By J.D. Redemann
This article is part of our 2013 Fantasy Team Preview series in which we are profiling every NFL team leading up to the season, click here for the complete list of published previews. Also, check out our staff rankings for see how we value each player.
At times in the 2012-13 season, Atlanta looked dominant, such as CB Asante Samuel‘s 79-yard pick-six in Week 6 to seal a win over Oakland, and a Week 15 shutout of defending Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants. But after the San Francisco 49ers shut them out in the second half in the NFC Championship game last season, rallying unanswered from a 10 point deficit, the Falcons closed up shop with a lot of questions looming over the 2013-14 season: Was the offense that led them to a 13-3 record really elite? Would TE Tony Gonzalez retire in the offseason after another season to boost his Canton resumé, but no ring to show for it? When needed to stand fast, could this defense be relied upon? It was clear from their +120 point differential (only bested by Denver) that they had taken a major step forward this year. The question was, how to sustain it?
The answer: by locking up QB Matt Ryan to a long-term contract and giving him a few new toys to play with, a no doubt statement that the Falcons are looking to win now and often. But can newly-crowned franchise icon ‘Matty Ice’ stay cool under pressure again? The ‘Dirty Birds’ are out to prove themselves this year, and look to become the first team to repeat as NFC South division champions. Their high-flying offense should bolster your fantasy team as well. Let’s see how!
Added: RB Steven Jackson, DE Osi Umenyiora
Drafted: CB Desmond Trufant, CB Robert Alford
Lost: RB Michael Turner, C Todd McClure, OT Tyson Clabo, DT Vance Walker, DE John Abraham, CB Dunta Robinson, CB Brent Grimes
This team has had one of the top passing attacks in the league in recent years, and despite the free agency signing of RB Steven Jackson, that will not change. Jackson, as a decent receiver and more durable player, is a clear step up from the aged and broken-down RB Michael Turner, but I don’t expect him to suddenly be the major playmaker he was in St. Louis on an offense already chock full of mouths to feed. This offensive line was horrendous last year for run-blocking purposes, but they have now lost Pro Bowl RT Tyson Clabo to free agency and former Pro Bowler C Todd McClure (retired) without really replacing them. I don’t think there’s any way their second-stringers from last year will make them much better this season, but I may be proven wrong. A major improvement, though, has been made to this Falcons D/ST. After finishing 19th in fantasy scoring last season, due mainly to allowing the ninth-most yards per game, the Falcons remedied that with a patented Thomas Dimitroff draft tactic: if you’ve got a problem, double down. And so, they drafted highly touted corner CB Desmond Trufant with their first round pick and then went back for seconds with speed demon CB Robert Alford in round two. These two replace CB’s Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes who departed via free agency, and should be more than capable of replacing them now and in the future. Trufant has the potential to be an elite shutdown corner opposite Asante Samuel and Alford could play either in nickel packages or as deep security right away. The one downswing here was the loss of DE John Abraham, the heart and engine of the team’s pass rush, but they did replace him with former New York Giant DE Osi Umenyiora, who hopes to revive his career in Atlanta. If he can even bring in half of Abraham’s sack total from last year, this may be a better unit for it. I’d consider the D/ST draftable as a last-pick flier, but still not much more than fantasy replacement-level until proven otherwise.
One Up: JacQuizz Rodgers, RB – “Quizz”, while being passed over for the starting role in the backfield after Turner’s departure, thrived in an expanded, Darren Sproles-like role last year, rushing only 94 times for 362 yards (3.9 avg.) but catching 53 passes, the fourth-most on the team, for 402 yards (7.6 avg.) and two total TD’s. As the team’s third-down back, he did fairly well in only his second year in the league, but did have a few critical drops last year. This is an area that will need to see improvement, but as a young player he has the time to grow. Now, with the signing of Steven Jackson, he figures to remain in a change-of-pace role. Still, I think we shortchange his raw abilities and the innovation of the Falcons’ offense if we think offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter won’t use every weapon at his disposal strictly because one get labeled the “lead” back. I’m not saying I think Rodgers will at any point this season be a reliable, volume fantasy play (let alone the #1 RB in Atlanta), but his versatility as a runner, receiver, and maybe even returner should ensure he gets usage this year in a variety of ways, like Sproles or CJ Spiller (before he took over from Fred Jackson) have in the past. He won’t even be worthy of your FLEX spot on draft day, but will definitely be able to fill a spot there at points during the season, especially in PPR leagues.
One Down: Steven Jackson, RB - The Falcons are a team loaded with fantasy football studs, but since I have to pick someone, I’m going to discuss a RB who has been overvalued in fantasy football drafts so far, Steven Jackson. Let’s start with the positives:
“S-Jax” has a long record of admirable success on Rams’ teams where he was the only offensive weapon and had to face eight-man defensive fronts in a highly defense-oriented division. He’s a far better player than Michael Turner. He’s a “three-down” back. He’ll have more opportunities to score as the Falcons ran 78 rushing plays in the RZ last year, twice as much as the Rams’ 39!
