The 2016 season for the Atlanta Falcons was unforgettable in every single sense of the word. A season that began with low expectations grew with each passing week culminating in a magical playoff run. And, had it not been for the heroics of the greatest Quarterback to have ever played the game, and a historic collapse, the Atlanta Falcons would be Super Bowl Champions. Instead, an offseason of “28-3” jokes ensued. 2017 is a year that demands redemption.
The Falcons are now in year 3 of the Dan Quinn era, and are ahead of schedule. Super Bowl LI was perhaps a year too early for the Falcons, not that it’ll offer much consolation to those of a Dirty Bird persuasion. After all, Quinn trotted out 4 rookies on defence; the most by any side in a Super Bowl ever. In the third year of a defensive rebuild, 2017(/18) should have been the year Atlanta were considered contenders. Last season only serves as an underline to that fact. On paper, there’s enough talent here to make good on that promise.
Under centre for the Falcons remains Matt Ryan. After a truly middling 2015, Ryan’s reputation as one of the league’s safest QB options was under threat. Ryan’s development as a Quarterback came to a head in 2016, leaping into the highest tier of Quarterbacks, and crowning it with the NFL MVP award. Unfortunately, Ryan’s successes saw his Offensive Coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, coveted for Head Coaching roles, leading him to move West, to San Francisco.
In 2017, Ryan will be receiving orders from Steve Sarkisian; one time Alabama OC, and a highly revered mind in the game. “Sark” will run a modified version of the West Coast system employed by Shanahan, which means the crossover between coordinators *should* see a minimal hit to Ryan’s production.
It helps that every major part of the Wide Receiver corp remains in ATL. The headline act of this festival of yards is Julio Jones, a man who should be undisputedly regarded as the best receiver in football today. Julio hauled in over 1,400 yards from only 83 targets in 2016, however he only managed to convert those yards into 6 touchdowns. With Sark committing to using Jones more as a red zone threat, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see that number increase.
Thanks to the sheer presence of Jones, the wide receivers around him benefit from open space and RAC yards. Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel act as the perfect compliment, offering sure hands in tough situations, and lightening fast quickness off the outside, respectively. Combine with promising second year catcher Austin Hooper, and useful blocking tight end Levine Toilolo; it’s fair to say Atlanta will, once again, be formidable through the air.
Sitting behind Ryan sits the dynamic pairing of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Both players could be considered “dual-threat” backs, able to pick up yards as both ball carriers and pass catchers. Freeman is undoubtedly the more well-rounded of the pair, however Coleman proved a Linebackers worst nightmare in certain scenarios. Expect continued successes from the game breaking duo this season, as Sarkisian looks to further balance the pass-heavy Falcons.
Of course, all this talent would be for nought if there wasn’t a half decent line offering protection to Ryan, and opening lanes for the Freeman/Coleman duo to sprint through. Fortunately, they have more than a half decent starting unit, possibly in the top 5 units in the league. 4 out of 5 starting pieces from last season remain, with Chris Chester opting for retirement instead of rejoining Jake Matthews, Andy Levitre, Alex Mack, and Ryan Schraeder. Battling for the elusive 5th spot at starting right guard will be Wes Schweitzer, a 2016 6th round pick, and Ben Garland, who played snaps on both offense and defence last season. Whoever steps in should have enough to allow for continued successes across the line.
Dan Quinn took the decision to demote his Defensive Coordinator halfway through 2016, and assume play-calling duties himself. Following the bye-week, Atlanta saw a considerable uptick in defensive production, and much of this could possibly be attributed to this change. Richard Smith was relieved of his position following the Super Bowl collapse, and Marquand Manuel, long-time collaborator with Dan Quinn in both Seattle and Atlanta, will oversee the development of a young and talented defensive unit, having seen success as Secondary Coach previously.
Manuel has been has been handed, potentially, one of the most exciting front sevens in football. Vic Beasley boasted a league leading 15.5 sacks in 2016, and Grady Jarrett managed 3 in the Super Bowl alone. Factor in the additions of Dontari Poe, to sit alongside Jarrett in the middle of the D-Line, and Takkarist McKinley, a 2017 first round pick, to bookend Beasley, and the Defensive Line looks terrifying. Double that with ACTUAL DEPTH (see here), and the Falcons finally have the sort of rotation capable of surviving 41 minutes on the field…
The linebacking corp is one of serious interest also. 2016 draft pairing Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell showed real promise as the season wore on, with Jones earning more than a fair shout for DROY, managing two pick-sixes from three interceptions. Campbell should prove far more consistent following his second offseason, and will line up alongside Jones as a starter once again. Completing the puzzle is Duke Riley, former team mate of Deion Jones at LSU. Fast and Physical has been the call from Dan Quinn since day one, and that’s exactly what his linebacking corp should personify.
A unit Manuel will be familiar with is the secondary- and boy is it a good one. After missing the second half of last season through a torn pectoral, top 5 Cornerback (it’s happening) Desmond Trufant returns to lead an impressive looking secondary. Trufant partners Robert Alford, and tops a CB depth chart boasting Jalen Collins, Brian Poole, and CJ Goodwin. You can never have enough good Cornerbacks.
At Safety, Keanu Neal made waves as one of the league’s hardest hitters last season, and ought to continue his violent style of play. Ricardo Allen is a good Free Safety, and enters the final year of his rookie deal. However, with competition from Damontae Kazee, ball-hawking Cornerback-turned-Free Safety convert, Allen will have to be at his very best to earn an extension.
Players To Watch
Devonta Freeman – The two-time pro-bowler has managed back-to-back 1000+ yard seasons in two of his first three seasons in the league. As the Florida State product fights to earn a huge extension to his current deal, expect Freeman to eek each possible yard from his brutal running style.
Vic Beasley Jr. – 2016’s sack leader has spent the offseason with Denver Bronco’s very own Von Miller, as he looks to add refinement to his art. After a breakout season, Atlanta need Beasley to be far more consistent in his pressuring of the Quarterback to continue to make steps forward.
Austin Hooper – Hooper stepped into the breach as a Rookie last season after Jacob Tamme fell to injury, splitting time with Levine Toilolo. After ending his season with a touchdown catch in the Super Bowl, Ryan will be hopeful Atlanta have finally delivered a dynamic pass-catching Tight End to pick up the mantle long left by the great Tony Gonzalez.