How does a Julio Jones trade affect the fantasy value of other Falcons?

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To begin with, the differences in offensive philosophies should be noted between past Falcons teams and Arthur Smith-led teams. Under Smith last year, Tennessee ranked tied for second in total yards (396.4 per game) and fourth in scoring (30.7 points per game). The season prior, the Titans finished in the top 12 in both categories. Not only have Smith’s offenses been more successful, but they’ve also been a much more balanced attack.

YEAR PASS RUN
2019 53% 47%
2020 49% 51%

The last time Atlanta was this run-centric was when Matty Ice won the MVP under Kyle Shanahan in 2016, and in 2017 when Steve Sarkisian attempted to replicate the Shanahan-magic. The difference was immense in terms of fantasy value. Ryan had his best fantasy year in 2016 but had the second-lowest touchdown total of his career (20) in the subsequent season.

From 2018-20, the Falcons called pass plays at least 62% of the time, but those days are over, and so are the receivers who benefited fantasy-wise from such a pass-happy offense. Essentially, Arthur Smith’s offense will run the ball more often and more effectively than the last couple of seasons, which means an increased workload for the stable of running backs behind Ryan. Playing without Julio Jones doesn’t take away from their touches because Smith rarely passes to running backs. The biggest difference between now and then — outside of play-callers — is Julio Jones, and Ryan is significantly less efficient without him, which negatively affects his fantasy value.

Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, Kyle Pitts, and Hayden Hurst will be the top four options for Ryan this year, and Jones missing seven games a year ago revealed what the first two could do when given an increased role. But it can’t be understated how valuable Jones has been from a fantasy outlook.

Since his rookie season in 2011, Jones’ average finish in PPR scoring is WR17.5, scoring 310.94 points per season and 18.66 points per game. Furthermore, this includes his injury-shortened 2020 and 2013 campaigns (in 2013, he played just five games). If we remove those from the equation, Jones was the WR7.5 over those remaining eight seasons, producing 356.7 PPR points (18.56 ppg). 

Jones has been nothing short of sensational, but those points will need to go somewhere. Ridley is sure to shoulder a majority of the load. Comparing Ridley’s fantasy output with and without Jones is very telling of how capable he is.

Ridley’s 16-game average is 116 receptions on 178 targets for 1,712 yards and 6 touchdowns. In the seven games without Jones in the lineup, Ridley was on pace for 329 PPR points and 1,749 yards. He averaged 7.14 receptions on 11.29 targets for 109.9 yards and 20.56 PPR points.

With Jones, Ridley is a WR1, and now that it’s almost certain Jones won’t play in Atlanta this year, Ridley is still WR1. Ridley is worth taking among every other elite receiver in this league after finishing fifth at the position a year ago. Russell Gage similarly showed exactly what he could do in the absence of Jones by recording career-highs in every major receiving statistic — 72 receptions on 109 targets for 786 yards and four touchdowns while starting in only eight games. A strange coincidence that can’t be said for Ridley is Gage’s numbers weren’t affected by Jones’s absence.

Gage blew away his WR89 (304 overall) ADP and ended the season as the WR37 in PPR leagues with 181.1 points (11.3 ppg). Even in games where Jones was available, Gage saw virtually no change in production. In the nine contests together, Gage averaged 10.93 PPR points compared to 11.01 in the seven games without him

But this fantasy outlook wouldn’t be worth reading if I didn’t mention Kyle Pitts, who will surely be the focal point of this offense in the future and battle Ridley for the team’s leader in targets. The reception distribution from Smith’s offenses the last two years is not what the Falcons will look like, namely because of the unicorn, Kyle Pitts.

YEAR RB WR TE
2019 15.8% 57.6% 25.6%
2020 12.0% 57.9% 29.7%

Pitts is going to change Smith’s entire offense because of how versatile he is. Since 2010, Rob Gronkowski and Evan Engram are the only two rookies to finish as TE1s, but Pitts is more than capable of breaking that dry spell. I would expect the fourth overall pick to receive around 120 receptions in the wake of a Julio Jones trade because Smith’s offense targeted tight ends the fourth most (29.7%) a season ago. To put that into perspective, tight ends caught only 16% of the Falcons total receptions in 2020.

The Falcons offense will contain a WR1 (Ridley), TE1 (Pitts), TE2 (Hurst), and WR3 (Gage) that could turn into a WR2. However, Smith’s offense leads me to believe that Pitts will be the centerpiece from now on, with Ridley still receiving a fair amount of targets because of the amount of attention Pitts will draw.

 

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