Ryan won the MVP award last season and led the Falcons to the Super Bowl in a career year few saw coming. It took a season, but when he finally settled into offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's system, he and the Atlanta passing game were all but unstoppable. Shanahan's up-tempo offense, often no huddle, was always on the attack as Ryan picked apart secondaries. His improvement from 2015 in downfield passing was remarkable. A year earlier, he attempted only 32 passes over 20 yards, completing a mere nine for 28.1 percent, 10.7 YPA and the 32ndranked passer rating (42.6) with a 1:4 TD:INT mark. Last season, he finished as the best deep passer, with a league-leading 133.1 rating, completing 47.3 percent of his 55 attempts (3rd) for a league-high 18.5 YPA and 9:0 TD:INT. In fact, the only other QB without an interception was Sam Bradford, who attempted just 38 passes of 21-plus yards. With Shanahan gone, Steve Sarkisian steps into the coordinator job. He plans to keep the scheme and terminology, but will his play calling be as effective as Shanahan's? The Falcons, though, return all of their key pieces from last year, including star wideout Julio Jones, who had foot surgery to correct the injury that nagged him last season.
Despite producing another impressive yardage total, Ryan struggled through an up-and-down 2015 campaign as he posted the worst TD:INT of his career and lowest QB rating since 2009. While Ryan pointed the finger at his own inability to adjust to new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's scheme, the clear culprit was the lack of a consistently effective secondary receiving option, which left the passing game too predictable and too reliant on Julio Jones. The front office didn't totally ignore the problem but may not have done enough, signing former Bengals wide receiver Mohamed Sanu to replace the aging Roddy White and drafting Stanford tight end Austin Hooper in the third round. Ryan's strength as a QB remains his accuracy and quick release from the pocket, and his effectiveness on shorter routes played a big role in Devonta Freeman's emergence last season, but his ability to deliver a deep ball has improved over the last few years as well. The Falcons seem committed to becoming a more defensively-oriented team under coach Dan Quinn, which could eventually reduce Ryan's pass volume if it results in fewer shootouts and fewer big comebacks, but given the current roster he seems headed for his fifth consecutive season with 600 or more pass attempts.
Ryan finished fifth in passing yards last season, capping a profitable three-year run in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's aggressive attack. Under Koetter, Ryan averaged 631 attempts per year, second in the league, and had the fourth-most red-zone passes (240) in an offense that threw on 65.2 percent of its plays. But Koetter is out, and Kyle Shanahan is in this year as the new coordinator. Shanahan said he plans to run an up-tempo offense to take advantage of his playmakers' explosiveness, but that he also wants a balanced gameplan. What that means for Ryan remains to be seen. The last seven years as offensive coordinator for three teams, Shanahan topped 600 pass attempts just twice, though he had two other teams with at least 583 attempts. And of course, he never had a quarterback of Ryan's caliber. A more effective rushing attack — last year's ranked 24th in yards per game — might force more defenders in the box, which would help the passing game. But the Falcons might not need to throw as much if new head coach and defensive mastermind Dan Quinn fixes a unit that led the league in yards allowed last season. Even if Ryan sees fewer attempts, he has the weapons in Julio Jones and Roddy White to still put up quality numbers. The Falcons also drafted Justin Hardy, who broke the FBS record for most career receptions, to replace Harry Douglas in the slot.
Coming off of a down fantasy year and a rather shocking 4-12 season with Atlanta, Ryan looks like a good bargain opportunity in 2014 drafts. Disappointing as his struggles were, though, Ryan demonstrated that he has a very high floor in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's offense. Even with a 6.9 YPA and a touchdown percentage of just 4.0, Ryan somehow came away with 4,515 yards and 26 touchdowns. Although the retirement of future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez is a concern, the more important development is the return of No. 1 wide receiver Julio Jones, whose season-ending broken foot in Week 5 was the single greatest cause of Atlanta's collapse. The Falcons also secured some help for Ryan in the draft, selecting tackle Jake Matthews with the sixth overall pick and adding running back Devonta Freeman in the fourth round. Matthews should immediately be the team's best blocker, and Freeman will provide an upgrade over Jacquizz Rodgers soon enough. Ryan averaged 4,617 yards and 29 touchdowns through the air through his first two years in the Koetter system, so while he'll probably always be an interception problem (43 in the last three years), Ryan should provide middle-tier QB1 production in most formats.
With a redesigned offense, Ryan and the Falcons' passing game were at their best last season. Ryan attempted 615 passes, completing 68.6 percent of them for 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns – all career highs. With Roddy White and Julio Jones on the outside and Tony Gonzalez returning for one more season, you can expect the pass-happy attack to continue.
On top of that, the Falcons added running back Steven Jackson. That might sound like a negative, but Jackson isn't going to cut into Ryan's passing attempts. The veteran back can actually catch passes out of the backfield – something Michael Turner never did – and he'll keep the chains moving so that Ryan has more opportunities to find all of his playmakers.
