Julio Jones and the Falcons hope to build off of last season's strong finish
The hopes were high for the Atlanta Falcons heading into the 2019 season. After a skid driven by injuries and questionable coaching in 2018, the team reverted to Dirk Koetter as its offensive coordinator and let head coach Dan Quinn call the shots on defense. It didn't work. Rather than rejuvenate the play calling, the Falcons cratered to a 1-7 record just before Halloween and looked like the worst Falcons team since 2007, the year before people like general manager Thomas Dimitroff and quarterback Matt Ryan were even in Atlanta.
But then something changed. The team stunned division rival New Orleans on the road and fired off a 6-2 finish, leaving everyone a bit taken aback. Quinn and Dimitroff went from being on the hottest of seats to being firmly in charge of the Falcons for the 2020 season. The team that played in the last half didn't look anything like the one that started the year. Which team will show up this fall?
The Falcons offense in 2019 was a bit hard to decipher. They started the season barely able to drive down the field in Week 1 and entered the bye week averaging 20.6 points per game, scoring many of their points in garbage time and shootouts. After the bye week, the team averaged 27.0 points per game.
Ryan is coming off another great season on paper (4,466 yards, 26 touchdowns, 66.2 percent completion rate) and should be the starter in Atlanta for the next few years, at the least. He's flanked by perhaps the best wide receiver in football in Julio Jones, who is still in his prime and coming off a 1,394-yard, six-touchdown season. Former first-round receiver Calvin Ridley adds a powerful counter for Jones and should be just now beginning to tap into his sky-high potential. Russell Gage showed well as a second receiver when Ridley went down with injury late last season. That trio will be formidable going forward.
The Falcons are taking a flier on former Vikings WR Laquon Treadwell to compete for a reserve role and could see younger players like former UDFAs Olamide Zaccheaus and Christian Blake vie for spots in the rotation as well.
At tight end, the team is leaning on 2020 trade acquisition Hayden Hurst out of Baltimore, who fell behind on a rigorous depth chart but has oodles of potential. Jaeden Graham and Vanderbilt 2020 UDFA Jared Pinkney are the best options right now behind Hurst. Additional moves could be made there to help soften the loss of departed TE Austin Hooper (now with the Cleveland Browns).
The Falcons made a smart gamble on released Rams RB Todd Gurley II, a Georgia legend and Peachtree Street favorite. A former MVP candidate, Gurley has an arthritic knee that may limit his snaps and prevent him from fully being the guy who torched defenses to start his career. He averaged roughly 135 yards from scrimmage per game in 2017-18, but that number plummeted to 70 yards per game in 2019. But he's only 26 and should still be considered a major threat. Three-year vet Brian Hill, 2018 fourth-round pick Ito Smith and 2019 fifth-round pick Qadree Ollison will add depth to that spot, and Keith Smith will be the fullback.
Jake Matthews and Alex Mack will be back to anchor the left tackle and center spots, respectively, though the Falcons drafted Mack's eventual successor in Temple's Matt Hennessy in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. In the meantime, Hennessy is expected to compete for the left guard spot with guys like James Carpenter, Jamon Brown and Matt Gono. He's got the inside shot to win it outright and play there until Mack departs. Promising 2019 first-round picks Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary will man the right side, which could give Atlanta its best offensive line prospects since 2017. That could bode well for a team that needs to live up to the potential of its QB and skill players.
The defense was a mirror-image of the offense in 2019. In the first eight weeks of the season, it allowed an abysmal 31.3 points per game before tightening up to 18.6 points per game to close the year. It speaks volumes of the willingness of Quinn to relinquish his brief defensive coordinator stint and let veteran defensive mind Raheem Morris and linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich run the unit. It was much more efficient in that mode than it was when Quinn was doubling up duties and could improve further this season.
The defensive line has long been a sore spot, with the team failing to develop first-round investments at defensive end and never really finding Pro Bowl defensive tackle Grady Jarrett a suitable long-term partner on the inside. That could change, though, with former Jaguars and Rams pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr., one of the best edge rushers available in free agency, signing in Atlanta. The team also drafted Auburn defensive lineman Marlon Davidson in the second round. The speedy, aggressive Fowler can give the team the starting rusher it has needed since Vic Beasley's post-2016 regression, and Davidson can serve as a big-bodied mauler up front next to Jarrett, an elite talent at the position.
Former first-round pick Takkarist McKinley can still turn the corner on his career and generate more consistent pressure off the edge. John Cominsky is a breakout candidate with the versatility to play outside and inside, and guys like DT Tyeler Davison, DE Steven Means, DE Allen Bailey, DT Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, DT Deadrin Senat, and former first-round pick Charles Harris (acquired from Miami for a seventh-round pick in 2021) give the team sound veteran depth.
The linebacking group has a great talent in Deion Jones and a rising one in Foyesade Oluokun. The latter will likely take the snaps that LB De'Vondre Campbell left in his departure for Arizona, and fourth-round pick Mykal Walker is already being penciled in for the role that Oluokun filled last fall. Eight-year NFL veteran LaRoy Reynolds returns to Atlanta to add depth and the Falcons also signed Deone Bucannon in free agency. Former XFLer Edmond Robinson also will be in the mix.
The secondary has a lot of youth. Its elder statesmen are starting free safety Ricardo Allen, a 2014 draft pick, and reserve corner Blidi Wreh-Wilson, a 2013 draft pick of the Tennessee Titans. The team cut longtime starter Desmond Trufant in March and replaced him with first-round pick A.J. Terrell out of Clemson. Some felt Terrell was a reach at 16, but the front office has a knack for scouting secondary talent and seemed elated to get Terrell where they did. He joins Kendall Sheffield, perhaps the future slot guy, and Isaiah Oliver, a progressing 2018 second-round pick who should start opposite Terrell. It'll be a growing unit, but in the right direction. Keanu Neal also returns from his Achilles injury. If he's healthy, it transforms the unit and gives the team its enforcer. Safety Damontae Kazee has also started in the past and can help the team run three-safety packages.
Kicker Younghoe Koo impressed enough in the back half of last season to be the frontrunner for that job right now. Veteran Ryan Allen will compete with 2020 seventh-round pick Sterling Hofrichter for the punting duties. Josh Harris will man his usual spot at long snapper. Rookie Chris Rowland got a lucrative undrafted free agent contract, which could indicate that he's the frontrunner for return duties. The team said that little-used receiver Brandon Powell had the inside track on that spot before the draft. It's likely to be a competition between those two and perhaps others.
The Quinn/Dimitroff era will either sink or swim in 2020. The team showed what it could do when the coaching was where it needed to be in the last half of the season, when it beat the NFC's top two seeds in New Orleans and San Francisco. It also showed in the first half of the year what happens when the wheels fall off the wagon. Which team shows up this fall will determine the future of this franchise.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC South
(Top photo by Greg Trott via AP)