- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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The theory used to be the Atlanta Falcons would go only as far as Michael Vick would take them, but the 2006 season proved that even when Vick plays well statistically, this franchise has other issues. Offensively, Vick ended up with his best fantasy season since 2002, with stats fantasy owners crave, but on the field the gaudy numbers didn't produce victories and the team ended up with a sub-.500 record.
Then again, wouldn't it be nice if that sub-.500 record was the biggest problem facing the Falcons? As of this writing, your guess is as good as mine as to how the future plays out for Vick, who, as you might have heard, has been having some off-field problems. It sure looks like this team's new starting quarterback is Joey Harrington. Ouch. There are other things to watch on this team, but Vick will remain the big story.
Key Backups/Position Battles
In the past, Falcons fans could complain their quarterback didn't win enough games, didn't involve others in the offense, was inaccurate and was a minor distraction off the field. Statistically, however, Vick ended up as the No. 4 quarterback in fantasy football last season, only a point behind Marc Bulger, and he nearly cracked the top six overall players. Sure, he doesn't get the job done conventionally, but so what? Vick's 20 touchdown passes were a career high, but fantasy owners complained that eight of them came in two games. Vick also ran for 1,039 yards -- a record for a quarterback -- but people whined that he scored only two rushing touchdowns. Vick just can't get proper credit in fantasy, no matter what!
That all seems kind of trivial now, as Vick fights for his freedom in the legal system. No matter how you judged him, as a top 5 fantasy quarterback or as someone you merely wanted as a fantasy backup, you knew what he was capable of.
Can we say that about Harrington, whose name doesn't exactly elicit positive comments from fans in Detroit? Harrington played poorly in his four years as a Lion and did little in one season with the Dolphins, although he never seemed to have proper talent around him. Even when the team did surround him with capable receivers, he would make a poor decision or just plain make a bad throw. These Falcons were built with Vick in mind, not Harrington. For the record, the other Atlanta quarterbacks are Chris Redman and D.J. Shockley, so Harrington will be under pressure yet again. Wow, if only the Falcons could acquire someone like Matt Schaub to play quarterback. Nah, that's just a pipedream. (And he's a Houston Texan now.)
Like Vick, Warrick Dunn gets little credit for his accomplishments, but he just concluded his third straight 1,000-yard rushing campaign -- the fifth of his career -- and if he were healthy and starting, he probably would reach the 10,000-yard career mark by Thanksgiving. The problem is, he is not healthy, having undergone surgery for a herniated disc. It is clear, at age 32, he is already running out of time to be an every-down back, and now with the surgery, it is assumed the Jerious Norwood era has begun. Norwood's got game, and his fantasy value goes way up with the Dunn news.
What does Joe Horn have in common with Peerless Price, Ashley Lelie and other veteran wide receivers brought in to be Vick's No. 1 wide receiver? Well, the other guys failed, and at 35, Horn now is a broken-down veteran and three years from relevant fantasy statistics. So he likely is doomed to the same fate as his predecessors. Look, it is nice that the Falcons keep trying to bring in names to catch the ball, but it never made Vick's aim any better. Harrington isn't known for his accuracy, either. Horn, who has missed nine games the past two seasons, topped 100 yards receiving three times since his monster 2004. Don't draft the 2004 version.
Horn will start along with either Michael Jenkins or Roddy White, and neither are likely to be popular in your fantasy drafts, although in a strange way, we haven't seen another quarterback play regularly in Atlanta for awhile, so maybe this team will pass more.
Alge Crumpler continues to be one of fantasy's more underrated tight end options, having averaged more than 55 receptions, 800 yards and six touchdowns the past three seasons. Jeremy Shockey, Tony Gonzalez and Todd Heap generally get drafted sooner, but for consistency, Crumpler is the guy. Vick made Crumpler his main receiving threat, both near the goal line and on third downs, so it is reasonable to believe Harrington will utilize his largest target the same way.
