Byron Dixon| BKD TV
The past two seasons have been very disappointing for the Falcons, but don’t blame Matt Ryan. Atlanta’s franchise signal-caller generated 4,694 yards, 28 touchdowns and only 14 interceptions in 2014, yet the team still couldn’t qualify for the playoffs despite being in one of the worst divisions in NFL history.
While We Were Away: Dan Quinn comes over from Seattle as the Head Coach and looks to provide a defensive intensity that this team is lacking and has been void of in recent memory.The front office simply hasn’t been able to provide Ryan with enough help. There’s Julio Jones, of course, but that’s been about it. Jones, who just turned 26, is entering the prime of his career. He was unstoppable last year, catching 104 passes for 1,593 yards and six touchdowns. He’s expected to see more volume in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Roddy White, meanwhile, will continue to regress. White, 34 in November, has failed to average more than 11.5 yards per reception in the past two seasons. He dealt with some injuries in 2014, but those will continue to pile up as he gets older.
Ryan will need White to play well because he still inexplicably has no one else to throw to. Slot receiver Harry Douglas isn’t even available anymore. It’s a huge mystery as to why the front office couldn’t find a better slot option or a replacement for Tony Gonzalez at tight end this off-season; after all, Maxx Williams was sitting there in the second round, available for the taking. Instead, Ryan will have to settle for throwing intermediate passes to pedestrian players like Tony Moeaki, Jacob Tamme and Levine Toilolo. Tight ends are normally a big factor in Shanahan’s offense, so it doesn’t seem like Atlanta has any sort of plan.
The running back position figures to be better, at least. Steven Jackson is gone, so that’s already addition by subtraction. Jacquizz Rodgers also departed, leaving disappointing rookie Devonta Freeman and breakaway-threat Antone Smith as the team’s sole running backs heading into the draft. To remedy this situation, Atlanta used a third-round choice on Tevin Coleman, who was expected to go in the second frame. It’s unclear if Coleman can handle a full workload, but he was exceptional for Indiana this past season, as he proved that he was capable of going the distance every single time he touched the ball. Freeman didn’t show anything last year, so it should surprise no one if Coleman overtakes him as the team’s starting runner.
Atlanta’s offensive line is also a huge question mark. The greatest areas of concern are on the left side, even though Jake Matthews is stationed there. Matthews, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, had a brutal rookie campaign. Perhaps this was because of a Lisfranc injury he sustained, but Ryan’s blind-side protector still hasn’t resumed practicing and might not be ready for the season opener. Meanwhile, with Justin Blalock gone, the recently signed Chris Chester is expected to start at guard, though that’s not a given. The 32-year-old Chester has been a pedestrian blocker over the past few years.
2015 Season Outlook: Rather than adding more offensive weapons or improving Matt Ryan’s blocking, the Falcons spent the majority of their resources bolstering their defense. It’s hard to blame the front office for doing this, given that the “stop” unit surrendered 26.1 points per game in 2014, including 34 to the Panthers in a must-win for the divisional crown in Week 17.
The first two draft picks were defensive players. The No. 8 overall choice was used on a pass-rusher who could fit new head coach Dan Quinn’s system perfectly. That would be Vic Beasley, who could’ve easily gone in the top five without any complaints. Beasley was a terror for Clemson this past season, so he, along with free-agent acquisitions Adrian Clayborn and O’Brien Schofield should be able to help a pass rush that has been lacking for years.
The second draft choice was used on tall cornerback Jalen Collins. Atlanta didn’t have a huge need for the corner position, but Collins could offer an upgrade over the mediocre Robert Alford. The winner of that training camp battle will start across from Desmond Trufant, who is one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. If Alford loses the job, perhaps he can take over the nickel spot, which was occupied by the departed Robert McClain.
Rounding out the secondary are safeties Dezmen Southward and William Moore. This is a position that should have been upgraded this past offseason. Moore missed nine games in 2014 because of a shoulder injury, while Southward, a 2014 third-rounder, struggled in brief action as a rookie. No potential improvements are available, unless seventh-round rookie Akeem King unexpectedly steps up.
One other area that Atlanta tried to bolster this off-season was the linebacking corps. They let go of the oft-injured Sean Weatherspoon and brought in Brooks Reed as a potential upgrade. Reed was miscast as a rush linebacker in Houston’s defense; he doesn’t get after the quarterback well, but he excels in other departments, such as covering and stopping the run. Justin Durant was also signed; he played well last year for the Cowboys before tearing his bicep. Durant can play all three linebacker spots, but he’s missed 16 games over the past couple of seasons. He and Reed will sandwich Paul Worrilow, who needs to improve his game after missing countless tackles in 2014.
The defensive line is basically the same, with Tyson Jackson, Jonathan Babineaux and Paul Soliai returning as starters. Babineaux was the best of the bunch this past season, offering an interior pass rush, though he wasn’t very good in run support. The Falcons have Soliai to handle the run, while Jackson is a jack of all trades, but a master of none. Meanwhile, 2014 second-rounder Ra’Shede Hageman will fight for playing time. The Minnesota product struggled as a rookie, but perhaps his sophomore campaign will be better.
In five seasons, Matt Ryan is 40-17 in the Georgia Dome. However, the Falcons have been 6-10 at home over the past two seasons, so perhaps the magic has worn off. The Falcons did pretty well on special teams, thanks to Devin Hester. The former Bear took a return to the house and helped the team out gain the opposition on both punts and kickoffs. Matt Bryant signed a 3-year, $8.5 million contract this off-season, which was well deserved. Bryant has been incredibly clutch over the years, and he was 29-of-32 in 2014, including an impressive 7-of-10 from 50-plus.
The Falcons should be better than they were in 2014, when they went 6-10. However, it doesn’t appear as though they’ve made enough improvements to distance themselves from the pack in the NFC South. A divisional victory is still possible, but it appears as though Atlanta will finish at .500, or somewhere close to it.