It may be hard to believe, but Matt Ryan, once one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL, is already going into his age 31 season and his 9th year in the league. The 2008 3rd overall pick has made 126 out of 128 possible starts in those 8 seasons in the league and has completed 64.3% of his passes for an average of 7.23 YPA, 202 touchdowns, and 107 interceptions in his career. His numbers weren’t bad in 2015 either, as he completed 66.3% of his passes for an average of 7.42 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions, but he had his worst QB rating since his 2nd year in the league in 2009 and finished just 20th in the NFL in QB rating.
Many people blame his disappointing numbers on a bad marriage between him and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who took over as offensive coordinator last off-season, after Dirk Koetter spent 3 years in the role. However, I think the bigger reason he had a down year statistically was a weak receiving corps. Ryan actually finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked quarterback, the 5th time in 8 years in the league in which he’s finished in the top-10 quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. He’s also graded out above average in all 8 seasons. He should play well again in 2015, but needs more help from his receivers.
It might sound weird to say the Falcons had issues in the receiving corps last season, given that Julio Jones caught 136 passes for 1871 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2015, finishing 1st in the NFL receiving yards and 2nd overall among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. However, they really lacked depth behind him. Jones was targeted on 204 of 621 pass attempts, about 32.9% (highest in the NFL by a single player), while running back Devonta Freeman was 2nd on the team with 73 catches on 97 targets. Among wide receivers, Roddy White and Leonard Hankerson were 2nd and 3rd on the team with 43 and 26 catches respectively. The Falcons let both of them go and signed ex-Bengal wide receiver Mohamed Sanu to a 5-year, 32.5 million dollar deal this off-season, in order to improve their receiving corps. He’ll be the starter opposite Jones immediately.
That will probably all prove to be wasted money though, as Sanu was arguably the worst free signing of the off-season. Sanu has played all 48 games in the past 3 seasons, but has graded out well below average on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons and has just 136 catches over that time period, including just 33 as the Bengals’ #3 wide receiver in 2015. In 2014, the one season in which he saw significant action, he still only caught 56 passes and had a league worst 14 drops to go with that, giving him the worst drop rate in the NFL that season. He’s a #3 receiver at best and isn’t even really an upgrade as a starter opposite Jones, as bad as White and Hankerson were in 2015.
Sanu could still finish 2nd on the team in catches, especially if he commands a lot of targets, but that’ll largely be by default; they don’t have any other reliable pass catchers on the team. Justin Hardy is expected to be the #3 receiver, despite struggling on 340 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2015. His only competition is career special teamers Devin Hester and Eric Weems and 7th round rookie Devin Fuller. Hardy should win the job, but is unlikely to take a big step forward in his 2nd year in the league in 2016.
Tight ends Jacob Tamme and Levine Toilolo remain. Tamme finished 3rd on the team in catches behind Jones and Freeman with 59, turning them into 657 yards and a touchdown, and could have decent numbers again in 2016. Tamme has actually graded out above average in 4 of 8 seasons in the league, but has averaged just 366 snaps per season in his career because of his inability to run block. Tamme played 772 snaps in 2015, but was horrible as a run blocker, causing him to grade out below average overall. Going into his age 31 season, he’s not getting any better. He’s a capable set of hands, but not much else.
Toilolo, by contrast, is more of a blocker at 6-8 265, with just 49 career catches for 337 yards and 4 touchdowns since being drafted in the 4th round in 2013. He’s not a good blocker either though, grading out below average as a run blocker in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league. Toilolo made 16 starts in 2014, but only out of desperation, as he finished 64th out of 67 eligible tight ends on Pro Football Focus and caught just 31 passes for 238 yards and 2 touchdowns. He’s probably under-qualified for even the #2 tight end job and should be pushed for snaps by 3rd round rookie Austin Hooper.
As a result of the Falcons’ inability to upgrade the receiving corps this off-season, Julio Jones will have to do all of the work himself again. Jones is one of the top few wide receivers in the entire league, averaging 7.8 catches for 112.3 yards and 0.44 touchdowns per game over the past 3 seasons. Jones was 2nd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2015, 6th among wide receivers in 2014, and was 4th among wide receivers in 2013, prior to missing the final 11 games of the season with a broken foot. He’ll remain a huge asset for the Falcons, still only going into his age 27 season, but he’s just one guy.
