2021 Franchise Focus: Atlanta Falcons


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2021 Franchise Focus: Atlanta Falcons

It’s a new era in Atlanta. First, the club brought in a new brain trust, hiring a new GM in Terry Fontenot from division rival New Orleans and a new head coach, former Titan OC Arthur Smith. Then, strapped for cap space, Fontenot traded away arguably the best player in franchise history, WR Julio Jones, to Smith’s former club.

The Falcons still have some offensive talent around QB Matt Ryan — notably WR Calvin Ridley and freak show rookie TE Kyle Pitts — but the trade of Julio seems to be a tacit admission that the Super Bowl isn’t in the cards for Atlanta in 2021.

Nonetheless, we’re interested to watch what Smith cooks up. In Tennessee, he employed one of the league’s most dominant run games with Derrick Henry. We have a hard time seeing the same happen in Atlanta with Mike Davis and a cast of misfit toys in the backfield. And despite Julio being gone, there is still plenty of intrigue with this club when it comes to fantasy.

Atlanta Falcons Franchise Focus Companion Podcast

The Basics

2021 Season Odds

Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook

Team FuturesOdds
Season Win Total (O/U)7.5 (-110/-110)
NFC South+800
Playoffs (Y/N)+240/-303
NFC Championship+2500
Super Bowl+6000
Season Prop Movement
  • Win Total: 7 (-143) in late March to 7.5 (-110)

  • Super Bowl: +5000 in early February to +6000

Premium 2021 Betting Preview from Tom Brolley found here.

Key Offseason Moves

Mike Davis (RB)Kyle Pitts (TE)Julio Jones (WR, Ten)
Cordarrelle Patterson (KR/PR)Richie Grant (S)Todd Gurley (RB)
Barkevious Mingo (OLB)Jalen Mayfield (OT)Brian Hill (RB, Ten)
Erik Harris (S)Darren Hall (CB)Alex Mack (C, SF)
Fabian Moreau (CB)Drew Dalman (C)Blidi Wreh-Wilson (CB, LV)
Duron Harmon (SS)Javian Hawkins (RB — UDFA)Darqueze Dennard (CB, Ari)
A.J. McCarron (QB)Damontae Kazee (S, Dal)
Ricardo Allen (S, Cin)
Keanu Neal (S, Dal)

Scott Barrett’s Fantasy Strength of Schedule

Quarterback: 15th-toughest (-0.12)

Running Back: 8th-toughest (-0.68)

Wide Receivers: 16th-toughest (+0.04)

Tight Ends: 12th-easiest (+0.09)

Pace and Tendencies

Pace (seconds in between plays): 27.0 (12th)

Plays per game: 65.8 (7th)

When the game is within a score — Pass: 62% (6th) | Run: 38% (27th)

When the team is ahead — Pass: 56.7% (5th) | Run: 43.3% (28th)

When the team is behind — Pass: 68.7% (9th) | Run: 31.3% (24th)

Thanks to a shaky secondary that gave up a league-high 4,697 passing yards and the third-most TDs (34), the Falcons had to keep their foot on the gas all of last season and it resulted in an extremely pass-heavy attack in every situation. While the results in the real world were bad, the fantasy outcome was perfect. Matt Ryan attempted over 600 passes for the third straight season and the Falcons found themselves in constant shootouts, as a league-high six of their games resulted in a combined 45+ points and 600+ passing yards between both offenses. New HC Arthur Smith obviously leaned run-heavy in Tennessee, but Derrick Henry is up the road in Nashville and Atlanta still has glaring holes along their defensive line and in the secondary. We likely won’t see the Falcons remain extremely pass-heavy like they were in 2020 with former OC Dirk Koetter, but Smith will have to change his stripes no matter what.

Key Statistics

  • In the eight games that Julio Jones has missed over the last two years, Calvin Ridley has gone for 8/91, 5/110, 8/136, 6/50/1, 8/124/1, 10/163/1, 5/130, and 8/52.

  • Ridley finished as the weekly WR25 or better seven times in that 8 game sample and saw 9 or more targets in every game.

  • Matt Ryan has now finished as a top-15 QB in five-straight seasons.

