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The Replacements: Falcons Have Holes to Fill

Atlanta needs rookie Drake London to complement Kyle Pitts.

Note: While a big part of fantasy football research is trying to assess how players will do when they go to a new team, it’s also critical to get a handle on what the old team is doing to replace those players. It’s an opportunity for players to step up and fill the void. In this series, we’ll examine six teams that had key departures this offseason and must find new ways to replace key fantasy production.

One of the most threadbare offenses in the NFL lost some pieces it couldn’t afford to lose in the offseason.

Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley was hit with a one-year suspension in early March for gambling on NFL games. Atlanta’s top wideout in 2021, Russell Gage, signed with the division rival Buccaneers the following week. Two weeks to the day after Ridley’s suspension was handed down, the franchise traded longtime quarterback Matt Ryan to the Colts and incurred a $40-million dead cap hit, the largest in NFL history.

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None of these transactions are positive signs for the Falcons’ 2022 passing game. With the loss of Ridley (who only played five games in 2021), Gage and running back Mike Davis, among other lesser-used pass catchers, Atlanta vacated 287 targets from a season ago. That high total, the third-most in the league, amounts to 51.8% of the team’s targets, according to 4for4.com.

The Falcons’ top target from 2021, tight end Kyle Pitts, is back and the front office used another top-10 pick in this April’s draft to select his running mate in the receiving game, Drake London. The future may be bright in Atlanta with that duo of tall, athletic pass catchers, especially if third-round quarterback Desmond Ridder works out. But that is overshadowed by the immediate concerns of an offense that will be led by Marcus Mariota, who hasn’t started a game since 2019, and lost five of its top eight receiving options.

Atlanta’s pass attempts decreased each of the past three years. The Falcons were in the bottom half of the league in pass attempts last year, Arthur Smith’s first as head coach. With the mobile Mariota behind center and the emergence of Swiss Army knife Cordarrelle Patterson, more rushing attempts may be in store for the Falcons offense, which ranked bottom five in rushes a season ago.

Still, someone has to catch passes in this offense, be that from Mariota or Ridder—or both. Atlanta spent a high-value pick on London early in the draft and made a good value trade to round out its receiver room. But beyond those two acquisitions, the Falcons are largely relying on what’s left of weapons Ryan had at his disposal in 2022.

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Drake London
London is the third rookie receiver featured in this series mainly because many of the teams that had gaping holes at receiver opted to fill them via the draft, the cheaper route, rather than spending draft capital to acquire and then pay top of the market for a Tyreek Hill or Davante Adams. However, London was also not only the first receiver selected, but the first skill position player off the board in April’s draft. The Falcons had—and still have—needs on both sides of the ball and they opted to go get the 6’5” target out of USC early on, a massive vote of confidence.

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Atlanta Falcons Drake London

It wasn’t until London’s junior year (did you know he played basketball?) that he really arrived. He flashed as a freshman in 2019, catching a touchdown in each of the final five games of the season and totaling 39 catches for 567 yards with a pair of 100-yard games to his name. He only played six games in the Pac-12’s COVID-shortened 2020 season and put up a similar season-long stat line. London amassed 88 catches for 1,084 yards in 2021 despite playing just eight games due to a broken ankle.

Prior to the draft, my colleague Shawn Childs wrote of London’s time in college: “He caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage, in the flat, crossing routes, back shoulder fades, and over the top, showcasing a wide range of plays where his game created an edge.” His height is certainly a strength, but he has surprising agility given his size. Perhaps London’s experience catching passes from two different QBs at USC will have him prepared for what might be to come as a rookie in Atlanta. He’s not necessarily walking into a great situation, but he’s the top receiver in this offense, something few first-year players can say. Michael Fabiano dubbed him a post-draft “winner”, saying he has low-WR2 upside and ranked him No. 2 among rookies.

Bryan Edwards
Edwards, a third-round rookie out of South Carolina in 2020, caught just 11 balls in 12 games for the Raiders that year. He was much more involved in the offense a season ago, catching 34 of 59 passes thrown his way for 571 yards and three touchdowns. Las Vegas no longer required Edwards’s services after it acquired Adams in the offseason and the Falcons sent a future fifth to the Raiders for Edwards and got back a seventh-rounder in the process.

Edwards, a big-play threat who averages 17 yards per catch for his career, should be very much involved in Atlanta’s passing game next season. He turned 26 of his 34 catches into first downs a season ago and had an average depth of target of 14 yards, one of the highest marks in the NFL. And though Edwards profiles as a field-stretcher, he brings even more size to a receiving corps that includes 6’5” London and 6’6” Pitts.

Expectations for Edwards’ immediate fantasy impact should be tampered, especially moving from a high-volume passing offense to a lower-volume passing attack. Still, he was buried behind target monsters like Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller in Las Vegas, and he was even out-targeted by Zay Jones. There’s less competition for targets in Atlanta, with only London and Pitts guaranteed to see more work than him. Edwards, who flashes big-play ability, could very well be a suitable third option for the Falcons.

Returning Players
Atlanta’s No. 1 receiver is not technically a receiver. Pitts, whom the team made the highest-drafted tight end ever in 2021, led the team in targets (110), catches (68) and yards (1,026) as a rookie. He only caught one touchdown in 17 games despite his high usage, making him a strong candidate for positive regression in that department. The next step for Pitts is consistency—the week after catching seven passes for 163 yards he caught two for 13. Pitts was the fifth-most targeted tight end last season and he’s due for even more volume in the coming year.

The Falcons’ true wildcard is Cordarrelle Patterson. The journeyman kick returner posted a career year in his ninth season in the league that saw him finish as a surprise RB1. Patterson led the team in every rushing category last season and though Mike Davis is no longer in Atlanta, the team added Damien Williams and drafted Tyler Allgeier in the fifth round to back up Patterson and potentially allow him to be used more often in the passing game once again. Patterson is the team’s second-leading returning pass catcher and accounted for a team-high five receiving touchdowns and 11 overall on 200 touches.

Olamide Zaccheaus’s involvement in 2021 was more a necessity than a choice. The slight slot receiver didn’t do much for fantasy purposes on his way to a 31/406/3 stat line other than a two-touchdown game. He figures to return as a starter inside for Atlanta, which signed him to a one-year, $2.4 million-dollar deal in the offseason. 

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