Even with less than stellar numbers in the passing game, the Falcons still finished 7th in rate of moving the chains differential. Their running game, led by lead back Devonta Freeman, was a big part of that. Freeman rushed for 1061 yards on 264 carries, an unimpressive 4.02 YPC average, but he also led the league in rushing touchdowns with 11 and came in 2nd behind Adrian Peterson in rushing first downs with 67. Peterson had just 4 more first downs despite 63 more carries.
When you add in receiving stats, Freeman actually led the all running backs with 88 total first downs by a running back, as he caught 73 passes for 578 yards, another 3 touchdowns, and another 21 first downs. The Falcons probably want someone other than Freeman to finish 2nd on the team in catches in 2016, but they didn’t add any significant upgrades in the receiving corps and Freeman has great hands, so he should still have a big role in the passing game. Overall, he was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked running back in his 2nd year in the league 2015, after struggling on 65 snaps as a rookie, and could easily have another strong year in 2016.
Freeman likely benefitted from the arrival of Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator, as both Kyle and his father Mike have always done a great job getting good production out of their running game, with their zone blocking scheme. The Shanahans have also always been pretty reliant on one running back, rather than mixing in two or three. It’s hard to take Freeman off the field anyway, but he should definitely continue dominating the snaps as long as he is healthy. Backup running back Tevin Coleman averaged 4.51 yards per carry on 87 carries in 12 games as a 3rd round rookie in 2015, but probably needs an injury to Freeman to see any sort of significant action. It’s a good running back duo though.
Another staple of Shanahan coached offenses is improved offensive line play, which, in turn, helps the running game. The Falcons definitely got that in Shanahan’s first season in Atlanta. The biggest beneficiary was left tackle Jake Matthews, which was huge for the Falcons. Not only does Matthews play the most important position upfront, but he was also the 6th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and played concerningly poor as a rookie, finishing dead last out of 84 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. In 2015, he leaped all the way up to 19th. Immensely talented and still only going into his age 24 season, Matthews’ best football could still be ahead of him and he could have another strong season in 2016.
Matthews might not even be their best offensive tackle though, as right tackle Ryan Schraeder also was much improved in 2015, finishing 5th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, including 1st among right tackles. Schraeder was not a high pick like Matthews at all, going undrafted in 2013, but has outplayed him in each of the past 2 seasons, grading out 22nd among offensive tackles on 655 snaps in 2014, taking over as the starter mid-season. The one concern with him is he was an old rookie (part of why he went undrafted out of Valdosta State) and is already going into his age 28 season. It’s not really an issue for this season, as he should have another strong year, but that’ll be a factor in determining what kind of long-term deal they try to reach with him. He’ll be a free agent next off-season and is due for a big pay increase.
At guard, the Falcons have another pair of inexpensive starters coming off of strong seasons, but instead of young players on rookie deals, it’s veterans on cheap, short-term deals. Both left guard Andy Levitre and right guard Chris Chester are great values. Levitre has made all 112 starts in 7 years in the league, since going in the 2nd round in 2009, and graded out above average in all 4 seasons from 2010-2013, including 3 straight seasons in the top-13 among guards from 2011-2013. However, he graded out below average in 2014 and was sent to the Falcons for a couple of late round picks. That allowed the Falcons to get him on a renegotiated 4-year, 23.25 million dollar deal. Levitre subsequently had a bounce back year with the Falcons in 2015, grading out 22nd among guards, making it 5 times in 7 years that he’s graded out above average. Still only going into his age 30 season, he has a good chance to do so again in 2016.
Chester, meanwhile, was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked guard, though he’s a little bit less of a sure thing to repeat, going into his age 33 season. He also easily could have another solid year. He’s made 127 starts in 153 career games in 10 years in the league and has graded out above average in 3 of the past 5 seasons. The Falcons brought him back on a 1-year, 2.35 million dollar deal this off-season, so they obviously think he has one more season left as a starter, at least. It’s no guarantee, but he could continue to be a serviceable stopgap starter at the position. Both he and Levitre excel as run blockers.
