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2020 Stats (rank)
Total Offense: 5,895 yards (18th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 41 (23rd)
Offensive Plays: 1,078 (5th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 669 (3rd)
Rush Attempts: 409 (20th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 195(4th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 364 (1st)
Incoming head coach Arthur Smith ran one of the run-heaviest offenses in Tennessee -- a stark departure from how the Falcons have operated since the departure of Kyle Shanahan in 2017. Only the Patriots and Ravens had a lower neutral pass rate than Smith’s Titans in 2020, which, of course, may well have been dictated by personnel. Any team with a dominating rusher like Derrick Henry is going to embrace the run -- establish it, if you will -- when they have the chance. In Tennessee, it worked beautifully: Only the Packers, Bills, and Bucs scored more points than the 2020 Titans, who wrecked opposing defenses in the red zone, managing touchdowns on 72.4 percent of their possessions inside the 20 -- the league’s second highest rate. Ryan Tannehill thrived in Smith’s offense, posting the NFL’s fourth highest QBR in 2020 and the ninth highest in 2019.
Smith, 39, who is expected to retain play-calling duties as a head coach, has a distinct offensive flavor: The Titans last year led the NFL in 12 personnel -- one running back and two tight ends -- and it wasn’t close. Tennessee deployed 12 personnel 15 percent more than the league average. Such an approach in 2021 would represent a stark change to Atlanta’s offense. Below is a comparison of how the Falcons and Titans differed in their usage of 12 personnel in 2020.
on run plays
on pass plays
Matt Ryan’s 2020 season wasn’t all bad. His 4,581 passing yards were sixth most in his 13 years with the Falcons, and he didn’t make many back-breaking mistakes, posting one of the lowest interception rates of his career (1.8 percent). Ryan’s air yards per attempt ticked up from 2019, as did his adjusted yards per attempt. There were, however signs of decline for the 36-year-old. He was statuesque in the pocket last year -- a sitting target for oncoming rushers who knew Ryan couldn’t effectively move the pocket or deftly avoid blitzers. He was sacked 41 times in 2020, an improvement over the 48 sacks he took in 2019, but still among the top-10 in sacks taken. Atlanta’s offensive line, deteriorating for years, was graded by Pro Football Focus as the ninth worst pass blocking unit in 2020. Ryan often did an admirable job of dumping it off or chucking it out of bounds while his offensive line collapsed as one. Ryan’s production without Julio in the Atlanta lineup offers cause for concern, bordering on outright panic: He’s averaged fewer touchdowns, more interceptions, and almost 40 fewer yards per game without Julio over the past two years. The potential for Smith to make the Falcons a more balanced offensive team, the loss of Julio, Ryan’s increasingly leaden feet, and fantasy football’s influx of dual-threat QBs make Ryan little more than a streaming option in one-QB, 12-team formats.
Calvin Ridley was going to come into the 2021 season as Atlanta’s No. 1 receiver whether or not Julio Jones was dealt away. Ridley led the NFL with 2,052 air yards last season, around 300 more than No. 2 air yards getter Stefon Diggs. Ridley accounted for a head-swirling 41 percent of his team’s air yards on a 25 percent target share in the 15 games he played last season. Ridley was, in short, dominant in every facet, and has as good a chance as any wideout to lead the league in receiving yards this year. Only Justin Jefferson and Brandin Cooks posted a higher yards per reception against man coverage than Ridley last season, and Ridley was second to DK Metcalf in receiving yards against zone coverage. In his third pro season, Ridley was unguardable. The team is holding Ridley out of minicamp after he underwent foot surgery but expect him to be back to full health come training camp. Atlanta’s passing offense starts and ends with Ridley.
Julio leaving for Tennessee means Kyle Pitts becomes the likely No. 2 option in Atlanta’s 2021 passing offense. Amid mouth-watering offseason practice reports that the Falcons “force fed” Pitts -- the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft -- the truly generational tight end looks primed to function as more than a traditional tight end in Smith’s system, just as he did at Florida. Pitts in 2020 had 85 more receiving yards on 14 fewer receptions than the second most productive tight end in the nation, Boston College’s Hunter Long. And here’s the thing: Pitts played three fewer games than Long, notching 5.4 catches for an astounding 96.25 yards per game. Pitts’ 99th percentile 40 time, his 98th percentile speed score, and his 85th percentile catch radius will make him a waking nightmare for opposing NFL secondaries. He is the ultimate “move” tight end who will certainly not be used as a blocker, a role in which he was not often asked to fill at Florida. If Pitts is (properly) used as a red zone weapon, his presence could strip Ridley of some touchdown upside. Ridley in 2020 was second only to Davante Adams in wideout red zone targets (26); seven of his nine scores came on those looks. Watch for Pitts to humiliate enemy safeties and linebackers down the seam time and again this season. A couple jump-off-the-couch preseason highlights and we could see Pitts become the consensus second tight end off the draft board by summer's end. Pitts’ upside isn’t eye-popping stats -- it’s redefining the tight end position in pro football.
