It's award season in the NFL. With NFL Honors right around the corner and every media outlet announcing their annual post-season awards, I figured now would be as good a time as any to hand out some Atlanta Falcons Next Gen Stat Awards.
When Dan Quinn was hired as the Falcons head coach prior to the 2015 season he preached speed and physicality as being important factors for the kind of players he wanted in Atlanta. Fast and physical has been a calling card of the team over the last four seasons and the team boasts speed up and down the roster.
Looking at the Next Gen Stats from 2018 illustrates that point.
No one would be shocked to learn that Julio Jones notched the highest speed of any Falcons ball carrier last season. Jones clocked 21.35 mph on his 1-yard touchdown catch at Carolina. You remember that one. He ran more than 40 yards across the field, toe-tapping in the back corner of the end zone for a score. Running across pretty much the entire field is prime top speed territory for the six-time Pro Bowler, so it's not much of a surprise but the player that matched Jones' speed might be.
Brian Hill, a former Falcons fifth-round draft pick from Wyoming, also hit 21.35 mph in the same game. Hill, who took a circuitous route back to Atlanta after spending time with both the Falcons and Bengals as a rookie, had a breakout game in Atlanta's Week 16 win at Carolina. He logged career highs with 115 yards on eight carries, including a career-long 60-yard run. It was on that 60-yard scamper that Hill showed a surprising turn of speed, matching Jones' season best and tying the all-world wideout for the title of fastest ball carrier.
There is a caveat to that title.
Tevin Coleman notched a higher top speed, hitting 21.48 mph on a 25-yard run at Washington, but Ben Garland was flagged for a hold. That play is officially scored as a 25-yard run with a 10-yard penalty, which is enforced from the spot of the foul. While the play isn't negated, all but three of the yards that Coleman gained on the run are, ipso facto it doesn't really count. If it counted, Coleman would have logged a top-20 high speed for the season.
The reason it's fastest ball carrier and not fastest Falcon is because if we are talking about the fastest player regardless of the play, then it's Marvin Hall and it's not close. If we remove the stipulation that you have to be carrying the ball, Hall owns six of the top seven top speeds by a Falcon. His best of 23.05 mph came on a kickoff in Atlanta's Week 17 win at Tampa Bay.
Following Coleman's 23-yard touchdown run, Hall raced down field to cover Matt Bosher's kickoff. The kick went out of the back of the end zone but that didn't keep Hall from going maximum effort. Oddly enough, he reached that blistering top speed despite cover just 26 yards on the play. No Falcons player hit a higher speed over a shorter distance. In total, Hall topped 22 mph four times in 2018, flashing his speed on three kickoffs and one punt. Interestingly enough, those all came in coverage rather than returns.
As for the Falcons' fastest defender, well it wasn't Vic Beasley on that 74-yard touchdown. He ran out of gas on that one. Rookie linebacker Foye Oluokun hit a top speed of 21.83 mph against the Browns. We don't need to talk about the specifics of that one. Let's just say he ran a long way in an effort to make a tackle.
He's going the distance
How about we go back to that Beasley play?
The former Clemson Tiger covered 112.5 yards on his 74-yard fumble recovery touchdown against Baltimore. That was the longest distance covered by any Falcons ball carrier last season. Rushing from the quarterback's right, Beasley helped force Lamar Jackson to step up in the pocket, where he was met by Grady Jarrett. When Jarrett knocked the ball away from Jackson, Beasley scooped it up at the Falcons 26-yard line, avoiding running back Kenneth Dixon before running all the way to the end zone for the second defensive touchdown of his career.
Beasley topped out at 17.88 mph, a rather pedestrian speed as compared to the guys above, but he got something those guys didn't. Six points.
Speaking of distance, you don't often hear how far NFL players run during a game or season. Think about that, in between whistles who covered the most distance in 2018? The winner? Damontae Kazee. The second-year safety covered 18,021.95 total yards in 2018. That's 10 miles. He averaged 18 yards per play and was on the field for 1,029 snaps, the second-highest snap count for any Falcon.
