Offseason to-do list for the Atlanta Falcons
5-0. This was the Atlanta Falcons’ record after wins over Philadelphia, New York, Dallas, Houston, and Washington to start the 2015 season. In fact, after a loss to the Saints, they got back on the winning track against the Titans to place themselves at 6-1.
Wow, does that seem like a long time ago. Now, even after ruining the Panthers’ quest for a perfect regular reason on Sunday, the Falcons sit at 8-7 and are out of playoff contention after the Vikings’ SNF victory put Minnesota into the postseason.
Two weeks ago, when I began to put this piece together, the narrative was much different. At that time, under first-year head coach Dan Quinn, the Falcons had just went through a stretch of six losses in a row, the last being a 38-0 demolition at the hands of the Panthers team they just defeated this past weekend. In addition, they were going on the road to play a Jaguars squad that had put 51 points on the Colts the previous week. Oh, what a difference a couple of victories can make. After beating the Jaguars and Panthers, the Falcons have avoided the dubious feat of being the first team to start 5-0 and finish with a losing record. In fact, they can even finish the season with a winning record with a victory in the final game against the Saints.
A season that looked so promising, then turned into an utter disaster, now has a “what could have been” feel. Of their seven losses, only two (at Carolina and home against Minnesota) were to teams that will finish with a winning record. Looking ahead to 2016, Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank must first decide if the managerial structure will continue to remain as is, with GM Thomas Dimitroff and Assistant GM Scott Pioli aiding Dan Quinn in talent evaluation and acquisition. Once that is decided, Quinn and his staff must continually work to upgrade a roster not strong on overall talent and depth. Here, we analyze the current answers, and then the position groups the Falcons must address moving forward if they want to consistently compete with Carolina in the NFC South and enter the NFC playoff picture in the near future.
(Editor’s note: The commentary below is independent of Atlanta’s cap situation and space, which they will have to work with in the offseason, and is focused entirely on where they are settled and where improvement is needed from a production standpoint.)
As is evident on a weekly basis, WR Julio Jones (PFF’s top-ranked WR, 96.0 overall grade) is one of the game’s best players, and as we saw this past weekend, when QB Matt Ryan (ninth-ranked QB, 82.2 overall grade) has time and plays like his normal accurate self (93.1 accuracy percentage against Carolina), the Falcons can play with anyone.
The exterior of the offensive line seems to be set, with 2014 sixth-overall pick LT Jake Matthews (20th-ranked OT, 80.1 grade) bouncing back this season after being PFF’s lowest-rated tackle his rookie year. In addition, undrafted free agent RT Ryan Schraeder continues to be a revelation. After a positive grade on 655 snaps in 2014, Schraeder has further improved this season, now PFF’s ninth-highest graded tackle (86.0 grade, and second-highest right tackle), and has posted the sixth-highest pass blocking efficiency (97.0) among tackles. In fact, the combination of Schraeder and Matthews has only allowed three sacks total.
Another revelation this season has been the play of RB Devonta Freeman, who is currently our 11th-ranked RB (80.7 grade), tied for second in the NFL with 13 TDs. Not even a starter to open the season, Freeman has actually logged more snaps than any other back (715), and given the Falcons 1,540 total yards rushing and receiving. In addition to Freeman in the backfield, the Falcons also boast PFF’s highest-rated fullback in Patrick DiMarco (83.1 grade).
CB Desmond Trufant continues to improve, and is currently PFF’s 18th-ranked CB. If not for struggling in Week 8 against Tampa and Week 15 against Allen Robinson and Jacksonville, Trufant would be pushing the top-five of CB grades. Trufant is currently third with 16.2 coverage snaps per reception allowed, behind only Patrick Peterson (20.0) and Richard Sherman (19.4). In addition, Trufant is seventh in yards allowed per coverage snap, at 0.84.
