Atlanta Falcons 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Matt Ryan, the 3rd overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, started his career 56-22 in his first 5 seasons in the league, but lost his first 3 playoff games. He seemed to be past that in 2012, when he beat the Seattle in the divisional round, even though they came up short in the NFC Championship against San Francisco, dropping Ryan’s post-season record to 1-4. Everything has been all downhill since then, as Ryan has gone 10-22 over the past 2 seasons. Once the guy who couldn’t win in the playoffs is now seen as a guy who can’t win at all. However, both of those assessments put too much stock in quarterback wins as an individual stat. Ryan really hasn’t had a lot of help over the past two seasons.

Ryan himself isn’t playing that badly, grading out 5th among quarterbacks in 2014, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 7.47 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. In 6 seasons in the league, he’s graded out above average in all 6 seasons, including 2nd in 2010, 4th in 2011, 5th in 2012, 14th in 2013, and then 5th last season. He’s completed 64.0% of his passes for an average of 7.19 YPA, 181 touchdowns, and 91 interceptions, while going 66-44 overall, still pretty good, despite recent team struggles.

The offense hasn’t been the problem in Atlanta over the past two seasons, despite problems on the offensive line, in the receiving corps, and at running back, as they’ve moved the chains at the 11th best rate in the NFL in both 2013 and 2014, thanks largely to Ryan. The problem has been the defense, as they finished 27th and 31st in 2013 and 2014 respectively in opponents’ rate of moving the chains. As a result, they’ve finished 20th and 23rd respectively in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013 and 2014, and they’ve won 4 and 6 games in those 2 seasons respectively as a result. Ryan is definitely a strong quarterback, but he can’t do it alone.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The biggest problem on offense over the past 2 seasons for the Falcons has been the offensive line, as they ranked 30th in team pass blocking grade in 2013 and then 15th in 2014, along with 23rd in team run blocking grade in 2013 and 28th in 2014. The Falcons tried to fix the problem last off-season with a couple of additions. The biggest one was left tackle Jake Matthews, the 6th overall pick in the draft. However, he was a massive disappointment as a rookie, grading out dead last among 84 eligible offensive tackles. On top of that, he went down week 17 with a Lisfranc injury, which caused him to miss some valuable practice this off-season. He’s back and healthy now and he still has upside, going into his age 23 season with a lot of natural talent, but his career has started off about as bad as it possibly could have.

One addition that did work out was the free agent acquisition of right guard Jon Asamoah on a 5-year, 22.5 million dollar deal, coming over from Kansas City. He started 15 games and graded out 24th among guards, the 5th straight season he’s graded out above average to start his career. The 2010 3rd round pick has started 56 games in 5 seasons in the league and his best season came in 2012, when he graded out 10th among guards. Only going into his age 27 season, he should continue above average play this season.

Justin Blalock, the other starting guard, also graded out above average, 26th at his position. However, he was released this off-season, ahead of a non-guaranteed 5.35 million dollar salary that he was owed in his age 32 season in 2015. He eventually retired, after 8 years in the NFL, all in Atlanta. The Falcons brought in Chris Chester on a 1-year, 2.8 million dollar deal to replace him this off-season. Chester is going to be a better fit for new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme, but he’s not as good of a player.

Chester has experience in zone blocking schemes, as he played in Washington from 2011-2013 when Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator and Kyle’s father Mike Shanahan was the head coach. Chester made 48 starts in those 3 seasons and, though he only graded out above average once in three seasons, he graded out 15th in 2012. Even last year, in Jay Gruden’s new power blocking scheme, Chester graded out above average. The issue is that he’s going into his age 32 season, which is part of why the Redskins cut him, saving 4 million on the cap and in cash in the process. However, he’s still a stopgap starting caliber player.

Another reason why the Falcons offensive line was slightly better in 2014 than 2013, other than the addition of Asamoah, was the emergence of right tackle Ryan Schraeder. Schraeder never played more than 15 snaps in a game until week 8 of last season, but was able to take advantage of injuries and struggles at offensive tackle from guys like Sam Baker, Gabe Carimi, and Lamar Holmes. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked offensive tackle on 655 snaps. He’s only a one-year wonder as the 2013 undrafted free agent struggled on 315 snaps as a rookie, but he could easily be a solid starter over the whole season in 2015.

