Juggernaut Index, No. 2: Atlanta a fantasy machine, even if Ryan regresses

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/8780/" data-ylk="slk:Matt Ryan">Matt Ryan</a> leaves the field after an unreal loss on the biggest stage. It’s easy to say he’ll regress in 2017, but to what level? That’s the big question. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Matt Ryan leaves the field after an unreal loss on the biggest stage. It’s easy to say he’ll regress in 2017, but to what level? That’s the big question. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Yeah, OK, fine. Go ahead, make your 28-3 jokes.

Atlanta found a way to lose the Super Bowl that was both shocking and unprecedented. If any big-game loss is going to have a season-long hangover, it’s this one. History’s baddest beat. It was terrible. Almost unthinkable. Arguably the worst single-game implosion in the history of games or implosions. Falcons players, coaches and executives have generally said the things you’d expect them to say, but there’s no escaping 28-3.

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Still, the 2017 version of this team is loaded, both in fantasy and reality. Key personnel return from an offense that ranked first in the league in yards per play (6.7) and scoring (33.8 PPG). Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is gone, replaced by Steve Sarkisian, but the system is expected to remain fundamentally the same. Atlanta is one of two NFL teams that offer a pair of consensus fantasy first-rounders. This squad is an all-you-can-eat fantasy buffet, basically. Let’s dig in…

Yes, Matt Ryan is an obvious regression candidate. But that’s OK. “Regression” does not equal “bad.”

It should go without saying that if you draft Ryan expecting him to reproduce last year’s numbers, stat-for-stat, then you are a fool.

Ryan passed for 4944 yards and 38 touchdowns last season while averaging an insane 9.3 yards per attempt. Both his yardage and TD totals were among the top-20 in NFL history, and his Y/A was the highest rate in the league since Kurt Warner’s abbreviated season in 2000 (9.9). In fact, Ryan’s Y/A was the highest ever produced by a QB who started 16 games.

The important thing to remember about career years is that, um … well, by definition, they are the peak years of a career. Ryan just delivered one of the most prolific and efficient passing seasons the league has ever seen. No one expects him to improve on his 2016 numbers, or to continue producing at the same level. But he’s actually finished as a top-eight fantasy quarterback in five of the past seven years. Ryan can regress a fair amount yet remain an enormously useful fantasy asset. He’s topped 4500 passing yards every year since 2012 while completing 67.6 percent of his throws. He’s great.

We can’t simply yell “REGRESSION!” and walk away, as if Ryan is unownable. If he loses 25 yards and 0.5 touchdowns per game from last year’s production, he’ll still finish with 4544 yards and 30 scores. I’ll take it.

Oh, and he’s still throwing to this dude, in case you’d forgotten…

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/24793/" data-ylk="slk:Julio Jones">Julio Jones</a> is among the best to ever play his position. If 11&nbsp;sees an uptick in red-zone chances, he’ll really have no holes in his fantasy game. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Julio Jones is among the best to ever play his position. If 11 sees an uptick in red-zone chances, he’ll really have no holes in his fantasy game. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Julio Jones is ridiculous.

Over the past three seasons, Julio has averaged an astonishing 7.2 receptions and 108.3 yards per game. In terms of physical and athletic dominance, he belongs in a category with Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson and probably no one else. He’s produced 16 games with at least 100 receiving yards over the past two seasons, and four others with at least 90 yards. Julio has roasted some of the league’s best shadow corners and he routinely beats double coverage. He’s a monster, an unsolvable problem for opposing defenses when he’s healthy.

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Jones is returning from offseason foot surgery, but he made an appearance in preseaosn action. He’s fine, and his season-opening matchups are awfully friendly: at Chicago, vs. Green Bay, at Detroit, vs. Buffalo. You want him. He’s a no-doubt top-five overall fantasy commodity in my view. The only small weakness in his fantasy game has been red-zone opportunities, and Sarkisian has pledged to address it.

Behind Julio, Atlanta has the reliable-if-not-dominant Mohamed Sanu and the tiny-yet-lightning-quick Taylor Gabriel. We should view each of those receivers as a viable bye-week option in fantasy, roster-worthy in 12-team leagues. Second-year tight end Austin Hooper is an obvious breakout candidate, now that Jacob Tamme is out of the team picture. Ryan has talked up Hooper during the offseason, and the kid is guaranteed to play as many snaps as he can handle. Hooper caught a TD pass in the Super Bowl and (weirdly and mysteriously) led all Falcons in targets against the Pats. He’s a nice deep-league option, a young player with a clear shot to crack the top-10 at his position.

Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are an unfair RB tandem.

Freeman has gained 3175 scrimmage yards and scored 27 touchdowns on 619 touches over the past two years. I didn’t think he would approach his 2015 production last season, and he shamed me. He saw 56 fewer offensive touches in 2016, yet nearly matched his yardage and TD totals from the prior season. I am left with no valid criticisms. He’s a high-volume back and red-zone workhorse, tied to an upper-tier offense. Freeman is also a terrific receiving option; he finished with 54 receptions on 65 targets last year. He should have been a first-round pick in nearly all leagues. There are few unresolved questions with Freeman at this stage.

Coleman remains a high-ceiling, high-variance player. He handled only 149 touches last year, but somehow found the end-zone 11 times and accounted for 941 yards from scrimmage. He’s generally a good bet for double-digit touches, which is enough to make him a luxury flex, considering the team context. Coleman has excellent deep speed and, like Freeman, high-end receiving skills. I’m starting him in multiple leagues against Chicago in Week 1. This team’s September schedule should keep him in everyone’s fantasy plans.

Atlanta’s defense belongs in your fantasy plans.

Without question, this team’s opening week matchup is friendly. Hello, Mike Glennon. We should also note that Atlanta had the second highest-scoring fantasy D over the final five weeks of 2016, and the ninth highest-scoring defense for the year. CB Desmond Trufant is back, DT Dontari Poe was added to the mix, and LB Vic Beasley is coming off a year in which he led the NFL in sacks (15.5). This is an ownable D/ST, commonly overlooked at the draft table.

2016 Offensive Stats & Ranks
Points per game – 33.8 (1)
Pass YPG – 295.3 (3)
Rush YPG – 120.5 (5)
Yards per play – 6.7 (1)
Plays per game – 62.0 (26)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) NY Jets, 31) San Francisco, 30) Cleveland, 29) LA Rams, 28) Baltimore, 27) Chicago, 26) Minnesota, 25) Detroit, 24) Denver, 23) Jacksonville, 22) Buffalo, 21) Philadelphia, 20) Miami, 19) Indianapolis, 18) Kansas City, 17) Washington, 16) NY Giants, 15) Tennessee, 14) LA Chargers, 13) Carolina, 12) Houston, 11) Arizona, 10) Oakland, 9) Tampa Bay, 8) Cincinnati, 7) New Orleans, 6) New England, 5) Seattle, 4) Dallas, 3) Green Bay, 2) Atlanta

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