Preseason - 2021 Atlanta Falcons Outlook
After losing to the Patriots in the Super Bowl in 2016, Atlanta regressed in the win column over the next four years, leading to Dan Quinn getting fired five games into 2020. The Falcons name Arthur Smith their new head coach in January. He ran Tennessee's offense in 2019 and 2020 while working in their system since 2011.
Dave Ragone makes the jump from Bears' passing coordinator to Atlanta's offensive coordinator. He worked in the Titans' system from 2011 to 2013 as their wide receiver and quarterbacks coach with Arthur Smith. Ragone coached in the NFL for nine seasons, with most of his experience coming as a quarterbacks coach.
Atlanta fell to 18th in offensive yards after having a top-eight offense over the previous six years. In addition, they slipped to 16th in points scored (396), which fell in line with their ranking from 2017 to 2019 (15th, 10th, and 13th).
The Falcons named Dean Pees to run their defense. He has a long successful career on the defensive side of the ball for the Patriots and Ravens from 2004 to 2017, leading to two Super Bowl wins (2004 and 2012). Pees ran Tennessee's defense in 2018 and 2019 before announcing his retirement. He has 12 seasons of experience as a defensive coordinator.
Their defense finished 29th in yards allowed while giving up 414 points (19th). Atlanta ranks 20th or below seven times over the past nine seasons in yards allowed.
The Falcons' top losses in free agency were D Keanu Neal and C Alex Mack.
Neal is a talented player with a first-round pedigree (2016). He missed almost all of 2018 and 2019 with injuries. Neal played under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, where he flashed upside in all areas. His play should improve the Cowboys' run defense. Neal will give up catches, but receivers tend to gain short yards per catch.
Mack was a great fit for the Falcons' offense when he signed in 2016. He is one of the top run-blocking centers in the NFL while offering strength in pass protection every year in the league. The Browns drafted Mack in the first round by the Browns in 2009.
Atlanta added Mike Davis to compete for the starting running back job. He handled himself well in relief of Christian McCaffrey last year, but Davis struggled to make big plays, and defenses appeared to catch up with him over the latter part of 2020.
On defense, the Falcons' signed S Duron Harmon, S Erik Harris, and LB Brandon Copeland.
Harmon allowed too many big plays in the passing last year while finishing as a league-average player in run support. The Lions gave him the most snaps of his career.
Harris comes with veteran experience, but he projects as a bench player. His run defense came up short twice over the past three seasons while making 26 starts in 2019 and 2020. Harris allows some big plays and touchdowns when asked to work in coverage.
Copeland only provides depth at linebacker. His best value to the Falcons comes on special teams.
Atlanta lost CB Darqueze Dennard to the Cardinals in the offseason. He missed eight games last year due to a hamstring injury. The Bengals drafted him in the first round in 2014, but Dennard only had over 700 snaps in one season (2017). His run defense can be an asset, and receivers tend to gain short yards per catch against him.
In early June, the Falcons traded Julio Jones to Tennessee for second and fourth-round draft picks in 2022 and 2023.
With the four overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Falcons drafted TE Kyle Pitts. His route running has room for growth, along with short-area quickness. Pitts will test a defense up the seam in the deep passing game with the foundation skill set to dominate in scoring in the red zone. His release and movements off the line create easy wins, plus a high level of success in jump balls.
Atlanta focused on their defense with five of their final eight selections – S Richie Grant (2.8), CB Darren Hall (4.3), DT Ta'Quon Graham (5.4), Adetokunbo Ogundeji (5.38), and CB Avery Williams (5.39).
Grant brings a coverage feel to the safety position while showing the most promise playing centerfield. His vision played well into his playmaking style, and he works hard pregame prep. Grant can handle most tight ends with help in run support. His downside comes when drawing top-end wide receivers close to the line of scrimmage, which can lead to long scoring plays due to his lack of overall speed. He also struggles with some switches off the snap.
Hall lacks the movements to mirror wide receivers in their route running, which falls on his below pat technique. When in a position to defend a pass, he exhibits quickness and ball skills. Hall puts in his time in the film room, helping his timing and vision. He fires when needed in run support. Play-action passes can leave him in a trail position while lacking the speed to make up for a missed step.