The Falcons also had serious problems at center last season as reserve James Stone took over for an injured Joe Hawley after week 4, grading out 34th among 41 eligible centers on 681 snaps. Hawley isn’t a great player, but he should be an upgrade on Stone as he returns from injury. The Falcons kept him at a non-guaranteed 3 million dollar salary, coming off of a torn ACL, for lack of a better option. The 2010 4th round pick has graded out below average in 3 of 5 seasons in the NFL, averaged 344 snaps per season, and started a total of 23 games, 9 at right guard and 14 at center. He’s a mediocre interior linemen, especially coming off of a serious injury, but, like I said, he should be an upgrade over Stone by default. Hawley was part of an offense that had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury last season. As a result of likely fewer injuries, among other things, the Falcons should have a better offensive line this season, though they still have some issues.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Despite a strong passing game that took a lot of pressure off the running game (632 pass attempts to 372 carries), the Falcons finished just 21st in yards per carry last season at 4.02. Part of the problem was the offensive line, but the running back talent itself wasn’t very good either. The Falcons have changed things up as a result. Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers, who lead the team with 429 and 360 snaps played at running back respectively last season, are not back, after averaging 3.72 yards per carry and 3.74 yards per carry respectively.

Devonta Freeman, who graded out below average as a runner on 65 carries last season as a 4th round rookie, is expected to get a much bigger role. He’s a good pass catcher who graded out above average in that aspect and above average overall on 237 snaps as a result, catching 30 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown, but he’ll need to improve on his 3.82 YPC average in his 2nd year in the league in 2015. He’ll be paired with Tevin Coleman, who went in the 3rd round in this past draft. They’re a pair of very unproven running backs so the Falcons don’t figure to run the ball well again this season either, even if the offensive line will be better.

Coleman was brought in this off-season because they only had one other running back on the roster, besides Freeman, who had at least 1 career carry, journeyman backup Antone Smith. With Coleman being a rookie, that will remain the case, but Smith should still be a clear 3rd running back. Smith flashed last season, rushing for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns on 23 carries (6.26 YPC), while adding 13 catches for 222 yards and another 3 scores, and grading out above average on Pro Football Focus on 96 snaps. However, the 2009 undrafted free agent has just 44 touches and 148 snaps played in 6 seasons in the league, is going into his age 30 season, and is undersized at just 5-9 190. He’s not a real threat for a significant role, even in an inexperienced backfield.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

Easily the most helpful offensive player for Matt Ryan over the past few seasons has been wide receiver Julio Jones, who is arguably their best player. Jones only played in 5 games with injury in 2013, but caught 41 of 57 targets (71.9%) for 580 yards and 2 touchdowns on 212 routes run, an average of 2.74 yards per route run, best in the NFL. Through the first 5 weeks of the season, before going down with a season ending foot injury, he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver.

Jones picked up right where he left off in 2014, grading out 6th among wide receivers and catching 104 passes on 156 attempts (66.7%) for 1593 yards and 6 touchdowns on 585 routes run, an average of 2.72 yards per route run, 5th in the NFL. Jones enters the contract year of his rookie deal, his age 26 season, with 278 catches for 4330 yards and 26 touchdowns in 49 career games, coming off of 3 straight strong seasons (15th among wide receivers in 2012 as well). The only issue with him is injuries, as he’s missed 15 games with injury in 4 seasons and has issues with his foot dating back to his collegiate days at the University of Alabama. He should eventually get a long-term deal similar to the 5-year, 70 million dollar deals that Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas got this off-season, most likely from Atlanta. If they can’t agree to a long-term deal with him this off-season, ahead of his contract year, he’ll almost definitely be franchise tagged next off-season.

The rest of the receiving corps is a mess though. Roddy White, at one point, had 6 straight seasons of 1000+ receiving yards, 2007-2012, but he’s been really inefficient over the past 2 seasons. His total numbers haven’t been bad, as he’s caught 143 passes for 1632 yards and 10 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons combined, but it’s been on 1117 routes run, an average of 1.46 yards per route run, mediocre for a #2 receiver in a good passing offense. He’s also graded out 97th among 111 eligible wide receivers (2013) and 107th among 110 eligible wide receivers (2014). Things won’t get better, as he heads into his age 34 season in 2015.