Ryan isn't a top running quarterback by any stretch, but he did scramble for 141 yards and a TD, so he has a small advantage in that department over pocket statues like Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
It's worth noting Ryan sprained the AC joint in his non-throwing shoulder during the NFC Championship game, but he's already made a full recovery and shouldn't be hampered heading into training camp.
Ryan finished with career highs of 4,177 yards and 29 touchdowns through the air last year while raising his passing average to 7.4 yards per attempt after consecutive years at 6.5. Even so, Ryan’s week-to-week value is still very matchup-sensitive as he has yet to show the ability to produce against good defenses or in challenging environments. Ryan threw for 20 touchdowns and three interceptions in nine games against New Orleans (twice), Tampa Bay (twice), Carolina (twice), Indianapolis, Minnesota and Jacksonville, but threw just four touchdowns and seven interceptions in six games against Chicago, Seattle, Green Bay, Detroit, Houston and the Giants. Ryan could take the next step in 2012 – he certainly has two very talented receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones – but matchup issues are typically a reflection of enduring skill limitations rather than questions of timing or luck.
While Ryan’s average of 6.5 yards per pass attempt the last two years is quite unimpressive, there are reasons to expect improvement in 2011. First, he averaged 7.9 yards per attempt his rookie season, so we already know he’s capable of doing better than 6.5. Second, there’s a good chance Ryan is still developing as a quarterback, and he has improved his touchdown totals each year in the league – from 16 to 22 to 29. Third, Atlanta added Alabama wideout Julio Jones with the sixth overall pick, giving up two first-round picks, a second-round pick and two fourth-round picks to get him. Adding Jones not only gives Ryan another target, but it should make it a bit tougher for defenses to roll coverage toward Roddy White. Finally, Ryan’s eventual owners have to like the fact that he threw 571 passes last year – an average of 35.7 passes per game. If Ryan gets that many opportunities in 2011, expect him to do more with them than he did last year.
Ryan regressed in key areas in 2009. A toe injury cost him essentially three games, but he still threw 22 TD passes. His TD rate improved on a per-attempt basis. Ryan has upside given that he’s a still-developing player who thus has not likely flashed his peak ability. But the Falcons environment is weak. Roddy White is a very good receiver, but Michael Jenkins is quite borderline as the other starter. TE Tony Gonzalez is declining, but we just don’t know how fast. Michael Turner also
adds next to nothing as a receiver, and his great running makes the Falcons more conservative on early downs. Presuming growth in Year 3, he should yield about 24 scoring strikes in a run-heavy offense. That’s a low-end fantasy starter and thus someone worthy of a middle round pick.
You can’t start an NFL career better than Ryan unless you’re Dan Marino.
Ryan had a 7.9 YPA despite completing 61 percent of his passes, a little low by current standards. He was second in the NFL (behind Jake Delhomme) with 13 yards per completion (league average was 11.4). He was the best in the league in YPA on first down (9.64 on 118 attempts). That attempt total was relatively low and should increase dramatically this year, especially now with Tony Gonzalez in tow.
The one area where Ryan was lacking, and we can reasonably attribute his deficiency to lack of experience, is red-zone efficiency. His TD-rate, one of every 7.1 red-zone attempts, was 33rd on our list of qualifiers. Again, Gonazalez, one of the best red-zone weapons ever and not evidencing any decline in ability last year at age 32, should help auger tremendous growth in this key fantasy area.
Roddy White is a Pro Bowl-caliber weapon on the outside, and Michael Jenkins predictably showed signs of development last year when finally given an NFL-caliber distributor of the football.
The offensive line is rock solid, as is the running game with Michael Turner. And remember, Jerious Norwood adds home-run skills as a screen and check-down option on third downs. Ryan’s YPA shows his TD upside as being in the 25-to-30 range, and you won’t need to pay more than a mid-round pick to get him as the primary starter in a matchup-driven QB tandem.
At press time, Redman was atop the depth
chart, but the Falcons might well just play No.
3 overall pick Ryan right from the start. Who
can blame them, as Redman was a reclamation
project, and third-stringer Joey Harrington
might be the worst QB in NFL history.
Redman actually played decently in a 149-attempt
sample, with a 7.2 YPA, 10 touchdowns
and just five picks. But Redman only made the
Falcons’ roster because of his connection to
since departed coach Bobby Petrino for whom
he played at Louisville and hadn’t thrown an
NFL pass since 2003. And most of the shine
on those stats were due to a Week 17 game (9.3
YPA, four TD, zero INT) against a Seahawks
team that had locked up its playoff slot early.
And two of Redman's other four significant-action
games were against the Rams and Saints
– both bottom five teams in YPA-allowed.
We can rhapsodize about the grit and gamesmanship
that Ryan showed at Boston College,
but he’s faced a couple guys every week as
good as every single player he'll see every
single Sunday in the NFL. Yes, his guys are
better, too. But only if he steps up and plays to
his scouting report. Ignore the preseason, too,
as teams play vanilla defenses and use their
starters too sparingly for that to be an accurate
On the plus side, new offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey did emphasize downfield, explosive passing in his heyday as Steelers offensive coordinator in the early part of the decade. And WR Roddy White is an emerging playmaker.