  • Look for HC Arthur Smith to install a lot more play-action concepts this coming season. This past year, the Titans used play-action on a league-high 36% of their pass plays. The Falcons used play-action on 25% of their pass plays (ranked 18th).

  • In 2016, the Falcons’ Super Bowl season, Ryan led the NFL in play action rate under Kyle Shanahan.

Huber’s Scheme Notes


Losing longtime fan favorite Julio Jones will leave quite a sting in the hearts of loyal Atlanta fans. After devoting 10 seasons to the franchise, it’s not all that surprising to see Jones lose faith in the system after only making four playoff appearances over that stretch. And the one significant playoff run of his career (2016) ended with Tom Brady’s Patriots overcoming the largest Super Bowl deficit in history after leading 28-3 with a hair over one quarter left to play. The remaining offensive personnel departures were for the best. However, the additions of Kyle Pitts and Mike Davis will provide new HC Arthur Smith — who will also call offensive plays — the ability to really push the envelope in a post-Julio era where many have already written them off from contention.

If you missed my pre-draft profile on Pitts, allow me to break the news that he is simply unguardable in single coverage. He’s too strong, too fast to maintain any type of leverage. So good, in fact, that it’ll take shadow coverage from the very best CBs in the game to slow him down. The number of teams that will be able to shadow Pitts with their CB1 and supply a CB2 good enough to cover Calvin Ridley can be counted on one hand. Let’s face it, we have absolutely no way of knowing exactly how Smith and OC Dave Ragone will scheme their offense. This season will be the first as an OC for Ragone, and Smith will have nothing even remotely similar to Derrick Henry in his backfield.

When I wrote up Najee Harris’ draft profile, I listed Atlanta as the optimal destination. The only other RBs in the ‘20 class that would allow the Falcons to employ the same rushing style used by the Titans (Smith) or Bears (Ragone) were Trey Sermon and Javonte Williams. They failed to land any of the three. But don’t be dismayed. Mike Davis offers an intriguing set of talents that will allow Smith to feature the same outside zone and gap concepts he utilized during his two seasons as the Tennessee OC. Davis did his best work for Carolina last season with outside zone blocking, where his YPC improved by 28% over his total average. I’m also intrigued by the UDFA acquisition of Javian Hawkins, adding the change-of-pace dynamic to the attack.

As for the passing offense, there is no denying Julio’s claims that Matt Ryan’s arm strength has declined in recent years. He ranks 25th out of 41 qualified QBs in completion percentage on throws of 30-or-more yards — with more INTs than TDs — over the last three seasons. However, Ryan has simply been money in the bank (top-10) on throws under 25 yards over that same time. It just so happens that Ridley, Russell Gage, and (obviously) Davis have done the overwhelming majority of their damage at target depths under 25 yards. Without a power running game, expect to see the Falcons employ a significant spike in their middle-of-the-pack spread personnel rates from the last two seasons. We may even see enough detached four wides for Olamide Zaccheaus to come into a bit of value.


Any attempts at making positive statements in regards to Atlanta’s 2020 defense can simply be countered by the fact that they permitted the fourth-highest average FPG to entire opposing offenses. They ruined the fact that they only allowed the second-lowest pure rushing FPG to RBs by surrendering the 11th-most pure receiving FPG to RBs. And they were simply the worst defense in the NFL against WRs. New DC Dean Pees no doubt noticed those ranks when he facilitated the departure of 96% of safety snaps from last season. The only issue I have with allowing any of those safeties to walk is Keanu Neal. I totally get that he missed significant time from 2018-19, but Neal proved last season that he was still a top-5ish strong safety.

We shouldn’t be too hard on Atlanta’s CBs for their abysmal results. The green trio of A.J. Terrell, Isaiah Oliver, and, to a lesser extent, Kendall Sheffield just need some time to develop. So it certainly stands to wonder why the Falcons would allow Blidi Wreh-Wilson — a top-10 nickel CB last season — to stroll over to Las Vegas. The most game-ready component of the team’s ‘21 coverage will be its LBs. Deion Jones is playing out-of-his mind and Mykal Walker emerged as one of the finer coverage LBs in the game. Foye Oluokun — a former sixth-rounder — has a ways to go with his coverage, but did surprisingly lead the team in tackles.