White has had a great career since going in the 1st round in 2005 and is currently 38th all-time in receiving yards with 10,357, but even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. White is a noticeably declining player who is at the tail end of his career. Owed a non-guaranteed 4.25 million in his age 35 season in 2016, White is likely in his final season with the Falcons.

The problem is the Falcons don’t have another option behind White. Leonard Hankerson, signing as a free agent on 1-year, 1 million dollar deal, coming over from Washington, is currently expected to be the #3 receiver. He’s impressed the coaching staff and played with new Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan from 2011-2013 with the Redskins, but he hasn’t played since week 11 of the 2013 season thanks to a nasty knee injury, which included a torn ACL. He’ll be 22 months removed from the injury week 1 and, as I mentioned, the off-season reports have been good, but we’ll see what happens in game action. Hankerson is coming off a brutal injury, has missed 33 games with injury in 4 seasons in the NFL, since going in the 3rd round in 2011, and has never graded out much above average. Even only going into his age 26 season, I don’t see a ton of upside with him.

Hankerson would replace Harry Douglas as the #3 receiver, after he was cut this off-season, going into his age 30 season, coming off a bad year, and owed a non-guaranteed 3.5 million dollar salary. He will have to hold off Devin Hester, who was the 4th receiver last year, but played a decent amount of snaps, at 396. However, Hester has never graded out above average as a receiver is his career and that won’t change as he heads into his age 32 season. They’d be better off going with the youngster because he’s at has some upside and it sounds like that’s what they’re going to do. 4th round rookie Justin Hardy could also be in the mix, but he was more drafted for 2016 and beyond. I expect him to be the 5th receiver as a rookie.

One thing I expect the Falcons to do is run fewer 3-wide receiver sets and run more 2-tight end sets this season. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is a big fan of 2-tight end sets and tight ends in general and the Falcons barely ran them at all last season. #2 tight end Bear Pascoe played just 148 snaps last season, which is how #4 wide receiver Devin Hester was able to play 396, almost three times more. Even #5 receiver Eric Weems had more snaps (202) than Pascoe. They didn’t add a lot of talent at the position this off-season, but they at least added experience and gave themselves more depth and talent than they had last season.

Jacob Tamme is expected to be the starter this season, after signing a 2-year, 3.2 million dollar contract this off-season. He’s not great, but he’ll be better than Levine Toilolo, who was Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked tight end out of 67 eligible last season. Tamme has graded out above average 4 times in 7 seasons, including last season, but he’s going into his age 30 season and has never been a consistent starter in his career, averaging 308 snaps per season and only making 23 starts in 7 seasons in the league. The 6-4 232 is a decent pass catcher, but not a capable #1 tight end.

Tony Moeaki also enters the fold as a free agent. Moeaki has missed 44 games with injury in 5 seasons in the league, including all of 2011 and 2013. He graded out 5th among tight ends in 2010 and 43rd in 2012, but didn’t appear to be the same player, as a result of all of the injuries, grading out below average on 196 snaps in 6 games. Toilolo will now be the 3rd tight end, which is the good news, but the bad news is neither of the two tight ends they brought in this off-season are that great and one of them will probably get hurt, forcing Toilolo back into meaningful action. They should be better equipped to deal with weak wide receiver depth this season than last season, but still not that well equipped.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The defense is the side of the ball that has the most room for improvement this season, after ranking 27th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2013 and 31st last season. In order to improve the unit, they fired head coach Mike Smith, who comes from a defensive background, and replaced him with Dan Quinn, who has been the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks over the past 2 seasons. They made the Super Bowl in both of those seasons. Of course, the Seahawks had a solid defense before he became defensive coordinator, but he took them to a next level in place of former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who was hired by the Jaguars as head coach.

He’ll be implementing a Seattle style 4-3 defense, much like Bradley also runs in Jacksonville. Tyson Jackson will play the Red Bryant spot as a big base run stopping 4-3 defensive end. He fits the bill at 6-4 296 and is a much better run stopper than pass rusher. The 2009 3rd overall pick was signed to a 5-year, 25 million dollar contract last off-season, after grading out 14th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, including 8th against the run. However, that contract was a mistake as Jackson graded out below average last season and remains a one-year wonder. He’s graded out below average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league and, aside from 2013, has generally been a bust in his career. He can be a solid two-down 4-3 defensive end, but that’s not that hard to find. He might not return at a 4.75 million dollar non-guaranteed salary in 2016.

