Matt Ryan joined us on CBS Sports HQ this week, and he was excellent in talking about the skill players on his team, including Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Todd Gurley and Hayden Hurst. Now, as the Falcons quarterback, you would expect him to say positive things about his teammates. But some of his unprompted comments were definitely good to hear.
For example, we know a big storyline for Gurley is his health, as we still have questions about his knee. Ryan, who worked out with Gurley this offseason after he signed with Atlanta as a free agent from Los Angeles, said Gurley "looked really physically healthy to me" even though we didn't ask him about it.
"I didn't know much about it other than what I had heard, but he looked great moving around," Ryan said. "He said he felt great and worked out a ton this offseason. He feels like he's in a really good spot. I think he's a huge addition for us."
Gurley had the second-worst season of his career with the Rams in 2019, averaging just 14.5 PPR points per game. But he still played 15 games, had 254 total touches and scored 14 total touchdowns.
Ryan is hoping Gurley is an upgrade to Atlanta's running game, which finished No. 30 in the NFL last year. Ryan is also excited to use Gurley in the passing game. While he only had 31 catches for 207 yards and two touchdowns on 49 targets last year, Gurley has two seasons on his resume with at least 59 catches, 580 yards and four touchdowns.
"I hope we're more efficient running the football than we've been in the past, specifically last year," Ryan said. "If we can be a little bit better in that department that's certainly going to help us be a little more balanced, a little bit more play-action based in the passing game, which is when we're at our best. I think Todd fits in nicely.
"I was able to connect with him a handful of times this offseason. He's a guy at the running back position that I've been incredibly impressed with in terms of his ability to understand the passing game and where he's supposed to be and how he fits into it. Not only using him out of the backfield, but being able to split him out wide and use some of our empty sets. He fits in nicely with that."
Ryan also was excited to have Hurst come to Atlanta this year. After Austin Hooper left as a free agent for Cleveland, the Falcons traded for Hurst from the Ravens. Atlanta gave up second- and fifth-round picks for Hurst, and Baltimore also gave the Falcons a fourth-round selection as well.
Hurst, a former first-round pick in the NFL Draft in 2018, has yet to prove himself as a significant playmaker since he played behind Mark Andrews for the Ravens. His best season was last year with 30 catches for 349 yards and two touchdowns on 39 targets.
But Ryan got the chance to workout with Hurst this offseason, and Hurst told ESPN in May that he was driving back and forth from Jacksonville to Atlanta to spend time with Ryan. Hurst should have a big role with the Falcons after Hooper just had 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns on 97 targets in 13 games.
"I've been impressed," Ryan said. "He was one of the guys that I was able to spend time with this offseason. I was kind of chomping at the bit to get on the field with him because I wasn't necessarily familiar with his skillset. I was blown away at first."
Ryan loves leaning on his tight ends. He's been with the Falcons for 12 seasons, and eight times he's had a tight end get at least 80 targets. Tony Gonzalez did it five times, Hooper twice and Jacob Tamme once.
Gonzalez is a Hall of Famer, and Hooper was a Pro Bowl tight end with the Falcons. But Ryan was glowing about Hurst as an athlete.
"I've been fortunate to play with some really good ones -- Tony Gonzalez, Austin Hooper, guys like that. Hayden, he's kind of cut from a different cloth," Ryan said. "He's a little bit more athletic than most of those guys in terms of top-end speed and change of direction. Skill-set is a little different from guys that I've played with. But I expect him to play well for us. He's a hard worker. He's committed to it. He's been really good at getting into the playbook and retaining the information that we've talked about. I think he'll fit in nicely with the group that we have."
As for that group, Ryan has two of the best receivers in Fantasy and reality on his side with Jones and Ridley. While some may think Jones is slowing down at 31, Ryan doesn't see that at all.
In 2019, Jones did have his fewest yards (1,394) since 2012 while playing more than five games, and his 14.1 yards per reception was tied for the second-lowest mark of his career. Still, Jones had 99 catches and scored six touchdowns in 15 games, and he was the No. 3 PPR receiver.
"I certainly think Julio is still at the top of his game, at the top of his position in our sport," Ryan said. "He is as good as there is. Week in and week out he faces double coverage, he faces defenses trying to take him out of the game, and he still produces. He's a hard worker. He's a good teammate. He's unselfish. He's everything you want from a superstar. We're lucky to have him. He's still rolling at a high level."
Ryan also said Ridley could have the chance for a big year in 2020. He's entering his third season in the NFL, and he was great in 2019 after the Falcons traded Mohamed Sanu to the Patriots prior to Week 8.
In his final six games (Ridley missed the last three games of the season with an abdomen injury), he averaged 17.1 PPR points per game, which was better than Jones over that same stretch. Ryan said Ridley is "so much more comfortable" with everything heading into Year 3.
"In our work together this offseason, I feel like you can see it in his body language," Ryan said. "His understanding of the system is so much better. His understanding of how to communicate with me and what I expect of him and where I expect him to be -- he's on a different level. When he is freed up internally, mentally, he's not thinking about things -- his athleticism shows. And he's so gifted. I think that's going to be the case this year. He's going to be a guy who gets a lot of one-on-one opportunities because of his supporting cast, and he's going to make people pay because of it."
Again, we expect Ryan to say glowing things about his teammates. But Jones is still one of the best Fantasy receivers, and he's worth drafting in Round 2 at the latest.
I would draft Ridley no later than Round 4, and he's a breakout candidate. The same goes for Hurst, who I consider a top-10 Fantasy tight end this year, and I'm targeting him with a mid-round pick.
Gurley is still a No. 2 running back worth drafting in Round 4, but he should see plenty of volume. The running backs behind him on the depth chart -- Ito Smith, Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison -- aren't expected to see a lot of work if Gurley is healthy. And if his role in the passing game is solidified, Gurley could surprise us with another quality Fantasy season.
The Falcons also have Russell Gage as a sleeper in deeper leagues since he should be the No. 3 receiver. And let's not forget about Ryan.
He was only the No. 11 Fantasy quarterback last year (No. 10 in points per game at 21.2), but Atlanta led the NFL in pass attempts. The Falcons should be pass happy again, and Ryan is worth drafting as a No. 1 quarterback in all leagues.
This is going to be a fun offense with a lot of standout players, especially if everyone stays healthy. You should be prepared to invest in Falcons Fantasy options this year.