While Kirk Cousins was screaming “YOU LIKE THAT” all the way to third place in the NFC East, Matt Ryan was busy leading the Falcons to near victory in the Super Bowl. Yet both players had career-best years in 2016 after starting the season largely underrated. After a slow start, Cousins ranked as the QB5 in total fantasy scoring each week following Week 5 while Ryan led his invigorated Falcons to their first Super Bowl appearance since 1998.
The fantasy quarterback showdown is on, Matt Ryan vs. Kirk Cousins. Here’s my case for how each quarterback has progressed, and who will continue to be a top-5 fantasy quarterback as we move into 2017.
At age 32, Matt Ryan has spent the last nine seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, after being drafted third overall in the 2008 NFL Draft. During that time, Ryan has helps transform the Falcons into a playoff contender, putting up consistently impressive fantasy numbers along the way. In 80 regular season starts over the last five seasons, Ryan has only had nine games with single-digit fantasy points. Between 2009 and 2015, Ryan had never finished with an ADP lower than QB12, setting his high mark as QB6 in 2013. Ryan looked considerably less efficient in 2015, lacking offensive weapons outside of Julio Jones, and his production regressed.
Although he entered the 2016 season with an ADP of QB17, Ryan quickly silenced critics by posting leading numbers week after week, ultimately winning the MVP. He would have been the Super Bowl MVP had the Falcons held on and won. We don’t need to harp too much on what went wrong for Ryan and the Falcons to lose a 28-3 lead in the third quarter, ending their chances at a ring.
Instead, we’ll look at Ryan’s production in his three postseason games, where he averaged 338 yards, throwing nine touchdowns and zero interceptions. He completed over 70 percent of his passes and notched a passer rating above 125 in all three games. Ryan was extremely consistent.
For the season as whole, Ryan threw for many career highs, ranking second in the NFL in touchdowns (38), third in completion percentage (69.9), second in passing yards (4,944), and first in passer rating (117.1). Fantasy owners can’t blame a season loss on his 347.46 fantasy points (only the second time in his career he’s scored over 300).
2017 Off-Season Developments
The loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan hasn’t gone unnoticed. To replace him, the Falcons hired Steve Sarkisian, former head coach of the USC Trojans and analyst/offensive coordinator for the Alabama Crimson Tide. They plan to keep the offense fundamentally the same. During his tenure at USC, Sarkisian’s offense ran similar to Shanahan’s with Atlanta. The Falcons thrive in an up-tempo style, relying much on Ryan’s ability to make plays with traditional dropbacks and out of play action. Head coach Dan Quinn’s choice of hire implies that he feels Sarkisian can continue to execute the same game plan.
The balance in the Falcons’ running game with Freeman and Coleman should continue to thrive this season. Both players also contribute to the passing game, making the Falcons harder to defend. Coming off last year’s free agent signing of Alex Mack, the Falcons’ offensive line ranks sixth going into the season. The depth in their offensive talent has strengthened between Julio Jones, Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy, and tight-end Austin Hooper. Meanwhile, their rising defensive unit full of young talent should continue to improve.
Is Ryan’s 2016 success sustainable?
Ryan has finished top-10 in passing yards every season he’s been in the league except his first two. He has maintained production for fantasy owners year after year. Even during his sub-par 2015 season, he finished fifth in the league with 4,591 passing yards.
But it’s difficult to defend natural negative regression. The last time Ryan scored over 300 fantasy points he ranked QB7, then dropped to QB15 in the following season. Regardless of what good Sarkisian can bring to the Falcons offense, having never run an offense in the NFL will come with some growing pains.
I believe Ryan will continue to produce favorably for fantasy owners this year, but it will be very difficult to replicate the same level of excellence he had in 2016. My biggest hesitation with Ryan is where he’s falling in 2017 drafts. If you want Ryan as your QB1, you have to reach for him. If you expect him to be your QB2, you haven’t been paying much attention. Add in the impact of a new offensive coordinator, and there’s a bit of uncertainty for Matt Ryan as a tier-two fantasy quarterback.
