Atlanta Falcons 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Falcons had one of the best offenses in NFL history last season. They picked up first downs at a ridiculous 43.92% rate, significantly higher than 2nd place New Orleans (40.72%). In fact, the margin between 1st and 2nd was bigger than the margin between 2nd place New Orleans and 9th place San Diego. The Falcons were even better offensively in the playoffs, despite falling short in the Super Bowl, moving the chains at a 48.09% rate in their 3 playoff games, despite facing Seattle and New England, both of whom had strong defenses in 2017.

Their offense definitely bailed out their defense all year, as their defense ranked 27th in first down rate allowed and they still finished the regular season 3rd in first down rate differential. They had 12 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents in the regular season, 2nd best in the NFL. The Falcons finished the regular season 11-5 and with a first round bye, despite not having great luck in close games, going 4-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less. The Falcons had just 1 loss by more than a touchdown all season, including the post-season, but 10 of their total 13 wins came by more than a touchdown.

Quarterback Matt Ryan led the way on this strong offense, en route to his first regular season MVP. He had one of the best regular seasons by a quarterback in NFL history, completing 69.9% of his passes for an average of 9.26 YPA, 36 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, a QB rating of 117.1, 5th highest all-time in a single season. He finished 2nd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus behind Tom Brady, but he arguably had a bigger impact on his team than Brady because he played all 16 games. His QB rating also exceeded Brady’s.

The concern is that last season was out of character for Ryan, who has always been a good quarterback, but not a great one. Prior to last season, his highest QB rating came in 2012 (99.1), when he completed 68.6% of his passes for an average of 7.67 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. In his career, he’s completed 64.9% of his passes for an average of 7.45 YPA, 240 touchdowns, and 114 interceptions, for a QB rating of 93.6, over 23 points lower than his QB rating last season. Making matters even worse, Matt Ryan lost talented offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan this off-season when he was hired as head coach by the San Francisco 49ers. He’s been a top-10 quarterback on Pro Football Focus 6 times in 9 seasons, but I don’t expect him to be quite as good as he was in 2016 again in 2017.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

The good news is their strong offense last season was not just the result of Matt Ryan, as they had a really strong supporting cast around him. They return all their key players from 2016, so they have a good chance to be one of the best offenses in the league again in 2017. Outside of Matt Ryan, the most important player to this offense is wide receiver Julio Jones, who is coming off of another incredible season. He finished last season 2nd in the NFL in receiving yards with 1409, despite only playing in 14 games and only receiving 129 targets (18th in the NFL). He averaged 16.98 yards per catch, 10.92 yards per target, and 2.94 yards per route run. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver, his 3rd straight season in the top-6 at his position.

Jones’ numbers in 2016 were actually his lowest over that 3-year period, as he finished with a 104/1593/6 slash line in 2014 and a 136/1871/8 slash line in 2015. The Falcons will continue spreading the ball around, so he’s unlikely to top the 164 targets he had in 2014, let alone the 204 targets he had in 2015, but he has a good chance to improve on his 2016 numbers if he can stay healthier and stay on the field more. The Falcons may also pass more in 2017, after finishing with just 537 pass attempts in the regular season in 2016, 26th in the NFL. The most talented receiver in the league when healthy, Jones should be considered the favorite to lead the league in receiving in 2017.

Jones was one of six pass catchers on the team to average more than 10 yards per target last season. Reserve wide receivers Taylor Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson posted slash lines of 35/579/6 and 20/323/2 respectively on 49 targets and 32 targets respectively. Tight ends Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo posted slash lines of 19/271/3 and 13/264/2 respectively on 27 targets and 19 targets respectively. And running back Tevin Coleman posted a slash line of 31/421/3 on 40 targets.

#2 wide receiver Mohamed Sanu was not one of those six pass catchers. In fact, he was pretty underwhelming in his first season in Atlanta, after signing a 5-year, 32.5 million dollar deal last off-season. Sanu’s slash line of 59/653/4 doesn’t look bad, but it is when you consider how good this passing offense was overall and that Sanu led the team with 480 routes run in the regular season. Sanu averaged just 8.06 yards per target on 81 targets and 1.36 yards per route run. The 2012 3rd round pick is a good run blocker, but has finished below average as a pass catcher in 4 of 5 seasons in the league.