The only hole on the Falcons’ offensive line last season was center and the Falcons addressed that in a big way this off-season, by signing top free agent center Alex Mack to a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal, making him the highest paid center in the NFL. Two years ago, Mack would have definitely been worth it, as Mack was a top-11 center in each of the first 5 seasons of his career from 2009-2013, after going in the first round in 2009. However, Mack was limited to 5 games by a broken leg in 2014 and then finished just 13th among centers on Pro Football Focus.
Mack did great a big contract two years ago, as the Browns re-signed him to a 5-year, 42 million dollar deal, but he was able to opt out after 2 years and 18 million and still get another big contract. Going into his age 31 season, coming off of a serious injury and a down year, his 2nd big deal makes a lot less sense than his first one. However, even if he’s overpaid, he’s an obvious asset for a team that needed a center badly this off-season. With his addition, this is now one of the best offensive lines in football.
While the Falcons’ offense was great in 2015 and has strong potential again for 2016, their defense was what kept them out of the playoffs last year, as they finished 15th in rate of moving the chains differential. They’ll need to be better in 2016. They have a crowded front 7, with a lot of capable players, but they don’t have anyone who dominates on every snap. The closest thing they might have to that is free agent acquisition Derrick Shelby, who finished 23rd among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus on 836 snaps with the Dolphins in 2015, earning him a 4-year, 18 million dollar deal from the Falcons. He’s a one-year wonder, maxing out at 446 snaps prior to 2015 and graded out slightly below average in both 2013 and 2014, but he could have another solid year.
Adrian Clayborn remains as the other starter. He’s also coming off of a pretty solid year, grading out just above average. He too is a bit of a one-year wonder, but for different reasons. A 1st round pick by the Buccaneers in 2010, Clayborn had a solid rookie year, grading out just slightly below average and excelling as a pass rusher, but missed 28 games with injury from 2011-2013 and struggled mightily when on the field in 2012. He played in all 16 games in 2015 though and showed he’s still a solid player when healthy. If he can stay healthy again, he should be a capable starter again, at the very least.
With Shelby coming in, 2015 8th overall pick Vic Beasley will be moving from defensive end in outside linebacker in base packages, playing the Bruce Irvin role in head coach Dan Quinn’s Seattle style defense (Quinn was Seattle’s defensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014). As an every down defensive end, Beasley graded out about average as a rookie, rushing the passer well, but struggling against the run. That was basically the book on him coming out of Clemson, highly athletic at 6-3 246, great pass rush upside, but doesn’t hold up against the run.
The Falcons are hoping that by transitioning Beasley to more of a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role, they can minimize situations where he’s playing on the defensive line on run plays. He’ll play 4-3 outside linebacker in base packages and 4-3 defensive end in sub packages, rushing the passer off the edge. Both starting defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Derrick Shelby are bigger defensive ends at 6-3 280 and 6-2 280 respectively, so both could see snaps rushing the passer from the interior, with Beasley moving down to defensive end in sub packages.
The Falcons also have veterans Brooks Reed, Courtney Upshaw, and Dwight Freeney in the mix for snaps. Reed and Upshaw are both traditionally 3-4 outside linebackers and are pretty similar players. Reed spent the first 4 years of his career as a 3-4 outside linebacker in Houston, after getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2011, grading out above average in 3 of 4 seasons, but struggled to find a position in Atlanta’s 4-3 in his first season in Atlanta in 2015, playing just 351 total snaps and seeing time at both outside linebacker and inside linebacker. He didn’t play badly in limited action, but it appears they’ll try him at defensive end in 2016, even though he’s undersized at 6-3 254 and has graded out below average as a pass rusher in all 5 seasons of his career. He’s not a lock for playing time.
Like Reed, Upshaw spent the first 4 seasons of his career as a 3-4 outside linebacker, after getting drafted by the Ravens in the 2nd round in 2012. Like Reed, he’s not much of a pass rusher, grading out below average in that aspect in all 4 seasons in Baltimore, but he graded out above average against the run in 3 of the 4 seasons. Like Reed, he has an uncertain role this season, with Beasley playing outside linebacker and Clayborn and Shelby starting at defensive end. He’s bigger than Reed at 6-2 272, so he fits as a 4-3 defensive end a little bit better than Reed does, but has been a 3-4 outside linebacker dating back to his collegiate days at the University of Alabama.