Kirk Cousins, the Washington Redskins fourth round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, took over the starting job for Robert Griffin III partway through the 2012 season. After a rough 2013 season, Cousins went on to average over 14 fantasy points per game in 2014, followed by back-to-back top-8 fantasy football seasons in 2015 and 2016. Across those last two seasons, he averaged over 18 fantasy points per game. In addition to his impressive season-long stats in that span, the only players to finish as a weekly QB1 more often than Kirk Cousins are Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady. Coming off a season just shy of 5,000 passing yards, Cousins has a case to be drafted as a QB1 in 2017.
When you analyze Kirk Cousins’ stats from 2016, you’ll notice some interesting similarities between him and Matt Ryan. They tied for the most completions on passes of 20+ yards (35) and finished the season within 30 passing yards of each other. Cousins ranked 8th in the NFL in completion percentage (67.0), third in yards (4,917), and seventh in passer rating (97.2) Cousins also led the league in air yards (2,939) in 2016.
Despite career-year stats, Cousins showed inaccuracy with a few too many overthrown balls last year, despite playing with DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder, Pierre Garcon, and Jordan Reed. Add in Washington’s difficulty in the red zone, ranking 30th overall in 2016 (compared to third overall in total offense), and critics view Cousins as a potential candidate for negative regression.
2017 Season Developments
Two additional similarities to Ryan to consider: Cousins lost his offensive coordinator and had some off-season angst to motivate him. Cousins’ contract year narrative has become the norm, with 2017 being his third consecutive contract year. Yet it seems the story will soon come to an end. The Redskins cannot franchise tag Cousins a third time; and if Cousin replicates his 2016 production, he could set records with his new/next contract.
There’s a new OC in town, but Cousins lost two of his biggest playmakers in Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson. Though the Redskins added Terrelle Pryor, Pryor still needs time to build rapport with Cousins. Josh Doctson has yet to maintain a good bill of health since he was drafted, and Jordan Reed’s laundry list of concussions are always a cause for concern. Though, if those two playmakers can stay healthy, they may help remedy Cousins’ red-zone woes, like 2016’s 32nd-ranked completion percentage inside the 20-yard line (46.0).
On the other hand, Washington’s running game should improve, with Rob Kelley becoming a more reliable force for Cousins. Add that support to the Redskins’ 11th-best offensive line, and Cousins should have the time and support to continue succeeding. While Cousins struggled in the red zone last year, the new additions to the offense should help alleviate that pain. If not, Cousins will look to finish the job himself, having already led the team in rushing touchdowns over the last two seasons.
Is Cousins’ 2016 success sustainable?
Cousins lost more than he gained this offseason. However, Cousins targets got bigger (literally) with Pryor, Doctson, and a thriving Jamison Crowder set to replace Garcon and Jackson. There is hope for increased red zone production and Cousins should have the fire to prove himself one more time before securing a long-term deal.
Cousins is a safe draft pick in 2017. Even if he doesn’t match or exceed his 2016 production, he will come close. The most favorable factor in evaluating Cousins is his ADP. According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Cousins is being drafted in the late seventh round or early eighth round on average. If you don’t want to reach for Ryan, you can get a comparable QB by choosing Cousins in the later rounds.
Who finishes 2017 as a top-5 fantasy QB?.
There are a lot of similarities between Cousins and Ryan, especially when comparing last year’s production. Both have proven to be valuable, consistent fantasy assets. While Cousins might continue his breakout, Ryan is close to proving himself an elite fantasy QB.
That claim holds even more clout when 2017 strength of schedule is considered, with Ryan’s ranked seventh-easiest and Cousin’s ranked second-toughest. Ultimately, who you pick depends on your strategy going into the draft. You won’t snag Ryan if you try to wait it out at quarterback. But if you’re looking for a top-5 QB, Matty Ice is still your guy. He’s led the team this far, and he won’t let last year’s loss be how his story ends.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily new information. You expect to get a top-5 fantasy quarterback when you draft him as such. And while Ryan should finish in that elite category, there is potential for Cousins to achieve the same status from a later round. While Ryan has lost his under the radar ADP after last season’s explosion, Cousins is still underrated. Fantasy owners should take advantage.
Editor’s Note: For more analysis geared towards 2QB and Superflex fantasy leagues, purchase a copy of our Draft Guide that features over 170 pages of league-winning information.
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