Juggernaut Index No. 7: The Atlanta Falcons

The Juggernaut Index is our annual ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: FOR FANTASY PURPOSES. We're interested in yards and points here. We began at No. 32, the NFL's least useful franchise (Oakland), and we're working our way toward the elite teams. These ranks are astonishingly accurate and highly collectible. Please enjoy them responsibly.

7. Atlanta Falcons

For all the sunshine given to Matt Ryan(notes) last year, he wasn't the man in charge of the Atlanta offense. The Falcons were the most run-heavy team in the NFC, and no team ran more often on first down or in the first half of games. But with Ryan a year older and wiser, there's a good chance Atlanta's offense will be more balanced and more fantasy-friendly in 2009. For the first time in recent memory, you're highlighting multiple Falcons on your cheat sheet.

There's one other important thing Ryan will do a lot this year - hand off to Michael Turner(notes). The Falcons hit paydirt with their backfield acquisition last year and although Turner is coming off a busy season, I'm still bullish on him entering 2009.

Okay, Turner had 376 carries last year. Time to choose up sides here, either you're for The Curse of 370 concept or you're not. Here are some reasons why I'm not running from Turner just because he had one heavy season of work:

Injuries are so random in the NFL. On every play the offense gives the ball to someone while 11 angry men on the other side of the field try to inflict physical pain on that player. Did a crazy workload really end Terrell Davis's days as a star, or was it a fluke injury that occurred while he was making a tackle? Did Larry Johnson(notes) succumb to overuse, or was he felled by a low tackle that compromised his ankle? Isn't getting hurt an occupational hazard of playing in the league to begin with?

Turner only had six catches last year, so while 376 carries sounds really nasty, we're only talking about 382 touches. It's no walk in the park, but it's not an earth-shattering total. Adrian Peterson had 384 touches last year and I don't hear anyone calling for his physical collapse, Football Outsiders included; Peterson is ranked No. 2 overall in their published fantasy ranks, while Turner is 33. (Yes it does seem like the physical wear-and-tear is less on receptions as opposed to rushing attempts. But it's still tackle football, isn't it? How did LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) thrive through all of his heavy-use years, including one season over 370 rushes? It couldn't be related to physical conditioning and being able to avoid kill shots, could it?)

Turner was hardly used in San Diego, collecting just 228 carries and 239 touches over four years. Jump on last year's workload if you want, but it's not the Chargers ran him into the ground. Heck, his shoes probably didn't get dirty.

If you're not content with my presentation of the case, allow me to call in some bloggish backup: Advanced NFL Stats. And make sure you list your Turner ranking in the comments, we'll sort through this together.

Jerious Norwood(notes) is a firecracker of a No. 2 back but the Mike Smith(notes) regime didn't use him more than the Bobby Petrino embarrassment; Norwood landed on 131 touches in each of the last two seasons. Norwood's 202-pound frame and upright running style stands between him and more involvement, but when you have a back sitting on 5.8 YPC for his career, find a way to get him in the game plan, please. Alas, Norwood is already dealing with some nicks this summer (a shot to the head, a sore knee) which might encourage the Falcons not to rock the boat when the bell rings.

Let's check back with the passing game. While Ryan's rookie year was brilliant by first-year terms, there are plenty of areas for growth and improvement. He had an ordinary 76.4 rating on third down. He threw a modest 16 touchdown passes. He attempted only three passes on first-and-goal all season. And he wasn't a Top 10 quarterback in any basic scoring format, either. Efficiency is great, but production pays the bills.

The Falcons didn't add tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes) for window dressing; they'll target the future Hall of Famer early and often. Justin Peelle(notes), last year's starter at tight end, finished the season with 15 grabs for 159 yards. Gonzo's capable of doing that in one afternoon. Gonzalez hasn't played a ton this preseason but he already has six grabs and a score. Ryan's red-zone responsibilities increased the second No. 88 came on board.

Throwing intermediate and deep balls to Roddy White(notes) is a pretty good gig, too. White went for 82 grabs and 1202 yards two years back when the Falcons had nothing at quarterback, then jumped to 88 receptions for 1382 yards last year with Ryan pitching the pig. White's 13 TDs over that span looks a little light given the volume of his work, but Ryan's modest workload and the skank at QB two years ago played into that. If you project Ryan to throw for 20-plus touchdowns as a sophomore, there's no reason why White can't latch onto at least a third of them.

Michael Jenkins(notes) is a legitimate deep threat on the other flank (15.5 YPC) but he probably won't see enough work to be anything more than an occasional flex consideration. Jenkins only had 50 catches and a modest 10 red-zone targets, he didn't top 80 yards in any game, and he went without a TD in 14 starts. The Falcons like to use Jenkins to stretch the field, but they don't go out of their way feeding him the rock.

Falcon Frivolity: There are plenty of names you know on the Falcons WR depth chart, but that doesn't mean you really want to draft Brian Finneran(notes), Marty Booker(notes) or Robert Ferguson(notes) . . . Jason Elam(notes) remains one of the safest kickers you can invest in; he's only missed eight field goal tries the last three years, the Falcons offense figures to move the ball consistently and the Atlanta schedule has 13 games tied to benign weather expectations, including nine games indoors . . . Atlanta's defense doesn't get a lot of attention but the unit does have three IDP-worthy playmakers on each level; DE John Abraham(notes), LB Curtis Lofton(notes) and S Erik Coleman(notes). Abraham has been able to stay in one piece over the last two years, collecting 27 sacks . . . No division in football underscores the reshuffle nature of the NFL quite like the NFC South. The division saw five consecutive "worst to first" winners from the years 2003-07, and the Falcons just missed by one game last season . . . Planning your run through the fantasy playoffs three months in advance? Atlanta gets the Saints, Jets and Bills in Weeks 14-16.


Earlier Juggernauts: 32) Oakland, 31) Cleveland, 30) St. Louis, 29) Miami, 28) NY Jets, 27) Baltimore, 26) Washington, 25) San Francisco, 24) Tampa Bay, 23) Kansas City, 22) Detroit, 21) Seattle, 20) Buffalo, 19) Cincinnati, 18) Jacksonville, 17) New York Giants, 16) Tennessee, 15) Pittsburgh, 14) Denver, 13) Chicago, 12) Minnesota, 11) Arizona, 10) Green Bay, 9) Dallas, 8.) Carolina.

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