Taylor Gabriel is just a slot receiver at 5-8 167 and Aldrick Robinson is just a situational deep threat that is no longer with the team, so the Falcons don’t really have another option other than Sanu to start outside opposite Jones. Gabriel should still have a role in this passing game as the 3rd receiver though. He role grew as last season went on, as he had 51 targets in his final 9 games of the season, including the playoffs. He’s unlikely to be as efficient as he was in 2016, when he averaged 2.30 yards per route run and 11.82 yards per target and finished 19th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but he’s finished above average in 2 of 3 seasons in the league and has developed into a dangerous weapon on the slot.

Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo both return at the tight end position and, with Jacob Tamme no longer in the mix, will both have big roles in 2017. Toilolo was efficient on limited targets in 2016, but primarily spent last season as a run blocker and has struggled as a receiver throughout his career. Toilolo has just 62 catches for 601 yards and 6 touchdowns in 4 seasons in the league, despite making 45 starts in 64 career games. 16 of those starts came in 2014, when he finished 64th among 67 eligible tight ends on Pro Football Focus. At best a capable blocker, Toilolo won’t be anything more than the #2 tight end in 2017.

That leaves Austin Hooper to have a big role as the starting tight end in his 2nd season in the league. The 2016 3rd round pick flashed on 404 snaps as a rookie and the Falcons are excited about his potential. He could easily break out as a solid starter in 2017. The Falcons also still have running back Tevin Coleman to catch passes, as well as running back Devonta Freeman. Freeman did not average more than 10 yards per target last season like Coleman did, but Freeman has been the Falcons’ starting running back over the past 2 seasons and has caught 127 passes over those 2 seasons, so he’ll have a big role again in 2017. Matt Ryan has plenty of weapons to throw to.

Grade: A

Running Backs

Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are both weapons as runners too. The Falcons finished last season 5th in the NFL with an average of 4.58 yards per carry. Freeman has been the lead back for the past two seasons and will remain the lead back in 2017. A 2014 4th round pick, Freeman rushed for 1061 yards and 11 touchdowns on 264 carries (4.02 YPC) in his first season as a starter, but was more efficient in 2016 in a smaller role, rushing for 1079 yards and 11 touchdowns on 227 carries (4.75 YPC).

Coleman’s emergence was what allowed the Falcons to give Freeman more rest, as the 2015 3rd round pick had 118 carries in 2016, after getting just 87 as a rookie in 2015. He’s averaged 4.45 yards per carry in his career and finished last season 19th among running backs on Pro Football Focus, so he’ll obviously continue to have a role, but Freeman is too good to take off the field more than they do now, so Coleman’s role is capped as long as Freeman is healthy. Freeman has picked up 171 first downs in 2015 and 2016 combined, most by any running back, and has finished 14th and 10th among running backs on Pro Football Focus in those 2 seasons respectively. He’s one of the best all-around backs in football and this is arguably the best running back duo in the entire NFL.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The Falcons also got great play from the offensive line in 2016, which helped both their passing and running games tremendously. The Falcons return 4 of 5 starters from 2016, with the only exception being right guard Chris Chester, who was the lone weak point upfront. Chester finished last season 56th out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. The Falcons don’t have an obvious replacement for him though and could get even worse play at the position in 2017. Wes Schweitzer is currently penciled into the starting job, even though the 2016 6th round pick didn’t play a snap as a rookie. His competition for the job will be 4th round rookie Sean Harlow, who would likely be overwhelmed as a rookie. Right guard is still a weak point.

Fortunately, the rest of the offensive line is still strong. The big addition that took this line to the next level was the addition of ex-Browns center Alex Mack on a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal last off-season. That deal makes him the 2nd highest paid center in the league in average annual salary, but he was worth it, as he finished 3rd among centers on Pro Football Focus. That was the highest ranked season of his career, but he’s finished in the top-13 among centers on Pro Football Focus in all 8 seasons in the league and has made all 16 starts in 7 of those 8 seasons. Going into his age 32 season, Mack could start to decline over the next couple of seasons, but should still be a solid starter at the very least in 2017.