As far as what we can expect scheme-wise, we need to dip into Pees’ time as the Tennessee DC from 2018-19. Even with that information, it’s nearly guaranteed that he’ll tweak his approach based on his available personnel. Lucky enough for us, the only significant alteration to the scheme rotation should be a spike in Atlanta’s Cover 3 rate. Pees used a similar percentage of Cover 1 and Cover 2 that the Falcons ran out last season. But I have my doubts that the defense will be able to replicate their no-name pass rushing efficiency, especially without Neal’s elite skills getting after the QB.

Projected Fantasy Contributors

Matt Ryan (Proj: QB18 | ADP: 116 | Pos ADP: QB15)

Ryan will be Atlanta’s starting quarterback for a 14th season in 2021. It wasn’t a lock at the end of last season when the Falcons finished with a 4-12 record, which landed them the No. 4 pick in a draft with five first-round quarterbacks. The Falcons gave the 36-year-old quarterback a vote of confidence for the near future by bypassing the young QB talent, and they even gave him the most exciting young offensive weapon in the draft by selecting TE Kyle Pitts. Unfortunately, he’ll be entering his first season without his partner in crime, Julio Jones, for the first time since 2010. In their decade together, Ryan has averaged 7.8 YPA and 292.6 passing yards per game with 242 TDs and 92 INTs in 134 games with Julio. Ryan has been demonstrably worse without Jones in that same span, averaging 7.0 YPA and 260.1 passing yards per game with 39 TDs, and 25 INTs in 25 games. Ryan at least still has Pitts, who has the highest ceiling for any rookie TE of all time, and last year’s breakout WR Calvin Ridley, who finished as the WR4 playing with Ryan. The bigger concern could be a dip in passing volume for Ryan with Arthur Smith taking over as the head coach and play-caller. Ryan has topped 600+ passing attempts in three straight seasons and in seven of his last nine years while Smith’s Titan’s offenses — with Derrick Henry at RB — averaged 466.5 passes per season the last two years. The Falcons will still have one of the worst defenses in the league, which will keep Ryan active, but he’ll need to be more efficient in his first season without Julio to have any hopes of being a QB1 since he doesn’t bring anything to the table with his legs.

Mike Davis (Proj: RB22 | ADP: 62 | Pos ADP: RB27)

Davis revived his career as Carolina’s bell-cow back last season with Christian McCaffrey playing in just three games. He posted 165/642/6 rushing (3.4 YPC) and 59/373/2 receiving (5.3 YPR) to finish as the RB18 with 13.8 FPG in 15 games. Davis parlayed his success last season into a two-year, $5.5 million deal with $3 million guaranteed with the Falcons this off-season. He played 67.4% of the snaps in Weeks 3-16 in 2020, when he was the primary top back, and he could see a similar type of workload in Atlanta with the likes of just Qadree Ollison and UDFA backs Javian Hawkins and Caleb Huntley behind him. Davis doesn’t excel in any one area, but he’s more than capable as a runner, as a receiver, and as a blocker. Atlanta is likely viewing him as a bridge starter for this season while they get their cap situation under control in 2021. Coming from the Panthers’ predominant zone-blocking schemes, he’s a very good fit under new Falcons coach Arthur Smith. Davis was far from efficient as Carolina’s starter but he could see enough volume in Atlanta to be a high-floor, low ceiling RB2 option once again. He’s worth considering in the fifth round if you’re looking for your second back after loading up at WR in the third and fourth rounds.

