Matt Ryan's 2017 Season Will Make Him a Fantasy Football Value in 2018

While Ryan didn't match the MVP standard he set in 2016, he still remained one of the league's better quarterbacks, per our metrics, and he could be the perfect late-round passer in 2018.

Ever since Matt Ryan was drafted third overall by the Atlanta Falcons in the 2008 NFL Draft, his status as an elite quarterback has been a constant subject of discussion.

While the concept of what defines "elite"-ness is largely arbitrary and almost purely opinion-based, Ryan's place amongst the game's best has long been the topic of many a tangent. Over the course of his first eight professional seasons, the debate raged fiercely, but little consensus emerged. It was a veritable stalemate.

Then, 2016 happened. Ryan produced one of the greatest quarterback seasons in league history (more on that later), racking up 4,944 passing yards, 38 passing touchdowns, only 7 interceptions, and a completion percentage of 69.9%, while winning the league's MVP award in the process.

At this point, the debate finally appeared to have been settled. "Of course, Ryan is elite," they said. "Why, he's been elite all along."

That led to a sharp spike in his fantasy value. After being taken outside the top-20 passers, per Fantasy Football Calculator, in 2016, Ryan was drafted as the QB4 in 2017. Owners were expecting top-shelf production last season, but it never materialized as Ryan met a familiar foe that most NFL MVPs encounter at one time or another: negative regression.

Indeed, in 2017 his counting statistics plummeted to 4,095 passing yards with a mere 20 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions, and a completion percentage of 64.7%. The touchdown total was his lowest since his rookie season, and the yardage total was his worst since 2010.

But Ryan's advanced stats -- specifically our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric -- paint a different picture, and it looks like the fantasy community is undervaluing the Falcons' signal caller. Just as we overreacted to his MVP campaign, taking Ryan too soon in 2017, early fantasy drafters have overcorrected, making Ryan one of the better late-round values at the position.

What Went Wrong?

As is often the case in these situations, there was no one culprit to blame. There were many variables, but it likely started with the changes the team made on offense. Indeed, with Kyle Shanahan leaving town to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, things were a little different with new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian calling plays.

The offense looked out of sync at times, often struggling to finish drives and put points on the board. Per our own JJ Zachariason, the Falcons suffered a 13.4% decline (second-highest in the league) in scoring rate per drive from 2016 to 2017.

Volume was also a factor, as Ryan attempted his fewest passes since 2009, but bad luck arguably played an even bigger role. Ryan's 3.8% touchdown rate was the third-lowest he's ever produced, and it was well below his career average of 4.6%.

It also didn't help matters that his top target Julio Jones found the end zone only three times, Jones' lowest total in any season in which he suited up for more than five contests. Furthermore, Jones managed a mere 5 receptions for 33 yards and a touchdown on 19 red-zone targets last season. While it's true that Jones has never been a touchdown machine, those numbers are an aberration, considering Ryan ranked seventh in the league in red-zone passing yardage last year.

And the cherry on top of this ice cream sundae of misfortune? Per STATS, the Falcons led the league with 30 dropped passes in 2017. That will take a chunk out of a quarterback's numbers in no time.

So, yes, Ryan didn't perform up to the standard he had set a year prior, but how could he with all of that working against him? But just because he didn't sustain his torrid play from his MVP campaign doesn't mean his season was a disaster. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

Career Overview

Put simply, it's time to dispel the narrative that Ryan played poorly in 2017. A simple look at his performance in key analytics illustrates that, by and large, he performed right in line with his career averages.

If you're unfamiliar with NEP, here's how it works: NEP employs historical down-and-distance data to determine what is expected of a player on a per-play basis. Positive NEP is earned when a player increases his team's expected points for the drive, and negative NEP is indicative of sub-standard performance. Passing Success Rate is the percentage of drop backs that resulted in an NEP gain.

Here's Ryan's year-over-year NEP data, sorted by Passing NEP.

