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Can Ryan be an elite fantasy QB?

8/31/2011

What can we expect from Matt Ryan?

I've been watching Matt Ryan play football since he was a junior in high school at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia. As a lean and lanky teenager, one seemingly best-suited as the small forward on the Quakers' basketball team, he didn't demand your attention upon first sight. But when he was in the pocket on the gridiron, you noticed a presence and poise rare for such a young quarterback. This cool demeanor, born on fields around Philly, has helped earn him the moniker "Matty Ice" as he has become one of the premier young professional quarterbacks.

If Ryan draws acclaim from NFL analysts for his maturity, leadership and "winning qualities," he has never really stirred up much attention in a fantasy context. For his first two years in the league, Ryan was somewhat of a middling fantasy producer, with 17 total touchdowns as a rookie in 2008 and 23 TDs in a 2009 sophomore season cut short two games by injury. The pundits were praising him for the wins that he and his Atlanta Falcons amassed, not necessarily the numbers the passing game was putting out.

For much of his career so far, Ryan has embodied the player who provides a much greater real impact on the field than on the fantasy scoresheets. Savvy and sound game management, and making the right decisions under pressure, don't always translate into statistical glory. That said, Ryan entered the discussion as a legitimate starting fantasy commodity last season, as he passed for 3,705 yards and 28 touchdowns. For the 2011 campaign, our projections have Ryan putting up 3,795 yards and 25 touchdowns to go with 10 picks. These projections place Ryan as the 11th overall producer at the position in ESPN standard league settings, just between his ADP peers Josh Freeman and Eli Manning.

To describe Ryan's fantasy identity in just one word, I would choose "stable." Last season, Ryan was held without a touchdown in a Week 1 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. But from Week 2 on, he scored at least one touchdown in every game and had at least two touchdowns in nine outings, and three in four games (meaning he had a lone touchdown in six games). Ryan surpassed 225 yards passing in 11 games and topped 300 just once. It was a steady and stable effort; one that with the right fantasy roster surrounding him would do just fine contending in most formats.

It's quite possible that the same elements that play into pundits lauding Ryan's consistency are also making him a respectable fantasy commodity. Ryan excels under pressure -- thus the appropriate nickname -- and this could be a key in why he's proving to be such a stable statistical source. Last season he completed 61.75 percent of his passes while being blitzed, good for sixth in the league, while his touchdown-to-interception ratio while being blitzed was fourth-best in football. Ryan also graded out as one of the elite third-down decision-makers under center. In the 203 plays that Ryan was deemed under pressure in the pocket from defenders last season, he threw 10 touchdowns and just one pick. Ryan's cool under pressure doesn't always translate into fantasy production, but the risk for implosion outings is definitively minimized with Ryan. Of the commodities in Ryan's ADP range (names like Freeman and Manning), Ryan represents a more stable offering of numbers, particularly when it comes to minimizing mistakes and avoiding those multiple interception games that can tank a week for a fantasy manager (Freeman led the league in having potential picks dropped, by the way). It simply helps that Ryan is cool under pressure, because he has proven to be productive under pressure.

When you draft Ryan in fantasy, it should be the result of a deliberate approach or agenda. You can find him in the 8-11 range at the position in nearly any draft; he's currently going 60th overall and 10th at the position in ESPN live drafts. What I mean by the agenda-and-approach concept is that landing Ryan is the result of waiting on the position in the draft, but still wanting some security at signal-caller. It represents not taking a great risk -- like investing in a less definable or predictable asset such as Freeman or Matthew Stafford, who might arguably have more upside -- but rather providing some cost and production certainty from the position. This doesn't ring true for many fantasy commodities who can be drafted 10 picks into the respective position, but it's a relatively safe bet to bank on what Ryan's statistical baseline and range is for 2011.

This isn't to suggest that there isn't upside with Ryan, that a 4,000-yard effort with 30 touchdowns isn't possible, because it is. What needs to change to make this happen, it seems, is more vertical attempts and bigger plays for Atlanta's offense. Flush with two impressive talents at wideout, the elite Roddy White and promising rookie Julio Jones, Ryan isn't short on stud athletes to work with in the passing game. The only holdup in expecting a gaudy passing campaign rife with big plays is that the Falcons' passing game has been among the most conservative when it comes to such plays over the past several seasons. Last season, the Falcons ranked 31st in football with just 32 plays of 20 yards or more in the air, and 22nd with just six plays of 40 yards or more. In 2009, they ranked 21st in plays over 20 yards and 25th in plays over 40. White's yards per catch has dipped from 15.7 in 2008 to 13.6 in 2009 to 12.1 in 2010. Part of these diminishing returns in average yards per reception could be due to the regular double-teams White has seen roll his way, but some of this is simply the lack of a vertical approach in the passing game. The Falcons' offense was fifth in rushing attempts last season but also eighth in passing attempts, so arguments that a run-heavy offense is the issue aren't founded in the numbers. For Ryan to join the top seven fantasy arms (top six plus Tony Romo), we'll need to see a more daring downfield identity emerge from the Georgia Dome this season.

If you wait on your quarterback, past the top six and even past more vaunted fantasy producers like Matt Schaub, Ben Roethlisberger and Romo, you'll find a trio of arms that are bunched together in the ranks and in ADP: Freeman, Eli Manning and Ryan. Given your patience at quarterback so far, you will have spent those earlier picks compiling a strong collection of position talents.

A strong baseline for production is present, and some upside is here given the talented wide receivers in tow. Ryan is simply stable; and in most drafts he can be drafted as the ninth or 10th arm off the board. The price and the risk are both minimized with Ryan, and there's nothing wrong with that.