Left guard Andy Levitre is also getting up there in age, going into his age 31 season, but he too is coming off of a strong season, finishing 13th among guards on Pro Football Focus. A 2nd round pick in 2009 by the Bills, Levitre was once one of the best guards in the NFL and signed a 6-year, 46.8 million dollar deal with the Titans following the final season of his rookie deal in 2012. Levitre continued his strong play in 2013, finishing in the top-13 among guards for the 3rd straight season, but struggled in 2014 and was subsequently traded to the Falcons, where he took a pay cut. Levitre has bounced back over the past 2 seasons with the Falcons though, finishing 22nd among guards in 2015 and then 13th last season. His age is a bit of a concern, but he’s owed just 12.25 million over the next 2 seasons, so he should stay on the team as long as he plays well.

The Falcons are strong at the tackle positions as well. Left tackle Jake Matthews was the 6th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and has a huge upside, still only going into his age 25 season. He struggled as a rookie, finishing dead last among 84 eligible offensive tackles, but has been much better over the past 2 seasons, finishing 19th among offensive tackles in 2015 and 37th among offensive tackles in 2016. His best days could still be ahead of him and he could someday be one of the best offensive tackles in the league.

Even though Matthews was a high pick, he’s actually been outplayed by right tackle Ryan Schraeder, a 2013 undrafted free agent, over the past 3 seasons. Schraeder has made 42 starts over the those 3 seasons and has finished 22nd, 5th, and 13th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2014-2016 respectively. One of the best right tackles in the game, he was wisely kept on a 5-year, 31.5 million dollar extension this off-season. That extension still only makes him the 8th highest paid right tackle in the league. In his prime in his age 29 season, he should continue to play at a high level for another couple seasons at least. This is one of the better offensive lines in football, though their issues at right guard can’t be ignored.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Falcons more or less bring back their whole offense from 2016, but are unlikely to be quite as efficient offensively again in 2017, so they’ll need their defense to be improved. Fortunately, they have a young defense that played better down the stretch last season and, with no pressing needs on offense, they were able to spend most of their resources this off-season upgrading the defense. The area most in need of upgrade was the pass rush, as they finished just 27th in the NFL in sack rate with 34 sacks on 689 pass plays (4.93%). Vic Beasley almost had half of the Falcons’ sacks by himself, leading the league with 15.5.

Even Beasley didn’t rush the passer consistently though, as many players with fewer sacks got more quarterback hits and hurries and were overall more disruptive in the passing game. Beasley actually only finished just slightly above average on Pro Football Focus overall because he was horrendous against the run. Because of his lack of size, the 6-3 246 pound Beasley rarely plays defensive end in base packages in the Falcons’ 4-3.

Beasley he plays some outside linebacker in base packages, but isn’t very good in that role either. The 8th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Beasley has huge upside as a sub package pass rusher, even if he wasn’t as good as his sack total suggested last season, but may never develop into a good base package player at any position. So far, he hasn’t shown the ability to hold up against the run on the defensive line or play run and chase linebacker on run plays. He’s still a valuable player though, especially given their lack of another edge rusher.

With no other player topping 4.5 sacks last season, the Falcons moved up in the first round to select UCLA edge rusher Takkarist McKinley with the 26th overall pick. McKinley is similar to Beasley in that he has great upside as a pass rusher, but needs to get better against the run. He’s raw, but should have an immediate role in sub packages opposite Beasley and could finish 2nd on the team in sacks. He fills a big need and was a smart selection.

In base packages, the Falcons have a variety of options at the defensive end position. Derrick Shelby and Adrian Clayborn are probably their best base package defensive ends, but the Falcons have experienced backups in Brooks Reed, Courtney Upshaw, and Jack Crawford and like to rotate players on the defensive line. With Beasley playing linebacker part-time, Clayborn led the defensive line in snaps per game season last season with just 44.85 snaps per game (in 13 games).

