Juggernaut Index, No. 13: The Atlanta Falcons

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Juggernaut Index, No. 13: The Atlanta Falcons
Juggernaut Index, No. 13: The Atlanta Falcons

It was only two seasons ago that this franchise hosted the NFC championship game, coming up 10 yards short of a Super Bowl appearance. Atlanta was a team on the rise heading into 2013 — and then everyone broke.

Roddy White suffered a high-ankle sprain and right tackle Mike Johnson broke his leg. Steven Jackson injured his hamstring. Sean Weatherspoon had a foot injury and Kroy Biermann tore his Achilles.

And then things really got messy. All-world receiver Julio Jones required season-ending foot surgery in October. At the time, Jones was leading the NFL in receptions and he was second in receiving yardage. And White tweaked a hamstring on the same day Jones was injured. And then left tackle Sam Baker went on IR with a knee injury. And Weatherspoon returned, but he injured a knee soon after. And then Corey Peters had an Achilles injury, and ... well, you get the point.

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It was a doomed season for Atlanta, full of injuries to essential players.

Thing are looking up a bit for the Falcons this year, in part because things can't get much worse than they were in 2013. It's not entirely clear who might generate the pass-rush for this defense — no small thing, considering the quarterbacks lurking in the division — but that's a real-life problem, not a fantasy concern. For our purposes, this team is looking much better. Atlanta upgraded the offensive line via draft (RT Jake Matthews), via free agency (RG Jon Asamoah) and via position coach (Mike Tice). This team's roster has depth and high-level talent at the skill spots, plus a quarterback who's coming off three straight 4,000-yard seasons.

Matt Ryan has twice led the NFL in game-winning drives and his career record as a starter is 60-34, yet there's no shortage of meatball fans eager to tell you that he's not a winner, that he can't/won't carry his team in the biggest moments. Whatever. He's plenty good, and his clutchiness credentials are as solid as anyone's. Ryan has been deadly accurate over the past two seasons, completing 68.0 percent of his throws, and his receiving corps is outstanding. He's finished as a top-10 fantasy QB in three separate years, and it would be a small surprise if he didn't do so again in 2014. We're drafting him in the Stafford-Griffin-Luck range (ADP 55.8), which seems just about right. I'd prefer to snag Cutler or Rivers or Roethlisberger at their ADPs, 40-50 picks later, but I won't argue with Ryan's placement among his peers.

Julio Jones, back in the game. With better feet, we hope. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Julio Jones, back in the game. With better feet, we hope. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

One of the keys to Ryan's fantasy value in the year ahead is, obviously, the health of Jones, a rare talent at his position. In Julio's five games last season, he averaged 8.2 receptions and 116.0 receiving yards per week. He's an unfair deep weapon, gifted with size and speed (6-foot-3, 4.39), a specialist at making highlight catches in traffic. Just look at this ridiculous grab he made last season on the night he was hurt — one-handed, while shrugging off interference. He's a bad dude. We can't pretend the injury risk isn't elevated with Julio — he's had surgery on the same foot twice — but his ceiling is as high as any receiver's. He shouldn't slip past the second round in any draft.

Roddy White remains a top-15 wide receiver for me, and I'm willing to forget his injury-marred campaign. Roddy actually averaged 100.4 yards per week in December last season, so he made a strong push in the closing weeks. And if you've watched any Hard Knocks, then you already know he does not lack confidence. Take whatever post-injury discount the room will give you on White. He's a reliable high-volume receiver, a good bet to deliver 85, 1100 and 7 in a healthy season. He'll see a decent number of snaps from the slot this year, as will Harry Douglas, taking on responsibilities that belonged to the retired/not-retired Tony Gonzalez.

Douglas had an excellent year in 2013, as his usage increased due to the injury plague that hit the Falcons' roster. He caught 85 balls for 1067 yards on 133 targets, topping the 100-yard plateau in three different games. Douglas has never functioned as much of a red-zone threat — he's caught six TDs in five seasons — but he can certainly make a little PPR noise. Gonzo's departure leaves 120 or so targets unclaimed, and those aren't gonna go to a tight end. (Gigantic TE Levine Toilolo is clearly a threat near the goal line, but he's not a candidate for 80 catches.) We can't reasonably expect Atlanta's offense to again produce a 2-to-1 ratio of pass-to-rush attempts, as the team did last season, but the Falcons are still likely to put the ball in the air 580-plus times.

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Atlanta rarely ran last year, and almost never did so effectively. The team ranked last in the NFL in total carries and last in rushing yards. Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers each averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, which of course is miserable. This year's O-line upgrades should definitely help the ground attack, and, again, there's no way the Falcons will continue to call only 20 run plays per game. [Update, Aug. 17: And now Baker is down again. Rough break for the player and team.]

Jackson is a huge, powerful back on the wrong side of 30, plus he's the active leader in career carries (2,552). There's a non-trivial chance that he may not top 4.0 YPC again in any season, although that doesn't mean he can't assist fantasy owners. Our game isn't entirely about efficiency. Remember, Jackson broke the plane seven times last year over 12 games. He has a 20-40 pound size advantage over any other back on this team's roster, so he'll see plenty of inside-the-5 work. It's not out of the question that he could produce a Le'Veon Bell-in-2013-style season (13 G, 3.5 YPC, 8 TDs, 860 rush). S-Jax's current Yahoo ADP is just 103.1 — below CJ and Rice and Tate, barely ahead of Knowshon — so he's basically free. No question he's worth a shot at a mid/late price. Jackson tweaked a hamstring the second he arrived at camp, but he's getting back to individual drills. It doesn't seem as if the injury will trouble him into September, but you never know with aging, high-mileage players. Edholm might be ready for the end of the S-Jax era (see clip above), but I think he can still enter the flex discussion.

Florida State third-round rookie Devonta Freeman is the guy to target as Jackson's handcuff. Don't mess around with Rodgers, a pocket-size back who seems better suited to situational passing-down duty. Freeman found the end zone 15 times for the national champs last season, including a score in the title game against Auburn, and he rushed for 1,016 yards on just 173 carries. In terms of size and style and measurables, he has some Frank Gore in his game. He's not a burner, but he's been a highly effective runner over three collegiate seasons. As with Jackson, Freeman is available at a no-risk price (ADP 124.1).

Atlanta's defense is, um ... um ... hey, did we mention how good the offense might be? Yeah, this team should pile up points. Good thing, because the defense, on paper, is not great. Weatherspoon suffered yet another injury during the offseason (Achilles), so we won't hear from him again until 2015. If you're browsing this roster for IDPs, linebacker Paul Worrilow (127 tackles) and safety William Moore (86 tackles, 3 INTs) are the names worth knowing. Devin Hester was added in free agency as a return specialist, which perhaps assists a few of you with odd league settings. But in standard formats, this team's defense shouldn't crack the cheat sheet.

2013 team stats: 22.1 PPG (NFL rank 20), 283.8 pass YPG (4), 26 pass TDs (11), 77.9 rush YPG (32), 20.1 rush attempts per game (32), 41.2 pass attempts per game (3)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32. Oakland, 31. Miami, 30. Jacksonville, 29. NY Jets, 28. Tennessee, 27. Cleveland, 26. Baltimore, 25. Carolina, 24. Buffalo, 23. Tampa Bay, 22. St. Louis, 21. NY Giants, 20. Kansas City, 19. Houston, 18. Arizona, 17. Minnesota, 16. Pittsburgh, 15. San Diego, 14. San Francisco

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