Naturally, for a side that were a single point from Super Bowl glory, the Atlanta Falcons’ main goal for the off-season past was to keep everything as similar as possible. And, in many ways, mission accomplished. I won’t go into too many details (I covered this in my last piece), but Atlanta used Free Agency not to splurge on the big names (AKA the Jacksonville Approach™), but to lock down existing talent (Kemal Ishmael, Desmond Trufant, et al), and add depth to areas of shallow talent.
Now, obviously, this isn’t something that can be addressed in one evening. And so, I would like to highlight a few of the remaining holes that the Dimitroff/Pioli/Quinn braintrust would be wise to look at prior to the 2017 NFL season. Unfortunately my knowledge of the college game extends only so far, and, with my fellow Inside Zone writers putting out some genuinely great draft based content, I would feel something of a hack if I tried to even speculate who the Falcons might take with 31. With this in mind, however, I thought it might be interesting to look at the aforementioned remaining roster holes.
Current Players: Andy Levitre, Wes Schwietzer, Hugh Thornton, Ben Garland, Blake Muir
In many ways, the keys to Atlanta’s Super Bowl bound truck were held by the offensive line (10/10 metaphor). For three years straight, Matt Ryan was protected by an offensive line made of blu-tac and paper mache. 2016 represented the first season since, well, 2012, where Ryan was given enough time to properly go through his progressions, and make plays. To those of a Falcons persuasion, we already knew what a fantastic Ryan could be when given the time to breathe. Last season, he was given just that.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. The offensive line of 2016 will not be returning in its full form. Right Guard Chris Chester opted for retirement. Chester was, in all honesty, the weakest link along the line, however, and Guard was likely an area the Falcons would look to sure up either way. Chester’s retirement serves as an underline of that fact rather than an unexpected blow.
In the red corner…
So who is in line to replace Chester? Well, Andy Levitre is already a starter along that line, meaning it was entirely pointless me mentioning his name. Wes Schwietzer was a sixth round pick in the 2016 draft and, by all accounts, performed at a pretty high level. In pre-season. Schweitzer made the cut, but found himself inactive for the entire season. An ideal scenario would be Schwietzer has developed some in his first season as an NFL player, and will slot in between Alex Mack and Ryan Schrader along the O-Line.
Unfortunately you cannot head into a season off the back of best case scenarios. In all likelihood, Atlanta will spend an early draft pick to land the newest member of the Guardians of the (all-)Galaxy (QB) (2/10, bad joke). Expect serious consideration of Forrest Lamp, should he fall to 31. With that, a three-way camp battle between Schwietzer, Draft Pick, and free agent acquisition Hugh Thornton, should ensue for the starting gig.
The remaining members of the Guard team aren’t viable starters, unfortunately. Ben Garland is a wonderful story (the man played snaps on both offense and defence last season), however Quinn will likely convert him to a defensive lineman full time to help with depth issues. Blake Muir doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, so there’s every chance he doesn’t even exist. I hope you get the gig, Blake.
(Dedicated) Pass Rush
Current (specialist) Players: Vic Beasley Jr, Adrian Clayborn, Brooks Reed
Atlanta learned the hard way what can happen when you don’t get enough pressure on a Quarterback. For a quarter and a half, Tom Brady was given time enough to pick apart an incredibly tired Falcons defence. Despite being dropped five times early on, Brady managed to work uninterrupted to come back and win the Super Bowl.
Dan Quinn will have noted the overall ineffectiveness of his premier sack-specialist, Vic Beasley. Despite applying a reasonable level of pressure throughout the post-season, Beasley failed to register a single sack. A far cry from the 15.5 that earned him a pro bowl nod, and a spot in the all-pro team of the season.
Now is the time to add some serious help to Beasley’s cause. Much of Beasley’s post-season demise can be pointed to opposition defences opting to double up on him, limiting how quickly he can get to the Quarterback. The easy solution to this problem would to have an equally terrifying prospect opposite him.
Atlanta aren’t slated to face the likes of the 49ers, the Rams, the Broncos; y’know, teams with clueless Quarterbacks and even more clueless Quarterback protection. They’ll be facing the likes of the Packers, the Cowboys, the Patriots; teams that are either famed for their pass protection, or having a knack for punishing a lack of.
I fully expect Atlanta to select a Quarterback sniper in either the first two rounds of the draft. With one real, bonafide game changer on the board, it’s unreasonable to expect Myles Garrett to slip to #2, let alone #31. However, recent reports suggest a very serious interest in Derek Rivers. Similar to Keanu Neal last season, don’t be surprised if Atlanta “reached” with their first round pick. If they think he’s their man, his perceived pre-draft stock matters very little.
Failing that…does anyone have Dwight Freeney’s number?
Current Players: Dontari Poe, Grady Jarrett, Ra’Shede Hageman, Courtney Upshaw, Jimmy Staten
Now we’re getting into depth territory. Much of Dan Quinn’s defence is already in place. There is no real need at secondary (like it or not, Falcons fans, Ricardo Allen IS a good player). With the two biggest needs addressed above, it’s time to look ahead, to the future.
Listen, I’m gonna say it now; unless Poe hand delivers a Lombardi to Flowery Branch, I would be VERY surprised if he is back in Atlanta from 2018. That’s not a slight on the player, that’s more a slight on the cap situation facing the side from next season. One of the negatives of drafting well is that your picks will want to get paid, and that’s what we’re seeing currently.
As such, now would be a good time to look at the long-term partner for Grady Jarrett up the middle. As we’ve seen from Jarrett himself, genuine upper-tier talent can be found in the later rounds by this organisation. Giving whoever that may be a season of limited snaps behind the *actually really strong* pair of Poe and Jarrett can only be a positive experience for any young player. At the same time, it’d be good to have genuine depth to call on should Poe’s back injury flare up.
End of an era
Conversely, it’s not unreasonable to expect ties to be severed between Atlanta and Hageman come the end of the season. The former second round pick is the last remaining player along that defensive-line rotation from the Mike Smith-era. A mix of unfulfilled potential, and a less than savoury domestic abuse charge, lingers over his head. For an organisation that prides itself on its class, a contact extension seems unlikely, despite how shallow that particular talent pool may be.
As I mentioned at the top of the piece, I’m not the guy to ask for college picks. Who this elusive run stuffing man-machine might be is not for me to speculate. I’m sure he’s out there, though. Somewhere.
What has to be stressed is the squad looks about as good now as it did in the immediate Super Bowl aftermath. Atlanta have a unique position where they won’t necessarily be drafting for immediate starters this season, more that they’ll be drafting for improvements. I’ve every faith this organisation has a plan in place to address the needs above. And, with that put together another class that will keep the Falcons in contention for years to come.