Clayborn was brought back on a 2-year, 8.5 million dollar deal this off-season and could lead this defensive line in snaps per game again in 2017. His size at 6-3 280 makes him a good fit for base packages, but he isn’t a bad pass rusher either. He’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 seasons, but has missed 31 games in 6 seasons in the league with injuries and is now coming off of a biceps tear that ended his season in the playoffs. He also had a knee injury that cost him 3 games during the regular season.

Shelby is also on a decent sized contract, getting signed by the Falcons to a 4-year, 18 million dollar deal last off-season, after what seemed like a breakout 2015 season, when he finished 13th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. Shelby lasted just 6 games in 2016 though, before going down for the season with a torn achilles, and he wasn’t that good in the limited action he did play. Only going into his age 28 season, the 2012 undrafted free agent has some bounce back potential, but is still a one-year wonder, finishing below average in 4 of 5 seasons in the league. Like Clayborn, Shelby has good size at 6-2 280.

Courtney Upshaw and Jack Crawford also have good size, at 6-2 272 and 6-6 288 respectively. Upshaw was brought back on a 1-year, 1.15 million dollar deal after playing 310 snaps last season, while Crawford was signed from Dallas on a 3-year, 8.8 million dollar deal. Neither player is that good though. Upshaw was a solid run stopping outside linebacker in a 4-3 in his first 4 seasons in the league with the Ravens prior to last season, but struggled in his first season as a 4-3 defensive end and has just 6 sacks in 5 seasons in the league. Crawford, meanwhile, finished last season 106th out of 109 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus on 525 snaps.

The only defensive end they have that doesn’t have good size is converted linebacker Brooks Reed. The 6-3 254 pounder struggled in his first season with the Falcons in 2015, but played better last season at defensive end, finishing above average on Pro Football Focus and showing well as a pass rusher and against the run in limited action (425 snaps). He’s finished above average in 4 of 6 seasons in the league and should have a similar role in 2017. With so many big defensive ends, the Falcons may line up 3 or 4 defensive ends at a time on the defensive line in sub packages, in an effort to get their best pass rushers on the field in obvious passing situations, with guys like Shelby, Clayborn, Upshaw, and Crawford capable of moving inside.

Another reason why that makes sense is because they’re pretty thin at defensive tackle and starters Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe are better run stoppers than pass rushers. A mere 5th round pick in 2015, Jarrett flashed on 268 snaps as a rookie and then broke out in his first full season as a starter in 2016, finishing 18th among defensive tackles on 630 snaps, most on the team by a defensive lineman. He isn’t a bad pass rusher and is capable of playing every down, but his strength is stopping the run at 6-0 305. He’ll be part of a rotation like the rest of the Falcons’ defensive linemen, but he could easily lead this defensive line in snaps played again in 2017.

Poe, meanwhile, was their big off-season signing, coming over from the Chiefs on a 1-year, 8 million deal (with incentives worth up to 10 million). The 11th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Poe has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 4 straight seasons and has averaged 862 snaps per game in 5 seasons in the league, but he had to settle for a one-year prove it deal in free agency because he’s coming off of a down year and has back problems.

In an effort to keep him fresh, the Falcons figure to significantly cut Poe’s snaps from the amount he was seeing in Kansas City. The big 6-3 346 pounder was an every down player in the Chiefs’ 3-4 defense, but figures to primarily be a base package player in the Falcons’ 4-3 defense, in rotation with other players. He’s also reportedly trying to drop down to 330 pounds for the scheme switch and has bonuses in his contract for weigh ins.

He might not play more than 600 snaps, but he’s still going into his age 27 season and was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle in 2013, so he still has huge upside if he can stay healthy in a smaller role in Atlanta. Ra’Shede Hageman is listed as their primary reserve defensive tackle, but he’s averaged just 315 snaps per season in 3 seasons in the league and has been underwhelming, so the Falcons are likely to rotate some of their defensive ends inside in sub packages. With the additions of Poe and McKinley, the Falcons have improved their defensive line rotation, but they still have issues upfront.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

As mentioned, Vic Beasley plays outside linebacker in some base packages, but isn’t very good in that spot. The Falcons used a 3rd round draft pick on an outside linebacker, taking LSU’s Duke Riley 75th overall, but he’s incredibly raw and is unlikely to do much beyond special teams as a rookie. Riley is a great athlete and has the tools to develop into a starter, but wasn’t even given a draftable grade from Pro Football Focus. At most, he’ll have a small base package role as a rookie.

