The 2016 NFL season begins now, with 32 teams scheming to knock off the reigning champion Denver Broncos. The NFL Draft is just around the corner, but the first step in any offseason plan is to assess a team’s needs. Here we look at what the Atlanta Falcons team needs are.
These reports were compiled with the help of Inside The Pylon’s writers and editors, as well as the outstanding offseason primers at OverTheCap.com, which are invaluable for understanding the salary cap and contractual obligations of each team. In addition, the depth chart data is courtesy RosterResource.com – thanks for all your support!
After Robert Alford returned an overtime interception for a game-winning touchdown, some idiot (OK, it was me) wrote “[t]he Falcons are sitting pretty now with a 5-0 record,” noting that Atlanta wouldn’t play a team with a winning record until Week 14. Whoops. The Falcons lost seven of their next eight games en route to a disappointing 8-8 finish and their third consecutive campaign without a playoff appearance. Eight wins was an improvement over the six of 2014 and the four of 2013, but it still was a far cry from the run from 2010-12, when the squad went 36-12.
While the Falcons teams of 2013-14 had obvious holes, especially a porous defense that ranked 27th in points allowed both seasons, the problems with the 2015 squad are tougher to pinpoint. Under new defensive-minded head coach Dan Quinn, the team improved to 14th in points allowed, but the offense slipped to 21st in scoring. There is still work to do on the defensive side of the ball, but general manager Thomas Dimitroff also has the challenge of revitalizing an offense that has seen too many of its key pieces – particularly receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez – age out without adequate younger replacements.
Dimitroff made one of the boldest moves in recent draft history, dealing five picks, including two first-rounders, for the sixth pick in the 2011 draft: Julio Jones. The wide receiver has been everything Dimitroff envisioned, leading the NFL in 2015 with 136 catches for 1,871 yards. The missing picks, however, have depleted the team’s depth, even at the position where Jones has starred. The team finally parted ways with 34-year-old White, who logged only 506 yards in a full 16-game slate in 2015. Their next leading wideout was Leonard Hankerson, who the team jettisoned partway through the season. Rookie fourth-rounder Justin Hardy might be ready for a bigger role in 2016 and beyond, but the team still needs contributors to augment the super-talented Jones. Since the #1 wideout spot is locked down, they can look to a possession receiver like Sterling Shepard of Oklahoma or Tyler Boyd of Pittsburgh in the second or third round.
Jacob Tamme had his best statistical season in 2015, catching 59 passes for 657 yards. The veteran is 31, however, and at 234 pounds he lacks the size to block effectively or factor in the red zone offense (only 11 touchdowns in eight seasons). Former fourth-round pick Levine Toilolo has the youth – he turns 25 in July – and size – 6’8”, 260 pounds – that Tamme lacks, but lacks his impact in the passing game, only catching seven passes last season. At the very least, the Falcons need depth to replace journeyman Tony Moeaki, and ideally they can upgrade with a complete tight end. Draft depth is shallow for tight ends, but Hunter Henry from Arkansas or Austin Hooper from Stanford would help.
The Falcons selected Vic Beasley out of Clemson with the eighth pick in the 2015 draft, and the rookie started all 16 games and led the team with four sacks. He’s primed for an even bigger season in 2016, but the team desperately needs a bookend to accompany the 23-year-old. Atlanta retained Adrian Clayborn, who had three sacks attacking from both end and tackle, and added free agents Derrick Shelby and Courtney Upshaw (who may also see time at linebacker), but all three of those players are better against the run than against the pass. If they look to the pass rush in the first round, Clemson ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd or Oklahoma State’s Emmanuel Ogbah are options.
The Falcons allowed more than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns to opposing tight ends, and another 944 passing yards to running backs. These statistics speak to the coverage woes in their linebacking corps, which lost O’Brien Schofield and Justin Durant but returns Paul Worrilow, Philip Wheeler, and Brooks Reed. How bad are things? Atlanta brought back Sean Weatherspoon, the team’s 2010 first-round pick, who spent much of 2013 and 2014 injured and tallied just nine tackles in 2015, his lone season with the Arizona Cardinals. Upshaw may rotate in here, but the team needs athleticism from its ‘backers. The explosive Darron Lee from Ohio State is a first-round option.