Freeney, meanwhile, was signed late in the off-season (early August) and is going into his age 36 season, but he might have a better chance at carving out a sub package role in this defense. He still graded out above average last season on 593 snaps (between the regular season and post-season), excelling as a pass rusher, as he always has. A likely future Hall-of-Famer, Freeney has 119.5 career sacks (3rd among active players) and has finished above average in all 9 seasons of Pro Football Focus’ history, but he’s not the same player he once was and it’s hard to trust him at his age. He could prove to be a nice, inexpensive signing for a team that needed pass rush depth, but that’s far from a sure thing.
At defensive tackle, 4 players are competing for snaps, and, as mentioned, both Clayborn and Shelby could see time in sub packages. None of the four figure to see significant action. Tyson Jackson and Jonathan Babineaux are the veterans, going into their age 30 and 35 seasons respectively. Babineaux actually led the position in snaps played with 557 in 2015 and graded out above average, despite his age. He’s graded out above average in 8 of the 9 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, but, at his age, he’s really hard to trust. He’ll play primarily as a sub package interior pass rusher again.
Jackson, meanwhile, is only a base package player at this point in his career. He only played 462 snaps last season and could easily play fewer in 2016. A bust as the 3rd overall pick in 2009, Jackson has graded out below average overall in 6 of 7 seasons in the league and below average as a pass rusher in all 7 seasons. Now going into his 30s, he won’t be getting better any time soon. Both he and Babineaux could cede snaps to 2nd year player Grady Jarrett, a steal of a 5th round pick in 2015, who flashed on 268 snaps as a rookie. A breakout year is a real possibility for him.
The fourth defensive tackle in the mix is Ra’Shede Hageman, another young player, a 2014 2nd round pick. The first two seasons of Hageman’s career have been disappointing, as he’s been limited to 651 snaps combined and has graded out below average in both seasons. The Falcons will be hoping that he can have a breakout year in his 3rd year in the league in 2016, but Jarrett has a better chance. It’s an underwhelming group of defensive tackles in general on an overall underwhelming defensive line, but the addition of Shelby will help.
As already mentioned, Vic Beasley will play as the 3rd linebacker in base packages, moving to the defensive line in sub packages when a 5th defensive back enters. The other two linebacker spots are up for grabs though. Veterans Paul Worrilow, Philip Wheeler, and Sean Weatherspoon are in the mix, but all 3 struggled in 2015. Worrilow has made 42 starts in 47 games in 3 seasons in the league, since going undrafted in 2013, but has been one of the league’s worst linebackers over that stretch, showing why he went undrafted. He’s been a bottom-10 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons and a bottom-5 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 2 seasons.
Wheeler and Weatherspoon have had good seasons, but it’s been a while and now they are going into their age 32 season and age 29 season respectively. Wheeler was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2012, but has graded out below average in 5 of 8 seasons in the league, has only twice played more than 550 snaps, and is coming off of a 2015 season in which he played just 146 snaps. Add in his age and he’s nothing more than a desperation starter at best.
Weatherspoon is still relatively young, but his issue has been injuries, as the 2010 1st round pick has missed 35 games with injury in 6 seasons in the league. He missed all of 2014 with a torn achilles and played pretty badly on 159 snaps in 13 games last season. He claims to be healthy now and he was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011, but that’s the only season in his career in which he’s graded out above average and his injury history makes it hard to trust he’ll be healthy.
With obvious issues at the position, the Falcons used a 2nd and a 4th round pick on linebackers in the 2016 NFL Draft, taking LSU’s Deion Jones in the 2nd and Minnesota’s De’Vondre Campbell in the 4th. Jones is expected to beat out the incumbent Worrilow for the starting middle linebacker job, while Campbell will compete with Weatherspoon and, to a lesser extent, Wheeler for the outside job. No matter how it shakes out, both are positions of weakness. Jones was a reach in the 2nd round, earning a 7th round grade from Pro Football Focus, while Campbell was not a high pick and can’t be trusted as a rookie. The fact that both could start this season just shows you how bad the Falcons’ linebackers are, other than part-time linebacker Vic Beasley..
