Was 2009 the best it gets for Matt Ryan?
There's an oft-bandied about phrase in the world of fantasy, the "post-hype sleeper," and its definition is this: A player who, once considered a future star, has undeservedly had his career written off as a bust thanks to past instances falling short of expectations. Typically speaking, such players are still young, might have had only one bad year and have plenty of career left to redeem themselves.
If you're looking for 2010's "post-hype sleeper" among fantasy quarterbacks, Matt Ryan might be your guy.
That's not to say Ryan fits the definition perfectly. After all, he's 25 years old with only two years and 30 games of NFL experience under his belt, and while his sophomore campaign of 2009 has to be classified as "disappointing," it's important to remember that he has almost as many games of 20 or more fantasy points (3) as games with five or fewer fantasy points (4) in his young career. In other words, he has already shown us glimpses of the Pro Bowl potential advertised when he was selected third overall in the 2008 NFL draft, and it's not like two seasons' worth of so-so performance is going to make everyone to give up on him. Heck, he's being picked 13th overall at his position in drafts so far, so it's clear enough fantasy owners have hope for improvement.
Why Ryan does, however, fit the mold is that his circumstances this season are more conducive to success than they were a year ago, and in no aspect is that more true than the schedule he'll face. Take a look at the schedule Ryan faced in 2009:
What that tells you is that four of Ryan's 14 games last season were played against top-five defenses in the NFL, and don't overlook that two of his top three fantasy performances came in those games (Week 2 versus the Carolina Panthers, Week 16 versus the Buffalo Bills). And if you're more apt to put stock into the "fantasy points allowed" column, seven of Ryan's 14 games came against top-10 defenses, and all three of his best performances came in those games (add the Week 5 game at the San Francisco 49ers to the previously mentioned two).
Now take a look at Ryan's 2010 schedule:
Obviously, most of the defensive numbers above are from 2009, and if you know anything about strength of schedule rankings, they can be misleading. Personnel changes, injuries and different schedules have an impact on those numbers from year to year, which is why I've included the final column: The opponent's fantasy defense ranking, which gives you an idea how we regard their 2010 prospects.
Going by that column, Ryan's 2010 does include six games against top-10 defensive opponents, but he also has seven against bottom-10 defenses, which is four more than he had in 2009. Six of those will come in his final nine games, all of which come after Atlanta's Week 8 bye. It's for that reason that his matchups should be stronger, especially during the key fantasy weeks, most leagues' playoffs.
The case for Ryan isn't entirely centered on his schedule. The other knock on his 2009 was that the Falcons' passing game was more conservative than expected; the team ranked 20th in averaging 6.5 yards per pass attempt, 21st with 39 completions of 20-plus yards and 25th with five completions of 40-plus yards. Another way of looking at it: Among receivers with 30-plus catches, Ryan's No. 1 option, Roddy White, ranked 45th in average yards at the point of the catch (9.0) and 70th if that average is calculated using targets (4.6). In fact, not one Falcons receiver finished in the top 20 in either category, so it's clear that last year's team wasn't especially apt to aim deep.
It's a strategy that makes sense, especially a season after Michael Turner, their workhorse running back, missed five games with a high ankle sprain. In eight full games before getting hurt (which happened during Week 10), Turner had carried the ball 156 times, putting him on pace for 312. Coming off a year in which he had toted the rock a disturbing 376 times, it was a workload that seemed excessive, and certainly the Falcons have to consider the prospect that so much work might have at least contributed to his getting hurt.
Turner might be held to beneath 300 carries this season, and with a surprisingly reliable backup in Jason Snelling, who tallied 363 yards and three scores in the five games the veteran missed, he might not even top 250. Presumably, the Falcons will work Snelling and Jerious Norwood into the rushing mix more often this year than in 2008 or the first half of 2009, and they might shift some of the focus off their running game and onto Ryan as well.
Are those traits enough to push Ryan into breakout-candidate status? Certainly not, but the advantage to selecting him this season is that he's not being regarded a top 10-capable fantasy quarterback, instead being picked as a clear backup at the position and a ninth- or 10th-round pick overall (his average draft position is 94.0).
Considering how quickly the talent pool thins out after the top 10 quarterbacks are off the board, Ryan's prospects are at least as good as the alternatives in those rounds. The questions begin once the ninth option -- Joe Flacco -- goes, and they questions really are no greater than with any other quarterback outside the top 10.