Can you imagine what the Falcons’ offense will look like with a respectable running game? Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Notable Additions: Steven Jackson, and Osi Umenyiora for you IDP kids
Notable Draft Picks: None with a significant fantasy impact
The Marquee Men (the elitest of the elite)
Julio Jones (ADP: 21.8): Nearly a month ago when I was still pumping out those “Who Ya Got?” posts almost every day (Ed note: those will re-appear in a tweaked format soon, in which we’ll debate who to start each week between two similar players), I put Jones and Roddy White in the ol’ crosshairs, and wondered why there was at the time — and still now — a separation of nearly a full round between two identical receivers in the same offense.
Age is mostly the answer, of course, with Jones seven years younger than White, and therefore far removed from his peak. The other reason is targets.
The distance between the two is closing fast, with Jones rising from 95 in 2011 to 128 last year, while White fell a long way from 180 to 143. As what was once a chasm becomes a mere puddle jump, the younger receiver with the far greater leaping ability to muscle his way up the middle for 50/50 balls will continue his ascent, and pass White’s production.
Roddy White (ADP: 32.0): But really, we’re splitting some pretty fine hairs here. Getting Jones as your WR1 required a second-round pick, a time when you felt safer taking an RB2 due to the steeper drop at that position. You could wait on White and typically get him a round later, while sacrificing only minimal production.
Steven Jackson (ADP: 14.8): I know that you’ve been conditioned to shiver with deep fear upon seeing a running back who’s 30 years old. There are ancient NFL folk tales which tell us that once a running back reaches that age, his soul ascends to the heavens, leaving only a physical presence here on Earth.
Jackson has slowed, to be sure, but he’s still a different sort. He’s put together eight straight +1,000 yard rushing seasons, in addition to five years with at least 300 receiving yards. And while the abuse he took in St. Louis was consistent, it wasn’t overbearing, especially with the platoon that developed last year with Daryl Richardson. Over the last three seasons he’s averaged 325.3 touches per year, and throughout his career the heavy ground pounding has been managed well (266.2 carries per year).
That’s the first argument in favor of a running back who’s creaking, but still has a few good gusts left over at least the next year. Then there’s his simple on-field speed, and as our tape hermit Alen Dumonjic noted a few months ago, Jackson has the ability to line up anywhere on the field as a pass catcher.
But looking back on Jackson’s 2012 season with the Rams, there’s both encouragement and discouragement to be found, and therefore also confusion. The season was split in half perfectly by a Week 9 bye, and prior to that break Jackson was averaging only 51.1 rushing yards per game. Then over the season’s final eight weeks his rushing average moved up considerably to 79.9.
Ideally, with a much deeper offense in Atlanta to draw attention elsewhere and open running lanes, we’ll see far more of the second half Jackson.
The Middle Men (middle-to-late round options)
Matt Ryan (ADP: 54.5): By coincidence and not design, I’ve only ever owned Matt Ryan once in a fantasy league, and not recently. But I assume it’s a maddening experience.
Between White, Jones, and even Harry Douglas, this offense is oozing with speed at the wide receiver position. And then between Jackson, Tony Gonzalez, and Jacquizz Rodgers, Ryan is overflowing with underneath options too, and the two running backs are able to quickly turn a short pass into a long gain.
Yet there Ryan is, being anything but consistent.
Last year he finished with 292 fantasy points, which is fine and great, and it placed him just outside of the top tier at his position. He finished as the seventh best fantasy quarterback, just behind Peyton Manning. But how he arrived there is the source of the madness. Ryan matched a career high in interceptions by chucking 14, though we shouldn’t go too crazy because five of those came during a particularly horrific afternoon in Week 10 against the Cardinals. Excluding that week, he had only one other multiple-interception game, and seven with no picks.
Mostly, it’s just frustrating seeing him have sustained stretches of awesome while accumulating yards and minimizing mistakes (his average of 23.3 fantasy points per game last year over the first four weeks), and then slump back into the middle tier during another stretch (his average of 11.6 fantasy points between weeks 11 and 14). Maybe we’re expecting too much.
