Falcons QB Matt Ryan will rebound in 2020

Look, I’m not insane. I’m probably not ranking Ryan ahead of dual threat quarterbacks like:

Lamar Jackson
Patrick Mahomes
Deshaun Watson
Russell Wilson
Dak Prescott
Kyler Murray

But are we really drafting 41-year-old Drew Brees over Matty Ice? I think not, FantasyPros consensus rankings. I’m also not feeling Josh Allen over Matt Ryan, but that’s a post for a different day. Anyway, don’t go thinking everyone in that upper echelon is a sure thing. We went crazy for Baker Mayfield and the Browns heading into 2019, didn’t we? That didn’t work!

Anyway, I believe Matt Ryan has top 5 upside in his range of outcomes for 2020. And even if he doesn’t make it quite that high, he’s a safe bet at his QB9 consensus ranking.

Here are three reasons I’m buying a Matt Ryan bounce-back in 2020.

Offensive Line Improvement

This improvement can begin with added health. For instance, the projected unit of Jake Matthews, James Carpenter, Chris Lindstrom, Alex Mack, and Kaleb McGary were only on the field together for about 100 snaps in 2019–out of 1,100. Hardly any time to gel, right?

The unit is anchored by veteran left tackle Jake Matthews (played all 1,100 snaps last year) and center Alex Mack. Mack wasn’t great in 2019, but he’s only 34 years old and he’s still a six-time Pro Bowler. He also started all 16 games last year, playing 1,097 snaps.

The Falcons had two first round picks in 2019, and spent those on guard Chris Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary. Lindstrom injured his foot in Week 1, but was able to return for the final four games of Atlanta’s season. That coincided with the Falcons winning all four games and scoring at least 24 points in each contest. I’m not suggesting Lindstrom was the only factor, but the offense was different with Lindstrom in the fold. Lindstrom was the top-rated tackle by many pundits last year, for what it’s worth.

As for McGary, he had an inconsistent rookie season. However, he did play all 16 games (1,049 snaps) and the expectation is that he is the starting right tackle in 2020. Additional growth from last year’s first round tackle doesn’t seem like a huge ask.

That just leaves the left guard spot, where James Carpenter managed 634 snaps in 2019, playing in the first 11 games before succumbing to a concussion that kept him out for the rest of the year. Carpenter was awful in 2019, which was perhaps part of the impetus for the Falcons selecting Matt Hennessy at No. 78 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Hennessy prevailed in this spot, and if so that would be another shot in the arm for Atlanta. Hennessy was a three-year starter at center for Temple, and he projects as a guy who can play either guard spot or center in the NFL. Even if he doesn’t start over Carpenter, the versatility off the bench will be useful.

In all, odds are this line is healthier and more experienced in 2020. And if everyone stays healthy, the line should be far more cohesive. Giving Matt Ryan more time to throw will be a good thing–he was sacked a career-high 48 times in 2019. The Falcons have addressed the problem with recent draft picks, though. It seems like those moves could pay off as soon as this year.

Improved Running Game

Atlanta ranked 30th in the NFL with 85.1 rushing yards per game last season. Exit Devonta Freeman, enter Todd Gurley.

While there are question marks about Gurley’s health, he still totaled 1,064 yards of total offense and scored 14 TDs in 2019. And that was his worst year as a professional, as he posted a career-worst 3.8 Y/A and only managed 223 carries. But his 12 rushing scores a year ago speak to his potential. Atlanta hasn’t had a running back hit that mark since Michael Turner, who had 12 scores in 2010. That’s a whole decade, people.

Gurley is only 25 years old and is just one year removed from an MVP-caliber season (1,831 yards, 21 TDs). This is all about health, but I think it’s a smart gamble by Atlanta and one that should pay off in fantasy and in real life. And besides, Gurley passed his physical earlier this week. If the Falcons believe he’s healthy enough to contribute, I’m not questioning it.

Ito Smith is reportedly healthy after missing nine games last season due to a concussion, and the 24-year-old should reprise his role as the primary backup. Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison (a fifth round pick last year) will also push for snaps, with Hill as more of the third string guy and Ollison as the bruising, short yardage type of back. There are enough pieces here for a functional rushing attack, even if Gurley has to be managed.