Graham comes to the NFL as a man without a plan. His quickness won't win enough off the snap, and he doesn't have the push or depth of moves to apply enough pressure on the quarterback. Graham does gain points for his hands and length, which will play much higher when adding more strength. The Falcons hope he develops into an early-down run stopper. Graham also needs to see beyond his one-on-one battle in the trenches to improve his chances to make tackles on backs.
Ogundeji continues to add bulk, but he still hasn't found the right balance between body and a winning/impact player on the football field. Ogundeji plays with strength an early edge off the snap. Unfortunately, his foot speed doesn't give him enough coverage area to defend the run, and chasing quarterbacks on the move leaves him in the rearview mirror on too many chances. In a way, his progression in size puts him more on a path to be a guard than a starting defensive end. Ogundeji plays with fight while needing better technique to create earlier wins in his rush.
Williams played cornerback in college, but his lack of size (5'8" and 185 lbs.) invites downside at the next level. His movements in coverage project well while offering exceptional short-area quickness. Williams excels on special teams, and he has offensive experience in high school (running back). The Falcons will find a way to get him on the field in some fashion in 2021.
The Falcons address their offensive line in the third (T Jalen Mayfield) and fourth (C Drew Dalman) rounds.
Mayfield has some key upside components to his game. His vision, quickness, and technique set the stage for a high ceiling player. He comes to Atlanta with limited experience and much-needed work to get stronger. Mayfield understands his role, and he shows a willingness to do the dirty work in the trenches. His pass protecting is ahead of his run blocking, with each shortfall tied to strength.
Dalman has two knocks coming out of college – size and strength. His foundation skill set ranks highly in technique, and his hands keep defenders at a distance. The rest of his game screams "winner" while owning the smarts to make good decisions in the heat of the battle. With some hard work, Dalman can turn his questions into answers vs. power players.
In the sixth round, Atlanta took a dance with WR Frank Darby. His best asset comes in the deep passing game, but his game is full of deficiencies. He plays with strength and quickness while owning questionable hands and route running. Darby falls into the project category.
The Falcons improved to 27th in rushing yards (1,532) with 13 touchdowns and six runs over 20 yards. Ball carriers gained 3.7 yards per rush.
Atlanta slipped to fifth in passing yards (4,620) with 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Their offensive line allowed 41 sacks. They gained 7.4 yards per pass attempt with 59 catches over 20 yards.
LT Jake Matthews
Matthews played well in pass protection over the last six seasons while showing growth over the previous three years. The Falcons attempted well over 600 passes from 2018 to 2020, putting him in pass blocking mode for two-thirds of his plays. Matthews regressed in run blocking last year. In most seasons, he ranked as a league-average player or less in the run game. Atlanta drafted him sixth overall in 2014.
LG Jalen Mayfield
The Falcons' offensive line will be in flux as multiple positions heading into 2021. Mayfield comes to the league with tackle experience, and his future lies on the outside of the offensive line. Atlanta needs to play the players with the most talent, which means Mayfield may switch to left guard or right tackle in his rookie season. I expect him to excel while needing time to develop.
C Matt Hennessy
His game should work well at the next level in a quick-hitting run game while also showing the ability to shine if asked to block on the move for short-area pass plays. Hennessy plays with strength while being undersized. He needs to improve his finishing power in blocks vs. top defenders and add more bulk to help his anchor. Hennessy made two starts at center with some snaps at left guard off the bench in his rookie season. The loss of Alex Mack points to a downgrade this year at this position.
RG Chris Lindstrom
After drafting Lindstrom in the first round in 2019, the Falcons lost him for 11 games after suffering a broken foot in Week 1. Last year, he played well in both run and pass blocking while starting all 16 games.
Lindstrom came to the NFL with athletic ability, which instantly upgrades the run game. He controls a wide area of the field with the movements to block on the move. He has strength, but he can get in trouble vs. power while handling his job well against speed in the pass rush. Lindstrom needs to get stronger and add more fire at the point of contact.
