StrategyAugust 13, 2009

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Daily Preview: Atlanta Falcons

By Pat Hunley

The Atlanta Falcons’ motto could probably be summed up in two words: Michael who? It’s amazing that Atlanta Falcons fans can already use that cliche; after all, it was only a season ago that they were a team in shambles trying to recover from the loss of franchise quarterback Michael Vick to prison and the defection of first-year head coach Bobby Petrino back to college football and the Arkansas Razorbacks.

But the 2006 New Orleans Saints had already proved that all it takes for a team to go from top-three pick to playoffs is a quarterback (Drew Brees), running back (Reggie Bush) and a new head coach (Sean Payton). And the Falcons hit on all those fronts. They drafted Matt Ryan third overall, and he handled the load of an average NFL quarterback without the typical rookie jitters and put up great statistics in yards per attempt, completion percentage and quarterback rating in the process. Michael Turner came over from San Diego after backing up LaDainian Tomlinson for three years and rushed for 1,699 yards and 17 TDs. And new head coach Mike Smith, the former defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, helped put it all together in his first year as head coach.

What will the 2009 season bring, both for fantasy owners and Falcons fans? Football season is just around the corner, so let’s take a look.

QB: Matt Ryan, Chris Redman
RB: Michael Turner, Jerious Norwood
WR: Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, Brian Finneran
TE: Tony Gonzalez
PK: Jason Elam

Quarterback: Matt Ryan was the talk of the NFL during the 2008 regular season. People were awed by the poise he showed despite only being a rookie. Atlanta has certainly found their quarterback of the next decade-plus. But is he someone you should draft for your fantasy team next year? Odds are he will be drafted high because of his popularity and the assumption that he will improve greatly after gaining a year of experience. But the Falcons are still a run-first team; they lived and died by the production of Turner last year, going 8-0 when he eclipsed 100 yards and 3-5 when he didn’t. While the Falcons will certainly be counting on Ryan to avoid mistakes, make plays down the stretch and likely take on the responsibilities of an elite NFL quarterback in the future, for now they’ll stick with running the ball, because a running-based team turns the ball over less and holds onto the ball for longer. I’d expect a modest increase in touchdowns from his 16 of last year, but don’t anticipate much more than his 2008 total of 3,440 yards passing, and I’d be surprised if his incredible 7.9 yards per attempt doesn’t go down as well.

Running Back: The big question here is whether Michael Turner can repeat what he did last year. I’m highly skeptical, and my opinion is shared by several of the Cafe’s smartest users. First of all, Turner relies too heavily on scoring touchdowns for his fantasy value. He almost never catches passes (17 receptions in his CAREER), so he has to make up for that with high TD totals. It’s unlikely for someone like Turner to repeat such high touchdown totals unless the Falcons start utilizing him the passing game, which is clearly not his strength. Also, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has already said he plans to scale back Turner’s carries, which will lead to fewer opportunities to score and rack up yards, especially because Jerious Norwood is a talented back who will definitely do something with the carries taken from Turner. Overall, I think Turner is one of the safer picks in the first round because he will without a doubt get his 20 carries per game and his touchdown opportunities, but don’t take him top five with the expectation that he repeats his 1700-17 line from last year; take him if you’re looking for someone who will guarantee you 1200-12 with limited potential to do a lot more.

Norwood could turn out to be a good player to pick up as a fourth running back if he proves as effective as in the past. If Mularkey isn’t lying about giving Turner less work, Norwood is likely the sole benefactor. 600 yards with 6-7 TDs is an easily reachable stat-line if Atlanta keeps up its run-heavy attack.

Wide Receiver: Roddy White has performed at a high level for two straight years now and is Atlanta’s unquestioned #1 receiver. He has more value in PPR leagues because he has put up 83 and 88 receptions in the last two years but only six and seven touchdowns. If he can get his touchdown totals near or into double digits, he could become a top five fantasy receiver, but that seems unlikely because there are a lot of players around him who are better at scoring touchdowns (Turner and Tony Gonzalez come to mind). He’ll still eclipse the 80 reception mark barring injury which will lead to great yardage totals, but his upside is somewhat limited because of the players around him limiting his touchdown opportunities. One thing to look out for with White is a potential holdout; he’s unhappy with his contract and hasn’t yet committed to showing up for camp on time.

Michael Jenkins posted career-high numbers last year as Atlanta’s #2, but with Gonzalez now in the fold, it’s tough to expect him to build off that. After the injury to Harry Douglas, Brian Finneran will likely serve as Atlanta’s slot receiver but won’t have any fantasy value barring injury.

Tight End: Tony Gonzalez was Atlanta’s big off-season acquisition; they sent their second-round pick next year to Kansas City to get him. However, landing in Atlanta won’t do anything but hurt his fantasy value. He shouldn’t be expected to repeat or even approach his 96 receptions and 1,058 yards from last year, because he is no longer the #1 option in his offense and Atlanta has a significantly better running game that Kansas City. I’d still expect high touchdown totals because he is probably the best touchdown receiver on the team, but expect sharp drops in his receptions and yards that will prevent him from repeating as the best fantasy tight end.

Team Defense/IDP: Atlanta’s defense was no more than mediocre last year; they ranked 25th in rushing yards and 21st in passing yards allowed. They ranked 11th in points allowed per game, but that can likely be attributed more to their running game eating up time of possession. Not much has changed on defense, but this will be the second year with defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s system in place. VanGorder was the linebackers coach in Jacksonville with Smith, so if he proves an effective coordinator, the defense could make strides. It certainly has talented players. Atlanta is a good defense to utilize in the right match-ups, but wait and see if they can improve their numbers before counting on them week-to-week if that’s you strategy with team defenses.

On the IDP front, look out for Curtis Lofton. After posting 94 tackles as a two-down player last year, Lofton will wear the defensive headset and play all three downs this year. With neither linebacker next to him being particularly great and a defensive line better suited for rushing the passer, Lofton will see a plethora of tackle opportunities which should alone make him a #1 fantasy linebacker. If he can make some big plays it could make him one of the top options at the position.

John Abraham posted a career high 16.5 sacks last year, but his tackle totals are low, limiting his upside and making him an inconsistent defensive line option. However, not too many defensive linemen are that consistent to begin with outside the most elite. He’s not someone you should draft as your top defensive lineman though; make him your #2 option at that position if your league goes that deep.

At safety, there are several players that could have some value. Erik Coleman posted #1 defensive back numbers last year from the typically IDP-unfriendly free safety position. However, if the winner of the competition at strong safety between Thomas DeCoud and second-round pick William Moore proves to be a significant upgrade over departed free agent Lawyer Milloy, that could certainly cut into Coleman’s numbers. Still, both Atlanta safeties should have value at least as a #2 defensive back because of Atlanta’s leaky front seven.

Atlanta has come a long way since Vick’s dog-fighting scandal, going from 4-12 in 2007 to the playoffs in 2008. All the pieces are in place on offense: a franchise quarterback, a pound-the-rock running back, a true #1 wide receiver, a top-flight tight end and an offensive line that only allowed 17 sacks in 2008. If Atlanta can get its defense’s play up to snuff, they could immediately become a Super Bowl favorite. Whether defensive minded coaches Smith and VanGorder can do that this year remains to be seen, but Atlanta’s offense should carry them to another winning season.

Pat Hunley is a Steelers fan who is trying to shed his bias in pursuit of a potential career in sports journalism, which he will explore at the University of Missouri's world-renowned journalism school. You can find him in the Cafe forums posting under the name steelerfan513.
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