Will Matt Ryan Regain His MVP-Level Form?

Will Matt Ryan Regain His MVP-Level Form? article feature image

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Matt Ryan

  • Matt Ryan had the second-best season of his career by most statistical measures in 2018.
  • What does 2019 have in store? Ian Hartitz evaluates the quarterback's fantasy football value.

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2019 season; this is part of that series.

The Atlanta Falcons haven’t managed to recapture the magic that helped them build a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl 51. Overall, they Falcons have gone 17-15 over the past two seasons with a 1-1 playoff record since that fateful collapse against the Patriots in February of 2017.

Matt Ryan hasn’t quite reached the same absurd heights that he managed to achieve with Kyle Shanahan orchestrating the offense in 2016, but there’s plenty of factors working in the offense’s favor entering 2019.

What follows is an analysis of Ryan’s ability to play at a high level and what to make of his fantasy football value this season.

Matt Ryan’s 2018 Season Was Better Than You Remember

The 2016 Falcons averaged an ungodly 33.8 points per game — the ninth-highest mark in NFL history. Ryan’s MVP campaign consisted of elite counting statistics (4,944 passing yards and 38 touchdowns) combined with ungodly efficiency (69.9% completion rate and 10.1 adjusted yards per attempt).

We haven’t seen Ryan return to this form over the past two seasons, but even a lesser version was more than good enough to rank among the top-five quarterbacks in virtually every meaningful passing statistic in 2018.

Ryan hardly accomplished all of this by dinking and dunking his way down the field; he posted a 113.9 NFL Rating (fifth among 45 quarterbacks who threw at least 10 deep balls) and averaged 14.4 yards per attempt (10th) on passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield (Pro Football Focus).

Ryan achieved the second-best marks of his career in almost every passing metric last season while posting a career-low interception rate. And there’s reason to believe he could keep on keeping on thanks in large part to the Falcons’ cozy indoor schedule.

NFL Schedule-Makers Did Ryan and the Falcons a Favor

The Falcons don’t have an easy schedule next season; Warren Sharp gives them the league’s sixth-toughest slate based on 2019 season win totals that were established after the draft.

However, a difficult schedule isn’t the end of the world when it comes to fantasy football value. Ryan and the Falcons are capable of moving the ball against pretty much any team and will have the chance to do so from a fantasy-friendly indoor environment for much of the season.

The Falcons joined the Chiefs, Rams, Buccaneers, Saints, Colts and Patriots as the only seven teams that had at least four games with 60-plus combined points scored in 2018. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Falcons again make this list, as their defense would need a huge boost from now-healthy linebacker Deion Jones to become a difference-making unit as early as this season.

Ryan’s upside is aided by the simple fact that the Falcons once again boast a well-equipped offense when it comes to skill-position talent.

The Falcons Offense Is Loaded

There’s plenty to like from the 2019 Falcons when it comes to pure weapons on the offensive side of the ball. They’re also probably in a better spot as far as Ryan’s play-calling is concerned, as perennial scapegoat Steve Sarkisian has been replaced with former Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter.

Koetter served as offensive coordinator in Atlanta from 2012 to 2014 before spending the past four seasons as the head coach in Tampa Bay. The Falcons weren’t quite as prolific with Koetter calling plays as they were with Kyle Shanahan, but they were still fairly dominant over that stretch.

  • 2012: 26.2 points per game (seventh); 5.8 yards per play (sixth)
  • 2013: 22.1 PPG (20th); 5.4 YPP (14th)
  • 2014: 23.8 PPG (12th); 5.8 YPP (eighth)

There isn’t much reason to expect a huge change from Ryan considering he’s only experienced a major bump in efficiency with Shanahan calling plays.

The biggest potential problem is the Falcons offensive line. They’ve ranked No. 23, No. 8 and No. 14 in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate from 2016 to 2018, respectively, but are only projected to have two starters return from last season’s underwhelming group.

Long-time left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack are each back. The rest of the group are all newcomers:

  • Left guard: Jamon Brown/James Carpenter
  • Right guard: 2019 No. 14 overall pick Chris Lindstrom
  • Right tackle: 2019 No. 31 overall pick Kaleb McGary

There’s certainly a chance that the addition of two first-round picks along with veterans like Brown and Carpenter could help take an average group to the next level. Still, it’s an unknown commodity and doesn’t have much depth.

The good news for Ryan is that his reliable crew of pass catchers are all back.

  • Julio Jones has emerged as one of the more polarizing receivers in the fantasy community due to his prolonged stretches of scoreless play. Regardless, there have been only four instances of a wide receiver averaging at least 3.0 yards per route run over the past five seasons per Pro Football Focus (minimum 25 targets), and Jones is responsible for three of them. Jones’ career average of 96.7 receiving yards per game is the highest mark in NFL history. Nobody has more games with 100-plus receiving yards than Jones (21) over the past three seasons. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Jones post yet another top-five fantasy finish in 2019.

  • Calvin Ridley (10) joined Mike Evans (12) and Odell Beckham Jr. (12) as the only rookies with double-digit receiving touchdowns over the past five seasons. His pristine route-running made him a threat against all three levels of defense from the second he stepped onto the field in 2018. Ridley will continue to be the Falcons’ No. 2 wide receiver for however long Jones calls Atlanta home, but both are talented enough to theoretically work as No. 1 fantasy football options in 2019.

  • Mohamed Sanu has posted 59-653-4, 67-703-5 and 66-838-4 lines from 2016 to 2018, respectively. Age 30 also isn’t a death sentence for wide receivers, particularly when Sanu is simply being asked to work as a high-percentage No. 3 option out of the slot. There just isn’t much of a ceiling here considering he’s gained more than 100 yards in just one of 46 games since making his way to Atlanta.
  • Austin Hooper converted 88 targets into a season-long 71-660-4 line in 2018. This included three games with at least nine receptions. We could feasibly see the Falcons rely on Hooper more as an underneath option with Tevin Coleman now in San Francisco. Either way, Hooper carries a solid weekly floor considering there are few tight ends who can match his 76% snap rate in 2018. He was one of just 10 players with double-digit targets inside the 10-yard line last season.

Ryan has proven to be much more than a sum-of-its-parts quarterback throughout his career, but that’s not even an issue worth worrying about considering the weapons at his disposal.

He’s currently the QB6 in average draft position behind Baker Mayfield, Deshaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck and Patrick Mahomes. It seems like an appropriate slot for Ryan, who has one of the highest floor/ceiling combinations at the position in 2019.

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