In the not so distant past, the Atlanta Falcons were a veritable fantasy football goldmine. Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones were legitimate no. 1 options at their positions. That remains true of Ryan and, especially, Jones, but two of those guys are out of the league and the other, Roddy White, looks like he’s done.
Running back Devonta Freeman also looks like an emerging star and his pleasantly surprised owners will hope that his astonishing six touchdowns over the past two weeks are a harbinger of what’s to follow. If White is indeed toast, though, someone will have to account for Ryan’s projected 4,808 passing yards. After all, Jones is only projected to account for a meager 1,912 of them.
If the season’s first quarter is any indication, Ryan’s found a guy who he likes to get involved on those rare instances when Jones is covered: Leonard Hankerson. Originally a third-round pick of the Washington Redskins in 2011, Hankerson was underwhelming during his Redskins career. He missed 33 possible games to knee and hip injuries and ended his four-year tenure in Washington with 1,081 yards and six scores.
That said, there were indeed flashes of excellence. Most memorably in a 2012 contest with the Browns when Hankerson outran triple coverage on the way to a 54-yard score. Hankerson’s 2012 was his lone healthy season and, with 543 yards, also his most productive. If what he’s shown thus far is any indication, however, Hankerson could be set to shatter his career-best numbers.
Hankerson’s got 241 yards and two scores in his past four games. Exclude a Week 1 outing in which he was nary a factor and he’s got 225 and two through three. In his most recent game, the second 100-yard day of his career, Hankerson proved he can step up when defenses attempt to clamp down on Jones. His day was buoyed by a 55-yard grab.
At just 26, Hankerson’s got the size (6’2″, 211 pounds) and speed (4.43 40-yard dash time) to prove he’s no bust, but rather a late bloomer. Given that no second option in Atlanta has fallen under 859 yards since ’11, he’s got all the opportunity in the world too. Now it’s simply a matter of seizing it.
Roddy White’s a long-time favorite of Matt Ryan. He’s been his safety net for a good chunk of Ryan’s career. But, as noted previously, White looks to be a thing of the past. White’s been active in all of Atlanta’s first four games, but after an 84-yard opener, White’s been held to just two catches and eight yards in the following three contests.
Hankerson, on the other hand, has been the recipient of significant attention from Ryan. In fact, he’s second on the team with 28 targets. Neither White nor Jacob Tamme figure to usurp him for those looks. Freeman’s a talented receiver out of the backfield and, that won’t change, but the Falcons and Ryan know their offense won’t run so smoothly without a legitimate second perimeter option in the mix.
As a result, Hankerson, provided he remains healthy, could emerge as a surprising 1,000-yard guy this year. Ryan’s got four consecutive seasons of at least 4,000 passing yards and all signs points to a fifth in 2015. Even if White regains some of his stalwart form or another pass-catcher emerges, Hankerson has showcased a rapport with Ryan that should see him wind up with at least 800 yards through the air.
The Falcons schedule is far from imposing and, given the state of their own defense, they figure to be involved in a few shootouts as the year goes along. Such situations obviously favor those who own Atlanta’s pass-catchers. Hankerson’s currently available in over 85 percent of ESPN.com leagues. One more big outing will see that number drop in a big way though.
Given that Hankerson’s set, and likely juiced up, to face his former team in the Redskins, who just got torched deep by Sam Bradford, odds of another nice day seem likely. You’d be well-served to get him before that and, if you land him this week, plug him in.