One aspect of the Atlanta Falcons trading Julio Jones to the Tennessee Titans that warrants a closer look is the fantasy football impact on running back Mike Davis seeing more work in the passing game.
A year after his breakthrough season as a member of the division-rival Carolina Panthers, the journeyman enters the Atlanta backfield as the primary option.
Does the loss of Jones open up more receiving work for Davis? Absolutely.
But will it make all the difference in his fantasy value for gamers?
The lack of Jones likely will cut both ways, adding more available passes to be distributed and also putting more defenders into the box. For the sake of brevity, his rushing role won’t be in focus today.
Fourth-year wideout Calvin Ridley joined the ranks of WR1 fantasy options last season as Jones missed seven games. In those outings, Ridley’s involvement increased from 9.5 targets to 11.3, or a 32 percent jump, when compared to contests with Jones in the lineup. Naturally, the resultant catches per contest increased, too, going from 5.1 to 7.1. Ridley saw an increase of 2.5 yards per reception without Jones, although his reception-to-touchdown ratio went from a score every 5.1 grabs to just every 17 without Julio in the lineup.
Update: Ridley underwent minor foot surgery and is expected to be fully recovered prior to the start of training camp.
In the offseason, former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith became the head coach of the Falcons. We have two years of his system designs with the Titans to evaluate for a reasonable expectation of what may be to come. It’s not perfect, but it’s a starting point to illustrate potential. There’s little value in comparing the two teams and year over year other than to look at the positional utilization from Tennessee under Smith. And even that should be taken with a grain of salt.
We know the system will heavily involve the tight end position (27.8 percent of all 2019-20 targets) and utilize play-action passing to take its shots down the field to the wideouts. Smith also had one of the top rushers in the league at his disposal, and there isn’t a comparable in that sense for this Atlanta backfield. Conversely, Tennessee didn’t have a pass-catching running back to the caliber of Davis.
Given more than quarter of the targets over the past 32 games in Smith’s offense went to the tight end position, and Ridley is the only proven receiver in his Atlanta grouping, it’s fair to expect a similar share of the looks to go toward rookie first-rounder Kyle Pitts after the Jones trade. The elite talent will be Davis’ primary competition for targets.
At receiver, Julio accounted for 34.7 percent of Atlanta’s targets over the past 32 games by the position and 35.3 percent of the receptions, or 9.4 looks and 6.3 grabs per outing. That’s an enormous amount of action to be replaced, but the overall passing volume should decrease a fair amount compared to recent Atlanta offensive displays.
Let’s go through a quick exercise in extrapolation to see how it possibly could impact Davis’ role as a receiving asset. While predicting where all of those targets well end up in 2021 is mostly a crapshoot, there’s an interesting opportunity for Davis to see considerably more than the 4.67 he garnered on a weekly clip in Carolina a year ago. Say he gets a substantial 25 percent bump in looks, we’re at 5.8 grabs a game. That translates to a hearty 98.6 over 17 appearances in 2021.
A fairer estimate is something around 15 percent, because we don’t have real-world comparison from a Smith system, and Ridley has room to exceed Julio’s typical 160 looks as a baseline after seeing 143 in 2020. Such an extrapolation for Davis is still greater than 92 grabs over the new 17-game schedule.
Now, this assumes no one else steps up from the backfield. Qadree Ollison is not much of a receiving back, but rookie Javian Hawkins profiles as a Darren Sproles type and could severely cut into Davis’ target share. Pay extra close attention to Hawkins’ development in training camp.
Otherwise, a formidable share of the looks will end up in the hands of tight end Hayden Hurst. We could see noteworthy strides from WRs Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus. Tajae Sharpe has flashed briefly and knows the Smith offense from their time in Tennessee. Cordarrelle Patterson has shown by now he isn’t not a viable threat to gobble up a ton of looks as a receiver. The remainder of the receiving corps is more or less untested and doesn’t immediately warrant attention, but that could vary with strong showings in camp or a free-agent acquisition.
Fantasy football outlook
Unless Hawkins emerges, Davis is poised to challenge for the league-lead in receptions from the running back position.
That said, it won’t be all roses. Due to concerns along the offensive line, potential competition, a spotty history of finding limited success, and added defensive scrutiny, Davis still profiles as a moderately risky RB2 in PPR after the Jones trade.