Calvin Ridley (Proj: WR4 | ADP: 20 | Pos ADP: WR5)

Ridley has made steady progress in each of his first three seasons since the Falcons drafted him in the late first round in 2018, and it culminated in his WR4 finish with 18.8 FPG last season. He could be primed to cement himself among the position’s elite this season after the organization traded away franchise star Julio Jones, which will give Ridley a chance to become the new face of the offense as long as he can hold off Kyle Pitts. Ridley finished with 90/1374/9 receiving on 143 targets in 15 games last year and he easily paced the league with 1918 air yards — Stefon Diggs was the next closest at 1700 air yards. Ridley averaged 7.3 catches, 107.0 yards, and 11.1 targets per game in the eight games Jones missed in 2019-20. It’s no wonder he’s snuck into the top five at his position and he's been a mainstay as a second-round pick in fantasy drafts since the Falcons shipped Jones to Nashville in early June. Ridley not only has a chance to repeat as the air yards champ in 2021, but he could vie for the league lead in target share depending on Pitts’ learning curve as he transitions to the next level in a new offense.

Russell Gage (Proj: WR50 | ADP: 124 | Pos ADP: WR51)

Gage has seen his ADP skyrocket since the Falcons traded away franchise star Julio Jones, and for good reason since he’s now ticketed for the #2 WR spot and likely the third-most targets in this passing attack. Gage posted career-best numbers across the board in his third season with 72/786/4 receiving on 109 targets for 11.3 FPG in 16 games, which included seven missed contests from Julio. Gage ran 67.5% of his routes from the slot last season and Matt Ryan targeted him more than any other Falcon third downs last season. The big question is if new HC Arthur Smith will play Gage with Calvin Ridley when they use 12 personnel, or if he will view him strictly as a slot receiver in 11 personnel. Gage is a fine floor pick in the double-digit rounds in PPR formats, but he’s not going to offer much more upside than a WR3 this season with his career 10.2 YPR average and his five scores on 193 career targets. He won’t be worth a pick if his ADP keeps rising into the single-digit rounds.

Olamide Zaccheaus (Proj: WR97 | ADP: 448 | Pos ADP: WR151)

It might be time to start practicing how to pronounce Olamide Zaccheaus (Oh-llama-day Za-key-us) just in case he’s headed toward fantasy relevance this season after the franchise traded away Julio Jones in early June. He’ll likely open the season behind Russell Gage for the #2 WR role but there’s a chance he could be the second option in 12 personnel if new HC Arthur Smith views Gage strictly as a slot WR — Gage ran 67.5% of his routes from the slot last season. Zaccheaus made almost no impact in the four games he played without Jones last season, notching just six catches for 65 yards on 14 targets on his way to just 20/274/1 receiving on 32 targets in 11 games overall.

Kyle Pitts (Proj: TE6 | ADP: 50 | Pos ADP: TE4)

Pitts was arguably the top player in this year’s draft because he’s a rare tight end — like a Darren Waller — who has the ability to take over games as a receiver because of his unique length and speed for the position. Pitts’ length (6’6”, 83” wingspan), athleticism (4.44 40-time), and ball skills will instantly make him one of the toughest covers for defenders in the league. The Falcons made him the highest-drafted tight end in the common draft era, which began in 1967, and he immediately jumped to the top of the tight end dynasty rankings — he’ll turn just 21 years old in October. Pitts scored a ridiculous 12 TDs and he averaged 17.9 YPR in eight games at Florida last season. He’ll likely be the #2 option for Matt Ryan right out of the gates, behind only Calvin Ridley, after the Falcons traded away Julio Jones and his 7.6 targets per game from last season. Pitts leapfrogged Mark Andrews and T.J. Hockenson after the Jones trade to become the TE4 and you’ll have to use at least a fifth-round pick to land him in fantasy drafts. Rookie TEs typically underwhelm for fantasy, but no rookie TE has possessed Pitts’ league-winning upside entering the league, so be prepared to pay up if you want to roster him.

Hayden Hurst (Proj: TE36 | ADP: 212 | Pos ADP: TE27)

The Falcons gave Hurst a chance to break out last season after they traded second-round and fifth-round picks to the Ravens for Hurst and a fourth-round pick. He had been buried behind the likes of Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle on Baltimore’s depth chart in his first two seasons in 2018-19 before jumping to the top of Atlanta’s depth chart last season. The move paid off in career-highs across the board in catches (56), receiving yards (571), TDs (6), and targets (88), but he still fell below expectations given his large role in one of the league’s most pass-heavy schemes. He failed to notch a single weekly top-five finish and he failed to top 30+ receiving yards in seven of his 16 games even with Julio Jones missing seven games last season. Hurst will once again find himself down the depth chart this season after his one-year stint as a starter after the Falcons spent the No. 4 pick on generational talent Kyle Pitts. At least new HC Arthur Smith used 12 personnel a league-high 35% of the time with the Titans last season. The Falcons also traded away Julio to Tennessee in early June, but Hurst will still be off the fantasy radar barring an injury to Pitts this season.