Great. With all of those talking points out of the way, let’s be real for a second. It’s common knowledge that a running back who takes a lot of beatings and gets a lot of touches will eventually break down. For most players, that’s at the age of 30. Steven Jackson will cross that threshold this summer, but that’s not even the worst of it: he was drafted at age 20, a full two years younger than most players in football, meaning that he’s had about two years more exposure to the wear and tear of the hard-hitting NFL in his career than other running backs. Now, this isn’t to say that I think he will get injured this year (I never believe in ‘predicting’ injuries for players, nor has there ever been proof for Jackson’s particular “injury-prone” narrative), but I don’t think the Steven Jackson of past years will be that of 2013. He himself said, “Very few backs have gone through the abuse my body has taken.” I’ll get more into this in Burning Question #1, but those of you drafting him expecting a top 10 RB season, I believe you’ll be disappointed. I don’t buy it, and neither should you.
1. At 30 years of age, can RB S. Jackson deliver on the hype and have a huge year with the Falcons?
What more do you want to know? The past four seasons, Jackson’s rushing attempts (prorated for 16 games) have dropped from 346 to 330, then to 277, then to 257. Same with the receptions: 51, 46, 42, 38. You may say, “Well, that’s because the Rams had Sam Bradford at that point and were phasing him into a bigger role in the offense.” Sure, but S-Jax isn’t the player he was in his prime! The numbers don’t lie, and it seems that as S-Jax’s age has gone up, his usage (and perhaps, just maybe, his ability) has gone down. What else? Per Football Outsiders‘ DVOA metric, which measures a player’s value on a per-play basis, Steven Jackson’s 2012 performance ranked 11th, however his success rate, representing consistency (making a successful play as opposed to getting stuffed behind the line) was 48%, good for 28th among running backs. Clearly part of that is due to his line not helping him, but this shows that Jackson no longer has the sheer ability to make plays without help. He can do very well when his line does well. When they don’t, he falters too. Add in that the Falcons’ O-line has lost their two best blockers from 2012, and the fact that he now becomes merely a cog in the Atlanta offensive machine rather than the featured player that he was in St. Louis, and you have a recipe for bust value if you take him in the near-consensus top 10 among RB’s. I have him 14th and I don’t even feel great about that, there are just so many question marks at RB as you go deeper in the ranks. S-Jax has the potential to even double his TDs this year, but he will not hit 1000 yards rushing for the first time since his rookie year. He will provide solid RB2 value, but I can’t make a case for him to be drafted in the top 10.
2. Is Roddy White still the #1 target on the team, or has Julio surpassed him?
I was shocked when I did the research for this question. Let’s look at the resumés of both players over the past few seasons.
You can clearly see from the above that once Jones became a consistent and healthy performer in the Atlanta offense in 2012, Roddy’s targets dropped (by 38) and Julio closed the gap considerably, finishing with just 14 targets less. Indeed, White’s touchdown looks dropped as Jones’ have risen. I’m not sure we can figure that Jones will put up much better lines than last year, but it seems safe to say that, while he may not have surpassed White as the #1 WR on the depth chart last year, it’s certainly possible he can (or at least draw even) this year. The Football Outsiders’ metrics show this: on a per-play basis, Jones was just slightly better, but for total value, White was still the man. They are about as close as can be in the offensive schemes for ATL, but I would take Jones higher for this season. He is the dynamic weapon on the team, working both as the best deep threat in the NFL and a valuable screen player. At age 31, Roddy has nowhere to go but down, although he’s much more likely to have a slow decline rather than a steep drop-off. I have Julio 4th among WR this season and Roddy 12th. They’re that good.
3. Will the ageless wonder, Tony Gonzalez, put up another top-3 TE season?
I never, EVER want to bet against Tony Gonzalez being able to do something. This is a player who at age 37 produced numbers that were on par with, if not better than, the majority of his career numbers. In his 15th season in the NFL, Tony Gonzalez proved us all wrong again and brought in 93 catches for 930 yards and 8 TD’s. The question is: can he do it again? Let’s look at the competition: Jimmy Graham is going to be the #1 TE, easily. But after him, there’s another tier of five players: Gonzalez, Rob Gronkowski, Vernon Davis, Jason Witten, and Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski’s four arm surgeries and subsequent back surgery make him a really risky player for the 2013 campaign. Davis may have built some chemistry with his QB from the postseason, but it remains to be seen if it’ll stay in the regular season. Jason Witten has always been a reliable top-5 player, but isn’t the kind of player I’d bank on finishing top 3 because he doesn’t find the end zone enough. Hernandez is the only other threat to Gonzalez at the position, then, and I like the situation of the offense around Gonzalez better than Hernandez. Now, how good will he be? That’s tougher to say. I have him as my TE2, and while I don’t think it’s unfair to imagine a little regression from this season, 875 yards and 7 TD’s are still a major boon from a very shallow position in terms of fantasy production. Old Reliable, Tony Gonzalez will ride again. I have no doubts about that.
Have a question about any Falcons player or team angle not covered here? Do you think we’ve got a player pegged totally wrong? Ask your questions or give us your feedback in the comments section below.