After digging into the fantasy impact of Julio Jones being traded to Tennessee for the Titans offensive skill players, the trade also leaves a wake of impact for the Atlanta skill players.
In the nine games that Jones missed or exited early in 2020 (he played just 15 snaps in Week 1 and 22 snaps in Week 11) the Falcons were a much different offense. In those nine games, the Falcons went from scoring 28.7 points per game down to 21.7 points per game. They scored 17 or fewer points in five of those nine games while scoring 30 or more points in just one. Their offensive yardage went from 404.6 yards per game with Jones fully on the field down to 340.3 yards per game with him limited or absent.
Losing Julio was a net negative for the Falcons and with the offense taking a significant step back with Jones out of the lineup, no player was more impacted more negatively than Matt Ryan.
Matt Ryan 2020 Splits with and Without a Fully Healthy Julio Jones
Ryan was a top-12 fantasy scorer in five of the seven full games that Jones played last season with significant boosts across the board in efficiency and counting stats. In the nine games that Jones was out or exited early, Ryan posted three top-12 scoring weeks to go along with five weeks as the QB23 or lower.
The 36-year-old quarterback has finished lower than QB15 overall in just two of his 13 NFL seasons while averaging at least 17.0 fantasy points in seven of his past 10 seasons, but the loss of Jones and a potential shift to a slower pace of play are negatives heading into 2021. To tack on to matters in treating Ryan as a QB2, the top of the fantasy position is now filled with quarterbacks that offer scoring output with their legs, something Ryan does not do. Last season, Ryan’s 92 yards rushing were his fewest in a season since 2015.
Ryan has completed over 400 passes in each of the past three seasons and has led the league in completions in each of the past two seasons. Game script (and not having Derrick Henry) will finally reveal how much of Arthur Smith’s play-calling splits in Tennessee were a result of that specific environment and the thumbprint of Mike Vrabel, but Ryan also could have his overall dropbacks recoil in 2021.
None of his 2020 splits involved having Kyle Pitts at his disposal, which can prevent him bottoming out in the same fashion that he did a year ago when Julio was off the field, but there are also large shoes to fill in this offense. Just expecting Pitts to walk into 100 receiving yards per game (what Jones averaged in his full games) is a tall order. With Jones leaving and Ryan being a near zero in the rushing department, he will fall into QB2 territory while it is hard to elevate him over similar fantasy assets such as Matthew Stafford and Kirk Cousins.
While Ryan struggled with Jones off the field, Calvin Ridley was pressed into a target-carrying role in the offense when Jones was dinged up and missed time. Over the three seasons that Ridley has been in the league, he has played in 12 games where Julio has played 50% or fewer of the team snaps or has missed the game outright. Here is Ridley’s game log in those 12 games.
Calvin Ridley Game Log with Julio Jones out or Playing 50% of Fewer Snaps
In those 12 games, Ridley received 23.9% of the team targets while producing 23.4% of the team receptions and 32.5% of the team receiving yards. In 2020, his target share went from 20.6% with Jones fully on the field up to 26.5% with him out or exiting early. While his opportunities were greater when thrust into carrying the passing game, Ridley was a slightly better fantasy performer when he and Jones did play together since the offense was much better overall. Ridley averaged 17.3 points per game with Jones out or forced from the game early as opposed to 20.6 per game with him fully active.
Ridley has gone from the WR28 to WR19 to WR4 in points per game over the start of his career as his targets (5.8-7.2-9.5), receptions (4.0-4.8-6.0), and yardage (51.3-66.6-91.6) have risen each year of his career. Ridley led the NFL in air yards per game (131.6). None of those splits also involved Kyle Pitts as Ridley had a decided edge in talent gap from the rest of the Atlanta roster when Jones has been absent, but Ridley is entrenched as a WR1 fantasy option and I believe he leapfrogs A.J. Brown in the fallout of Julio changing teams.
I will not linger here long at all since I have already laid out why Kyle Pitts is the best objective tight end prospect I have scored entering the league since 2000 and the initial impact of him being the highest drafted tight end NFL history this spring. With Jones now leaving on top of matters, Pitts will be thrust into a massive year one role like we have not seen from previous rookies at his position. We will likely see Pitts operate as the WR2 in this offense. Just 57.4% of the snaps Pitts played at Florida came in-line.
