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2014 Fantasy Outlooks: Atlanta Falcons

Senior Fantasy Writer
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In a season where the Falcons were predicted to contend for the Super Bowl, they finished 4-12.

Many will attribute that to the loss of receiver Julio Jones, but there were more reasons than that. The offensive line was awful and hindered both the run and pass games. The defense couldn't put up much of a fight (the Falcons ranked 29th in sacks with 32 and 29th in interceptions with 10). And close games were not helpful -- of the Falcons' 12 losses, eight were by 7 points or less.

The Falcons reacted accordingly this offseason, revamping the defense to be more reliant on a 3-4 scheme. To that end, two new defensive linemen were signed -- nose tackle Paul Soliai and big defensive end Tyson Jackson -- and drafted Ra'Shede Hageman with a second-round choice. That should help them control the line of scrimmage better, but they made similar enhancements offensively. First-round pick Jake Matthews bulks up an offensive line that added guard Jon Asamoah in free agency.

Such moves are positive steps for a team that still has Super Bowl aspirations, though losing a future Hall of Famer tends to set teams like this back. That's another factor working against the Falcons this year as Tony Gonzalez has called it a career. The legendary tight end, productive down to his final season, has left the Falcons with a bit of a quagmire: They've been a potent offense for the years they had him, but can they do it without him? Mike Smith believes moving to a three-receiver base formation that puts Harry Douglas on the field more often will keep the points coming.

If Douglas works out then he'll be a key part of an offense loaded with names well known in the Fantasy community. Jones' return is on schedule, Roddy White is healthy compared to where he was and Steven Jackson, for all of the concerns about him breaking down, is in good shape heading into camp. Surrounded by this talent and an improved O-line, Matt Ryan is in a position to make people forget about last season. The Falcons seemingly already have.

Don't sleep on ... Roddy White

For many Falcons, 2013 was a wash. That's definitely the case for White, who struggled to play through a high-ankle sprain for most of the season. His receiving average was at a career-worst 11.3 yards, he had under 80 catches for the first time in seven seasons and had just three touchdowns, half as many as his worst year since becoming a full-time starter in 2007.

You should absolutely expect a bounce-back campaign, as White is healthy and should be a regular participant in training camp. Moreover, with Gonzalez retiring, there will be plenty of targets up for grabs. White might not have the speed and quickness to round up close to 20 catches of 20-plus yards, so he'll need to convert his targets into receptions and use that volume to produce Fantasy points like he did to end last season. We think he'll get back to the 1,000-yard, seven-touchdown plateau, so long as he doesn't get banged up again.

Bust ... Steven Jackson

It's painful to call any long-standing, successful Fantasy rusher a bust, but Jackson has all the red flags of a player who shouldn't be counted on in 2014.

He has 2,571 carries over his career (including postseason work), he missed four games last season with an injury, he hasn't had more than six rushing touchdowns in a season since 2008, his rushing and receiving averaged dropped in 2013 and the Falcons added another running back in Devonta Freeman to help ease Jackson's workload. Jacquizz Rodgers also is in the mix.

Maybe we'll be wrong and Jackson will rebound to post exciting numbers in his 11th NFL season behind an improved but still suspect offensive line. But we wouldn't bet on it. Even with a nice finish last season (nine-plus Fantasy points in five of his final six games), Jackson is a risky pick, even if it's in Round 5 or 6 when the running back pool becomes uncomfortably shallow.

Late-rounder/dynasty target ... Devonta Freeman

2013 Touches Leaders
766 total touches
Steven Jackson 190 (157 car., 33 rec.) 24.8%
Jacquizz Rodgers 148 (96 car., 52 rec.) 19.3%
Harry Douglas 85 rec. 11.1%
Tony Gonzalez 83 rec. 10.8%
Jason Snelling 73 (44 car., 29 rec.) 9.5%
Roddy White 63 rec. 8.2%
Julio Jones 42 (41 rec., 1 car.) 5.5%
All others 82 10.7%

Maybe one of the reasons why we're not buying Jackson is because we are buying Freeman.

Though he's not as massive as Jackson, the 5-foot-8, 206-pound Freeman can run inside, hit the edges, catch passes and speed away from defenders. Though his pass protection skills were questioned by coach Mike Smith in early June, there's time for him to round into form and be a contributor for the Falcons, especially for when Jackson breaks down or needs some time on the sideline.

At Florida State, Freeman scored 21 total times over 404 carries in three seasons, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and totaling over 2,700 total yards. Freeman is an absolute must in Round 10 or so if you draft Jackson, or even if you don't. He'll go a bit earlier than that in dynasty/keeper leagues. In rookie-only drafts we've come around so much on Freeman that we think he's worth a pick as soon as 15th overall.

