By Alex Levin
With the draft complete and the bulk of the free agency rush over with, it’s time to start looking ahead to the 2020 season! And with that, I’m back with year 2 of my Opportunity series.
For those who didn’t see this series last year, I try to take a different approach to fantasy projections than your run-of-the-mill rankings. The basis of my process is that the number one indicator of fantasy success is opportunities to touch the ball. Obviously individual player skill can (and will) affect that, but at the end of the day players are at the mercy of playcalling and play design. Therefore, if we want to make accurate projections, we need to look at each coach’s scheme and how they like to spread the ball around.
As a result, this series is very coach-centric. I’ll touch on individual players, but only as they relate to their coaches’ schemes. On a related note, this series will only aim to establish projections on how touches will be split up, not what individual players will be able to accomplish with those touches. That will come later once depth charts settle through training camp. Think of this series more as a basis for realistic expectations.
Make sense? Good. Let’s dive in.
Most of my stats are pulled from Pro Football Reference. Please support them. They are awesome and are my primary source of statistical information.
Last Year’s Accuracy
For league wide stats, see this spreadsheet.
Thanks in no small part to a late-season surge, Dan Quinn keeps his head coaching seat by the skin of his teeth for the second year in a row. Sharp contrast from the Falcons’ Super Bowl appearance just a few years ago. He retains Dirk Koetter as his offensive coordinator, but will relinquish his defensive coordinator title to Raheem Morris. Morris was promoted from DB coach, but had been calling defensive plays toward the end of 2019 anyway so there likely won’t be a huge change on that side.
Quinn is a defensive-minded coach, so his impact on the offense is minimal. Our focus will instead be on offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. As we pointed out last year, Koetter has produced a mixed bag of scheme balances over his long NFL career. He’s led offenses that ran the ball over 50% of the time, he’s led offenses that have passed almost 70% of the time, and he’s led offenses that have done everything in between. It is certainly worth taking note of some of his previous work, but the most important numbers for our purposes are what Koetter schemed up last year with the Falcons since those will be the most relevant to projecting what he’ll do in 2020.
When looking at the 2019 Falcons, there are two numbers that are particularly eye-popping. First is the total number of plays run. Atlanta ran an astounding 1096 plays last year, good for second most in the league. Of course, that tends to happen when your offense is the 5th fastest in the league while also producing the 2nd most plays per drive. The Falcons’ offense was able to accomplish this level of efficiency through a very effective passing game, which leads us to the second key number; a 67% pass rate. The Falcons threw the ball 67% of the time last year, leading the league in that category and nearly setting a new career high for Koetter (second only to the 68.6% pass rate he called with the 2013 Falcons). This pass-heavy approach was spurred both by the incredible talent Atlanta managed to collect in the passing game and the sheer ineffectiveness of their running game, which was hampered by lingering injuries to lead back Devonta Freeman and a surprisingly ineffective offensive line.
This talent imbalance also played a part in the target share distribution. Atlanta’s elite wide receivers were targeted on 61.5% of Matt Ryan’s throws, good for the seventh highest share in the league and well above the NFL average of 55.8%. The running backs, meanwhile, only gathered 16.2% of Ryan’s targets, decently below the league average of 19.8%. Surprisingly, the tight ends were only targeted 18.0% of the time (a little below the league average of 20.2%) despite featuring a breakout year from Austin Hooper. However, looking back at Koetter’s time with Tampa’s similar talent distribution from 2015-2018 reveals that this slightly lower utilization of tight ends is not uncommon for him.
While we should definitely still expect a very pass-centric offense this year, it might not be quite to the same degree as last year. Yeah, RB Todd Gurley may not be the workhorse he once was, but as long as his reps are managed he’s still a force to be reckoned with. That’s more than can be said for the Falcons backfield last year. The Falcons also went out and grabbed Dante Fowler in addition to taking defensive players with four of their six draft picks (including their top two picks), so it’s not a stretch to believe that their defense could see some improvement. Better defenses tend to result in more run-heavy offenses as well.
Like I said though, this is still absolutely going to be a pass-centric offense. Atlanta still has the majority of its talent attached to the passing game, after all. Having to compete with two of the greatest QBs to ever play the game in the same division isn’t going reduce that volume either. All things considered, maybe Koetter only clocks in at a 64% or 65% pass rate this year instead of the 67% last year. Either way, it’s still likely that Atlanta calls very high total play volume again. Koetter still runs a fast paced offense, and forcing defenses to actually respect the run can only increase play efficiency.
As for determining who gets that high volume of passing targets, it seems unlikely that there will be much change from last year since every point that could lead to change also has a counterpoint of similar weight. Gurley is a huge upgrade at running back, but if he’s on a snap count how much will he really drag the running backs’ target share up (especially since a Dirk Koetter backfield hasn’t eclipsed a 17% target share since 2015)? Losing Hooper is huge at tight end, but Hayden Hurst was a 1st round pick himself and the Falcons paid a pretty penny to snag him from the Ravens. Does the tight end target share really drop off with that kind of investment? And if both the running backs and tight ends don’t have clear paths to reducing target shares, what happens to the wide receivers who are primed to see greater volume featuring Julio Jones, rising-star Calvin Ridley, and quietly productive Russell Gage? On balance it seems likely that the wideout target share will climb slightly while both the running backs and tight ends fall, but none of these moves should be particularly drastic.
One last point of interest is the offensive line. Despite sinking some significant capital into improving up front, the Falcons offensive line still did quite poorly last year, resulting in QB Matt Ryan’s highest sack total of his career. This offseason, Atlanta’s front office seemed content to just let it be with the only notable addition being a 3rd round center. It’s possible that last year was a fluke and that we should see improvement now that things have gelled, but that’s not usually something that’s safe to bank on. Having a competent running game should help, but with the unknowns up front it’s difficult to project that big of a shift.
Alex Levin – Projections/Redraft
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