Fantasy football impact: Can the Falcons rebound to fantasy respectability?

Kevin C. Cox

Atlanta cratered in almost every way in 2013 after what had been a great 2012. Can they bounce back in 2014?

Before 2011, there had been only one team since the 2002 expansion to see its year-to-year win total drop by more than seven games: The 2006-2007 Baltimore Ravens, who went from 13 wins to 5. But since the 2011 season, there have been three: The 2010 Indianapolis Colts (10 wins to 2) and the 2012-13 Atlanta Falcons (13 to 4) and Houston Texans (12 to 2).

Also interestingly, of the four teams that dropped off, three went to new quarterbacks the year after their slide. The Ravens drafted Joe Flacco, and have won at least eight games every season since. The Colts drafted Andrew Luck, and we know how that's gone (quite well). The Texans dumped Matt Schaub to Oakland, and will likely enter 2014 with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starter and Tom Savage providing rookie competition.

Only the 2014 Falcons, with Matt Ryan firmly entrenched behind center, will enter their next season season after a dramatic reduction in wins with the same quarterback.

Of course, it's not hard to figure out how this happened. Those Colts and Ravens teams were awful, awful rosters, with journeymen-at-best quarterbacks. The Texans were ravaged by injury, sure, but Schaub and Case Keenum were no great shakes either way. The Falcons, meanwhile, still have a two-time Pro Bowler at quarterback. The offense fell off in large part due to significant injures to its top two wide receivers and top running back. The defense might have been able to stop me, but it was no sure thing.

Those 2007 Ravens went into 2008 and won 11 games. The 2011 Colts went into 2012 and did the same thing. Assuming this is a trend, we can expect teams that go from "great" to "awful" from one year to the next to quickly bounce back, and teams that have established baselines of long-term success -- as the Ravens, Colts and Falcons have -- to finish closer to the high end than the low.

So will the returns of the Falcons' injured players be enough to get Atlanta back in the playoff hunt in 2014? And does that mean that a Falcons roster that was not flush with fantasy relevance in 2013 can once again become a gold mine?

Here we go:

Wide receiver

Normally I start with the quarterback in these pieces, for obvious reasons, but with the Falcons the biggest question marks will be the comeback attempts of Roddy White and Julio Jones.

Jones is a top-flight talent at the receiver position. In his first two years in the league, he had 2,157 yards and 18 touchdowns. In five games last season, Jones averaged 116 yards a game and was in second place in the NFL in receiving yards behind only Jimmy Graham.

The flip side to Jones' awesomeness is that he has missed about 30 percent of the Falcons' games in his three years. And in some of those games he played (I've written about this before), he may just as well have sat.

If you're playing in a DraftStreet-type setup, and Jones is healthy, there is no reason not to at least give him strong consideration. But if you're considering taking Julio Jones as a second- or third-round pick in a season-long fantasy football draft, you're assuming a big risk. Even in 2012, the one season he played a full 16 games, Jones was on the Falcons' injury report five times, and was held below 50 yards on four occasions.

The flip side of the Jones coin -- at least before last season -- was Roddy White, who had played in every game of his eight-year career before missing three games in 2013 with ankle and hamstring issues. Even when healthy, White was a disappointment for much of 2013. He didn't score more than four fantasy points in a game until Week 11, and didn't reach double digits in a game until Week 13. In his 13 games played, White scored only 17 more fantasy points than Jones did in his five games.

When Jones and White struggled, the Falcons turned to six-year veteran Harry Douglas. Douglas had 1,507 total yards in his career before last season, then managed 1,067 yards and 106 fantasy points in 2013. If you did a little math in that last sentence, you noticed that his fantasy points and receiving yards lined up fairly well. Douglas found the end zone just two times despite 85 receptions and 133 targets. He was a boon to fantasy players who lostt their big names, but he also proved he isn't up to the level of his more well-known counterparts.

I have White and Jones ranked almost identically, both barely in the top 20 of wide receivers and top 50 overall. If you could guarantee their health, I'd probably bump them up a bit, but Jones is perpetually brittle and White turns 33 in November, and there are simply other receivers I trust more. I didn't rank Douglas (or Hester, who has never proven to be much as a receiver), who will need further injuries to the stars and good personal fortune to be fantasy-relevant in 2014.

