A Look Inside: 2021 Atlanta Falcons

If you ever want to trigger an Atlanta Falcons fan, you only have to bring up two numbers: 28-3. We are more than four years removed from the Falcons’ Super Bowl LI meltdown against the New England Patriots, but “28-3” still resonates with football fans all over. It’s a symbol of their fans’ frustrating times, as they have not seen a winning season since.

Despite the lack of success in the win/loss column, the Falcons have been a fantasy manager’s wet dream over the last several years. They combine a fast-paced offense with elite playmakers and a terrible defense that gives up lots of points. This leads to shootout after shootout and fantasy points galore! Let’s revisit their 2020 season and explore the team’s outlook for this upcoming year.

Note: You can follow the entire Look Inside series with this link and you can watch the full No Punt Intended episode with special guest Matthew Betz on Youtube below!

Quarterbacks

From 2010-2018 Matt Ryan finished as a top-7 quarterback every other season. This sparked the notion that you should only target him during even-numbered years. That ended in 2020 when he “only” finished as the QB12. This is a testament to the consistency that Ryan has provided fantasy managers throughout his career. Once again, he benefitted from the high-volume passing attack in Atlanta. They had the fourth-most pass attempts per game in 2020 after leading the NFL in that category the previous year. Over the last three seasons, only the Pittsburgh Steelers have attempted more passes than the Falcons. This approach is not expected to change in 2021, as they are projected to have one of the worst defensive units. This will continue to keep them chasing points.

Fantasydata.com currently has Ryan’s 2021 ADP as QB15. He has finished below QB12 only three times in his 13-year career and has thrown for 600+ attempts in seven out of the last nine seasons. Atlanta should be a lock to be a top-5 passing team again. They made no significant investments in the running back room (more on that shortly), so this team will only go as far as Ryan and the receivers can take them. He has also been one of the more durable quarterbacks, missing only three games in his entire career. Ryan is the perfect late-round, high-floor QB target in 1QB leagues and a high-end QB2 in Superflex leagues.

Running backs

After Todd Gurley was shockingly released by the Rams following the 2019 season, the Falcons decided to bring the former Georgia Bulldog back to the Peach State. His season got off to a solid fantasy start. He was the RB6 through the first nine weeks, although he was highly inefficient and TD-dependent. Once the team returned from a Week 10 bye, things went downhill fast for Gurley. He began to lose snaps to backups Brian Hill and Ito Smith, who were only marginal improvements. It was clear that Gurley’s arthritic knee was no longer capable of sustaining an NFL workload. By the end of the season, his role diminished to almost nothing. Atlanta ended up being one of the worst backfields for fantasy.

The Falcons “cleaned house” at RB after 2020, allowing Gurley, Smith, and Hill to walk. They brought in Mike Davis on a two-year deal. Davis is coming off of a career season in Carolina filling in for the injured Christian McCaffrey. It was expected that they would draft an RB, but they only came away with UDFA Javian Hawkins out of Louisville. All signs are pointing to Davis as the clear-cut starter, but there is little excitement about the 6th-year breakout’s 2021 outlook.

Davis’ production in Carolina once McCaffrey went down was on an elite level. During his time as the starter (Weeks 3-16), he was the RB6. Even atop the Atlanta running back depth chart in 2021, we should not expect anything close to what he did in Carolina. His breakout was strictly based on volume, not talent.

On the season, he was ranked Top 10 in targets and red zone touches. He also saw a career-high 64.2% opportunity share. His efficiency was poor though: 48th among RBs in yards-per-touch and 3.89 yards-per-carry won’t impress anyone. You will often hear him praised for his ability to break tackles, but he is not a good enough athlete to run away from defenders once he evades them. None of his career rushes have gone for more than 37 yards. The Falcons’ offense does not involve the running backs as much as the Panthers, so there will be a sharp decrease in volume and touches. Expect a major drop-off from his 2020 output.

The other names of note in the Atlanta backfield are recent free-agent pickup Cordarrelle Patterson, who is expected to serve mainly as a special teamer, and the previously mentioned Javian Hawkins. Hawkins could be an interesting dart throw towards the backend of fantasy drafts. He’s undersized at just 183 pounds, but a solid athlete that was Second-Team All-ACC in 2019 as a redshirt freshman. Last season, he averaged 6.2 yards-per-carry through eight games. He then decided to opt-out, which likely had a negative impact on his draft status. Hawkins finds himself in a great position to compete for a role by the end of 2021.

Wide Receivers

It seems uncommon that a universally hyped player exceeds expectations, but that’s exactly what Calvin Ridley was able to do in 2020. He made a highly anticipated 3rd-year leap by finishing as the WR5 in fantasy. His 1,374 receiving yards were the fourth-highest in the NFL and he led the team with 143 targets.

Julio Jones was constantly in and out of the lineup, dealing with multiple hamstring injuries, but he was still one of the best in the league when on the field. In the six games that he started and finished, he had 90+ yards in all but one. He was also the WR13 in points-per-game. While it seems that Ridley has surpassed Jones as the top receiver in Atlanta, don’t be quick to dismiss the perennial top-10 WR as “washed” just yet.

Also, don’t forget that Russell Gage emerged as a Flex consideration last season. He saw 110 targets on the year and finished strong, averaging 66 receiving yards-per-game over the final four weeks. It should be noted that Jones did not play in those games.

This off-season, Julio Jones has often come up in trade rumors. At this point, it appears that it’s only a matter of time before he is dealt. While the natural reaction to a Julio trade would be to move up Calvin Ridley in your rankings, don’t vault him up just yet. Ridley actually averaged 1.1 more PPR points with Jones ON the field. Ryan is at his best when Julio plays, so the offense will suffer without him. The increased volume will be able to keep Ridley within the top-10 wide receivers, but don’t expect a huge rise in production from him if Jones leaves. Russell Gage would see a slight bump up into WR3 range if Jones were to get traded.

Julio should be locked in as a top-15 WR if he stays in Atlanta. The age and injury history will scare some off, but he had a career-high 11.3 yards per target in 2020. Again, he was dominant when he did play. I would take 12-14 games of Julio over any other WR being drafted near his ADP.

Tight Ends

Hayden Hurst was a popular TE sleeper for 2020. After all, the Falcons dealt a second-round pick to the Ravens for the former first-rounder. Hurst was expected to pick up the role that produced Austin Hooper as the TE3 in 2019 points-per-game. He fell short of expectations, finishing as the 19th-best TE in points-per-game.

In the 2021 NFL Draft, Atlanta had a chance to go after their QB of the future with the fourth-overall pick. Instead, they chose Florida tight end, Kyle Pitts. Pitts is widely regarded as a generational prospect. As a sophomore in 2019, he earned First-Team All-SEC honors and followed that up by winning the John Mackey Award (best tight end in college) and becoming a unanimous All-American in 2020.

While rookie tight ends are usually bad options for fantasy, we have not seen a prospect quite like Pitts. He has the size of a tight end but can move like a wide receiver, creating matchup nightmares for defenses. There is plenty of passing volume to go around in the Falcons’ offense. Pitt could easily see 80+ targets in 2021. In the event of a Julio Jones trade, he could even see his target count get into triple digits and skyrocket his ceiling to be considered among the top tier of fantasy TEs.