The Falcons started a pair of rookies at linebacker last season, with 2nd round pick Deion Jones making 13 starts at middle linebacker and 4th round pick De’Vondre Campbell making 10 starts at outside linebacker. Both should be locked into every down roles in 2017. Jones was easily the better of the two, finishing 13th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, while Campbell finished well below average, 60th out of 87 eligible linebackers.

Jones could be even better in his 2nd season in the league, although he’s still a one-year wonder and a sophomore slump is a possibility. Campbell, meanwhile, could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, but is far from a guarantee to ever develop into a starter. There’s a reason he fell to the 4th round of the draft. The Falcons have some young talent at linebacker, but this is still a below average group overall.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Falcons were one of the healthier teams in the league last season, finishing with the 6th fewest adjusted games lost to injury. The one key player who they lost for an extended period of time was cornerback Desmond Trufant, who missed the final 7 regular season games and the post-season with a torn pectoral. However, the defense actually played better down the stretch without him. In 9 games with him, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 40.06% rate. In 10 games with him, including the post-season, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 37.37% rate.

It’s not that Trufant wasn’t having a good season, but the young players on this defense played their best football down the stretch, especially at the cornerback position. 2015 2nd round pick Jalen Mills, who became the #3 cornerback down the stretch in Trufant’s absence, finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked cornerback. He actually finished higher than Trufant, who finished just 30th at the position. That made 2016 a career worst season for Trufant, even before the injury.

The 2013 1st round pick finished in the top-13 among cornerbacks in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, prior to last season, and made 57 consecutive starts to begin his career, prior to the injury. The Falcons seem to think he’ll bounce back, extending him for 68.75 million over 5 years this off-season, making him the 5th highest paid cornerback in the NFL. Given that he’s only going into his age 27 season, I see no reason why he wouldn’t bounce back.

Undrafted rookie Brian Poole fared well as a starter in Trufant’s absence last season, finishing 43rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus on 834 snaps, but the Falcons paid 38 million over 4 years to re-sign Robert Alford, so Alford will start and Poole will compete with Mills for the slot job. Mills was a higher pick and played better last season, but Poole is a more natural fit on the slot at 5-10 211, so Mills could open the season as the #4 cornerback. The Falcons are deep at the cornerback position.

Given all of their cornerback depth, it’s a surprise they were willing to pay so much to keep Alford. He was Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked cornerback last season, but that was the best finish of his career and he’s the 15th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average annual salary. He should be a remain solid, but overpaid #2 cornerback. The 2013 2nd round pick has made 45 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has finished above average in each of the last 2 seasons (31 starts).

The Falcons are solid at the safety position too. Keanu Neal had a strong rookie season, finishing 32nd among safeties on Pro Football Focus in 14 starts, but he was actually outplayed by 3rd year safety Ricardo Allen. A 5th round pick in 2014, Allen didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but has made 30 starts in 2 seasons since and finished last season 23rd among safeties. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being as good as he was last season, but he could easily have another solid season. He and Neal are a talented young safety duo. The Falcons’ secondary is their best defensive unit.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

It’s going to be tough for the Falcons to be as efficient offensively as they were last season, especially with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan no longer with the team, but they return all of the players who matters from last season’s offense, so they should be among the best, if not the best offenses in the league again in 2017 and their defense should be better. A young unit that played better down the stretch even without top cornerback Desmond Trufant, they get Trufant back and added a pair of much needed contributors on the defensive line in Takkarist McKinley and Dontari Poe.

The one key for them will be staying healthy. Aside from Trufant, they barely had any injuries last season, but that’s tough to do twice in a row and they aren’t as deep everywhere as they are in the secondary. They should be in the mix to go back to the Super Bowl, but chances like they had last season are not easy to come by and the history of teams after losing the Super Bowl isn’t pretty. 

Final update: The Falcons enter the season healthy and should once again be one of the top teams in the NFC. Their offense probably won’t be quite as good as last season, but their young defense should take a step forward.

Prediction: 11-5, 2nd in NFC South

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