NFC South Preview: Are the Atlanta Falcons a threat?
By John Sigler
The NFC South has seen a tremendous turnover in players, coaching staffs, and administrative personnel this offseason. Every team is filled with new faces, none more than the Atlanta Falcons – led by new first-year head coach Dan Quinn and a front office brain trust of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and assistant general manager Scott Pioli. This team has won 10 games in the last two years and is desperately trying to rebrand itself and get back to competing for division titles. A strong draft and undrafted rookie haul could help speed up the transition Quinn has in mind.
Offensive Additions: The Falcons used this offseason to give quarterback Matt Ryan #2 more weapons to work with at the skill positions. The key addition to the rushing attack through the draft was halfback Tevin Coleman #26 out of Indiana. Coleman is currently second on the depth chart behind last year’s draft pick out of Florida State, Devonta Freeman #24. For what it’s worth, Coleman was my fifth-ranked rookie halfback in the class and my 44th-ranked prospect overall. He was dynamite at Indiana and, if healthy, should make for a formidable pairing with Freeman.
Two other hopefuls to make the roster are Antone Smith #35, who made a name for himself by scoring every 7.2 touches and averaging 10.2 yards per touch, and rookie Terron Ward #33 (a Oregon State product), brother to Denver Broncos safety T.J. Ward #43. With the two starters entrenched, it’s hard to imagine either of these depth players seeing much action in 2015, but they give new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan some much-needed insurance in case of injury.
Another rookie to keep an eye on his Justin Hardy #16, a wide receiver from East Carolina. I was a big fan of Hardy’s game and ranked him fourth among rookie wideouts, 20th overall in the class. He fell due to questions about his size and some areas to his skill set that need to be cleaned up like rounding off his routes. Hardy should be the third receiver in Atlanta soon, but in the meantime he is working his way up the depth chart behind starters Julio Jones and Roddy White and veterans Leonard Hankerson and Devin Hester.
The only significant moves the Falcons made to improve the tight position were signing veterans Jacob Tamme #83 from Denver and Tony Moeaki #81 from Seattle. Neither of them are starting-caliber talents anymore, but together they give the Falcons some intriguing options in two tight end sets. They can also mentor the still-raw Levine Toilolo #80.
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What’s confusing is that the team failed to address its biggest weakness from last year: the offensive line. Three of last year’s starters (left tackle Jake Matthews #70, center Joe Hawley #61, and right guard Jon Asamoah #75) are returning. The new candidate to start at left guard, Mike Person #68, is a total unknown factor, and veteran Chris Chester #65 was brought in to challenge for a starting job at right tackle after grading out as one of the worst linemen in the NFL last year for Washington, per Pro Football Focus. The line is a mess again this year with the hope that Matthews will rebound from a bad rookie year into a solid sophomore campaign. It’s safe to assume Matt Ryan will again be anxious to get rid of the ball in 2015.
Defensive Additions: Defensively, the Falcons have hung their hopes on Quinn’s new scheme and a plethora of young rookies to change their fortunes. Draft picks and Clemson graduates Vic Beasley #44 and Grady Jarrett #97 headline a great rookie group, with defensive backs Jalen Collins #32 (from LSU) and Kevin White #27 (from TCU) rounding them out.
Beasley was one of my favorite defensive prospects in the draft class along with former Washington Huskies cornerback Marcus Peters and UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks. He is a terror on the edge and should give the Falcons a much-needed boost in pass rush playing defensive end. Jarrett was one of the most productive defensive linemen in college football last year and his slide in the draft was confusing, but the Falcons wasted no time in bringing him aboard to help shore up their weak front seven.
The defensive backs Collins and White both flashed standout athleticism and technique in college. Collins has the fast track to a ascend the depth chart due to his draft status, but White seems like a perfect fit to inherit the nickel corner duties and cover the slot. By and large, I thought that the Falcons had a very intelligent draft that addressed many of their needs.
Important Losses: The Falcons truly have not lost much going from last year to this, and that may be a problem. They are a young team without many established veterans around to right the ship when adversity strikes – just like what happened to the Saints last year. The projected starters on offense have an average of 25.7 and the defense is projected to be 26.3 years old on average, per Scott Carasik of Pro Football Spot. The Falcons of 2013 and 2014 are not that different from those of 2015 on paper, which does not bode well for their immediate future.
What it means for the New Orleans Saints: The hiring of Dan Quinn to overhaul the culture of the Atlanta Falcons is a very bad sign for the Saints. Quinn has a great resume from his experience in Seattle under Pete Carroll and has been very well-received by players, team management, and fans. He has a clear vision towards what he wants to accomplish with this team and how he wants to do it, and if this summer’s practices have been any indication it has gone swimmingly. I’m fully expecting the Falcons to be a highly competitive team by 2016, but that gives the Saints about a year to develop their own assets and take advantage of the Falcons’ weaknesses in the NFC South arms race.
The Falcons match up well with the Saints in that Sean Payton has repeatedly said that he wants to establish a strong running game and bring pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Falcons are very weak in the middle of their defense with some poor linebacker play from SAM Brooks Reed #56, MIKE Paul Worrilow #55, and WILL Justin Durant #52. Their defensive line is also a mess with the older Paul Soliai #96 and the (thus far) disappointing Ra’Shede Hageman #77 manning the middle. So the Saints should be able to abuse the Falcons defense with a rushing attack behind center Max Unger and guards Jahri Evans and Tim Lelito, along with the layered passing concepts we’ve grown used to seeing.
Projected Win/Loss Record: 7-9 (.438), second in the division. Las Vegas’ betting lines currently have the Panthers set to win 8.5 games in 2015, which sounds a little optimistic to me. I am a fan of the Falcons’ rookie selections and the hiring of Quinn, but they didn’t do enough to reinforce either the offensive or defensive lines. NFL games are won in the trenches and the failure to add a great asset like new Denver Broncos left guard Evan Mathis would have done wonders to help the Falcons’ fortunes. As it stands I expect the Falcons to show some positive signs of growth in year one and come close to hitting the .500 mark, but playoff aspirations are too rich for my blood. Quinn, Pioli, and Dimitroff still have a lot of work to do.
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