If you hear any interview, or do any research, involving new Falcons coach and offensive play caller Arthur Smith, the word you'll see or hear from Smith over and over is "adaptable." Give him a linebacker disguised as a running back and he'll turn him into a 2,000-yard monster. Dust off a former first-round quarterback and he'll develop him into a hyper-efficient stat producer. Hand Smith talented players with unique skill sets, and he'll weave a high-scoring offense that rolls deep into the playoffs.
Under Smith, the Titans ranked tied for second in total yards (396.4 per game) and fourth in scoring (30.7 points per game) last year. That came on the heels of the Titans finishing in the top-12 in both categories a year prior. But Smith's best work came in the red zone, where Tennessee finished second in the league in red-zone touchdown rate (75%) in 2020 and first (75.6%) in 2019.
The secret to Smith's success? He knows everyone thinks it has to do with Henry, but it's all about adaptability.
"I think there's a lot of mythology to it because people come from one system, but there's a natural evolution," Smith said. " ... We certainly adapted in Tennessee, we were good with our foundation. When we were a little bit bigger in other spots, I think the evidence would show we did adapt to those, whether it was the wideouts or certainly Derrick. We'll continue to do the same thing here in Atlanta."
Pegging Smith as a run-heavy coordinator just because he had Henry in Tennessee is a big mistake. Count on him taking stock of the talent he has in Atlanta and playing to their strengths.
This means his tendencies from the Titans may not transfer to what he does with the Falcons.
Smith's last two seasons with Titans:
I'm basically putting this here for posterity.
The last time the Falcons were anywhere near this run-heavy was in 2016 and 2017. Very different years -- in 2016, then-play-caller Kyle Shanahan dialed up a run 44% of the time, and weirdly, Matt Ryan was that season's MVP. Steve Sarkisian called the plays in 2017, who stuck with the same pass-run ratio as Shanahan and helped the Falcons make the playoffs, but Ryan had 20 touchdowns, the second-lowest total of his career.
From 2018-20, the Falcons called pass plays at least 62% of the time, and they missed the playoffs every year. Ryan had a great Fantasy finish in 2018 (4,924 yards, 35 passing scores) but was meh otherwise (between 4,400-4,600 yards and 26 passing touchdowns in 2019 and 2020).
Ryan's Top-5 Fantasy seasons
Meanwhile, Smith's Titans made the playoffs in both 2019 and 2020 with only 12 games where he called pass plays over 50% of the time (six per year).
If Smith sticks to the adaptable mantra, then he'd be stupid to lean heavily on a run game when he's got Ryan, Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones (and Hayden Hurst, and Russell Gage). He's trying to win games, so he'll have to find ways to be more balanced than the Falcons have been.
If Ryan is to rebound into a top-10 Fantasy quarterback, Smith will have to help him become as efficient as Tannehill was. Not that Ryan played sloppily, but Tannehill was the Swiss watch of quarterbacks in 2019 and 2020 with top-6 finishes in yards per attempt (Ryan didn't rate higher than 19th). Both ranked well in on-target throws, but Tannehill was better in each of the past two seasons. And Ryan simply doesn't threaten with his legs like Tannehill has.
I would cautiously project the Falcons to throw the ball 59% of the time in 2021. That should mean over 550 pass attempts for Ryan with a shot at reaching 600. More than enough to help Jones and Ridley maintain their Fantasy statuses while keeping Ryan in the ballpark as a top-15 passer, but not necessarily a top-10.
RB rush attempts per game
Titans 2020: 28.9
Titans 2019: 23.0
As expected. But don't get excited -- Smith has made clear he's not going to try and force someone else to do what Henry has done.
"If you've got two guys, then great. Cleveland's found success doing that this year," Smith said of his run game in January. "We adapted to Derrick. There's only one Derrick Henry, and he's like having Shaquille O'Neal in his prime. You have to feed the big fella. ... But that's an example of us playing to our strengths, and there are multiple ways to do it. You've got two guys, you've got three guys, or if you do find one, I think we have to be flexible. That's something that [General Manager Terry Fontenot] and I will map out and we'll see what happens this spring and what pieces we add, or who we use currently on the roster."
The Falcons had the 11th-worst run-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus in 2020 as they dealt with a number of injuries. Fortifying the O-line is one of several priorities Atlanta has to have this offseason.
All options are on the table at running back, though Atlanta's perilous salary-cap situation may take them out of the running for any high-priced free-agent running backs like Aaron Jones or Chris Carson. I would expect a committee approach like Smith talked about, potentially with a rookie and a veteran.
If the rookie is Najee Harris or Travis Etienne, then expect massive demand on Draft Day. Just about anyone else they draft will get attention, but won't get taken consistently taken with a top-50 pick.
And remember, if there's a split in the rushing workload, it means one guy will be lucky to see 15 touches on a regular basis. Smith's mindset of being adaptable could get tested rather quickly.
Smith's last two years with the Titans:
There's adaptability, and then there's consistency. These numbers show Smith's offense wasn't wildly varied from the first year to the second. Maybe there are some tendencies here that will show up in Atlanta.
Starting with the tight ends -- the reception percentages are awfully high. Tight ends have routinely been involved in Smith's playcalling in Tennessee, though the workload's been split amongst several players. Given the way Smith deployed Tannehill as a play-action quarterback, tight ends became easy short- and mid-range targets for Tannehill to make easy throws to.
By comparison, Atlanta's tight ends caught 16% of the team's total receptions in 2020 (56 grabs by Hurst). A former tight ends coach, Smith could quickly develop Hurst as a winning option for Ryan to focus on more often, especially if the run game doesn't run smoothly. This might be the biggest (and only?) reliable takeaway from Smith's time with the Titans.
If tight ends are going to be a fixture, does it mean fewer opportunities for Ridley and Jones? If Smith is truly adaptable, he'll scheme those two open as much as he possibly can. Falcons receivers caught 65% of the team's receptions in 2020, with Ridley snaring a 23.6% reception share and Jones a 29% reception share in the games they played in. If there's an uptick in rush attempts and even a slight emphasis on tight end usage under Smith, then it's conceivable both Ridley and Jones are headed for a statistical downturn, however slight it might be. They can still both be No. 1 Fantasy receivers, but they could fall short of finishing in the top-3 or top-5.
And what does this leave for running backs? We have seen Falcons running backs play a big role in the passing game as recently as 2019, but the team had good-hands men in a pass-strong offense. The Falcons are clearly in the market for a run-game upgrade, but until Smith locks in a rusher with very good hands, Fantasy managers should expect low reception totals.
And maybe that's what we should root for given the expectations we'll have for the rest of Atlanta's passing game.