Most third-round picks do not pan out, but few flame out so spectacularly that their teams give up on them early in their second season. That was the case for Atlanta’s Dezmen Southward, who tallied 17 tackles in 19 games before Falcons brass decided they had seen enough. Ricardo Allen, drafted two rounds after Southward in the 2014 draft, emerged at free safety, starting 14 games. The other safety spot was a revolving door, however, with longtime Falcon William Moore, former Panther Charles Godfrey, and 2013 seventh-round pick Kemal Ishmael getting turns at strong safety. Atlanta released Moore in the offseason and could seek a long-term replacement in the draft.
Atlanta had one of the game’s more underrated units, and that was before they added former Brown Alex Mack to man the pivot. Jake Matthews emerged as a fine blindside protector in his second season, and Ryan Schraeder surprised at the other tackle spot. Andy Levitre has experienced a career resurgence in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme after disappointing in Tennessee. Interior starters Chris Chester and Gino Gradkowski are gone, but Mack is a big upgrade at their weakest spot and they still have veteran Mike Person, who has experience at guard and center. The starting five should be solid, but the Falcons could use depth at both guard and tackle.
The defensive line is a unit in flux. Jonathan Babineaux and Tyson Jackson led the group, combining for more than 1,000 snaps, but both players will be on the wrong side of 30 when the 2016 season starts. The Falcons cut nose tackle Paul Soliai, also in his 30’s, in the offseason. They could use another body here, but the key will be the development of youngsters Ra’Shede Hageman, a second-round pick in 2014, and 2015 fifth-rounder Grady Jarrett. Hageman is a physical specimen (6’6”, 310 pounds) who has never quite lived up to his tools, while Jarrett was a productive overachiever for Clemson who is undersized (6’1”, 288 pounds) for the pro game. Ends Clayborn and Shelby can kick inside on passing downs, adding to the options here.
The Falcons used both of their top two picks in 2013 to grab corners, and Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have lived up to the team’s expectations, starting 73 games between them in three seasons. Trufant especially has emerged as one of the game’s best young pass defenders. Nickel corner Phillip Adams is a free agent, opening up a bigger role for talented but raw Jalen Collins. Quinn deployed tall cornerbacks with length when he was defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, and at 6’1” with 32 ⅛” arms, Collins fits the bill. Rookie seventh-round pick Akeem King is even taller (6’3”) and even more raw. The lack of proven depth behind Trufant and Alford makes cornerback a likely middle-round target in the draft.
Matt Bryant has been a fine kicker for a long time, but the end may be near. The 40-year-old Bryant sat out five games with a quadriceps injury and missed four of his 18 attempts despite not trying a field goal over 50 yards. Journeyman Shayne Graham filled in during Bryant’s absence but is a free agent; Atlanta will likely look to a younger option late in the draft or in priority free agency. Matt Bosher ranked second in open-field punting in 2015 and only had three touchbacks; a propensity for having punts blocked (six in five seasons) is the biggest blemish on his record. The Falcons ranked above-average in both kick and punt returns in 2015, but returners Devin Hester and Eric Weems are both over 30 and the team may look to inject youth via the draft.
Set, For Better or Worse
Matt Ryan may not be a superstar, but the three-time Pro Bowler is a competent passer in his physical prime, a rarity. He struggled at times with Shanahan’s new offense, but still completed two-thirds of his passes for more than 4,500 yards. Backup Matt Schaub returns to the team that made him a third-round selection back in 2004. He was a solid starter for years under Gary Kubiak in Houston under a similar zone-running Walsh offense and figures to be a competent fill-in. Developmental prospect Sean Renfree is the third QB.
Second-year back Devonta Freeman had a breakout season in 2015, rushing for a league-leading 11 touchdowns and more than 1,000 yards and adding another 578 yards through the air. That limited the role of third-round pick Tevin Coleman, but the rookie still rushed for nearly 400 yards on an impressive 4.5 yards per carry. Patrick DiMarco is one of the best and most versatile fullbacks in the league.