Falcons QB Matt Ryan needs help from his pass targets

The unsightliness of many of Matt Ryan’s turnovers in 2015 (and during that exhibition game last week ) inspired a sort of binary rage among Falcons supporters: Ryan is a terrible quarterback who never would lead the Falcons to glory and should be benched/traded OR Kyle Shanahan is the worst offensive coordinator in the league who is running Ryan’s career and should be fired.

Somehow, hardly any of the vitriol directed at Ryan and Shanahan made its way to the group of wide receivers those two had to work with in 2015. Some of that is because Julio Jones is All-World, but did you notice what happened when opponents decided to focus on Jones after his hot start in 2015? The Falcons had Jones and then . . . not much.

Ryan’s receivers (and running backs) got a pass even as they dropped pass after drive-killing pass in 2015. According to a video receiver by Pro Football Focus, Ryan’s targets dropped 37 “catchable” passes in 2015, tied for fourth-most in the league. Cut that number to, say, 19 and Ryan’s completion percentage rises from a pretty good 66.3 to very good 69.2 with more yards and (probably) more TDs.

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The good news for Ryan is that wide receiver Leonard Hankerson, the worst drops offender in 2015 with six in 46 targets, is gone (and, tellingly, still a free agent). But most of the drops culprits return: running back Tevin Coleman had three drops out of five “catchable” balls, running back Devonta Freeman’s 8.75 percent drop rate ranked 42nd-best among running backs with at least 20 targets and wide receiver Justin Hardy had three drops on 36 targets.

The Falcons added wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and, based on the exhibition games, plan to use him more often on underneath routes than the Bengals did. That sounds reasonable. But Sanu has struggled with drops over his career: according to Pro Football Focus, he had 16 drops on the last 111 “catchable” passes thrown to him.

The Falcons have had a thin group of wide receivers for the past two seasons and any analysis of Ryan’s play should acknowledge it. The inability of critics to do so (as well as sentiment) played into the irrational rage directed at Shanahan and the Falcons for releasing Roddy White (who also still is a free agent).

For those people , I offer this analysis by Tyler Brandt at Pro Football Focus. Brandt rated wide receiver efficiency based on their ability to get open, catch the ball and run with it. White ranked 129th out of 134 receivers in efficiency in 2015, after he ranked 99th in 2014.

Ryan certainly needs to play better in 2016 , though he wasn't as bad as the popular narrative suggests (PFF graded him as the ninth-best QB in 2015).  I think he will be a lot better if he gets more help from his pass targets.

About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.