RT Kaleb McGary
McGary struggled in his rookie season, but 16 games of experience led to growth in his game in all areas. However, he needs the most work in pass protection. His season started with a knee issue, and McGary missed some time due to Covid.
He lacks quickness while losing his foundation when trying to control a defender outside his box. McGary needs to improve his technique to develop into a better player in pass protection. He should grow into an asset in the run game early in his career. McGary projects as a power player who can get in trouble when moving off his spot in blocking.
Atlanta may move him to left guard, giving Jalen Mayfield time to develop at tackle.
The offensive line has been a big part of the Falcons' draft plan in recent drafts. They have multiple positions with first-round talent, and any weakness expected this year was addressed in 2019 and 2020. However, Atlanta lacks a premier running back, and the loss of Julio Jones does change the passing window for Matt Ryan. For now, a league-average line with developing upside. The left guard and center position will determine this success in 2021.
Atlanta continues to rank near the top of the league in passing attempts. They threw the ball 60.5 percent of the time last year, leading to a three-year low (64 in 2018 and 65.5 in 2019). In addition, the Falcons have weakness on defense, forcing them to chase on the scoreboard in many games.
QB Matt Ryan, ATL - Bust (overvalued)
Over the previous nine seasons, Ryan delivered two elite seasons (2016 – 5,061/38 and 2018 – 5,049/38) while also shining in 2012 (4,860/33). Much of his success over this span came from the excellent play by Julio Jones (794/11,999/52). In his down years, Ryan generally delivered better than league average stats at the quarterback position. He completed over 400 passes in seven of his last nine years while ranking well in his completion rate (67.1).
In 2020, Ryan passed for over 300 yards in five matchups, highlighted by his success in four games (450/2, 273/4, 371/4, and 356/3). He finished with two scores or fewer in 11 of his 16 starts.
Fantasy Outlook: The negatives for Ryan outweigh the positives in 2021. As exciting as adding TE Kyle Pitts to the Falcons' offense looks, the loss of Julio Jones changes the big picture of Atlanta's passing game. A new coaching staff and weakness at running back don't paint an impactful passing picture this season. Ryan is the 14th ranked quarterback in late June in 12-team leagues (15th after the Julio trade). The Falcons also have weakness behind Calvin Ridley at wide receiver. At best, Ryan will pass for 4,250 passing yards with 25 touchdowns. I'm fading him this draft season.
Other Options: AJ McCarron, Feleipe Franks
UPDATE: While Ryan puts up solid passing numbers overall, his red zone struggles cap his touchdown potential overall and the loss of longtime No. 1 wideout Julio Jones will hurt. The Falcons are also installing a new offense which will preclude Ryan from leading the league in pass attempts. This is almost certainly Ryan's final year in Atlanta and it might benefit the new regime to take a look other quarterbacks if the Falcons fall out of playoff contention. In all, Ryan is likely to end up with decent fantasy stats but should not be relied upon as a starter in single QB formats.
RB Mike Davis, ATL - Sleeper (undervalued)
For the second season, the Falcons' running back gained short yards per rush (3.7 and 3.8) while offering lower production per catch in 2018 (6.9), 2019 (7.0), and 2020 (6.3). In essence, Atlanta hasn't had a top play at running back since 2017 (Devonte Freeman – 1,541 combined yards with 13 touchdowns and 54 catches). Their back finished with 1,941 yards with 12 scores and 79 catches in 2020.
Davis gained 1,329 combined yards with six touchdowns and 66 catches on 313 touches over his first six seasons in the NFL. His best year came in 2018 (728 yards with five scores and 34 catches) with the Seahawks.
An injury to Christian McCaffrey in 2020 led to a high-volume starting opportunity for Davis over 13 weeks. He came off the bench in Week 2, leading to eight catches for 74 yards. Over the next three games, Davis delivered RB1 stats (351 combined yards with three touchdowns and 22 catches – 25.33 FPPG in PPR leagues). His only two runs over 20 yards came over this span, helping him gain 4.9 yards per carry.
Over his final 10 games, Davis gained a measly 3.5 yards per rush with no excitement in the passing game (6.0 yards per catch) other than his 29 catches (167 yards). He did score five times. His total output down the stretch came to 11.79 fantasy points per game while averaging 14.8 touches.