Lastly, while 2015 first-round pick Vic Beasley has not put up the pass rushing statistics that many had hoped for when the Falcons drafted him eighth overall, he still was the team’s leader in pass rush grade and total QB pressures (42, including four sacks) on a team starving for an impact edge defender. In fact, Beasley’s pass rush numbers as a rookie are only slightly behind current highest-rated edge defender Khalil Mack’s rookie numbers in 2014 (54 total QB pressures, including four sacks). While Beasley still needs to greatly develop his overall play and strength against the run, the Falcons are hoping experience and a better supporting cast will lead to a Mack-like leap in pass rushing impact for Beasley. In addition to Beasley, fifth-round pick Grady Jarrett has shined in his 251 snaps, as he currently is the second-highest graded defensive player on the team (78.3 grade).
This season, the primary need for the Falcons has been ball security. In their eight wins, Atlanta has nine total turnovers, but in their seven losses, they have turned the ball over 19 times. The 28 total turnovers are currently the fifth-most in the NFL. Aside from better execution and valuing possession of the ball, the personnel needs for this team moving forward are plentiful. Here are three must-haves for the Falcons during the 2016 offseason.
The reason I classified this as “front-seven playmakers” is that the Falcons are in desperate need for both edge defenders to pair with Beasley, and anyone who can play linebacker with at least league-average level consistency. After finishing 2014 tied for second worst in numbers of sacks (22), the Falcons need three on Sunday to even match that total, as they are currently last in the league with just 19. At linebacker, the primary combination of Paul Worrilow (37.0 grade, 81st-ranked LB) and Justin Durant (52.7 grade, 62nd-ranked LB) just cannot be counted on, as Worrilow has missed the sixth-most tackles among LBs (17), and Durant has missed another 12. Even free-agent signing Brooks Reed (70.8 grade) has provided very little impact in his 330 snaps, with zero sacks and only 12 total QB pressures. Look for the Falcons to address this need early (and more than likely, often) in the draft.
Interior offensive line
While the outside tackles on the offensive line were praised above, the line’s interior G-C-G combination of Chris Chester (77.2 grade) and Andy Levitre (75.0 grade) at guard, and Mike Person at center (54.5 grade), has been a problem, especially in pass protection. Chester and Levitre, in particular, receive their comparatively higher rating based on their run blocking ability, as both have positive run blocking grades. It is the complete opposite in pass blocking, as both carry heavy negative grades. In fact, among guards, Levitre has given up the fourth-most pressures this season (41), with Chester not far behind with 34 total pressures allowed. Levitre has also committed the second-most penalties among guards, with nine. Thus, those who watch the Falcons have seen Matt Ryan facing consistent pressure—not the best situation for a QB who does most of his damage from the pocket.
WRs not named Julio
For all of Julio Jones’ greatness, he is only one player, and even though he continues to thrive as defenses scheme against him, the Falcons are in dire need of weapons opposite Julio. While an all-time great Falcon, Roddy White (66.9 grade this season) appears to be done as an impact player. Despite turning back the clock this past weekend against Carolina with five catches for 67 yards, White has struggled mightily in 2015. Among WRs with at least 45 targets, White is last (83rd) in yards per route run (YPRR) at 0.89. To give some comparison, Julio Jones is first in YPRR at 2.97. Earlier in the season, Leonard Hankerson was the No. 3 WR, but injuries and eight drops in only 44 targets (12th among all WRs, despite the low number of targets and only 344 snaps) led the Falcons to waive him. The current No. 3 WR is fourth-round rookie Justin Hardy (60.3 grade), who has provided little impact. The Falcons will more than likely look to the free agent market to address this need.
The first year of the Dan Quinn era is one that could have been much more. Given the relative ease of their schedule, a playoff berth should have been in their sights, but self-destruction and a lack of value for the ball sealed their non-playoff fate. In 2016, though, the Falcons will not have the good fortune of playing the NFC East and instead get the NFC West. Thus, this team will have to continually upgrade both the identified areas, as well as their overall depth of talent, if they want to challenge the Panthers in the NFC South and make the postseason.