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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
Report: Falcons OL Gabe Carimi will head to free agency
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(3/4/2015) Falcons offensive lineman Gabe Carimi will not be retained before free agency begins on March 10, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter. 

Carimi appeared in all 16 regular-season games and made seven starts for the Falcons in 2014. 


Report: Colts, Dolphins going after Ndamukong Suh in free agency
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(3/4/2015) The Colts and Dolphins are expected to try their best to land soon-to-be free agent Ndamukong Suh when the new league year begins on March 10, according to a report from Yahoo! Sports. 

Suh will be the most sought-after free agent once the period begins. The report also states the Dolphins are currently in the lead, with the Lions and Colts close behind at this time. 

Teams can begin negotiating with agents during a legal tampering period that begins Saturday. 

In 2014, Suh recorded 53 total tackles and 8 1/2 sacks. 


Colts sign long snapper Matt Overton to four-year deal
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(3/4/2015) The Colts announced they signed long snapper Matt Overton to a new contract

Overton tweeted on his personal account that he will be with the Colts for another four years. In three seasons with the Colts, Overton has appeared in 48 games and has made 22 special teams tackles. 

He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2013. 


Police: Panthers' Cam Newton not person of interest in shooting
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(3/4/2015) Police stated Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is not a person of interest in a shooting at a Charlotte, N.C. nightclub, according to the Associated Press. 

Newton was photographed at Label nightclub on stage with rapper Young Jeezy last weekend before gunshots were fired into a crowd. Two people sustained non-life-threatening injuries as a result of the gunfire. 

In a video obtained by Charlotte's WSOC TV, Newton is spotted partying at the venue before he, along with the rest of the party's attendants, ducked when shots were fired


Adrian Peterson pleased with Vikings meeting, still has concerns
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(3/4/2015) Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was appreciative of the Vikings front office's visit on Wednesday, he said in a statement to ESPN's Josina Anderson

However, Peterson also alluded to some issues that needed to be hashed out between both parties. 

"I appreciate [general manager] Rick [Spielman] and Coach [Mike] Zimmer coming down to see me today," Peterson said. "We had a great dialogue and they were able to understand where I was coming from and concerns my family and I still have. We respect each other and hopefully the situation can pan out so that everyone involved is content."

Peterson was moved back to the Commissioner's Exempt list after U.S. District Judge David Doty ruled an NFL arbitrator should not have upheld a suspension that would last until April 15. The NFL has appealed this ruling.

With Peterson on the Commissioner's Exempt list, the Vikings are able to have communication with him. 

The Vikings have publicly expressed a desire to have Peterson back in 2015. Peterson has had reservations about wanting to return to Minnesota. 

Peterson only played in one game during the 2014 season. Following a child abuse allegation, Peterson pleaded no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault on his son. 


Report: 49ers shopping linebacker Michael Wilhoite
(3/4/2015) The 49ers are looking to trade linebacker Michael Wilhoite, according to The Sacramento Bee. The team is looking to obtain a sixth- or seventh-round pick in exchange for the former undrafted free agent, per a league source.

Wilhoite, 28, filled in when starters Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman were sidelined with injuries last season. He started all 16 games for the first time in his career in 2014. He tallied career-highs with 87 total tackles, six passes defensed and two interceptions.


Report: Bills' Rex Ryan wanted to trade Kiko Alonso upon arrival
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(3/4/2015) From his first day as the Bills head coach, Rex Ryan was looking to trade linebacker Kiko Alonso, according to a report from NFL.com's Ian Rapoport. 

One of the first things Ryan wanted to do with the Bills, the report states, was trade Alonso. On Tuesday, CBSSports.com NFL Insider Jason La Canfora confirmed the Eagles and Bills had a plan in place to swap Alonso for running back LeSean McCoy. ESPN's Adam Schefter first reported the story. 

It's a strange revelation considering Alonso's stellar 2013 season as a rookie, when he totaled 159 tackles and four interceptions. However, he's coming off of an ACL tear that was sustained last offseason. 

Without Alonso in 2014, the Bills were still able to finish fourth in the NFL in yards allowed per game at 312.2 per game. 


Report: Giants LB Jacquian Williams to become free agent
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(3/4/2015) Giants linebacker Jacquian Williams will become a free agent on March 10, according to a report from the New York Daily News

A concussion limited Williams to just nine games in 2014. In those games, he recorded 78 tackles and three pass deflections. 


Report: Cowboys sign LB Keith Rivers
(3/4/2015) The Cowboys signed linebacker Keith Rivers to a one-year deal for the veteran minimum Wednesday, DallasCowboys.com reports.

Rivers, 28, played three seasons with the Bengals after being selected ninth overall in the 2008 NFL Draft before missing the 2011 season with an injury. He went on to play for the Giants and the Bills, but spent just one year in Buffalo, making the Cowboys his third team in three seasons. He started a career-low three games during his one season with the Bills in 2014.


Report: Giants talks with Antrel Rolle not productive
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(3/4/2015) It doesn't look like safety Antrel Rolle will be with the Giants next season. 

According to the New York Daily News, contract negotiations between the two parties haven't gone well. Rolle doesn't want to come back for much less than the $7 million he earned for each of the 2013 and 2014 seasons. 

It's also possible that Rolle winds up with the Dolphins, the report states. 

Rolle recorded 87 tackles and three interceptions in 2014. 


 
 
 
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