Can Matt Ryan repeat his huge fantasy season?
(“Today’s Crazy Fantasy Stat” is an occasional offseason offering from PFF that highlights something that catches our eye and aids in our preparation for the 2017 fantasy season.)
Matt Ryan is about to enter his 10th NFL season. For most of that time, he’s been a good-not-great fantasy quarterback, reliable enough to run out there on your roster but never a guy who’s going to win you a championship on his own.
And then the last two years happened. In 2015, Ryan had his worst fantasy season, finishing 19th at the position in fantasy scoring — tied for his worst performance with his 2009 season (when he played two fewer games) — and posting his fourth-worst PFF grade. And then, of course, in 2016, he had his best season by nearly any measure, including the second-most fantasy points among quarterbacks, his highest-ever PFF grade, and of course, a little thing called the NFL MVP award.
The relative struggles in 2015 were surprising, considering that Ryan went to war with the No. 2 fantasy wide receiver (Julio Jones) and the No. 1 running back (Devonta Freeman), but then Ben Roethlisberger has had similar weaponry for years, and has only finished better than 10th among fantasy quarterbacks once since 2009.
More interesting for our purposes is Ryan’s jump in 2016. There’s a big range between that being a new normal for the MVP and that being a blip, and that can make the difference between Ryan being a season-winner in fantasy in 2017 and him being a same-old mid-to-low fantasy starter.
There was one noticeable difference in Ryan’s 2016 campaign compared to his career before that, and that was his deep-passing prowess. In 2016, on passes targeted 20-plus yards downfield, Ryan set career-bests in completions, yards, touchdowns, interceptions, accuracy percentage, and passer rating. His passer rating on deep balls of 136.1 was the best in the PFF era (since 2006), and his 11:0 TD:INT ratio on such passes has been matched only by Joe Flacco in 2012.
It’s easy to chalk Ryan’s success in 2016 to the presence of Jones, but Ryan had Jones in 2015 and passed for just over half as many deep yards (1,149 in 2016; 611 in 2015). The reality is that Ryan spread the deep ball around in 2016 — Jones had 401 deep yards (fifth among WRs); Taylor Gabriel had 213 (38th); Austin Hooper had 120 (10th among TEs); Levine Toilolo had 108 (13th).
It would be easy to say Ryan was more deep-ball happy in 2016 than he ever had been before, but, while his 32 deep completions marked a career-high, his 63 attempts is only third-highest, and it’s not far off his career average of 55. No, the simple truth is that Ryan’s accuracy percentage of 57.1 (his career best and second in the league to Minnesota’s Sam Bradford) is what carried him to his success.
So, is accuracy on deep balls a repeatable skill? Or can we expect Ryan to slide back in 2017?
Of the 30 quarterbacks in the last decade with a 50-plus completion percentage on deep balls who attempted enough passes the next year to qualify, 10 doubled down on the high percentage. That list is dominated by Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, but also features lesser fantasy names like Chad Pennington and Matt Schaub.
Ryan appears to be at least trending in the right direction. Since his rookie year, when he had a then-out-of-character 55.2 deep-ball completion percentage, he’s moved gradually upward.
What does this all mean for 2017 Matt Ryan? Well, you’re rarely going to go wrong assuming a guy’s career year won’t be repeated. Ryan isn’t likely to ever win another MVP or finish second in fantasy scoring again. But he’s still a guy who has been a top-10 fantasy quarterback five of the last seven years, even if he had never finished better than seventh before last year. Considering almost all of his weapons return in 2017, Ryan’s four finishes at seventh or eighth need to be considered more or less his baseline, and he could rise from there. Take Ryan as your starter — but don’t take him as a dominant force.