Let's all, here today, come to grips with something. It needs to be discussed. It can be ignored no longer.
You've scoured quarterback peripheral statistics for months now, parsing every number, tweaking projections and reading the endless drivel of training camp reports saying this guy looks like a bona fide gunslinger and that guy is a noodle-armed fraud. You do this because—remember, it's time for honesty —you're looking for this year's Matthew Stafford.
I've been sent to sit you down, look you in your eyeballs and tell you this: You will not find the 2012 version of 2011 Stafford—not because you're looking at it all wrong, or considering the wrong numbers, but because he does not exist.
You're in the murky, frigid water looking for the Loch Ness Monster. You're scaling wooded mountains in a fruitless search of Sasquatch. I'm so very sorry. I do, however, know someone who can help you cope. His name is Matt Ryan, and he's waiting for you in your fantasy draft's ninth round.
The stars aligned over Stafford’s curly-haired head last year. Fantasy owners were terrified of his injury history, hadn’t seen him play a whole lot since entering the league, didn’t know the Lions would have a ghost of a running game all season and, amazingly, had no idea how dominant Calvin Johnson could be. Hence, Stafford could be had in the 10th round in most fantasy drafts last year—the best value in recent fantasy history.
Ryan, so far, is being taken by mock drafters in the ninth round (if his preseason goes as well as his debut, that will clearly change). The fifth-year starter lacks Stafford’s rocket arm, but a total overhaul in Atlanta’s offensive philosophy and two of the league’s best receivers means Ryan—if you’re willing to wait on a quarterback this year—is the key to your draft.
In my obsessive mock drafting this month, I’ve stacked my lineup with fantasy studs before snatching Ryan in the ninth round, sometimes the 10th. This recently freed me up to draft Arian Foster, Julio Jones, Jeremy Maclin, Doug Martin, Percy Harvin, Antonio Gates, Eric Decker and Jonathan Stewart before drafting my signal-caller, Ryan. I cobbled together a team with crazy depth at wide receiver and running back—guys with high fantasy floors and undeniable fake football upsides.
New Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter seems to have talked head coach Mike Smith out of the run-first, uber-conservative offensive approach of the past two years. Koetter’s system is no-huddle with plenty of vertical passes to two of the league’s top pass-catchers: Roddy White and Julio Jones, fantasy’s most discussed riser. Falcons coaches have, for months, screamed through a megaphone about scaling back running back Michael Turner’s carries this year. They’ve trumpeted their new love of the pass for all to hear, finally conceding to the NFL’s pass-friendly ways.
“When we first came in, Coach Smith said we were going to run the ball,” Falcons offensive assistant Andrew Weidinger said in a June interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “Now, we are going to throw it too. We’ve got all sorts of weapons.”
Koetter’s system has made a convert out of Atlanta’s top man, Smith.
"I really think that in the National Football League, when you have to run the football, there's going to be times that it happens in the season, you're going to have to be able to do it," Smith said in a radio interview this month. "That's why we've got Michael Turner, but it is a spacing game now. And when we say a spacing game, it is about throwing the football and being able to move the ball through the air. You've got to have the weapons, so our identity is we want to be as explosive as we can, both running and throwing the football."
Sports Illustrated’s Peter King is sold on the Falcons’ pass-heavy bravado, writing this month that the “handcuffs are off” for Ryan and Smith is sold on the aerial approach.
Beware of short fantasy memories. Ryan, even in last season’s run-heavy Falcons offense, completed 193-of-314 passes (61.5 percent) for 2,494 yards in his final nine games. Oh yeah, he had 20 touchdowns too—not a terrible end to 2011.
And it should be noted that, even with Atlanta's run-heavy approach, Ryan chucked it 566 times last season, seventh most in the NFL. He threw for 4,177 yards, even with a few clunkers early in the year. That's why the 5,000-yard mark is far from a stretch.
Of all the quarterbacks being taken late in drafts, Ryan has the best chance to entrench himself as a top-five fantasy quarterback. I’m not banking on Ryan posting 2011 Staffordian numbers—5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns—but throwing to Jones and White in an offensive system freed from the chains of the king of plodders, Michael Turner, I see Ryan as a bust-proof late pick who will let you draft deep at nearly every position before grabbing a quarterback.
Follow C.D. Carter on Twitter @CDCarter13.