A Bevy of Offensive Firepower

Ryan enters his second consecutive season with OC Dirk Koetter. Koetter replaced the much maligned Steve Sarkisian, whose inability to get the ball to Julio Jones in the red zone became the stuff of legend. However, this isn’t Koetter’s first rodeo in Atlanta. He was also the offensive coordinator from 2012-2014, which included the 2012 season that saw Julio Jones post 10 scores. That’s the only time Jones has ever reached the double-digit mark in his NFL career, which is a Greek tragedy.

In 2019, Koetter’s Atlanta offense averaged 23.8 points per game, ranking 13th of 32 NFL teams. Koetter’s Atlanta earlier teams ranked 7th, 20th (the year Julio only played in five games), and 12th. Koetter seems to have a bit of a higher ceiling than Sarkisian, and this is what he has to work with:

I happen to think the whole first round rhetoric is a bit overblown. Russell Gage should win the WR3 role over Laquon Treadwell, for instance. Koetter has been vocal about Gage’s growth and projected role for 2020, and Gage finished last year strong after the Falcons traded Mohamed Sanu to New England. Over the last nine games of the season, Gage caught 45 of 66 balls for 402 yards and a score. His route running and quicks are a natural fit for the slot, and I think he starts over Treadwell. But if he flounders somehow, having the former first round pick in tow is nice insurance.

Replacing Hooper with Hurst might concern some, but not me. Hurst showed growth during his sophomore season, posting a 76.9% catch rate for the Ravens in 2019. He also improved his aDOT from 7.2 to 8.5, with 8.5 pushing him near the upper echelon of tight ends. Hurst is more similar to guys like Travis Kelce (9.0) and Zach Ertz (8.6) than he is to Austin Hooper (6.5). The difference-maker with Hooper last year was the volume, as Hooper’s 97 targets ranked sixth among all tight ends. I know aDOT isn’t just about the receiver–we have to factor in a player’s role and the surrounding offense, too. But Hurst is a better athlete and more of a field-stretcher than Hooper, and he’ll certainly be ticketed for a career-high in volume in 2020. I dig this move for Atlanta, giving up a second round pick in exchange for the former first round tight end.

We have barely even discussed Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, aka Batman and Robin. Both seem poised for 1,000 yard seasons, as each man will command plenty of defensive attention–i.e. opposing defenses can’t just key in on any one player in this offense. Which opens things up for everyone, in turn.

Ridley’s 2019 volume was similar to 2018. He’s seen target counts of 92 and 93 in his first two years, while catching 64 and 63 balls, respectively. The big difference in Year 2 was the jump in efficiency, as his 13.7 Y/R mark blasted his rookie mark of 12.8. His role is growing, too. His 93 targets in Year 2 came in only 13 appearances, as opposed to Year 1 when he was healthy for a full 16 games. The only thing standing in Ridley’s way of chasing 1,000 yards and 10 scores is staying healthy.

As for Julio, he’s only 30 years old. To me, he’s mostly shed the injury-prone label in recent years, as he’s only missed one contest over the last three seasons. He managed 99-1394-6 last year, and maybe the most encouraging piece was the 75% completion rate he enjoyed in the red zone (12 receptions on 16 looks, 5 TDs). Compare that to the previous two years with Steve Sarkisian, where the rates were 58.82% and 27.78%. Maybe we can attribute some of last year’s success to Hooper’s presence in the red area–as well as the attention Ridley has begun to command. Maybe some of it was play calling. Maybe it’s a combination of both. Either way, when this offense is lined up with Jones, Ridley, Hurst, and Todd Gurley on the field…it’s going to be threatening. There’s no reason Jones won’t turn in another elite season in 2020.

Matt Ryan’s 2020 Outlook

From where I sit, Matt Ryan tossing 4,500 yards and 25 touchdowns reads like one of the safest floors in fantasy football. And the upside is 5,000 yards with 30+ touchdowns. There’s some nice cohesion here, with Dirk Koetter in his second consecutive year and Calvin Ridley entering Year 3. Todd Gurley will need to adjust to running behind a fullback, and we’ll have to see if Hayden Hurst can fill the void left by Hooper–but I’m hopeful on both of those fronts.

A full rebound for Matt Ryan seems in order, and this is a passing game I’ll have plenty of exposure to in 2020…starting with the quarterback.

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