The Falcons biggest need going into the draft was to find someone to play the other defensive end spot, like Cliff Avril does in Seattle and Chris Clemons does in Jacksonville. They found exactly that guy with the 6th overall pick, taking Vic Beasley out of Clemson. Beasley is undersized at 6-3 246, but these types of defenses have usually had undersized defensive ends on one side. Beasley won’t play the run well, but he’s a very explosive pass rusher. He probably won’t come close to his potential until his 2nd or 3rd season in the league, but he should provide a much needed edge rusher to a team that’s really needed one over the past two seasons, since losing John Abraham.

Brooks Reed will be the other edge rusher in sub packages, when Jackson comes off the field. He’ll play the Bruce Irvin role, playing outside linebacker in base packages and rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages. That’s not his strength. Reed will boost the Falcons’ run defense, but he’s not the edge rusher they’re paying him like, at him 22.5 million over 5 years with 9 million guaranteed. Reed, a 2011 2nd round pick, has graded out above average in 3 of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league, making 54 starts in the process. The only exception was 2013, when he graded out 41st out of 42 eligible players. However, Reed has graded out negatively as a pass rusher in all 4 seasons, doing his best work against the run and, to a lesser extent, in coverage.

The Falcons also have Adrian Clayborn as pass rush depth. Clayborn was a first round pick of the Buccaneers in 2011 and he had a decent rookie year, struggling mightily against the run, but getting good pass rush and overall grading out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus. The story of his career from there was injuries though, as he’s played just 20 games over the past 3 seasons. He missed all but 3 games in 2012 with a torn ACL, struggled mightily in his first year back in 2013, grading out 47th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends, and, just when there was optimism for his future again in 2014, he tore his biceps and missed all but 1 game. There’s still upside here and he’s a decent flier, but he’s nothing more than a depth player.

Kroy Biermann is another player in the mix and he actually led the Falcons’ defensive line with 867 snaps last season, but struggled and was part of the reason why they had a poor pass rush. Biermann, a 2008 5th round pick, started his career well, grading out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2009 and their 19th ranked in 2010. However, he graded out 57th out of 67 eligible in 2011, below average again in 2012, was limited to 2 games by a torn Achilles in 2013, and then graded out below average again in 2014. Now Biermann heads into his age 30 season. He’s still capable of a significant role, but he’s an unspectacular player and fits much better as a 3rd or 4th defensive end.

At defensive tackle, Ra’shede Hageman and Paul Soliai should be the starters, but neither one of them will play a lot of snaps. Hageman is inexperienced, grading out below average on 227 snaps as a 2nd round rookie last season, while Soliai is just a two down player. Soliai has graded out below average in 6 of 8 seasons in the NFL, since going in the 4th round in 2007, including 3 of the last 4 seasons. He’s averaged just 531 snaps per season over the past 4 seasons and won’t be getting any better going into his age 32 season in 2015. Like Jackson, he was a mistake on a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal last off-season. He will somewhere play around the 519 snaps he played last season, but Hageman won’t play near the 708 snaps that Jonathan Babineaux played as the starter last season.

Babineaux played pretty well last season, grading out above average, something he’s done in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. However, going into his age 34 season, the Falcons are slowly phasing him out of the defense. He’ll play much fewer snaps this season, rotating heavily with Hageman. A much better pass rusher than run stopper, Babineaux should play primarily in sub packages this season. Grady Jarrett, a 5th round rookie, should also be in the mix for the snaps. Even though he was drafted so late, he could still be a good contributor as a rookie because he was an absolute steal in the 5th round. Like Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels before him, he was under-drafted based on his height and has a good chance to prove a lot of people wrong like they did. It’s still a below average defensive line, but they’re getting better, especially if some rookies can step up.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

I already mentioned Brooks Reed will be the third outside linebacker, playing primarily in base packages and rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages. Paul Worrilow and Joplu Bartu will probably lead the position in snaps played. They’re a pair of 2013 undrafted free agents who have played a significant amount of action over the first two seasons of their careers. Worrilow has really struggled in two seasons in the league, grading out 45th among 55 middle linebackers in 2013 and 59th among 60 middle linebackers in 2014. The league let him go undrafted just two years ago and he hasn’t done anything to suggest he’s a starter long-term.