Schedule analysis

If you're wondering where the challenging pass defenses are for the Falcons' offense, you'll be pleased to know that they're not common on the schedule. The Bengals, Bears, Cardinals and maybe the Browns are the only ones that might actually put a challenge into Atlanta's receivers. The Buccaneers and Panthers both finished as Top 10 units against the pass last year, but both lost quality cornerbacks this spring, making them suspect. The catch is, many of the Falcons opponents have good pass rushers, so it will be imperative for their O-line to be ready, including right from the jump against the Saints in Week 1. It kind of stinks that the Falcons will begin the year with three games in their first 11 days, and it doesn't help that their first seven road games are outdoors (two on grass), but overall it's not bad for the offense.

Training camp battles

What's the pecking order at running back? So long as he's able, Jackson will start. How the reps behind him get divided remains to be seen. Jacquizz Rodgers has been a stable -- albeit underwhelming -- backup for the last two seasons. Freeman has potential to either replace Jackson in case of injury or replace Rodgers as the passing downs back. How much Freeman pushes to get work in camp is something worth keeping track of, since he has far more upside than Rodgers at this point.

Is Levine Toilolo going to matter? When asked about the second-year tight end this offseason, head coach Mike Smith referred to Toilolo as an "assist man" rather than a "scorer" for the Falcons. That suggests that while Toilolo could play a lot and maybe get involved near the goal line, chances are he won't be even half as productive as Gonzalez was for the team. Training camp will be Toilolo's time to change that thinking.

Who's rushing the passer? The Falcons might open camp with Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi as their primary outside linebackers. Massaquoi had four sacks last year and Biermann didn't have any -- thanks to a torn Achilles suffered in Week 2 -- but has never had more than five sacks in a season. Can last year's team sack leader Osi Umenyiora (7.5) make the transition to a stand-up rusher?

Bold prediction

When Matt Ryan had Julio Jones for five games last season, he averaged 23.2 Fantasy points per game and had at least 22 points in four of those five games (and 19 in the other). Without him he averaged 15.9 Fantasy points per game over 11 games with three matchups resulting in 20-plus points (none with 19).

Jones himself had at least nine Fantasy points in every game he played last year before messing up his foot. This one's simple: Jones will live up to the hype and finish the season as an elite Fantasy receiver, and Ryan will help him do that en route to being a Top 10 quarterback, even without Gonzalez.

Ryan's numbers might have slid last year without Jones but don't lose sight of his accuracy -- an extremely respectable 67.4 pct. with about 200 fewer passing yards. Proof that he wasn't the problem with the team last year. Jones is worth a pick as soon as Round 2 while Ryan will provide insane value as a Round 5 pick.

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Player News
Pete Carroll confident Seahawks will improve pass rush
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(2:34 pm ET) The Seahawks have totaled just seven sacks through their first six games. Though, coach Pete Carroll remains confident in the defense, especially pass rushers Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, who have combined for no sacks in the last four games.

"These guys have rushed really hard and been very aggressive," Carroll said of his starting defensive ends, per ESPN. "I’ve looked at every one of their rushes and situations and I think we’re going to count on those guys to continue to do what they’re doing and try to help around them."

Carroll said the team will try to make changes to improve the pass rush.

"We’ve got to get Mike active inside and get him to be the disruptor that he can be," Carroll said, hinting they might use Bennett on more snaps as a defensive tackle. "We need to help him with some stuff there, some stuff scheme-wise we’ll tweak here and there. Those guys are bringing it. In my mind it’s going to happen and we’ll just keep working until it does because we know it’s there."


DT Alan Branch appears all but set to join Patriots
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(2:32 pm ET) Veteran defensive tackle Alan Branch has yet to officially sign with the Patriots, but he walked through the locker room during the media interview session Thursday and radio station NESN is already reporting that he will don uniform number 97. He did not practice, however.

Branch, who was released by Buffalo on Aug. 24, had started 79 of 80 games over the last five seasons.


Bears CB Kyle Fuller able to get some practice reps in Thursday
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(2:22 pm ET) Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller returned to practice in a limited capacity Thursday after sitting out Wednesday due to a hip pointer and broken hand. The Bears are preparing to face the Patriots in Week 8.

Not looking good for Alfred Morris
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(2:21 pm ET) With the news that Colt McCoy will start at quarterback for the Redskins Week 8 at Dallas, running back Alfred Morris' chances for a bounce-back performance go from bad to worse.

Not only is he facing a defense that has allowed the ninth-fewest Fantasy points per game, but he also won't have a quarterback who can help keep defenses honest. Dating back to his days with the Browns, McCoy hasn't shown the ability to stretch the field, and though his final line in relief of Kirk Cousins Sunday looked good, that was mostly because wide receiver Pierre Garcon turned what should have been a short catch into a 70-yard touchdown. Otherwise, McCoy completed 10 passes for just 58 yards.