Hayden Hurst is widely expected to see plenty of playing time in Smith’s 12 personnel a year after he proved disappointing for fantasy managers who thought they had spotted a mid-round breakout player in a pass-heavy offense. Hurst in 2020 was fourth in tight end pass routes and tied for ninth among tight ends with 85 targets. It didn’t amount to a whole lot; Hurst finished 16th in PPR points per game among tight ends. His 2021 fantasy floor and ceiling are woefully close to each other, though Hurst should maintain some viability in deeper leagues where tight end scoring is inflated. In Smith’s Titans Offense last season, No. 2 tight end Anthony Firkser ran just 5.3 fewer pass routes per game than TE1 Jonnu Smith. That isn’t to say Hurst will challenge Pitts for tight end pass catching supremacy in the Falcons Offense, but the veteran will be on the field plenty this season.
Smith has said he wants to use slot receiver Russell Gage across the formation this year, which might be viable if the Falcons deploy Pitts on the outside now and again. Gage was sixth in slot targets (71) last year thanks largely to Julio Jones missing nine games -- and parts of others -- with a nagging hamstring injury. Nearly 68 percent of Gage’s 2020 receptions were from the slot. Tennessee slot wideout Adam Humphries was third in targets for the Titans in 2019; in Smith’s run-heavy system, that came out to a meager 49 looks. If Smith runs the Atlanta offense like he did in Tennessee, it’s hard to see the Falcons supporting more than two every-week fantasy pass catchers. That would make Gage the odd man out.
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Todd Gurley and Brian Hill leaving the Falcons this offseason means the team heads into the 2021 season with almost 90 percent of their rushing attempts vacated. That includes 89.4 percent of their carries inside the five yard line -- high value attempts. The proverbial lane has been proverbially cleared for journeyman Mike Davis, who, against all odds, enters the offseason’s final months as the unquestioned No. 1 back in Atlanta.
Smith’s penchant for heavy offensive sets -- only the Browns ran more plays with three tight ends on the field than last year’s Titans -- sets up Davis nicely if he can stay reasonably healthy. We’re only a year removed from watching Davis falter down the stretch as he saw a career high 224 touches as Carolina’s lead runner in Christian McCaffrey's absence. Never in Davis’ six-year career had he seen more than 145 touches in a season. It showed: Davis, 28, was fresh out of gas by the final few weeks of 2020. The veteran didn’t create much on his own, averaging 2.6 yards per carry after contract, good for 31st among running backs. Count me as a reluctant skeptic that Davis -- massive thighs and all -- can get through a grueling 17-game season as Smith’s top back in what could be a fairly run-heavy Atlanta offense. Whether it’s someone on the team’s current roster of a summertime veteran signing, someone else is likely to see a starter’s workload for the Falcons in 2021, either temporarily or permanently.
Of the backs on the team’s depth chart, I’d bet Ollison has a better chance to be fantasy viable than the rookie, Hawkins, who in no way profiles as an every-down back. At 5’9” and 183 pounds, he’s the prototypical NFL change-of-pace back. Another knock against Hawkins: He’s not particularly fast for a small guy; his speed score was in the 21st percentile. Hawkins, who ripped off long run after long run at Louisville in 2019, was serviceable as a pass catcher, reeling in 16 catches for 127 yards and a touchdown in his final eight collegiate games. There’s reasonable hope he could emerge as a source of cheap PPR points in Atlanta, though Smith’s treatment of running backs as pass catchers leaves a lot to be desired. Titans running backs in 2019 saw a combined 13 percent target share. In 2020, that number plunged to 7.6 percent. Maybe that was strictly personnel related. Whatever it was, there’s no indication running backs have a role in Smith’s pass scheme. Unless that changes, Davis' fantasy upside could be pulverized by a lack of screen pass involvement.
The Falcons are in a self-imposed purgatory, anchored by two pass-catching stars and, well, not much else.
In hiring Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot and parting with Julio Jones -- greatest player to ever don an Atlanta jersey -- the Falcons dipped a toe into the frozen waters of a full-blown rebuild. They did not commit to tearing down the team that should have come away with at least one Super Bowl, and instead have to pay aging quarterback Matt Ryan more than $92 million over the next two seasons, or take a breathtaking cap hit if they part with their franchise signal caller. This will be Fontenot's version of Sophie's choice.
The Falcons enter 2021 with postseason hopes precisely because they refused to go all in on a franchise rebuild. But they are no one’s idea of a Super Bowl contender, and with a little bad luck in the season’s first half, this season could get ugly in a hurry and force the team -- kicking and screaming -- into teardown mode in 2022. Perhaps no new head coach is an a more unenviable spot than Smith.
The Falcons’ Vegas win total sits at 7.5, the eighth lowest in the NFL. With Julio’s departure, Ryan having to adjust to a brand-new offense, a shaky offensive line, and no marked improvement to a defense that allowed nearly 400 yards per game and the second most yards per play in 2020, I’d comfortably take the under on Atlanta’s win total. Probably Ridley and Pitts will have to live through some tough seasons before Smith and Fontenot forge a team in their image.