As an Atlanta native for the past five years, I’ve come to take the Falcons under my wing. I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a die-hard fan. After all the Patriots victory over the Dirty Birds in Super Bowl 51 was one of the best nights of my life. But I’ve grown to follow the team pretty thoroughly and criticizing/mocking the moves they’ve made in recent years. While one could certainly blame Kyle Shanahan for one of the worst losses in Super Bowl history, there’s no denying his value as a coach. Since the 2016 season, and Shanahan’s departure, the Falcons have been going backward and it ultimately led to the firing of Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff after an 0-5 start to the 2020 season. The Falcons went on to finish 4-12 and had the second-worst record in the NFC. 

A New Coaching Regime

The Falcons had some big changes to make in the offseason and while the team parted ways with Julio Jones (more on that shortly), they had to address the head coaching vacancy. The team brought in Art Smith, the former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator who helped revitalize Ryan Tannehill’s career as a starting quarterback. Smith will look to implement his version of the West Coast offense with his share of 12 personnel. We can expect a lot of quick reads and short passes from Matt Ryan this season, but Art Smith will have his hands full with other positions. 

The weapons at Ryan’s disposal will serve their purpose just fine in fantasy. The issue could be on the offensive line and the defensive side of the ball. After addressing the offensive line with early capital the past few drafts, this is set to be a telling year for Atlanta’s men in the trenches. Kaleb McGary was recently activated off the PUP list, but both he and Jalen Mayfield have reportedly been working with the second-team offense early on in training camp. Willie Beavers has surprisingly been getting reps at right tackle with the first team. Additionally, the team needs to see more from Chris Lindstrom (another 2019 first-round pick, similar to McGary) and Matt Hennessy. Given the draft capital invested in this offensive line, they’ll need to show they can keep up with Smith’s preferred style of zone blocking.

Luckily on defense, Smith was able to persuade Dean Pees to come out of retirement for a second time and join the Falcons as the defensive coordinator. Pees garners the respect of his players with ease. He traditionally runs a 3-4 base defense, but as Howard Bender noted in his NFC South Coaching Schemes, he disguises his pass rush with multi-front looks. It’s hard to predict the kind of turnaround this defense can make in just one year. In 2020, the Falcons allowed the fifth-most yards per game (398.4) and ranked in the bottom half in the league in points allowed per game (25.9). If someone can come in and make a difference, it could be a veteran like Pees.

Matt Ryan

 No one believes Matt Ryan is more overrated than me. His MVP run five years ago was quite reliant on Kyle Shanahan’s presence. After Shanahan left, the team initially tried to duplicate the same offense, but the good news for Ryan is that Smith’s offense could lead to similar success for Ryan. However, he’s now 36 years old and his MVP season from five years ago relied on extreme efficiency. In 2016 he touted a touchdown rate of 7.1% and a 69.9% completion percentage on just 534 pass attempts. In recent years we’ve seen more pass attempts, which is great to see, but over the last two seasons he’s thrown just 52 touchdowns with 25 interceptions, and he’s been sacked 89 times. He’s been good but not great, and he’s only getting older.

There’s a strong chance he can improve his numbers and throw 30-32 touchdowns. In a 17-game season, that’s possible. Plus, we can get the sense the Falcons may be playing from behind quite often and that will lead to more passing volume. Currently Fantasy Alarm projects Ryan for roughly 4,800 passing yards, 32-33 touchdowns and about a dozen interceptions. He’s projected for 317.0 points. On a per game basis that’s about 18-19 fantasy points per game. That’s serviceable. However, a frustrating part of Ryan’s game is his ability to fold under pressure. In four-point per passing touchdown leagues last season, Ryan had six games with 22 or more fantasy points. On the other end of the spectrum, he also had six games with less than 15 fantasy points per game. So he’s not exactly a model of consistency. In a two-quarterback league, he’s a fine QB2. But as your starter in a standard league, he’ll give you fits.

Kyle Pitts

 There may not be a more polarizing player in fantasy football heading into 2021 than Kyle Pitts. He’s arguably the closest comparison to Calvin Johnson we’ve seen in recent memory as evidenced by the tweet below from Pro Football Focus.

Height, weight, wingspan, speed. They’re all comparable. Not to mention Pitts’ hands measure in at 10.625 inches while Johnson’s came in at 9.75 during his combine. So we can see why Pitts didn’t drop any passes in college. The issue is that Pitts is being drafted as a top five tight end at 53 overall according to Fantasy Pros. Evan Engram and Jeremy Shockey are the only two tight ends to put up 170 PPR fantasy points in their rookie years. Even in Rob Gronkowski’s phenomenal rookie season where he caught ten touchdowns, he only had 42 catches on 57 targets for 546 yards. 

