Faceoff: Matt Ryan
Sigmund Bloom: If you said Matt Ryan had a sophomore slump last year, you wouldn't be wrong. His completion percentage, yards per attempt, interception rate, and passer rating all took a hit from his impressive rookie year levels. That still shouldn't overshadow the fact that Ryan actually took a step forward in the categories that matter in fantasy football, and that there are good reasons to believe that Ryan's will progress as a fantasy passer and an NFL quarterback this year.
Even though Ryan played three less games in 2009 than he did in 2008 (officially two, but he only threw three passes vs. Tampa Bay before leaving the game with an ankle injury), he threw six more touchdown passes and seventeen more passes than he did in his rookie year. Ryan threw multiple touchdown passes in eight of the thirteen games he finished. For a down year, Ryan actually displayed a lot of reasons for fantasy optimism in 2009.
While it might be slightly alarming that his efficiency went down with more work, there are good reasons for that - mainly Michael Turner's early-season slump (during which Ryan had some of his worst games of the season) and the natural learning curve of an NFL QB, and nagging lower and upper body injuries that Ryan suffered during the season. This year, Turner has re-dedicated himself to his conditioning, which he cited as a big cause of both his slow start and his ankle injuries. Ryan should get even more responsibility in the offense as the Falcons have increased the number of no-huddle plays in the offense from 10-12 to about 30 and emphasized vertical passing in OTAs.
Ryan has also been studying the game's best QBs on his own this offseason, noting that the elite QBs never go downfield unless the defense takes away the underneath route. This year, he should get back Harry Douglas, who was lost to an ACL tear in training camp last year. Douglas is the perfect WR for Ryan to try out this philosophy with because Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff said that they envisioned Douglas as a Wes Welker type player when they drafted him in 2008. Douglas's run after catch quicks and speed should present defenses with the same kind of Catch-22 they see against teams like New England, New Orleans, and Indianapolis.
Amazingly, Ryan's ADP is lower now than it was at this time last year, even though there are so many reasons to think expectations should be higher for 2010 than they were for 2009. Ryan is a great QB to be half of your QBBC because of his high floor, warm weather/dome heavy schedule, and work-in-progress defense that could get him into shootouts, and commitment to improving his game every year. Ryan also finishes week 15 and 16 with matchups against the hapless Seahawks and a home dome game vs. the Saints which promises to be a track meet. He is one of the best reasons to be one of the last teams to take your QB1 this year.
Mike Brown: A lot of people say that the biggest statistical improvement a quarterback will make is between his first and second seasons. That was supposed to be the case with Matt Ryan. He was supposed to make the leap to NFL elite in year two. Unfortunately for him, along the way his stats regressed, his team's performance slipped, and he ended up as an afterthought in fantasy circles.
Ryan finished up his rookie season with an 11-5 record, a playoff berth, and as the #16 quarterback in football in terms of fantasy production. His sophomore campaign was supposed to be his breakthrough season, but instead it ended with a disappointing 9-7 record, out of the playoffs, a painful toe injury and Ryan regressing to QB19. His yards per attempt dropped by roughly 1.5 (his final number was even lower than that of backup Chris Redman, who filled in while Ryan nursed his toe injury), while his interception rate went up. He did throw six more touchdowns than the season before, though at least some of that probably has to do with the fact that running back Michael Turner wasn't around to score as much as he did in 2008. Case in point - Ryan threw 15 red zone touchdowns in 2009, as opposed to 11 the season before. One can assume that if Turner was around more often, at least a few of those 15 passes may have been punched in on the ground.
Turner is a big reason why Ryan's stats are unlikely to improve by leaps and bounds this year. He missed a lot of time last year, but he is back and healthy. And while he's unlikely to see the 377 carries he had in 2008, he'll surely have a lot more than the 178 he had in 2009. Turner's yards per rush was actually improved in 2009, and you can be sure the Falcons will want to get back to grinding it out on the ground. The Falcons have an improved defense, and should make strides in the win column - as we've seen before, it doesn't necessarily translate to fantasy success through the air if the team does so well running it and winning games.
The major item that should give you pause before burning a pick on Ryan is that he's being drafted as approximately the 10th quarterback off the board. That would be nine spots higher than he finished last year, and six spots higher than he's ever finished. So you're essentially drafting him with the assumption that he's not just going to improve, but that he's going to improve by a LOT. Most experts agree that his upside is somewhere around QB9-QB12. So why would you pay full price for his upside when he hasn't proven capable of anything near that yet? You don't take a guy at QB10 if you think he'll finish as QB10. The only reason to select a player at that point in the draft is if you think he'll significantly outperform his ADP, which means he'd need to finish as a borderline top-5 quarterback (or at least around QB7 or so). Well, if you think he'll finish ahead of at least one of the following (Manning, Rodgers, Brees, Romo, Brady, Rivers, Schaub) and you're willing to roll the dice that he'll be a starting-caliber fantasy quarterback from Day 1, be my guest and grab him. To me, if you're taking a guy who has finished up the season as QB16 and QB19 the last two seasons, you take him as a good backup with upside - you don't rely on him to carry your fantasy team as your starting quarterback.