cannot be relied upon all of the time to lock down his assignments. Left guard Justin Blalock is a good player, probably the most reliable of the Falcons offensive linemen. However Blalock probably isn't getting much better than he is right now. Former first round draft pick Peter Konz is slated to take over for the departed Todd McClure and should do a good job on the inside. Right guard is the perennial competition between Garrett Reynolds and Mike Johnson. Somehow Reynolds seems to win these matchups, but Johnson will be relied upon as a depth player and extra tight end. Right tackle should go to Lamar Holmes, a former third round pick, but there is a chance that Johnson could sneak into the lineup at that spot in Holmes' place. The Falcons have a boatload of college free agents but it is unclear at this time if any will be significant competition for the starters. In general offensive line coach Pat Hill does a very good job but the Falcons offensive line has a below average amount of talent, compared to others in the league.

Team Defense

It has long been a fantasy axiom that a high-powered offense can create a high-scoring fantasy defense. The theory goes something like this: Since the offense is putting up so many points, opposing offenses have to take chances and pass often to keep up. It sounds great, but like the third-year wide receiver theory, it has a ton of holes. Enter the Atlanta Falcons defense. The 2012 Falcons offense was pretty darn good. The 2012 Falcons defense was pretty darn bad. The main reason for that was a lack of playmakers. While the offense is riddled with guys like Matt Ryan, Roddy White, and Julio Jones, the defense is quite the collection of blah. And it's not getting better in 2013. Longtime pass-rushing stud John Abraham clearly faded with age and was replaced with Osi Umenyiora. Hmm. The only near-stud players on the defense - cornerbacks Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes - are gone, and their replacements are extremely raw. There is always a chance that the new bodies come together and really create havoc and score fantasy points, but this is definitely a wait-and-see fantasy defense.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Paul Soliai, DE Tyson Jackson, DE Jonathan Babineaux
Backups: DT/DE Ra’Shede Hageman, DT Travian Robertson, DT Corey Peters, DE Malliciah Goodman, DE Cliff Matthews

Starting DL: Despite Mike Smith’s insistence to the contrary, all signs point to Atlanta switching to a 3-4 defense this season, with some 4-3 looks sprinkled in. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff explained his strategy earlier this offseason: “Defensively right now, the way the league is, there's so much creativity. A guy like Mike Nolan at the helm as a defensive coordinator, he's very creative with how he works things. Unfortunately, maybe we didn't have all the personnel we needed to truly fit into the 3-4 schemes at times and use that as a really strong base defense.” Reading between the lines, it appears new signings 30-year-old NT Paul Soliai and DE Tyson Jackson will feature prominently on early downs, with a more aggressive, amoeba-like attack in obvious passing situations. Jackson played fewer than 600 snaps last season in Kansas City, but consistently performed at a high level against the run. Likewise for new teammate Soliai, whose abilities in the trenches should afford Atlanta’s linebackers the chance to scrape and flow in the run game – but don’t expect gaudy fantasy numbers. Jonathan Babineaux, traditionally a 4-3 DT, figures to be the most fantasy relevant option in this defensive line grouping. The 32-year-old stalwart will line up at the 3-technique to maximize his effectiveness to get after the passer and should be a viable starting DT in leagues that require them.

Backup DL: Second-round pick Ra-Shede Hageman is the most intriguing of the backups in Atlanta. Hageman’s skill set can be utilized in multiple fronts, meaning he should make a smooth transition and see plenty of snaps early on. His snap-to-snap effort is a big concern coming out of Minnesota, but the talent is there to be dominant. Corey Peters has played some decent snaps for the Falcons and could figure as an undersized 5-technique in 3-4 fronts. Both Jonathan Massaquoi and Malliciah Goodman fit better as 4-3 ends and could find their snaps limited by their lack of versatility.

Linebackers

Starters: ILB Paul Worrilow, ILB Sean Weatherspoon, OLB Joplo Bartu, OLB Osi Umenyiora
Backups: LB Omar Gaither, LB Prince Shembo, LB Akeem Dent

Starting LBs: Perhaps no linebacker was more of a surprise package last season than Atlanta’s Paul Worrilow, who exploded onto the scene with three 10+ tackle games in a row. Worrilow, an undrafted free agent, did not start until Week 7 but still finished the season with 91 solo tackles and 18 assists. Heading into this season, Worrilow represents a good bet for LB2 production as a baseline, with the potential for more. His upside may be limited by the role running mate Sean Weatherspoon plays. Weatherspoon, in the final year of his contract, figures to play the weak inside linebacker position in Mike Nolan’s attacking, amoeba-like defense. This will afford him additional pass-rushing opportunities, but the red flag continues to be health with this gifted but frustratingly fragile player. If Weatherspoon can stay out of the training room, he could reach LB1 numbers on a defense that, while it has improved in the trenches, still projects for above average tackle opportunities. Osi Umenyiora is very much on the downside of his career and made very little impact as a pass rusher in 2013. His value is too volatile to rely on. Joplo Bartu had a decent rookie campaign and will likely play the weakside outside linebacker, but his lack of ideal size (230lbs) could hurt him.

Backup LBs: Fifth-round draft pick Prince Shembo projects as a designated pass rusher, at least as he becomes accustomed to the rigors of the pro game. Akeem Dent and Omar Gaither are decent veteran options to have behind the oft-injured Sean Weatherspoon and either of the pair could have LB3 value if Weatherspoon goes down.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Desmond Trufant, CB Robert Alford, SS William Moore, FS Dwight Lowery
Backups: CB Robert McClain, CB Javier Arenas, SS Zeke Motta, FS Dezmen Southward

Starting DBs: The 22nd overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft, Desmond Trufant assumed a starting role immediately last season and became entrenched at right cornerback, improving as the year progressed. Trufant exceeded 60 solo tackles and should comfortably reach CB2 status in 2014. Robert Alford, another rookie contributor last season, played half the snaps of Trufant but should see more snaps in 2014 with the departure of Asante Samuel. Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff claimed third round pick Dezmen Southward will play free safety, but his lack of experience could lead to a steep learning curve and thus veteran Dwight Lowery has the inside track on the job. William Moore finished last season with 66 tackles and should pick up right where he left off as a very solid DB2.

Backup DBs: Robert McClain has produced terrific fantasy numbers when called upon in a starting role, and has value in matchups against spread offenses like New Orleans. Javier Arenas, signed as a free agent after a disappointing year in Arizona, may be on his last chance. He should slide in as a kick and punt returner. Third round pick Dezmen Southward will not be thrown into the fire right away, but could see his snaps increase as the season progresses depending on the play of incumbent Dwight Lowery.

Last modified: 2014-05-15 13:40:36