Year Passing NEP Passing NEP per Drop Back Passing Success Rate
2016 212.86 0.37 54.64%
2012 159.84 0.25 53.97%
2015 125.20 0.19 53.42%
2010 113.30 0.19 48.48%
2014 107.94 0.16 52.35%
2017 102.78 0.19 51.45%
2011 95.88 0.16 47.64%
2008 89.16 0.20 48.00%
2013 53.16 0.08 48.92%
2009 49.36 0.11 47.76%

These numbers make a few things very clear, starting with the fact that we basically need to throw the 2016 data out the window. Per our database, Ryan's MVP performance produced the seventh-highest Passing NEP total of the last 18 years. For all intents and purposes, that campaign was an outlier, as most truly transcendent seasons are. Holding Ryan to that standard is completely unfair and unrealistic.

With that said, in terms of key measures of performance and efficiency, Ryan's 2017 was pretty much par for the course as far as being in line with the rest of his career. Indeed, he produced his sixth-best Passing NEP total, his fourth-best (tied) Passing NEP per drop back, and his fifth-best Passing Success Rate.

While he didn't come close to his 2016 heights, he was almost identically efficient to his 2014 season, in which he threw for 4,694 yards and 28 touchdowns. The only difference this time around was the lack of volume and eye-popping numbers.

So what does that tell us? Even if Ryan did produce a typical season by his standards, how does that prove he was effective in 2017? Because a standard Matt Ryan season is still better than anything coming from the majority of his peers, and the numbers don't lie.

Peer Review

Opinions may be subjective, but data isn't, and our metrics illustrate that Ryan was one of the better quarterbacks in the league this season by virtually any measure. Looking at the top-15 cumulative Passing NEP performers at the position makes this clear.

For the purposes of this study, we're limiting ourselves to quarterbacks who dropped back to pass a minimum of 100 times in 2017. Here's how Ryan performed against the competition.

PlayerPassing NEPPassing NEP per Drop BackPassing Success Rate
Tom Brady170.330.2849.84%
Philip Rivers152.240.2648.74%
Drew Brees136.030.2450.81%
Ben Roethlisberger131.030.2349.66%
Carson Wentz119.060.2547.65%
Alex Smith110.380.2047.04%
Jared Goff103.330.2145.33%
Matt Ryan102.780.1951.54%
Case Keenum97.930.1950.30%
Matthew Stafford81.250.1345.75%
Jameis Winston76.630.1650.53%
Russell Wilson72.090.1246.64%
Jimmy Garoppolo64.900.3556.45%
Blake Bortles62.030.1145.70%
Derek Carr43.330.0845.23%

Not only did Ryan rank eighth in total Passing NEP and tie for ninth in Passing NEP per drop back, but he actually posted the second-best Passing Success Rate in the league. The only signal caller to best him in this category was Jimmy Garoppolo.

However, Garoppolo dropped back to pass only 186 times, whereas Ryan did so on 553 occasions. It's likely that Garoppolo's total would have decreased with added volume, as a 56.65% Success Rate is tough to sustain over a larger sample. Only Peyton Manning (three times) and Tom Brady (twice) have ever registered higher Success Rates in the history of our database, and as great as Jimmy G looked this season, we can't place him in that category yet.

Some other notable players who didn't make this list include Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, and Cam Newton. Ryan bested each of them in all three of these key statistical categories. Not bad at all for a "down year."

Arguing Ryan was one of the game's better passers a year ago is an unpopular opinion, but he was, at a bare minimum, a top-10 quarterback by most measures. Depending on what analytics you favor, he may have been even better, as the veteran ranked fifth in ESPN's Total QBR.

There is a tendency to fixate on yardage and touchdown totals as the sole measure of gauging a quarterback's performance, but that completely misses the mark. The fact is, very few quarterbacks were significantly better than Ryan on a per-play basis last season.

2018 Outlook

So what does all of this mean? Basically, Ryan is one of the more undervalued fantasy options at the position heading into the 2018 campaign. A year ago, he was being talked about in the same breath as the top signal callers in the league, and now he's been all-but relegated to middling QB2 status with an average draft position of QB14 in standard formats, per Fantasy Football Calculator. This is a narrative-driven mistake.

With another year to absorb Sarkisian's offense, a likely increase in volume, and a virtual guarantee of positive touchdown rate regression, Ryan looks like a safe bet to see his counting statistics increase considerably.

Ryan has been the football equivalent of a metronome for most of his career, consistently finding himself in the upper echelon of NFL signal callers year in and year out. If he maintains the level of efficiency that has been the hallmark of his career, Ryan will be a quality option for anyone planning to wait on a quarterback in 2018.