Now just because we’ve never seen a rookie tight end put up 180 fantasy points in a season, doesn’t mean we’ll never see it. Pitts could break the mold especially with Julio Jones out of town, and again, we have an extra game this year. We live in a day and age in fantasy football where rookies are constantly breaking the mold. Pitts will benefit from Art Smith’s 12 personnel as he used two tight ends on 50% of his plays last year in Tennessee. So we should see Pitts lined up in the slot quite often. We currently have Pitts projected for 75 catches on 105 targets for 949 yards and about five-to-six touchdowns. That’s slightly over 200 PPR points. Fantasy Alarm’s projections on him are a bit more bullish than most sites, but most outlets project him for between 180-200 PPR points, basically breaking the rookie tight end record. Again, with an extra game, it’s quite possible. Personally, the ADP is a little absurd. But he fits the bill for an absolute athletic freak and as long as he stays healthy and adapts to the NFL, he’s going to be successful. But at his ADP he’s going ahead of players like T.J. Hockenson and Mark Andrews. Those are two guys who could very well lead their team in targets, while Pitts likely finishes behind Calvin Ridley in targets. As someone who lives in Atlanta, I’m lucky that I’ll get to watch Pitts take the field. But the fantasy hype surrounding his rookie season is somewhat out of control.

Mike Davis

 A lot of success for running backs in fantasy football is predicated on opportunity. When Christian McCaffrey got hurt early last season, nobody was handed a better opportunity than Mike Davis who turned out over 1,000 total yards and eight touchdowns in 14 games. Now in total, the numbers look great. However, there were stretches last season where Davis looked like he needed a breather and maybe didn’t look the part of a lead running back. And hasn’t that been the argument for drafting Davis as your RB2 this year? He has no competition and he’s on a team friendly contract so the Falcons can run him to the ground if they so choose. However, from Weeks 7-12 in 2020 Davis totaled just 232 rushing yards on 62 attempts with 120 receiving yards on 20 catches. He also only scored one touchdown in that span despite the opportunity as the lead running back for Carolina. In that six-game span he averaged barely over ten PPR points per game. After the Falcons week 13 bye, he bounced back with two touchdowns against Denver, but then struggled to close out the year with 89 total yards on 30 touches over his last two games. Opportunity is there for him with absolutely no competition. But I’m not convinced he can hold up over the course of a full season. Our projections are very optimistic for Davis heading into the year with over 1,100 rushing yards, 46 catches for almost 300 yards and nine-to-ten touchdowns. I believe a more realistic projection for him will be 750-800 rushing yards, with 300 receiving yards and maybe seven touchdowns. 

Calvin Ridley

 Do we really need to go deep on Calvin Ridley? He’s probably the most reliable Falcons player in terms of fantasy heading into 2021. That’s why I led with the head scratchers up above. Ridley has at least seven touchdowns in each of his first three seasons. As long as he stays healthy he’ll see 150-160 targets and he’s a readily available WR1 that you can feel confident taking in the second round of your draft. In basically 14 games last year he posted 1,374 receiving yards and that’s arguably his floor heading into this year with 17 games on the docket. Without Julio Jones last season, Ridley saw a 31% target share. 

Art Smith’s run-first style of offense may cut into Ridley’s volume, but not a drastic amount. I maintain that Atlanta will play from behind often and be forced to throw which benefits Ridley who should comfortably get more targets than Pitts. With Jones out of the picture, Ridley could very well finish top five at his position, maybe even top three.

Russell Gage is certainly a late-round fantasy target you can consider. 1,000 yards is likely out of range for him, but there’s a chance he can get to 750 yards with a few touchdowns. Any injury to Ridley or Pitts would certainly open the door for him and at his ADP, there’s certainly upside.

Rise Up

Atlanta has tried to adopt a new motto each year. “In Brotherhood” was completely stupid and the only one that makes sense is “Rise Up.” This will be a “growing pains” year for Atlanta, but they should easily improve. It’s possible Dean Pees retires again after this season, but we should see the Falcons take steps forward as a team and (hopefully) do better than 4-12. Matt Ryan’s window is closing and he only has two years left on his deal. He’s not the future, but Atlanta’s hoping for a quick turnaround to get back into the playoffs under a new coaching staff. It’s highly more likely than not they’re under .500 once again.Honestly, the team probably goes 7-10, which isn’t great but it’s an improvement as they lookto find its next franchise quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft.