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2016 NFL Team Previews: Atlanta Falcons

July 21, 2016 • Jon Lowe • Atlanta Falcons, Front Page, NFC, NFC South, Predictions, Preview, Team Previews

The third team in the NFC South, the Atlanta Falcons, led by head coach Dan Quinn got off to a roaring 5-0 start last season. After that, however, they went 3-8 to finish the season and wound up going 8-8 and finishing second in the NFC South. After improving the defense even more this offseason, General Manager Thomas Dimitroff and the Falcons would like to get back to the way they played when they were going 5-0, but this time for the whole season.

Draft Recap

To start, the Falcons drafted safety Keanu Neal from the Florida Gators. With Dan Quinn’s Seattle connections, it’s not that hard to see who Quinn hopes he will become (see Chancellor, Kam). The issue with the selection is he may have drafted him a bit too high, as safeties rarely end up being taken in the top 20 in the draft. The second selection the Falcons made was drafting outside linebacker Deion Jones from LSU, who should start right away and immediately improve on the speed of the Falcons’ linebackers. The Falcons really needed to come into the draft finishing off filling the holes on defense free agency didn’t cover, and they filled two right away. Another hole on the offensive side of the ball was tight end, and the Falcons took one in the third round named Austin Hooper. I’m not sold on tight end Jacob Tamme, and with Julio Jones drawing a lot of attention, it is understandable why the Falcons took the pass-catching tight end.

Free Agency

To start, signing one of the best centers in the league in Alex Mack from Cleveland will fortify this offensive line for a long time. The Falcons also signed receiver Mohamed Sanu from the Cincinnati Bengals. After losing multiple receivers next to Julio Jones, the Falcons decided it was time to bring in a guy like Sanu. The usage of Sanu will be very important for the passing game, and preventing defenses from locking into Jones for the entire game. He is needed to step up big. They also brought in defensive end Derrick Shelby from Miami, and he will probably split time with the recently re-signed Adrian Clayborn. The Falcons also brought in DE Courtney Upshaw from the Baltimore Ravens, and he will be backing up last year’s first round pick Vic Beasley. The last notable free agency move the Falcons made was sign veteran quarterback Matt Schaub as a backup for longtime starter Matt Ryan.

Players Lost

The Falcons did not lose a ton in the free agent market, at least with players signing with other teams. They let defensive tackle Paul Soliai go to the Carolina Panthers with center Gino Gradkowski, but both should have minor roles in Charlotte. Outside linebacker Nathan Stupar went to New Orleans, and he is only a situational player over there as well. The biggest losses for the Falcons are the players who remain unsigned, including longtime wide receiver Roddy White. He is obviously getting older, now being 34, and at this point it is more of a sentimental loss than anything. Safety William Moore is gone too, and he has already been replaced by Neal. Defensive end Kroy Biermann and outside linebacker O’Brien Schofield are still free agents as well, but both probably have to look for jobs elsewhere. The only player I see the Falcons potentially still re-signing is outside linebacker Justin Durant, and that’s if newly-drafted Deion Jones shows he is not ready.

Strongest Position

I like how the defensive line looks on the Falcons now, with some star power and depth everywhere, but I think I’ll go with running back here. Devonta Freeman had a huge breakout season last year, and he wasn’t even going in as the projected starter. Former Indiana Hoosiers running back Tevin Coleman was supposed to be the guy, but an early season injury led Freeman to taking the role on and acquiring around 1600 total yards and 14 total touchdowns last season. If Coleman can get to where he was last year at this time, it means the Falcons have someone even better waiting in the wings.

Weakest Position

If Julio Jones was not around, it would especially be the Falcons’ receivers. Even with him, they are scary-thin at the position. Sanu is a nice player, but he wasn’t a starter last season for the Bengals and did not provide any eye-opening numbers to justify a $6.5 million per year contract. Unless you think 33 receptions for 394 yards and no touchdowns is worth $6.5 million, of course. He’s show flashes of potential, and the Falcons are hoping his potential comes through this season. After him, Devin Hester is the only name casual fans would recognize, but he’s just a returner. Second-year pro Justin Hardy from East Carolina is there too, but he missed seven games last year. Even with those games, however, he was on track for a similar season to Sanu.

Five Most Important Players to the Falcons’ Success

QB Matt Ryan

WR Julio Jones

C Alex Mack

DE Vic Beasley

RB Devonta Freeman

Until Dan Quinn can fully install his defensive genius he showed in Seattle, the Falcons’ success remains with QB Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offense. In my opinion, wideout Julio Jones is the best receiver in football outside of Antonio Brown, and I love his speed and style of play. Without much of a passing game outside of those two, it’s up to Devonta Freeman and the rest of the running game to take some pressure off of Ryan and Jones. Center Alex Mack was brought in to help with that, as well as stabilize the line. Defensive end Vic Beasley needs to have a bigger impact this season and become the star of this defense that many expect him to be.

Prediction

This team isn’t better than Carolina yet, but they haven’t gotten worse in the offseason. That said, it’s likely to be a three-way race for second in the NFC South, and although they have a chance at a wild card, it’s unlikely with Arizona, Seattle, Green Bay and Minnesota all likely to take up 4 of the 6 spots in the postseason. I think they are a middle of the pack team, and 8-8 or 9-7 is likely. They’ve improved, but they are not in the same class as some other NFC teams.

Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

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