Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton surprised owners last year with an MVP fantasy season, but even before 2015, he was still considered a QB-1 and, in most cases, a top five fantasy signal caller.
Prior to this season, his division rival Matt Ryan was not. The rankings at Fantasy Pros, which, let me remind readers, is a consensus list of numerous fantasy football opinions from across the internet, had Ryan as the No. 19 quarterback.
19! On the same list, Marcus Mariota was No. 18 and Ryan Fitzpatrick was No. 20.
There is still plenty of time for Tom Brady and others to have a say in the fantasy MVP race, but it’s about time we stop expecting Ryan to regress and start admitting he is at top three quarterback moving forward.
Atlanta’s newfound offensive balance has been a driving force for Ryan’s fantasy value all season long. Despite Devonta Freeman’s Pro Bowl season in 2015, the Falcons were ranked just 18th in rushing yards last year.
It’s a rare occurrence to see a Shanahan not dedicated to the running game, but that was certainly the case last season, as Kyle Shanahan’s offense in Atlanta was ranked 16th in rushing attempts. And when the Falcons did run, they weren’t efficient either, coming in at 25th in yards per carry.
That’s completely changed this season. The offensive line has been better with the addition of center Alex Mack, who was perhaps the most underrated free-agent signing of the offseason. But most of the improvement is due to Atlanta’s 1-2 running back punch of Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The Falcons are ranked in the top 10 in both rushing yards per game and attempts while also 11th in rushing yards per carry.
For the first time in five years, Ryan is on pace for fewer than 600 pass attempts. In fact, he’s currently set to only throw about 556 times, which would be his fewest pass attempts in a season since 2009.
But with an established running game for the first time in years, opposing defenses can’t focus only on stopping Ryan. As a result, the Falcons passing attack has been more efficient with its opportunities.
Atlanta is the first team to play nine games, and at this point, they have played two more games than a lot of teams, so his stats are a little skewed, but Ryan is second in the league in yards per attempt and yards per game.
No other quarterback is averaging over 300 passing yards per game, completing more than 69 percent of his passes and has 20 touchdowns.
Actually, before the action opens on Sunday in Week 9, no other quarterback even has 20 touchdown passes besides Ryan, who has 23, and only four signal callers are averaging over 300 yards per game.
Julio Jones is still his favorite target, but the other main reason Ryan is having so much success is because the Falcons aren’t relying on one player in the passing game. Ryan threw four touchdowns Thursday against the Buccaneers, and each one went to a different receiver.
In games against the Saints, Seahawks and even Thursday against the Buccaneers, Jones did very little in the first half. Ryan targeted other receivers and backs early in those games, then found his favorite weapon more often in the second half after opposing defenses realized they had to do more than stop Jones.
12 different receivers have caught a pass for Atlanta this season. That’s pretty impressive, but get this — 11 of them have hauled in a touchdown.
Five wide receivers, three tight ends, two running backs and a fullback have touchdown receptions for the Falcons in nine games. That’s absolutely astonishing.
The Saints and Steelers are the only other teams that have more than seven players with a touchdown catch, and both of those teams have nine. Quite a few squads still don’t even have 11 passing touchdowns on the season, including Cam Newton and the Panthers.
Newton has reminded us in the first half of this year how quickly things can switch in the NFL, but don’t count on anything changing in Ryan’s fantasy value down the stretch of this season.
His ability to use different receivers, and the Falcons’ dedication to the running game, gives their offense tremendous balance. And it’s providing Ryan the opportunity to be the 2016 fantasy MVP.