Bartu has been a little better, but he’s still graded out below average in both seasons, including 33rd out of 40th eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on 496 snaps last season. He played the run well as a rookie, grading out 6th among 4-3 outside linebackers against the run in 2013, but was so bad in coverage that he still graded out below average overall. He’s a solid two-down run stopper at best. He shouldn’t be an every down player. He could be pushed for snaps by Justin Durant, but Durant is a similar player. He was drafted in the 2nd round in 2007 and has quietly had a very solid career, grading out above average in 7 of the 8 seasons he’s been in the NFL. However, he’s averaged just 585 snaps per season, often playing as purely a two-down run stopper, a role he excels in. Over the past 2 seasons, he’s played just a combined 538 snaps and he’s going into his age 30 season, coming off a torn biceps injury. It’s not a strong group of linebackers.

Grade: C-

Secondary

The secondary was the best part of the Falcons’ horrible defense and should remain that this season, even if they get a little bit better in the front 7. Veterans Robert McClain and Josh Wilson are gone, but they struggled last season on 642 and 458 snaps respectively in 2014 anyway. Now they’re very young in their top-3 at cornerback. Desmond Trufant, a 2013 1st round pick, is one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the NFL. Trufant has graded out 7th and 6th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 2014 respectively to start his career and should continue being dominant, going into his age 24 season in 2015. He’s one of the best cornerbacks in the whole league.

Robert Alford, a 2nd round pick in 2013 in the same draft as Trufant, will be the other starter. He hasn’t been nearly as good in two seasons in the league, grading out 87th among 110 eligible cornerbacks in 2013 on 585 snaps and 81st among 108 eligible cornerbacks in 2014 on 630 snaps. He might not be ready to be a starter, if he ever will be. The Falcons used a 2nd round pick on Jalen Collins in this past draft and, while he’ll start the season as the 3rd cornerback, he could move into the starting lineup if Alford continues to struggle. He’s no guarantee to be an upgrade though.

Dwight Lowery was their best safety last season, making 16 starts and grading out 43rd among eligible safeties last season (above average), but he’s gone as a free agent to Indianapolis this off-season. That might not matter because William Moore will be returning from injury, after being limited to 327 snaps in 7 games last season. He’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons and missed 33 games with injury in 6 seasons in the league and is unlikely to get better or more durable going into his age 30 season. However, he does have some bounce back potential, after grading out 11th among safeties in 2011 and 15th among safeties in 2012. He’s unlikely to be a serious downgrade on Lowery, but he won’t be as good.

Kemal Ishmael, who stepped into serious action last season because of Moore’s injuries, will remain the starter in 2015, this time opposite William Moore. Ishmael graded out below average last season, but he wasn’t awful. The 2013 7th round pick played just 3 snaps as a rookie and doesn’t seem to have too bright of a future, but he’s not a horrible starter. It’s not a great secondary, but it’s easily their best defensive unit. Trufant is one of the few bright spots on a team that’s become quickly devoid of talent.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

It’s crazy how quickly this team has fallen to the bottom of the NFL, but, if you look at their roster, they once again appear to have one of the worst rosters in the NFL. Outside of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Desmond Trufant, they really don’t have much other than problems throughout this roster. Having the quarterback position stabilized is very valuable and Ryan will help them win some games that they otherwise shouldn’t have, but I see this team once again in the cellar of the NFL, after winning a combined 10 games over the past 2 seasons. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Falcons after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): The Falcons are the only team in the NFC South that didn’t have a rough August and they actually got better by adding Andy Levitre at left guard in a trade with the Titans. Levitre struggled last year, but was one of the better guards in the league before that and is a good fit for the Falcons’ zone blocking scheme. However, this is still one of the least talented teams in the NFL. Their quarterback play and their weak schedule will win them some games, but I still have them in last.

Prediction: 5-11 4th in NFC South

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