For fantasy, tight ends have been a notorious slow burn. Just one first-round tight end has cleared 200 PPR points in his rookie season and that was Keith Jackson back in 1988. Just five have cleared 150 PPR points in their first season, with the latest being Evan Engram in 2017. Vernon Davis (6.3 rookie year points per game) and Kellen Winslow (5.0 in just two games) were both taken sixth overall in their respective drafts, but saddled in extremely lackluster offense and were attached to poor quarterback play. T.J. Hockenson (6.7 points per game) was just selected eighth overall two years ago and was paired with a strong quarterback out of the box, unlike Davis and Winslow.
Just four rookie tight ends have ever cleared 800 yards receiving regardless of the round they were drafted, with just one rookie tight end ever hitting 1,000 yards, which was Mike Ditka back in 1961.
With an added 17th game added in 2021 and the trade of Jones, Pitts has some extra runway compared to his previous counterparts as top-10 draft picks at his position and should be treated as having as much upside at the position than anyone at the position out of the packaging.
Gage is entering his fourth NFL season coming off career highs in targets (109), receptions (72), receiving yardage (786 yards), and touchdowns (four). With Jones missing so much action in 2020, it aided Gage in setting those marks. Using the same game log as we did with Ridley prior, here is the output and opportunity Gage has had when Jones missed time or had limited action.
Russell Gage Game Log with Julio Jones out or Playing 50% of Fewer Snaps
Gage inherently does not go to the mountaintop that Ridley has, but five of his 11 career scoring games as a top-36 wide receiver in PPR formats have come from this 12-game sample. Gage has received double-digit targets in six career games with three in the sample above. He also has scored three of his five career touchdowns in these games. There also is a lot of variance here as Gage has scored single-digit points in seven of these 12 games as well. A large part of that is naturally because Gage does not play the same position as Julio Jones. He also is unlikely to do so in 2021, which creates a different set of issues.
While he has climbed the target ladder as the second-best target with Jones off the field, that will no longer be the case with the addition of Kyle Pitts. Not only could Pitts be the de facto WR2 for the Falcons, but he also could be their primary slot receiver as well. At 6’0” and 184 pounds, 65.3% of Gage’s career routes have come from the slot. 60.1% of Gage’s career targets and 65.1% of his career receiving yardage have come from the slot. That has limited him to just 10.2 yards per catch for his career and just five total touchdowns.
The Falcons should be expected to run fewer 3WR sets which could push Gage outside the most of his career, we also do not have a strong sample of him being effective outside as he has averaged 1.40 yards per route run outside compared to 1.39 yards per route in the slot. Gage moves into seasonal WR4 territory for drafts for total output.
With Jones out, we could see Olamide Zaccheaus, Christian Blake, and sixth-round pick Frank Darby compete for that open spot in the offense when the team does go 3WR or even push Gage for those snaps should he not rise up in 2WR sets when tasked in beating perimeter coverage. Zacchaeus was nearly a full-time slot player at Virginia, but has strictly been used outside so far through two seasons in the NFL. On his limited sample of 37 career targets, just one has come from the slot.
Darby at least offers some intrigue. Overshadowed by N’Keal Harry and Brandon Aiyuk through his career at Arizona State, Darby never got much of a runway for targets. His best season was a 31-616-8 line in 2019. But Darby did average a strong 19.7 yards per catch over his career, which was the highest in this draft class, while turning 19.4% of his career receptions into touchdowns, which ranked fifth in this draft class.
The last receiver here to be impacted is Hayden Hurst, but this move just makes him a deep-league dart throw more than anything tangible. Under Arthur Smith last season, the Titans used 12 personnel 35% of the time in 2020, which led the league. With Jones leaving and the gaggle of unimpressive depth the Falcons have at the wide receiver position that we just covered, Hurst will be on the field in 2021.
That said, we just had a season where Hurst was a full-time player and third on the team in targets and barely moved the needle in fantasy. Hurst was held to fewer than 50 yards in 10 games, checking in as the TE17 in points per game (9.3) and 18th in yards per game (35.7) while running the fourth-most pass routes at the position in 2020 (528).