Hansen’s Final Points

While we feel good about former Titan TE coach Arthur Smith’s ability to use him creatively, it’s still a leap of faith to believe Kyle Pitts can replace Julio Jones in any offense as a rookie. But that’s essentially what Pitts will have to do to give Matt Ryan a chance at being a fantasy force. Ryan, whose splits with and without Julio over the last decade are worrisome, can’t be counted on to add more than 20 measly points to his totals with his legs all season, so he will need to put up 2-3 TDs most weeks to come through. He’s the QB15 off the board per the ADP around 120, but we’d let him slip at least a round past 10 before considering him. But frankly, we’re more inclined to let him go, since his upside appears minimal barring an insanely productive rookie season for Pitts.

Many veteran RBs who produce out of nowhere and get fantasy love the next year tend to disappoint the next season; see Raheem Mostert last year. Mostert had injury problems, but if Mike Davis can stay healthy, he’s going to deliver with a huge three-down role. There aren’t many available options on the planet who are more capable than Davis at this late stage of the season (July), so he should approach the 67% snapshare he enjoyed filling in for Christian McCaffrey last fall. Davis excelled in a similar zone-blocking scheme he’s going to work in with HC Arthur Smith. They love him in pass pro, so he will be on the field a ton, since he’s easily their best three-down back. Initially, it’ll be Qadree Ollison vying for some changeup snaps, and then we’ll see about UDFAs Javian Hawkins and Caleb Huntley. Davis is the perfect guy to target if you go WR-heavy early, or if you don’t have more than one RB through the first 4-5 rounds. His July ADP of 60 is both fair and unlikely to change. He was also the RB26 as of July, and we had him at 22, so we’re a little higher on him than the masses.

The WR position is a little top-heavy this year, with fewer than ten sure-fire elite options, but you can count Calvin Ridley as being in that elite group. While he’s clearly benefited from playing alongside Julio Jones, he’s also excelled as the #1 WR when Julio’s been out, as noted above. Assuming his lingering concerns with his foot as in the rearview this summer, this high-level talent is well worth taking in the 15-20 overall range if you’re looking for a WR1 in Round 2.

Veteran slot man Russell Gage had one of the quietest 70+ catch seasons you’ll ever see last year, but he’s not under the radar now with Julio gone. He should be no worse than the third option in the passing game, and they've liked him for hands and route-running. What fantasy people haven’t liked about him is his low career 10.2 YPR average and his five scores on 193 career targets. We have him projected right at his position ADP as of July (WR51 ADP, WR50 @FantasyPoints). But if his ADP goes up in August, we’ll likely be passing on Gage.

He can be passed on in all but the deepest formats this summer, but pay attention to how Olamide Zaccheaus is used behind WRs Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage. just in case Zaccheaus has a bigger role than initially anticipated with Julio Jones gone. It’s possible that Zaccheaus sees some snaps over Gage, who is ideally suited to play the slot.

Most know Kyle Pitts is a high-talent, perhaps a transcendent talent, and I do feel good about the former TE coach Arthur Smith’s ability to use Pitts creatively. What I don’t feel warm and fuzzy about is Pitts’ ever-increasing cost, a price tag that has steadily risen since the draft (at least his cost as it relates to TJ Hockenson, whom we have ranked and projected higher). I love talent and upside as much as anyone, but I’m going to need to see some good things and have nothing but positive vibes on Pitts to sign off on his expensive ADP. Of course, that’s very possible.

The Falcons will run a lot of 12 personnel, Hayden Hurst will still get snaps and touches, but he did underwhelm in 2020 and now he’s playing second fiddle to Pitts, so Hurst should not be drafted in most leagues.