Running back

After years of Michael Turner plodding and occasionally falling into the end zone as the Falcons' primary running back, there was some buzz about Steven Jackson coming to Atlanta as a free agent. Jackson's season started out decently enough, with 122 yards from scrimmage in Week 1 and a touchdown on his first reception in Week 2. Then his season derailed. Jackson injured his thigh on that touchdown, and didn't play again until Week 8.

Jackson wasn't back to anything resembling full strength until Week 12, and didn't reach 100 yards from scrimmage again the rest of the season. That said, he scored six touchdowns over the Falcons' last six games, including two-touchdown outings in Weeks 13 and 15. Jackson is 31 in July, which is worrisome for a running back, but he's a decent rebound candidate, if his Michael Turner-like ability to find the end zone is any indication.

With Jackson hobbled last season, the Falcons turned to backup Jacquizz Rodgers to carry the load. Rodgers put up 17 fantasy points in back-to-back games in Weeks 5 and 7, with two touchdowns in each game, but that was the beginning and end of Rodgers' fantasy relevance. Those four scores were his only end zone trips of the season, and he never reached 60 yards from scrimmage in a single game.

The Falcons drafted running back Devonta Freeman in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Freeman was considered good value for his 103rd-overall draft slot, and could be a good short-term change of pace and long-term answer to "What comes after Jackson is done?" You won't want Freeman as a fantasy starter, most likely, but he's a great handcuff.

Jackson is in the back end of fantasy running backs who serve as their team's No. 1 option -- somewhere DeAngelo Williams/Rashad Jennings territory. I slot him in the mid-20s at the position, and around 70 overall. Rodgers showed that he's not a viable starting running back last season, and shouldn't be drafted in any but the deepest of leagues. As for Freeman, he's the top handcuff option among Falcons. I'd be comfortable taking him in the 120-range overall, and is in the mid-40s among running backs.

Quarterback

Matt Ryan set three career highs in 2013 that I want to talk about: pass completions (439), pass attempts (651) and interceptions (17). After being talked about as an MVP candidate for parts of 2012, Ryan finished 14th at the quarterback position in fantasy scoring last season, and only topped 20 fantasy points three times.

With Jones, White and Jackson all out for all or parts of several different games, Ryan was forced to run the offense with only Tony Gonzalez as a safety net. That meant that forcing passes to targets with less ability than he'd like. That Ryan's completion percentage of 67.4 was only barely below his career high in 2012 is a good sign that he might bounce back.

While Ryan has never really been a top-tier quarterback, either in fantasy or in real life, he's not far off. But he needs his weapons to reach his ceiling.

The best thing about Matt Ryan from a fantasy standpoint is his relatively high floor. Other quarterbacks in his tier -- players like Alex Smith, Robert Griffin III and Andy Dalton -- are the types of passers who could theoretically bottom out, get benched and/or get hurt. Ryan is exceptionally unlikely to do any of those things. His ceiling may not be as high as Griffin's or Dalton's, however, which means that his fantasy viability is wildly different.

I have Ryan as my No. 14 quarterback, and No. 100 overall player. If you have a starting quarterback and are looking for an upper-level backup, you'd probably be better served taking a Griffin-type who might force his way into your starting conversation. But if you're floating around in that area and for whatever reason haven't grabbed a starting quarterback yet, Ryan is probably the better choice.

Tight end

With Gonzalez gone, the Falcons will turn to some combination of 2013 fourth-round pick Levine Toilolo and six-year veteran Bear Pascoe as tight ends. They are decidedly not Tony Gonzalez.

Pascoe has just 38 receptions and 333 yards for his career, with one score. He won't be on the field to catch passes or be a fantasy contributor. Toilolo may have more potential as an enormous 6'8, 265-pound target. That said, the Falcons have pretty clear that they want their starting tight end in 2014 to be more of an inline, blocking player.

That means that the passes that went to Gonzalez in 2013 will likely go to White, Jones,, Jackson and Douglas. If you're drafting a Falcons tight end, it's Toilolo, but the better bet is to not bother.

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