With such a limited passing game, the Redskins are basically inviting the Cowboys to stack the box against them. Morris has had a hard enough time since starting quarterback Robert Griffin III went down in Week 2, averaging just 60.6 total yards in the five games started with Cousins. Now with McCoy under center, he might even be a sit in Fantasy. Jamey Eisenberg and Dave Richard both rank him just 29th among running backs for Week 8.


Bears TE Martellus Bennett (hamstring) practices Thursday
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(2:17 pm ET) Bears tight end Martellus Bennett was back at practice Thursday after sitting out Wednesday due to a hamstring injury. He was listed as limited in practice Thursday as the Bears prepare to play the Patriots in Week 8.

All-Pro Gerald McCoy says Buccaneers defense has been 'soft'
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(2:05 pm ET) Buccaneers All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy did not hold back Thursday when talking about the team's defensive struggles. He said the defense has been "soft" through six games, per ESPN.

"Yeah. I mean if you look out there on tape and you see a bunch of guys sitting on blocks, are you not earning the title of being soft?'' McCoy said. "I mean, guys get so sensitive around the league, but we have to be men. This is a man's league. This is a man's league and we're professionals. Guys have issues with criticism. I've been getting criticized since I've been in the NFL, and I don't even feel it anymore. It is what it is.''

The Buccaneers rank last in total defense (422.8 yards per game) and last in scoring defense (34 points per game).

"I think we're making too many excuses,'' McCoy said. "There's always a reason why this is happening or why that's happening. It has to stop. We just have to say, 'OK, I did wrong, I didn't win that one, I have to win the next one and the one after that.' If you win 70 percent of your battles, you have a shot to win, simple as that."


Might be time to sit Matt Ryan
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:59 pm ET) After he lost his fourth starting offensive lineman for the season in what his third straight game with just one touchdown pass, I suggested Fantasy owners might consider sitting Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan for Week 8 against the Lions in London. Turns out Jamey Eisenberg and Dave Richard are completely on board with that, ranking him only 20th among quarterbacks.

Granted, the Saints' Drew Brees managed to find a way against them last week, but it doesn't change the fact that the Lions have allowed the fewest Fantasy points per game to quarterbacks by far. And most of the ones they've faced still had their offensive lines intact.

Part of Ryan's problem is that he just doesn't have time to throw the ball downfield, and that's not going to improve with his starting center now gone. The Lions, as you might expect from their ranking, have a terrific pass rush. They're tied for third with 21 sacks. They're also one of three teams that have recorded more interceptions than they've allowed touchdown passes.

Even if everything was hunky-dory for Ryan and he was coming off a stretch where he looked like Peyton Manning, he'd be a candidate to sit with such a tough matchup. As things currently stand for him and the Falcons, it's a no-brainer move.


Ravens TE Owen Daniels a no-go for Thursday practice
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(1:58 pm ET) A knee issue has Ravens tight end Owen Daniels out of his second straight practice Thursday. He missed the Wednesday session, but that had been thought of as a veteran's day off.

The continued absence could be a red flag in regard to his status for Sunday at Cincinnati. Daniels has been coming on of late with 13 catches for 162 yards and a touchdown in the last three games combined.


Panthers ready for challenge of facing Seahawks' Richard Sherman
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1:56 pm ET) Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said he won't be afraid to throw against Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman in Week 8. However, he knows he has to be careful when he challenges one of the league's best cornerbacks.

"If the play is called for me to read it to Richard’s side, by all means I’m going to do it," Newton said, per ESPN. "And I’m going to give each and every receiver an opportunity to make plays.  I’m not going to force it. I’m not going to be an idiot. I’m going to do a great job of protecting the football and be aggressively patient in taking what the defense gives me."

Sherman will likely draw rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin for most of the afternoon Sunday. Benjamin is ready for the challenge.

"You can tell he loves the game," Benjamin said. "He brings the passion to it. He has fun. He talks a lot of smack out there, but this is football. I’m just going to come out there and match his intensity; play fast and be sound in all my assignments."


Texans' Jadeveon Clowney would be 'surprised' if he doesn't play
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1:46 pm ET) Texans rookie linebacker Jadeveon Clowney said Thursday he is ready to return to action Week 8 against the Titans after missing the last six games due to knee surgery.

"I’m as healthy as I’m going to be this season," he said, per the Houston Chronicle. "I’m ready to play football. I’ll be surprised if I don’t play, but it’s up to the coaches.

"My knee’s going to bother me a little. There’s a little discomfort, but it’s something you have to push through. I’ve been working on my craft and trying to get in football shape. It’s one thing to run, but another to be back on the field. I’m looking forward to helping my team and getting back and having fun. I’ve been missing being with my team."


 
 
 
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