The saving grace of this defense is a young secondary led by cornerback Desmond Trufant, a 2013 1st round pick who has quietly been one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL since he entered the league. He’s made 48 of a possible 48 starts in 3 career seasons and has graded out 7th, 6th, and 13th among cornerbacks on Pro Foootball Focus in 2013, 2014, and 2015 respectively. The Falcons made the no-brainer move to pick up his 5th year option for 2017 and will likely to try sign him to a long-term extension sometime in the next 12 months. One of the Falcons’ true top-level talents, the Falcons will need to pay him like a top-5 cornerback at the very least to keep him. Only going into his age 26 season, he has a bright future, in addition to a bright present.
Another 4th year player starts opposite him, as Robert Alford has made 29 starts in 3 seasons in the league, since getting drafted in the 2nd round in that same 2013 draft, including 25 starts over the past 2 seasons and 15 last season. Alford struggled in his first 2 seasons in the league, but graded out above average for the first time in his career in 2015. He’s another extension candidate, though they may be wary of overpaying for a one-year wonder. The Falcons drafted Jalen Collins in the 2nd round in last year’s draft as a potential future starter. Alford should be able to hold him off for now, coming off of a strong season, but they may view Collins as the internal replacement to Alford.
Another reason why Alford should be able to hold off Collins pretty easily, if there even is any competition both the two, is that Collins failed a drug test for performance enhancing drugs this off-season and will miss the first 4 games of the season. That puts a damper on his long-term development a little bit, as does the fact that he struggled mightily on 306 snaps as a rookie. In his absence, the Falcons will have to turn to Akeem King, a 2015 7th round pick who played just 16 defensive snaps as a rookie. Depth is a serious problem behind starting solid duo at cornerback.
Adding to the youth in the secondary, the Falcons drafted Florida safety Keanu Neal in the 1st round 17th overall in this year’s draft, to replace departed veteran William Moore. He will be an immediate starter, but was a reach in the middle of the first and could struggle as a rookie. He was given a 6th round grade and considered one of the draft’s biggest busts by Pro Football Focus. Even if that’s over-exaggerating it, Neal is much better moving forward then backwards at 6-0 211 and is a major liability in coverage. The Falcons see Kam Chancellor, who head coach Dan Quinn had in Seattle, but it might not work out that way.
With Neal often playing up closer to the line of scrimmage frequently, the other safety spot will be playing a deep center field, a la Earl Thomas if we’re continuing the Seattle comparison. The problem is the Falcons don’t have anything resembling Thomas on the roster. Ricardo Allen, a 2014 5th round pick, is the incumbent, making 14 starts in his first season of significant action in 2015, but Kemal Ishmael is also in the mix and outplayed Allen on limited snaps in 2015, grading out above average, while Allen came in slightly below.
Ishmael has some experience, making 10 starts in 2014, but has only once graded out above average in 3 seasons in the league since going in the 7th round in 2013. Neither are bad options, but neither are particularly good ones either. Neal injured his knee this pre-season, putting his status in question for the start of the season, so both Allen and Ishmael could see playing time together early in the year. Continuing the Seattle comparison even further, Trufant as the Richard Sherman isn’t too far off, but the safeties are miles away from Quinn’s old Legion of Boom safeties. The secondary is still their best defensive unit, but that’s not saying much on this defense.
The Falcons have talent on offense, but figure to have a lot of trouble stopping anyone on defense. That was basically the case last season, but they benefitted from the 2nd easiest schedule in the NFL and the 2nd fewest adjusted games lost to injury, two things they likely won’t have again in 2016. They made a number of questionable decisions this off-season, including signing Mohamed Sanu and drafting Keanu Neal and Deion Jones in the first two rounds, and, aside from one-year wonder Derrick Shelby, didn’t really add much this off-season. It’s going to be tough for this team to make the playoffs.
Prediction: 6-10 4th in NFC South