The Falcons only declined by 1 win from 2016 to 2017, but they were not nearly as good last season as they were the season before. In 2016, the Falcons were an elite 11-5 team that finished 3rd in first down rate differential at +5.77% and then came up just short in their Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. In 2017, the Falcons were a slightly above average 10-6 team that finished 11th in first down rate differential at +1.28% and lost in the second round to the Eagles.
The big difference was on offense. In 2016, the Falcons were one of the best offenses in recent memory, picking up first downs at a ridiculous 43.92% rate. For comparison, the Saints ranked 2nd in that metric that season at 40.72%. There was a bigger difference between the #1 and #2 ranked offense than there was between the #2 and #9 ranked offense. In 2017, they were still good, finishing 5th in first down rate, but “only” picked up first downs at a 36.89% rate. A year after totaling 379 first downs and 58 offensive touchdowns, the Falcons managed 330 first downs and just 33 offensive touchdowns.
Quarterback Matt Ryan had the biggest drop off. In 2016, he completed 69.9% of his passes for an average of 9.26 YPA, 38 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, putting up the 5th best single-season quarterback rating in NFL history and winning MVP. In 2017, he completed just 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.74 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. It’s a huge difference, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Ryan’s 2016 QB rating was 18 points higher than any other season in his career and will likely look like the outlier in Ryan’s career when all is said and done.
That’s not to say Ryan isn’t a good quarterback, as he’s a top-10 player at his position and has been a consistent starter for a while. The 3rd overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, Ryan has completed 64.9% of his passes for an average of 7.47 YPA, 260 touchdowns, and 126 interceptions in his career. He’s finished in the top-11 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 8 seasons and has made all 128 starts over that time period.
He’s going into his age 33 season, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down and should be able to play at a high level into his mid 30s and possibly later. With one year left on his contract, the Falcons made the only choice they really could make and signed him to an extension that made him the highest paid quarterback in NFL history. The extension has a total value of 150 million over 5 years with 94.5 million paid out in the first 3 years and 100 million total guaranteed. It all but ensures Ryan will be the Falcons quarterback through the next 5 seasons.
Matt Ryan and the rest of this offense also had to deal with a change in coordinator as well, as talented offensive mind Kyle Shanahan took the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers following the Super Bowl loss and was replaced by long-time college coach Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian got a lot of blame for an offensive decline that likely would have happened even without him, but his playcalling was unoriginal and he struggled to get the most out of a talented offense, especially around the goal line. As talented as this offense is, they didn’t even score a touchdown on 50% of red zone visits (49.18%, 23rd in the NFL).
No stat exemplifies their red zone issues more Julio Jones’ 5 receptions on 19 red zone targets. Jones is physically dominant at 6-3 223 and is one of the best wide receivers in the league, catching 88 passes for 1444 yards and finishing #1 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but the Falcons simply could not get the ball into his hands in the red zone. As a result, he managed just 3 touchdowns all season and just 1 of them came from within the red zone. The Falcons surprisingly decided to keep Sarkisian this off-season, so they’ll obviously be hoping that another year in the system will help work out some of the kinks and get more out of their offensive talent.
Jones is their biggest offensive talent around Matt Ryan. He’s topped 1400 receiving yards in each of the last 4 seasons and has finished in the top-7 on PFF at his position in all 4 of those seasons, including 3 straight finishes in the top-2. Over that 4-year stretch, he’s totaled 411 catches for 6,317 yards, both 2nd in the NFL over that time period behind Antonio Brown, but he also only has 23 touchdowns, so even before last season he’s never been a huge threat near the goal line. Shockingly he has just 43 career receiving touchdowns in 97 games. There may not be a better receiver outside of the 20 though and it’s hard to imagine him not scoring more than 3 touchdowns in 2018.
In addition to his red zone issues, the other concern with Jones is his durability. He’s only missed 3 games in the past 4 seasons and played in all 16 games in 2017, but he’s been limited by several nagging injuries and rotated in and out of the lineup far more frequently than other top receivers last season, playing just 74.7% of the snaps in the regular season. His 765 regular season snaps ranked just 34th among wide receivers. He’s still relatively young, going into his age 29 season, and he was still one of the most productive receivers in the league last season thanks to a league leading 3.08 yards per route run, but it’s a bit concerning that he seems to basically be on a snap count.
Jones’ durability issues are likely part of the reason why the Falcons drafted Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley with the 26th overall pick. The Falcons got good play from their depth receivers in 2016, with Taylor Gabriel, Aldrick Robinson, and Justin Hardy all making positive contributions, but that didn’t happen in 2017, as Jones and fellow starter Mohamed Sanu were the only Atlanta receivers to earn a positive grade from PFF. Ridley was expected to go higher in the draft early in the off-season, but he had an underwhelming combine and fell to the Falcons at 26, even in a weak wide receiver class. He’s NFL ready and should rotate with Jones and Sanu in two-wide receiver sets immediately. The Falcons also figure to run a lot of three-wide sets to get all three of them on the field at the same time.
