Returning to the Fantasy Fullback Dive‘s Summer of Team Previews, The Wolf and The Truth recently sat down with Jeanna Thomas from SB Nation’s The Falcoholic to talk 2017 Falcons and the impact their guys could have on the upcoming fantasy football season. You can find the episode here, and also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. The conversation may have gotten a bit sidetracked at times — after all, the Wolf is a Patriots fan — but the interview and the entire episode is stacked to the brim with helpful Falcons-related tips that’ll boost your knowledge for your fantasy draft and beyond.
Is Julio Jones’ role going to change under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian? Will Austin Hooper ever be a legitimate fantasy TE option? And what do we make of this crowded, talented backfield? Here’s what you need to know.
1. Julio Jones should see an increase in targets in the red zone
There have been plenty of reports since the Falcons hired Steve Sarkisian — like this one — pushing the idea that the Falcons will work to get Julio Jones more opportunities in the red zone this season. At 6’3″ and 220 pounds with tremendous athleticism, Jones is the logical choice to be the Falcons #1 aerial threat when they get close to the goal line. But Jones finished last season with only 6 receiving touchdowns, and was tied for 16th in the league with just 9 red zone targets (Jordy Nelson led the league with 29). In fact, of the 9 players with the highest receiving yardage totals a season ago, Jones was the only one without double-digit red zone targets. So should we expect changes?
“Julio Jones is arguably the best receiver in the league… if you have a weapon like that, you use him as much as possible. I would love to see an expanded role for him in the red zone — that’s one thing, he didn’t score that many touchdowns last year.”
Although Jones has yet to practice with the team this year due to a minor offseason operation on his foot, it’s a safe assumption that his red zone targets will increase in 2017, and for good reason. And as we all know, red zone targets = touchdowns = fantasy points, so it’s certainly something to keep in mind if you’re picking early in the first round of your draft.
2. Atlanta’s effective running back by committee will continue as advertised
“Devonta [Freeman] has a little bit better vision, and he’s a little bit shiftier; Tevin Coleman has that straight line speed, where if he gets into space, you’re going to have a hard time catching up with him. They really do have just slightly different skill sets — both very good receivers, both reliable blockers. Both are really assets to this offense. I think that they probably will extend Devonta’s contract and lock him up for a few more years, so the Falcons should have that tandem in the backfield for the foreseeable future.”
When you picture the explosiveness of the Falcons offensive, your first mental image is most likely Matt Ryan completing some absurd pass to Julio Jones. And this is fair, of course, but how about that run game? The Falcons finished 5th in the NFL a season ago with over 1900 rushing yards as a team and lost just 1 fumble all season. Meanwhile, the stars of this backfield, Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman, are just 24 and 25 years old, respectively, and presumably have plenty left in the tank for 2017. They reportedly have a great relationship and don’t mind splitting carries if it means success for the team, so the only possible issue for this backfield could be Freeman’s contract situation. He’s set to play out the final season of his rookie deal in 2017, netting only $1.8 million, but has been in talks with the team on an extension. A long-term deal seemed evident at first, but with the two sides still far from a deal, it’s beginning to look like other outcomes could be possible. Freeman could take a chance on himself and try to earn a more lucrative deal this season, knowing that his franchise tag value will also rise next year if the team chooses to go that route after the season. But as long as he plays as scheduled in 2017, he and Coleman will form one of the most lethal running back duos in football.
3. Expect more consistent production out of Austin Hooper
After finishing 38th among tight ends in standard fantasy scoring a season ago, Austin Hooper is ready for an increased role in 2017. Last year’s starter Jacob Tamme did not re-sign with the team, leaving Hooper to compete with Levine Toilolo for snaps at tight end. Hooper seems like the most likely candidate to assume Tamme’s starting role and try to top Tamme’s 22 receptions from a season ago, and he’s reportedly been working out with Matt Ryan in the offseason to ensure chemistry with his QB heading into the season. All signs seem to point to a breakout year for Hooper, and our expert certainly agrees.
“I do expect Hooper to be a much bigger factor. Hooper is a really well-rounded tight end — he’s a good blocker, he’s a good receiver… I think that adjusting to the speed of the game was something that he was challenged with last year, and so with another full offseason I think that he’ll be ready to go when the season rolls around.”
Thomas also pointed out that Sarkasian typically relies on tight ends more than Kyle Shannahan was known to, which gives Hooper yet another opportunity to get on the field and make a name for himself in his 2nd NFL season.
4. If you’re debating Mohamed Sanu vs. Taylor Gabriel, go with Gabriel
Typically, each team will have one or two guys on offense that you know are the focal points of the unit, and past that it’s a crapshoot. The Falcons are no different — Jones and Freeman are the stars, but there are plenty of other capable guys on Atlanta’s offense that could produce this season. And when attempting to fill your WR3/FLEX slot, you may find yourself stuck choosing between 5-year veteran Mohamed Sanu and the slightly younger slot guy Taylor Gabriel. It seems like a toss-up, but if you trust our expert and The Wolf’s rankings, you’re going with Gabriel.
“I think that Gabriel will be just about as productive as he was last year. If I’m picking… I mean, [Sanu] is a really well-rounded receiver, he’s a vicious blocker, he’s a huge part of the offense, but I think that Taylor might get more targets than Mohamed. I like both guys a lot, but I’d probably take Taylor over Mo.”
Gabriel isn’t exactly an imposing physical figure, measuring up at just 5’8″ and 165 pounds, but his 4.45 speed and great hands make him a tough cover for even the most talented corners. He broke out in a huge way in the 2nd half of last season, averaging 16.7 standard fantasy points per game from weeks 8-15. He recorded all of his 6 TDs for the season in this span, as well as 457 of his 579 receiving yards (about 79%). Basically, if this guy can do what he’s shown in small sample sizes for a full 16-game season, he could be a guy we’re putting up at the top of fantasy rankings for years to come.
5. For better or for worse, this team (and its fans) are NOT over the Super Bowl
Jeanna Thomas said it just a few minutes into the interview: “I’m really not over it. I really don’t know if I ever will be.” Super Bowl 51 will haunt the Atlanta Falcons and their fans for years to come — even when the pain stops, don’t expect the “28-3” jokes to follow suit. And based off the Wolf’s hilarious story about his Las Vegas interaction with Julio Jones (great story at the 27:30 mark in the episode), the players aren’t exactly over it, either — which could be a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it. Recently, Matt Ryan made this commercial attempting to spin the worst loss in sports history into a positive.
Cheesy? Totally. But that’s the mindset Ryan and the Falcons need to have if they’re going to get over the Super Bowl. It certainly wasn’t pretty, but they outplayed the Patriots for well over 50% of that game, and that’s the thing they’re going to have to focus on heading into year 1 AC — After Choke.
Sure, we always hear about championship hangovers after a team wins and doesn’t start the season well. But will that apply to a team that basically had the game in its hands, but didn’t end up with the trophy? We’ll see.
Did I miss anything from our interview? Do you disagree with our experts’ opinions? Find me on Twitter @seankeegs16 and keep an eye out for our next interview and more fantasy-relevant takeaways as we approach the 2017 NFL season.