Tony Gonzalez (ADP: 66.2): It’s easy and almost instinctive to gloss over the greatness of Gonzalez a bit, but that emphasizes what he’s accomplished. We just expect it now, even though he’s 37, and even though he’s been in the league since a time when our pop culture dances were much more wholesome or something, and they were foam finger free (alas, we still looked like complete fools). He’s been doing the damn thing for 16 years.
There was a brief decline in 2010 when Gonzalez had his lowest receiving yards total since 1998 (656 yards), and at the time we assumed he was beginning a natural fade into darkness. Since then he’s logged 1,805 yards over the past two seasons, and he’s been a consistent red-zone presence with 15 touchdowns. Last year his yardage (930, third at his position), receptions (93, second at his position), and touchdowns (eight, fourth at his position), were all highs since 2008.
All of that is wonderful. So, now the bad news: he has no after the catch ability whatsoever. None, or slightly above none.
In what is again a wholly acceptable and natural decline, any speed Gonzo once had has evaporated. Despite his fine overall yardage total last year when he flirted with 1,000 yards, he averaged only 2.8 yards after the catch. That’s a decent tumble from his 3.2 in 2011, and a plunge from his single-season high of 4.9 back during his prime with the Chiefs in 2003.
He gets whatever he’s given by the route and the coverage, and nothing more. Which means although the yardage will accumulate since he’s targeted frequently (124 times last year), those looks need to stay high for Gonzalez to maintain his 2012 production level and justify his ADP. His days of long Sunday jogs into open green are long over, as he had a career low of just three catches for 20 yards or more last year.
The Menial Peons (sleepers, flex plays, and matchup plays)
Harry Douglas (ADP: undrafted): As Gonzalez slows and his after the catch ability diminishes further, there may be some clawing, reaching, stretching value here, with Douglas getting some underneath looks while working from the slot. But so very little.
Douglas remains the fourth option in the Falcons’ passing game, and there will be weeks when he even slides to fifth, with Jackson targeted more. But still, he’s someone to watch closely if you spent an early round pick on either White or Jones (and if you own them, you did).
White is more durable than Gumby, and he’s missed exactly zero games in his eight NFL seasons. However, the pessimistic doomsday dreaders among us would argue that means he’s due for his visit with lady luck, and indeed, White — who will turn 32 in November — has already sustained an ankle injury during the preseason. If father time were to lay down his wicked hand, Douglas would step in immediately.
The Mop-Up Men (deeeep sleepers and handcuffs)
Jacquizz Rodgers (ADP: 129.6): Last year Rodgers had pretty nifty PPR value, as Michael Turner was running like he was dragging several pianos, so he definitely wasn’t involved in the passing game. That’s how Quizz accumulated 53 receptions for 402 yards, including two +30 yard grabs while he quietly emerged as one of the league’s better pass-catching running backs who can get creative in space. It was a way for the Falcons and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to still utilize Rodgers’ speed and elusiveness that’s better suited for catching the ball in the flats, instead of trying to avoid the massive tree trucks around the line of scrimmage before they fall on his diminutive frame.
Now, Rodgers doesn’t even have that specialty role.
As mentioned above, Jackson does just fine when asked to catch a ball, and he doesn’t need to be yanked on third down. Rodgers will still maintain some presence in the passing game, because keeping his speed and slippery-ness anchored to the sideline is unwise. But Jackson will eat a significant chunk of his receiving totals, and it wouldn’t at all be surprising to see Rodgers’ receptions fall below 30.
Combine that with his minimal presence in the running game even when Turner was averaging a pathetic 3.6 yards per carry last year (Rodgers was given only 94 carries, an average of 5.9 per game), and it’s clear that the Falcons purchased Jackson to address a glaring problem, one Rodgers couldn’t solve.
He has only handcuff value in deep leagues, and he still maintains a sprinkling of PPR value.