Sanu is a capable #2 receiver, but should still be pushed for playing time by Ridley. The Falcons signed Sanu to a 5-year, 32.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons, a surprise considering he struggled when counted upon for a larger role with the Bengals, but Sanu proved to be better with his 2nd team, earning above average marks in both seasons from PFF. He has posted 59/653/4 and 67/703/5 slash lines in those two seasons, while also providing value as a blocker in the run game. He may see his production drop a little bit with Ridley in the mix, but he should still play a valuable role for this offense.
The Falcons will also be hoping for more out of 3rd year tight end Austin Hooper, a 2016 3rd rounder. Hooper was actually on the field more than both Jones and Sanu last season, playing 788 snaps, but had an underwhelming 49/526/3 slash line on 391 routes run (1.31 yards per route run) and dropped 6 passes. He was a solid blocker, but finished 60th out of 71 eligible tight ends in pass catching grade on PFF. He could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but that’s far from a guarantee.
The Falcons released #2 tight end Levine Toilolo (421 snaps) this off-season and did not do anything to replace him other than sign veteran blocking specialist Logan Paulsen, who didn’t catch a pass on 144 snaps for the 49ers last season. Toilolo wasn’t a good player and won’t be hard to replace, but the fact that they did not add a true replacement seems like a sign of confidence in 2017 5th round pick Eric Saubert, who played just 30 snaps as a rookie. Saubert is a height/weight/speed athlete that dominated the FCS level at Drake University, but was considered very raw coming out. If he has developed, he could turn out to be a nice pass catching complement to Hooper. Even with an underwhelming tight end situation, this is still a solid receiving corps.
Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are also involved in the passing game, though both saw their receiving production drop off from 2016 to 2017. Freeman and Coleman put up slash lines of 54/462/2 and 31/421/3 respectively in 2016, but only managed 36/317/1 and 27/299/3 respectively in 2017. Freeman also saw his rushing production drop as well, as he had just 895 rushing yards and 7 rushing touchdowns, both his fewest since he was a 4th round rookie in 2014. Freeman has seen his carries drop from 264 in 2015 to 227 in 2016 to 196 last season, while Coleman has seen his carries increase from 87 to 118 to 156 over that same time period.
Despite that, I still like Freeman a lot more than Coleman in 2018. For one, Freeman is still the better runner. He has averaged 4.40 yards per carry over the past 3 seasons, as opposed to 4.27 for Coleman, and had a carry success rate of 51% last season (9th in the NFL), as opposed to 40% for Coleman (39th in the NFL). On Pro Football Focus, Freeman finished 18th, 15th, and 10th in 2015, 2016, and 2017 respectively, while Coleman has earned middling grades in all 3 seasons of his career. Freeman also should be healthier this season, as he essentially missed 3 games with injury last season. He averaged 17.7 touches per game in 13 healthy games, actually higher than 2017, when he averaged 17.5 touches per game.
The Falcons also more or less already picked Freeman over Coleman when they gave him a 5-year, 41.5 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal last off-season that included a 15 million dollar signing bonus. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Coleman is going into the final year of his rookie deal, but an extension seems unlikely with Freeman already locked up on such a big contract. Coleman is unlikely to get the kind of money he could get on the open market from the Falcons, so this will likely be his final season in Atlanta. The Falcons prepared for his departure by using a 4th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft on Southern Mississippi’s Ito Smith. Smith is unlikely to have much of a role in 2018, but he gives them good insurance behind a talented duo.
Despite the big drop off in performance, the Falcons offense was almost exactly the same personnel wise from 2016 to 2017, as they brought back 10 of 11 starters and all key reserves. The drop off was not as a result of personnel losses. They just fell victim to regression to the mean after their quarterback had a career best season in 2016. The only starter they lost was retired right guard Chris Chester. Chester made 16 starts in 2016, but struggled mightily, so he wasn’t exactly a huge loss.
His replacement wasn’t any better though, as first year starter Wes Schweitzer finished as Pro Football Focus’ 60th ranked guard out of 80 eligible, while making all 16 starts. Only a 6th round pick in 2016, Schweitzer is best as a reserve, so the Falcons signed veteran Brandon Fusco to replace him as the starting right guard. Fusco has made 80 starts in the past 6 seasons, with his best season coming with the Vikings in 2013, when he was PFF’s 9th ranked guard.
Fusco missed most of 2014 with injury and struggled in both 2015 and 2016, leading to his release from the Vikings, but he had a bit of a bounce back year in 16 starts with the 49ers in 2017. He’s still only going into his age 29 season and, at the very least, gives them an experienced starter who should be an upgrade over Schweitzer. If he plays like he did last season, he’ll be an obvious upgrade.
