If National Football League (NFL) games were ten minutes shorter, the Atlanta Falcons were one of the best teams in the NFC. Okay, that’s a big exaggeration, but the fact is that Atlanta managed to give away several sure-seeming wins in 2020. The inability to close games contributed to the Falcons having their worst season since 2020; good for a 4-12 record. In the Dan Quinn era, Atlanta never fared so badly.
In fact, under Quinn’s leadership, no competition was won in 2020. After the 2016 Super Bowl loser started the season with five defeats, owner Arthur Blank thought it was enough: Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff had to leave the field. It became clear that Atlanta was on the cusp of a major reset. The 2021 season kicks off with Terry Fontenot as new GM and former Titans OC Arthur Smith as new head coach.
“I’m outta there man!”. Whether Julio Jones fully realized he was on the live broadcast when he got a call from Shannon Sharpe on an episode of Skip & Shannon we’ll never know. However, it was clear: superstar receiver Julio Jones had played his last game as a member of the Falcons. Not much later, Julio was traded to the Tennessee Titans and his departure was a fact. Bad news? Yes and no. Seeing Julio leave hurts, but at the same time the Falcons have lost a very expensive contract. That was much needed given Matt Ryan’s restructured contract. He will get much of his 2021 salary as guaranteed money paid out in 2022 and 2023.
Julio is of course irreplaceable, that is clear. In Cordarrelle Patterson, another wide receiver came to Atlanta, but his skills are more on special teams and in all kinds of creative roles than just being a great ball catcher. In that respect, the attack will be helped more by the arrival of running back Mike Davis. The former replacement for Christian McCaffrey with the Panthers gets the chance to be number one with the Falcons. The defense has been strengthened with Duron Harmon (Lions) and Erik Harris (Raiders), who should be the starting safeties.
As stable as Matt Ryan is, it’s clear that the twilight of his career is approaching. That the Falcons would take a quarterback with the fourth pick in the NFL Draft — or even trade up for one of the top QBs — seemed like a safe assumption. However, nothing turned out to be less true. The Atlanta Falcons chose Florida Gators tight end Kyle Pitts with their fourth pick. The TE is widely regarded as the best athlete of all the players in the draft. So Atlanta seems to have landed something special beforehand.
In the second round, Atlanta opted for safety Richy Grant of the UCF Knights, who has a good chance of competing for the starting safety positions of Harmon and Harris as the season progresses. In later rounds, the Falcons added OT Halen Mayfield (Michigan), cornerback Darren Hall (San Diego State) and center Drew Dalman (Stanford). Even later, but worth mentioning: cornerback Avery Williams. He showed with good returns and blocked kicks at Boise State that he can be of added value in special teams.
To say things are going to change for the Atlanta Falcons is an understatement. A new coaching staff, the most important weapon of the last decade, and a new running back who, hopefully, can make us forget the failed experiment with Todd Gurley (still out of contract for 2021). Replacing Christian McCaffrey for the Panthers, Davis showed his strength as a pure runner and as a pass catcher. That combination promises a lot for the Falcons.
However, the Falcons also have many question marks. The loss of Julio creates a crater in the Falcons’ receiving core. With Calvin Ridley there is a clear number one, but behind him names like Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus don’t really impress. The rescue may come from the tight end duo. The greatest tight end talent in years has been drafted with Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst already showed in 2020 that he can perform well with the Falcons.
It is now almost tradition that there are questions about the offensive line. Of the starting five linemen, center Alex Mack and guard James Carpenter left. Mack is likely to be replaced by sophomore pro Matt Hennessy, while rookie Jalen Mayfield will start as left guard. The group is certainly talented, but also inexperienced.
Although the attack is certainly questionable, the defense is perhaps even more difficult. With Harris and Harmon, quality has been added to safety, but the Falcons’ problem lies elsewhere. Atlanta is a team that has struggled for years to put structural pressure on the quarterback. The team added free agent DE Dante Fowler last year, but he disappointed. Three sacks in one season: you don’t pay someone 15 million dollars a year for that.
Hope can be found in the appointment of Dean Pees. The former defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans returned from retirement for the second time to lead the defense of the Falcons. Pees is known for his creativity in finding ways to put pressure on the quarterback.
If that works out better than in previous years, then somewhat unexpectedly beautiful things can happen in Atlanta. AJ Terrell already showed good things in his rookie season as a cornerback at Atlanta. His performance will only improve as the opponent’s quarterback is put under more pressure.
There are certainly opportunities for the Falcons to improve considerably compared to last season. However, given the amount of drastic changes in both players and coaches, it’s hard to expect more than a supporting role for Atlanta. Even with Kyle Pitts on board, the Falcons seem to have too few weapons on board while both lines are not a certainty. The Falcons may be able to take advantage of the situation at the Panthers, where QB Sam Darnold now has to lead the attack, and at the Saints, where Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill will be the new QB. With them Atlanta can make things exciting, but Tampa Bay is way too far away and so is a playoff ticket for the Atlanta Falcons.