Examining ESPN’s Mike Clay’s 2021 projections for Falcons

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Mike Clay of ESPN is a highly touted analytical projector around league circles because his projections are usually pretty close to actuality, even if his background is rooted in fantasy football. Clay’s projections for Matt Ryan in 2020 were 389 completions on 599 attempts for 4,515 yards, tossing 28 touchdowns to 12 interceptions and 42 sacks; his actual numbers were eerily close too. Ryan completed 407 passes on 626 attempts for 4,581 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. He was sacked 41 times too, which means he missed Ryan’s final stat line by just 70 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and one sack.

Clay was much higher on Todd Gurley in 2020 than most people (me) because all of his projections outside of touchdowns weren’t met, but I’m sure he was optimistic that Gurley’s knees would hold up better than they did. He projected the former Bulldog to carry the rock 214 times for 871 yards and seven touchdowns, but his final stat line was 195 carries for 678 yards and nine touchdowns.

His projections for Calvin Ridley were 114 targets, 76 receptions for 1,010 yards, and seven touchdowns, which was closer than expected even with Julio Jones missing a large portion of the season. Ridley’s actual stat line was 143 targets, 90 receptions, 1,374 yards, and nine touchdowns. Essentially, if the player stays healthy, Clay is usually pretty close to predicting stat lines.

His 2021 projections for Matt Ryan are 383 completions on 587 attempts, tossing 27 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. Clay sees the Falcons offense relying much less on the arm of Ryan and more so on the stable of running backs the team has. Ryan’s projection is still an impressive year for most quarterbacks but would be another average year for Ryan. The first year in a new offensive system could certainly be worse.

Clay’s projections for the running back room are the major difference in 2021 than 2020. He believes Mike Davis will carry the load 205 times for 804 yards and six touchdowns, which I believe to be an underestimation of what he can do in Arthur Smith’s offense. Cordarrelle Patterson is slotted to get 64 rushing attempts on 292 yards and two touchdowns, but the surprising projection is Qadree Ollison‘s stat line — 94 carries, 389 yards, and four touchdowns.

Clay’s 7.7 projected win total for 2020, technically eight, was a bit off given the plummet Atlanta experienced as a team, but his total points for both offense and defense were just 10 and 20 points off, respectively. The 2021 projection for the offense is to score 402 points and for the defense to surrender 417 points, winning eight games, which is higher than most Vegas win totals set at seven or 7.5. That means the offense would score just six more points than last year, which would be a disappointing year for Smith’s offense, but again, it’s only the first year in a new system.

Clay projects the offense to be just average (14th rank) and the defense to be abysmal (30th rank), which isn’t totally inspiring. I would say both units will be slightly better in total points scored and allowed, but the defense will be better situationally more so than overall, which I think is reflected in the eight-win total.

One last tidbit from Clay’s projections is the cornerbacks’ snap counts. AJ Terrell, unsurprisingly, leads the group and the entire defense with 1,034 snaps. Behind him, though, is where things get interesting. Clay believes Isaiah Oliver will take 870 defensive snaps, which is well over 80% of them. Then Kendall Sheffield is at 740 snaps, and Fabian Moreau is at a measly 218 snaps. I believe Moreau will be the boundary corner opposite Terrell, with Oliver taking a majority of the nickel snaps and Sheffield serving as a fourth corner.



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