The Falcons feature two of the NFL's premier players at two of the most impactful positions with quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones. Since 2011, Ryan has completed 694 passes to Jones, the third most among all active teammates. Even without knowing those numbers, it's easy to see the trust Ryan has in his all-world wide out. If the Falcons are facing a "gotta have it" situation Ryan is likely looking in Jones' direction.
The former Alabama standout was targeted 170 times in 2018, the most in the NFL. That led to Jones posting an NFL-best 1,677 yards on 113 receptions. Jones accounted for 45.64 percent of Ryan's targeted air yards, meaning nearly half of the of the downfield yardage the Falcons attempted to gain was aimed at Jones.
Ryan's confidence when throwing to Jones is perhaps best illustrated when considering the degree of difficultly in some of the throw-and-catch connections the duo made over the course of the season. Jones led the NFL in tight window targets and receptions - when the receiver has less than one-yard of separation from the nearest defender at the time of the throw. Ryan connected on 19 of 48 passes to Jones with two touchdowns and one interception in tight windows.
This was on full display during Atlanta's opening drive at Green Bay in Week 14. Ryan hit Jones on the sideline for gains of 28 and 19 yards in the first four plays. Both of those catches were challenged by the Packers but Ryan placing the ball where only Jones could come down with it combined with the receiver's impressive concentration and footwork meant both rulings were up held.
On the first pass, a 28-yard connection down the right sideline, Jones had 1.3 yards of separation when Ryan let go of the ball and just under three-quarters of a yard of separation by the time it arrived. Given, Jones' proximity to the sideline and the tight coverage, the pass had a completion probability of 32.3 percent.
Catch of the Year
That's a pretty impressive connection, but the duo would make it look easy two plays later. After a 5-yard penalty, Ryan went right back to Jones to pick up a 19-yard chunk and move the sticks. This time the signal caller lofted a ball toward the left sideline despite cornerback Jaire Alexander being what could only be described as in Jones back pocket at less than a yard away (.96 yards) at the time of the throw. What little separation Jones had was cut down further as he worked his way toward the sideline to corral the pass. When the ball arrived, Alexander was less than a half yard away and Jones was right up against the boundary.
It's no wonder that the Packers challenged the catch as the throw had a completion probability of just 13.1 percent. That connection had the eighth-lowest completion probability of any catch in the NFL this season and was the most improbable completion of that week.
While Jones is often credited with great ability to use his size and speed to get himself in position to catch passes that many other receivers cannot, Ryan's precision should also be lauded. The quarterback completed 69.4 percent of his passes in 2018, the second-highest mark of his career and the fifth best in the NFL this season. Ryan also attempted the third-most passes in the league at 608 and ranked second in completion percentage among quarterbacks with at least 500 attempts.
The former MVP's 69.4 completion percentage was 4.6 percentage points higher than expected (64.8), giving him the fifth-best differential between expected and actual completion percentage in the NFL. This highlights Ryan's ability to put the ball in places where his receivers can make plays.
Quarterback is pretty much universally accepted as the most important position of the field. He is the only player that touches the ball on every play, well almost every play. Ryan took nearly every snap for Atlanta this season, save for a few Sanu-cat plays and Matt Schaub's 12 snaps. All told, Ryan played 1,004 snaps, 98.8 percent of the team's offensive plays. He falls short of a couple of offensive linemen in the Ironman Award ranking though.
The offensive line doesn't often get much love or attention, but the Falcons have a couple that deserve mention. Alex Mack and Jake Matthews each played 1,013 offensive snaps. That accounts for 99.7 percent of the team's offensive plays, which means they each missed three snaps over the course of the entire season. Mack added 10 snaps on special teams, taking his total to 1,023 plays, but Matthews earns the Ironman honors with 1,082 total plays. After factoring in his 69 special teams' snaps, the former Texas A&M standout averaged a whopping 68 plays per game.
That's it for the unofficial Atlanta Falcons Next Gen Stats awards.