Matt Ryan and the Falcons look to contend in the NFC South after an injury-plagued 2018
The 2018 Atlanta Falcons season didn't go according to plan. The team started off the year on a sour note, losing safety Keanu Neal to an ACL injury and linebacker Deion Jones for a good chunk of the season to a foot ailment. The injury bug spread to safety Ricardo Allen, running backs Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, defensive end Derrick Shelby, guards Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco, kicker Matt Bryant and long snapper Josh Harris at some point in the season. Eight major contributors were on IR by year's end.
Often in a season of injuries, team weaknesses get exposed. The Falcons defensive line and secondary struggled due to key personnel losses, and the offensive line couldn't withstand losing two guards. The Falcons are hoping better health, some roster tweaking and a revamped coaching staff — Dirk Koetter is back for his second stint as the offensive coordinator, and head coach Dan Quinn will also serve as the defensive play-caller — will allow them to return to contender status in the NFC.
The offense had a topsy-turvy season in its last under Steve Sarkisian's watch. The former offensive coordinator stepped down after watching an offense that averaged 28.5 points in the first eight games of the year slump to 23.3 in the final eight.
Quarterback Matt Ryan had a stellar campaign in spite of the general falloff, posting numbers similar to his 2016 MVP campaign (4,924 yards, 35 TDs, seven INTs). He was also more effective in the red zone, thanks in large part to the play of rookie Calvin Ridley. Ryan will be reunited with Koetter, who called plays in Atlanta from 2012-14.
The running game loses an electrifying talent in Tevin Coleman, who rushed for a career-high 800 yards while starting 14 games in 2018. Freeman is in the middle of a hard-earned contract, though he was limited to two games last season due to injury. It's a major question how he'll bounce back. If he can, he should be back to his elusive, elite ways. If not, the team will lean more on Smith, who rushed for 315 yards and four touchdowns in his first season. Rookie Qadree Ollison should get in on the action, too. And what will become of 2017 fifth-rounder Brian Hill, who came on strong late last season, with 115 yards rushing in a 24–20 win at Carolina in late December?
The receiving corps is largely intact from last season, with All-Pro Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Ridley leading the charge. All three are good enough to be No. 1 options on most other teams. Koetter loves to air it out, and Atlanta has the perfect receiving group to do so. Jones continued his remarkable run last season, with 113 receptions for 1,677 yards and eight touchdowns (matching the second-highest total of his career). He has had at least 1,400 yard receiving in five straight seasons. Sanu caught 66 passes for a career-high 838 yards in his seventh season in the league. Ridley scored a team-high 10 touchdowns as a rookie. Justin Hardy returns and will be in the mix, and 2018 sixth-rounder Russell Gage will try to make a case to get more snaps.
Austin Hooper leads a talented group of tight ends that will be coached by Mike Mularkey — a former tight end in the league and a three-time head coach. Luke Stocker, who played for Mularkey in Tennessee, was added to the stable in the offseason. Stocker is mainly a blocking tight end but has grown as a receiving option. Logan Paulsen and Eric Saubert also return. Paulsen proved more worthwhile in the passing game than expected, while the team still waits to see what it has in Saubert, a 2017 fifth-round draft pick who has yet to make an impact.
The Falcons' biggest offensive weakness, the line, could now be a strength. The team invested numerous resources in this unit, using 2019 first-round picks on guard Chris Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary. Both will need time to grow but should be instant upgrades at the right guard and right tackle spots (assuming Lindstrom slots in there and not on the left side). Free agent James Carpenter figures to slot in at left guard, and left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack — both Pro Bowl talents — return to man their spots.
While health will largely fix Atlanta's 2018 problems at linebacker and safety, the Falcons' pass rush posted only 37 sacks last season. This suggests the team will need to get a bit more creative in order to apply consistent pressure on the quarterback. Enter Quinn as the new defensive coordinator. He'll be tasked to fix his defense's inconsistent rush once and for all. Fifth-year pass rusher Vic Beasley has struggled to meet his insane 2016 production (15.5 sacks), but the team showed confidence in him by granting his fifth-year option. Returning edge Adrian Clayborn — who spent last season with New England — certainly helps, as would more progress from 2017 first-rounder Takkarist McKinley and emerging pass rusher Steven Means.
The situation at defensive tackle is more promising. Jarrett boasts elite pass-rushing ability, and his tenacious rush support will need to be better than ever as the Falcons play in a division with Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey. The team rewarded Jarrett's strong 2018 campaign with a four-year, $68 million contract extension, $38 million of that guaranteed. To complement Jarrett, run-stuffing defensive tackle Tyeler Davison comes over from New Orleans. Jack Crawford flashed pass-rushing instincts that hint he's only going to improve, and second-year pro Deadrin Senat showed promise he can build on. Watch out for Justin Zimmer, a former undrafted free agent out of Division II Ferris State in Michigan, who could be a surprise roster addition. He made the team out of preseason camp last year but was eventually released.
The linebacker group will showcase Deion Jones, one of the best at his position, in the middle and the severely underrated De'Vondre Campbell on the strong side. Foyesade Oluokun, a sixth-round pick last year, has emerged as the front-runner for the weak-side spot in 2019. The team will rely on Jones' return to the middle of the defense to stabilize the communication that was missing last year. He also received a contract extension right before the start of training camp, a four-year, $57 million deal that includes a reported $34 million guaranteed.
The return of Neal and Allen will bolster the secondary. Neal's physicality, coverage skills and run support were sorely missed in 2018, as was Allen's leadership, communication and tackling. Damontae Kazee emerged in a breakout year in Allen's stead, though, and will switch over to the slot corner position, replacing Brian Poole. Desmond Trufant showed his prowess down the stretch last season, and second-year corner Isaiah Oliver will replace Robert Alford on the right. Oliver's development will be crucial as this group tries to improve after a disappointing 2018. The Falcons ranked 27th in the NFL last year in pass defense, allowing 259.6 yards per game.
Longtime coach Keith Armstrong parted ways with the organization this winter and will be replaced as special teams coach by Ben Kotwica, who comes over from Washington. Punter Matt Bosher and long snapper Josh Harris will continue on in their respective roles, but veteran kicker Matt Bryant wasn't retained. They'll try to replace Bryant with Giorgio Tavecchio, who went 5-of-5 on field goals (with four from 40-plus yards) while filling in for the injured Bryant last October. The returner battle will likely come down to free agent Kenjon Barner and draft pick Marcus Green.
The Falcons' investments in the offensive line and decision to bring back Koetter to call the plays could get the team's attack back to elite status. That alone could be enough to make Atlanta a contender in a balanced NFC South.
But the real key will be on defense. Can Quinn handle the dual responsibilities of head coach and coordinator? And can the players expected to take on leading roles stay healthy? If not, it might not matter how many points Ryan and the offense score.