Fantasy Outlook: The best part about Davis's success last year was his $1.5 million signing bonus and $ 3.0 million in guaranteed money, which wouldn't be on the table if McCaffrey didn't get hurt. The Falcons have him on the top of their depth chart in late June, and he has an early ADP of 60 as an early RB3 (27th back drafted). Atlanta will give him chances early in the year, but Davis will find tough sledding in this offense.
UPDATE: David is a career journeyman but performed well when given his chance in Carolina. Todd Gurley was able to be quite effective for half a seaon with the Falcons last season and Davis is a much better option at this point. Davis possesses a three-down skill set and has little established competition for touches in Atlanta's thin bakfield. He's a solid RB2/3 target in the middle rounds who is in a good position to compile weekly RB2 numbers.
RB Qadree Ollison, --- - Low Potential
Ollison is a power runner who can break tackles, but his open-field ability looks limited along with his vision. He has a smash factor with sneaky speed that takes multiple steps to get wound up. More reps would help his ability to see run blocking unfold along with a balance of patience and acceleration. I don't expect much in the passing game with some risk in pass protection.
He gained only 50 yards on the ground with four touchdowns on 22 rushes in his rookie season. Ollison only had one carry for three yards last year while being inactive for 13 games.
Fantasy Outlook: Ollison should compete for early-down touches this year while also having a chance of not making the team. In his best season in college, he gained 1,279 yards with 11 touchdowns and 11 catches.
WR Cordarrelle Patterson, ATL - Low Potential
WR Calvin Ridley, ATL - Stud (low risk)
The wide receiver production in Atlanta has been outstanding over the past three seasons. With a banged-up Julio Jones (51/771/3) missed nine games, Matt Ryan still completed 264 passes for 3,464 yards and 21 touchdowns on 396 targets. Based on this data, Atlanta creates two top-tier opportunities at wide receiver. The critical question in 2021 is: do they have a viable second option behind Calvin Ridley? If not, does most of the Julio Jones targets shift to the tight end position?
In his third year in the NFL, Ridley turned into a beast WR1, leading to 90 catches for 1,374 yards and nine scores on 143 targets. He missed Week 9 with a foot injury that lingered over the final two months of the year. Ridley didn't have surgery until early June. The Falcons expect him to be at full strength for Week 1.
Over the first five weeks, Ridley turned in four impact games (9/130/2, 7/109/2, 5/110, and 8/136), but the Packers shut him out in Week 4 on five targets. After a steady midseason (25/312/3 on 36 targets), he caught five again from Week 13 to Week 16 (5/108, 8/124/1, 10/163/1, and 5/130).
Fantasy Outlook: The lead wide receiver for the Falcons has been a top-five fantasy option for a decade under Matt Ryan. Atlanta lacks a running game, and their defense points to chasing on the scoreboard. Ridley comes off the board as the fifth receiver in 2021 with an ADP of 21. His next step looks to be 110-plus catches for 1,600 yards and a dozen scores while averaging close to 11 targets per game. He will beat half of the wide receivers drafted in from of him in PPR leagues.
WR Russell Gage, ATL - Quality Backup
The two-plus-two crowd will push Gage to elite status at wide receiver. His game progressed well in his third year in the league, leading to 72 catches for 786 yards and four touchdowns on 109 targets. His bump in opportunity came from the injury to Julio Jones.
Gage posted his best two games in Week 1 (9/114) and Week 17 (9/91/1). In between, he gained fewer than 60 yards in 11 games with two other scores. Atlanta gave him six targets or less in half his contests. Over the past two seasons, his catch rate (66.1) commands more chances, but Gage gained only 10.2 yards per catch over this span.
Fantasy Outlook: Gage finished 2020 as the 37th higher scoring wide receiver (181.65) in PPR leagues. The fear of Kyle Pitts stealing chances, giving Gage a better than expected ADP (142) in 12-team leagues as the 54th wide receiver drafted. I don't respect the wideout depth behind him, which points to 90 catches for 900-plus yards and a handful of scores. A fantasy owner should think steady player here (5/50 with a score every three to four weeks).