Julio Jones and the Falcons aiming for a third straight 10-win season
It’s hard to say that a season ending with a divisional round playoff loss would count as a “down year” for a franchise, but the Atlanta Falcons’ 2017 campaign still felt like a bit of a dip after a soaring 2016 season that nearly ended in a Super Bowl win. The specter of 28-3 hung over the team last season, as did losing bright offensive mind Kyle Shanahan to the 49ers. But Dan Quinn’s transitional team still posted a 10-6 record and beat the upstart Rams in Los Angeles in January’s Wild Card round.
The Dirty Birds now look to take on a third-place schedule heading into the 2018 season and figure to contend for the NFC’s top spot once more. The team has one of its soundest rosters in franchise history, but the development of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will ultimately determine how far the 2018 Falcons can go to finally avenge their Super Bowl LI loss.
After a historic run in 2016, the Falcons’ offense took a dip in production under Sarkisian’s watch. The team still finished eighth overall in total offense (364.8 ypg) but struggled to convert that yardage into points, as Atlanta was a mediocre 15th in the league in scoring (22.1 ppg). So, for the Falcons on offense in 2018, it’s about becoming more creative in the red zone and finding the lane for more explosive plays outside of the red zone that lead to touchdowns.
Matt Ryan followed up his 2016 MVP season with a bit of a regression to the mean (4,095 yards, 20 TDs, 12 INTs). But Ryan is still Ryan, and he is fresh off a contract extension that will make him the league’s top-paid quarterback with an annual salary of $30 million. Look for Ryan to up his touchdown numbers while logging his usual 4,000-yard season. Interceptions could fall off a bit, too, after he had more than his share of unlucky bounces in that department last season.
Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman continue to scare defenses with their potential on the ground and in the passing game, though the latter is entering a contract year. The Falcons opted to add rookie Ito Smith in the draft. Unless Freeman or Coleman is injured, Smith will see time on special teams and is a promising player for the future. New fullbacks Luke McNitt and Daniel Marx -- both undrafted free agents -- will compete for a role to give the team the lead blocker they’ve missed since Patrick DiMarco left for the Bills.
Adding Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley to a group that features All-Pro Julio Jones and sound Mohamed Sanu could be a nightmare for opposing defenses. Ridley had 19 touchdown receptions in his Tide career and could help the offense dig itself out of its scoring problems. Jones enters 2018 with something he didn’t have in 2017 -- a fully healthy offseason and time to jell with Ryan. The deep ball connection between quarterback and star receiver didn’t quite click like fans were used to seeing last season, perhaps due to the fact that Jones missed key 2017 offseason time after surgery.
The Falcons are also likely to lean on third-year tight end Austin Hooper to get more involved in the red zone. Hooper had a solid 2017 season but has yet to materialize as a consistent threat near the goal line. Free-agent acquisition and veteran Logan Paulsen will help Hooper and Eric Saubert develop, but on the field, he will mainly be used for his blocking. Don’t be surprised if the team attempts to add an additional piece here over the summer.
The offensive line is largely set with new guard Brandon Fusco the assumed starter on the right side. Fusco comes over from the 49ers, so he knows the Shanahan offense the team likes to run, an outside zone scheme that rewards athletic linemen who can move. Left tackle Jake Matthews is sound and poised for a contract extension, and left guard Andy Levitre will be a free agent in 2019 and might be playing for his last major deal. Center Alex Mack and right tackle Ryan Schraeder are two of the best in the league at what they do, so adding Fusco to the mix gives Ryan a group of blockers on par with that historic 2016 team.
The Falcons defensive line is in a bit of a transition. While losing nose tackle Dontari Poe and edge rusher Adrian Clayborn is a concern on paper, the team sees it as more opportunities for younger players to prove their worth. Edge rusher Takk McKinley will take over the bulk of Clayborn’s snaps in the team’s 4-3 front. McKinley had six sacks in his rookie year and flashed the power and motor the team needs at the position.
Vic Beasley, who led the NFL in sacks in 2016, will also transition back to the edge full time after rotating in and out at the spot for a part-time linebacker position in 2017. Budding star Grady Jarrett and rookie Deadrin Senat will man the interior of the defense line alongside Jack Crawford and perhaps a veteran to come later in the summer. Look for rotational ends such as Brooks Reed, a solid pass rusher and run defender, and Derrick Shelby, a versatile player with strong marks in the run game, to get involved as well. Second-year end JT Jones should also be in the mix.
Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones will continue to anchor the defense from the middle, and De’Vondre Campbell continues to set the edge and provide support in coverage and as a pass rusher on the strong side. The real question will be if weak-side backer Duke Riley can hold down his starting spot or if Kemal Ishmael, who started in Riley’s place when the 2017 rookie missed last November with a knee injury, will see a larger role. Rookie Foyesade Oluokun will be relied on as a key backup and special teamer.
Free safety Ricardo Allen and strong safety Keanu Neal will return to their spots in the secondary, as will starting cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. Rookie Isaiah Oliver figures to get reps on the outside and could push Alford into the slot on certain downs. The drafting of Oliver likely means that Brian Poole’s role may be limited to certain dime packages. But make no mistake: Poole will have a role on the defense thanks to his tackling and blitzing skills. Free agent corner Justin Bethel and key reserve Blidi Wreh-Wilson give the Falcons depth options should someone get hurt. Damontae Kazee and Quincy Mauger are the favorites to back up Allen and Neal, but former Chief Ron Parker was signed in late June to bolster the depth at safety. Kazee will get looks at cornerback as well, his position in college.
The returner jobs are wide open for competition and could see any one of the reserve running backs or receivers win the roles (and, in turn, a roster spot in the case of the wide receivers). Rookie Russell Gage, one of the options, also has value as a gunner, and the team will get a boost from Bethel, who is a Pro Bowl talent on special teams. Penalties plagued the units in 2017, so look for coach Keith Armstrong to emphasize clean special teams play going forward. Placekicker Matt Bryant, punter Matt Bosher and long snapper Josh Harris all return to man their respective posts.
The Falcons are never the flashy arrival to the ball, but they stand to be one of the more competitive teams in the NFL this season. The addition of Ridley to the offense could be a stroke of genius to get back to their high-scoring ways. Oliver might be the final piece to what could be a dominant secondary, and the youth on the defensive line could give the team some extra push in the pass rush and run support. Still, Sarkisian’s maturity into a capable play caller is the story to watch going forward and could be what separates a good Falcons team from a great one.