The 2018 NFL regular season has concluded, so it’s time to briefly examine the state of each team’s skill positions for fantasy purposes with an eye towards next season and/or beyond. I will be reviewing each team in the reverse order of the final standings. Next up…the Atlanta Falcons.
Atlanta Falcons (7-9)
One of the more obvious candidates for positive regression, Matt Ryan rebounded to finish as the 2018 overall QB3 after being fantasy’s QB14 the season prior. In fact, even with the down 2017 statistics, Ryan has thrown for the most passing yards (13,963) and passing touchdowns (93-tied with Philip Rivers) over the past three seasons. Even though Atlanta parted ways with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, they replaced him with a familiar face in Dirk Koetter, who previously served the same role with the Falcons from 2012 through 2014, a span in which Ryan averaged 4,643 yards and 28.6 touchdowns through the air per campaign. Armed with one of the more talented pass catching corps in the NFL, Ryan’s status as a high-end QB1 is aided by the fact that each of his NFC South division rivals boast potent offenses of their own, which guarantees at least six weekly matchups containing bonanza potential.
In what was essentially a lost season for starter Devonta Freeman, the five-year veteran lasted just two games before a combination of knee, foot, and groin injuries landed him on injured reserve. Many fantasy managers had been eagerly awaiting the day Atlanta’s lesser half of their backfield timeshare in Tevin Coleman could do for a full season sans Freeman, and the results were rather underwhelming. Even with Freeman presumed healthy, Coleman was drafted as a Top-30 running back last Summer, primarily based off his productivity with a limited workload (since being drafted in 2015, Coleman has a NFL-leading 5.4 yards-per touch among running backs with at least 600 touches), and monster upside should he be given a full-time role in Atlanta’s powerhouse offense. In 14 starts, Coleman eclipsed 60 rushing yards just three times, and his 167 carries were just 11 more than his 156 from the season prior. Playing for a new 2019 contract, the disappointing numbers likely contributed to Coleman’s lukewarm free agent market this past March, as he was signed for just two years/$8.5 million by the 49ers.
Ito Smith, a fourth-round rookie last year, didn’t jump off the screen stats-wise, but looked serviceable as a short-yardage back and receiver. Smith underwent arthroscopic knee surgery last December to repair a torn meniscus, but is expected to be ready for training camp, and likely the front-runner to occupy the 1B role in the Falcons’ backfield committee that was vacated by Coleman.
With Smith absent during Weeks 16 and 17, 2017 fifth-round pick Brian Hill flashed with a combined 16-145 rushing line over those two contests. Hill will return in 2019 to compete with Smith for snaps behind Freeman, and could certainly carve out a larger than expected role with a strong offseason. At 27 years-old, Freeman is still considered to be in his prime, though the ever-growing laundry list of lower body maladies is quite concerning. Considering the Falcons have Freeman under a sizable contract through 2022, they have little choice but to trot him out as their featured runner and hope his health cooperates. If I’m targeting Freeman as a RB2 in upcoming fantasy drafts, I’m doing so with cautious optimism given his role in one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses, but also being mindful of the injury risk.