2020 Summer Sleeper: Atlanta Falcons

Eric Hardter

In our annual 32-part Summer Sleeper series, DLF scribes identify a lightly-touted player on each NFL roster who may be worthy of your consideration. Our subjects all have varying levels of “sleeperness,” but each merits a bit of in-depth discussion here in the Premium Content section.

To help everybody along, we are going to be categorizing our sleepers under one of three headings:

Super Deep SleepersPlayers who aren’t roster-worthy in 12-team leagues, but are still worth keeping an eye on.
Deep Sleepers – An end of the roster player who is more often than not on the waiver wire in 12-team leagues.
Sleeper – A likely rostered player who makes for a good trade target. Their startup ADP puts them out of the top-175 or so.

Because we aren’t going to give you the likes of mainstream sleepers, most of these players will undoubtedly fizzle. All we are asking is for you to keep an open mind and perhaps be willing to make room for one of these players on your bench. You never know when the next Adam Thielen is going to spring up. Feel free to add your own thoughts about our choice for the designated sleeper, or nominate one of your own in the comments below.

The definition of football clockwork, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has put up at least 4,000 yards and 20 passing scores every year dating back to 2011. This includes six seasons of 4,500+ yards (this would undoubtedly have been seven if Ryan didn’t miss his first games since 2009 last season) and six seasons of at least 26 aerial touchdowns. Importantly for fantasy general managers who roster Falcons’ pass catchers in PPR (or 0.5 PPR) leagues, Ryan has ranked in the top ten for number of completions every year during this time frame, including six finishes inside the top four.

So why am I mentioning all this? It’s certainly not because Ryan himself is a sleeper, though even despite his age one could argue he deserves to be ranked even more highly given his reliable fantasy proficiency. It’s more because each and every year he proffers up points by the bushel to a multitude of Atlanta skill position players.

Receiver Julio Jones has been arguably the most consistent and reliable fantasy asset at his position over the past several years. Positional colleague Calvin Ridley has already vaulted himself to the upper echelon of WR2s in just two short years. Prior to signing with Cleveland in the off-season, tight end Austin Hooper was a back-to-back TE1, including garnering the third-highest average weekly score last season. Solely due to this fact, the relatively unproven (though former first-round selection) Hayden Hurst is already being drafted just outside of the TE1 tier per the July ADP.

That’s a lot of meat off the bone already, without even getting into the acquisition of pass-catching running back Todd Gurley. However, as we saw at the tail end of 2019, circumstances might again align to watch a sleeper emerge.

Russell Gage, WR

Category: Sleeper

A series of cascading factors allowed for Gage’s 2019 emergence. First, fellow receiver Mohammed Sanu was traded to the Patriots on October 22, immediately following a blowout loss to the Rams just two days earlier. Prior to that, Gage had been accruing a mere 1.6 targets per game. Following the trade of Sanu, Gage received a significantly more robust 7.3 targets per game, never falling below four in a single contest.

Continuing, the injury bug bit Hooper, and he wound up missing three games in November. During this time Gage’s average targets increased slightly to 7.7 per game, even including a 29-3 rout over the Panthers where the Falcons passed for 11 fewer attempts than their yearly average. During this stretch, Gage sequestered 18.1% of all Falcons targets.

Hooper eventually returned, only to see Ridley miss the final three contests of the year. Again, during this time Gage upped his weekly workload to 8.3 targets per game, good for a similar 18.5% of Ryan’s intended passes. Combining this trio of contests with the three Hooper missed, Gage managed a composite line of 32-304-1, good for an average of 11.4 PPR points per game.

While far from world-beating, it’s fair to remember Gage was a second-year, former sixth-round pick. 2019 was also incredibly only his fourth year as a wide receiver, as he converted from defensive back following his sophomore season at LSU. It’s fair to reason that given more time, he can put his above-average speed (83rd percentile 40-yard dash) and burst (87th percentile vertical jump and 61st percentile broad jump) to better use as a more polished route runner.

It’s reasonable to assert that Gage’s rise to relative prominence was largely aided by circumstance, particularly with injuries to his target hog teammates. However, it’s notable that Atlanta ran the second-most offensive plays in the league in 2019 (1,096; 68.5 per game), and was above average in the number of instances these plays featured at least three wide receivers (722; 67% of plays). As the primary slot receiver (64.4% snaps in the slot), Gage’s utility seems secure, as evidenced by his 275 routes run following the trade of Sanu. In total, the opportunities should be there, regardless of what happens on an individual level.

Continuing, the off-season has been favorable for the rising third-year receiver. As mentioned, Hooper has taken his 7.5 targets per game to Cleveland, to be replaced by the unproven Hurst, and XFL star Khari Lee (Defend the District!). The NFL Draft was also a source of comfort as the Falcons drafted nary a receiver, and the off-season signings yielded only former first-round pick and to-date bust Laquon Treadwell. Gage is currently followed on the depth chart by Christian Blake, a 2019 UDFA who failed to secure even half of his 24 targets despite a YPR average of only 8.3.

Fantasy owners have taken notice of Gage’s rise as he is reliably selected, on average, in the 19th round as the 225th overall player, and 93rd receiver. These numbers see him fall into the range of a sleeper who is likely already rostered, but may make for a tempting trade target given the probable small amount of capital required to secure his services. Despite limited familiarity at the position he was able to provide flex-level output in just his second year in the league, and has effectively secured a starting position on one of the league’s most potent offenses. For a late-round draft pick or a slight reach in a startup draft, Gage makes for an upside investment.

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eric hardter