Does it really matter? The Falcons continue to go through place kickers like wide receivers and get no increase in production. Last season, Morten Andersen got most of the work, but 26 other kickers accumulated more points. The year before, Todd Peterson topped 100 points but kicked only 23 field goals, and in 2004, Jay Feely managed only 18 field goals for Atlanta. Is it an epidemic, or do Atlanta's kickers not get enough field-goal work? Welcome Billy Cundiff, the latest kicker fantasy owners don't need to draft. Hey, in a 12-team league you should be selecting only 12 kickers anyway. Cundiff doesn't make the cut.
What to Look for in 2007
The Falcons have a new coaching staff, and it figured it would be a pleasure to make changes to the offense and make the exciting Vick even more productive. Now this new staff, namely Petrino and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, will find out pretty quickly that Harrington is not Vick. While neither the Falcons nor the league has made an official announcement on whether Vick will be permitted to play football this season, a fantasy owner has to draft its No. 1 quarterback on the theory he actually will be in the lineup. Vick was ranked as one of the top 10 quarterbacks by ESPN before all this news came out, but he now is a late-round selection at best, someone you cannot count on.
Enter Harrington, who moves on to his third team in three seasons. Maybe he wasn't expecting to start, but here is his latest opportunity. In fairness to Harrington, the No. 3 overall pick in 2002, he never has really appeared to have the weapons around him for success. The problem is, this Falcons offense probably won't be any different. Harrington has more interceptions than touchdown passes in his career, and I won't be the one to go out on a limb and project that trend to end in 2007. For more on Harrington and Vick, check out our 32 Questions feature on this situation.
Before the Dunn surgery, Norwood was going to be a popular fantasy sleeper pick, someone you could draft after the third or fourth round. The new Falcons coaches were planning to open things up on offense a bit more anyway, give Norwood more touches than last season and possibly turn him into a Brian Westbrook type. Why not? Atlanta is adjusting its run game from its typical zone-blocking scheme and was planning to give Vick more freedom, which ultimately would have led to similar statistics for the key performers. Harrington won't get the same offense to play with, but Norwood remains dangerous. Now, assuming Dunn needs time to heal, Norwood could be the centerpiece of the offense.
Norwood was a major big-play option as a rookie, having averaged 6.4 yards per rush and breaking off runs of 69 and 78 yards, but there will be concerns about his size and durability. Still, with Dunn on the wrong side of 30 and coming off surgery, Norwood looks like a solid third-round fantasy selection.
While Horn isn't likely to return to the statistical success of his past, Harrington likely is going to be looking for him quite a bit. Harrington did attempt 500 passes in one of his Detroit seasons and topped 3,000 yards passing in another. While it is reasonable to have doubts about Harrington's accuracy and decision making, this could be a team that needs to throw quite a bit. Vick topped 400 pass attempts in only one of his seasons, because this was a running team when he was out there, and he was one of the lead runners. Now, all bets are off. Look for Horn to get plenty of chances to catch passes. The loss of Vick doesn't hurt Horn's value; it might actually aid it, and the same goes for Crumpler and the other wide receivers. Crumpler is a top 5 tight end to some, while Horn could crack the top 30 wide receivers.
The Falcons defense, which used to be opportunistic and somewhat interesting, probably needs an overhaul, but that didn't happen this offseason. New defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is sticking with the same personnel and will hope players like DeAngelo Hall and John Abraham bounce back. If they don't, the Falcons will be trailing quite a bit, meaning Harrington will be very, very busy throwing the ball.
It has been a difficult offseason for the Falcons and the team's star, and one certainly should expect the fallout from this to linger well into the season, if not until the following offseason. Vick is unlikely to play, and he might not even be a part of the team when the season starts. Schaub is gone, and Harrington was brought in as insurance, not as a starter. It is possible the Falcons will look for another quarterback, someone like Daunte Culpepper, but that would be a pretty big slap in the face to Harrington. The Falcons are in a tough spot.
Expect Norwood to be this team's best fantasy option on draft day, someone many fantasy owners will look to as their second running back. Based on how exciting he was last season, maybe he can replace Vick on the "SportsCenter" highlights. Certainly the Falcons could use some good news.
Eric Karabell previews the 2007 Atlanta Falcons from a fantasy perspective.