The Falcons could also get better play at the left guard position this season, as Andy Levitre is returning from injury. He was having a solid season, earning a positive grade from PFF for the 8th straight season, but injuries limited him to 15 snaps after week 12. Backup Ben Garland struggled in his absence, allowing 8 hits on Matt Ryan, 2nd most on the team, despite only playing 341 snaps. Levitre is going into his age 32 season, but is still a solid football player. He finished last season as PFF’s 17th ranked guard and was 13th in 2016 when he was healthy for the full season.
Right tackle Ryan Schraeder also missed time with injury, missing 2 games early in the season with a concussion. In his absence, backup Ty Sambrailo struggled mightily. When Schraeder returned, he struggled a little bit more than he’s used to, though he still finished 18th among offensive tackles on PFF. That’s a slight drop off when 2015 and 2016, when he finished 5th and 6th respectively. A 2013 undrafted free agent out of Valdosta State, Schraeder was a bit of a late bloomer, but he’s made 60 starts in 5 seasons in the league and has developed into one of the best right tackles in the league. Since he was an older rookie, he’s already going into his age 30 season, but he should remain a solid starter for at least a couple more seasons.
Left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack were the only two Falcon offensive lineman who lived up to their 2016 season, as both remained among the best players in the league at their position. Mack is the more dominant of the two, ranking 3rd on PFF among centers in 2017 and 1st in 2016. A first round pick by the Browns in 2009, Mack has been one of the best centers in the league over the past decade. He’s finished in the top-9 among centers in 7 of 9 seasons, making 133 starts over that time period. Going into his age 33 season, Mack may begin to decline soon, but he could easily still have another strong season at center. They have 2017 4th round pick Sean Harlow waiting in the wings behind him, but he’ll remain a reserve barring injury.
Matthews, on the other hand, is only going into his age 26 season, though the Falcons do need to re-sign him long-term, as he’s going into the final year of his rookie deal. The 6th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Matthews has improved in every season in the league and finished last season as PFF’s 12th ranked offensive tackle. Matthews’ cap hit for 2018 is currently 12.496 million on his 5th year option, so the Falcons may try to extend him before the season starts to lower his cap number. Now that Matt Ryan has gotten his extension, Matthews is expected to be the next priority. He may become the highest paid offensive lineman in the league (upwards of 15.5 million annually). This is a strong and experienced offensive line that could easily be one of the best in the NFL in 2018.
While the Falcons’ offense was significantly worse in 2017 than it was in 2016, the Falcons were actually slightly improved on the defensive side of the ball, though largely by default, as the Falcons struggled mightily on defense in 2016. They allowed opponents to move the chains at a 38.15% rate, 27th in the NFL. They were able to get away with it because of how efficient their offense was, but, in 2017, their offense was not as efficient and their slightly improved defense was not enough. They finished 25th with a 35.61% first down rate allowed.
The Falcons did finish with the 8th fewest points allowed last season, but that was largely because of their #2 ranked red zone defense. If that regresses to the mean in 2018 (or worse, if they finish 32nd in red zone defense like in 2016), the Falcons are going to allow a lot more points. Much like the Falcons should be more efficient on offense in the red zone this season, the Falcons are unlikely to be as efficient in the red zone on defense this season.
On top of that, the Falcons are missing two of their best defensive linemen from last season, with Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn signing with the Panthers and Patriots respectively, and they’re unlikely to have as few injuries on defense as they did in 2017, when they only had about 5 adjusted games lost to injury. Fortunately for the Falcons, their top defensive lineman Grady Jarrett remains with the team, though they will need to give the 2015 5th round pick an extension at some point, as he heads into the final year of his rookie deal.
Jarrett may be looking to get paid among the highest paid defensive tackles in the game ($15 – $17 million annually) and it’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve it. After flashing in limited action as a rookie in 2015, Jarrett developed into an above average starter in 2016 and then had his best year yet in 2017, finishing 9th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Built like a thicker Aaron Donald at 6-0 305, Jarrett fell in the draft because he was undersized, but he gets great leverage against the run and is sneaky quick as a pass rusher. Only going into his age 25 season, he could easily continue to get better.
Poe had a strong season in 2017 too though and he’s no longer with the team, after finishing 21st among defensive tackles on PFF. The Falcons didn’t really do much to replace him, signing veteran journeyman Terrell McClain and using a 3rd round draft pick on South Florida’s Deadrin Senat. McClain was PFF’s worst ranked 3-4 defensive end on 328 snaps with the Redskins last season and has been an underwhelming player in 7 seasons in the league. Senat has some upside and is built like Jarrett at 6-0 314, but he’s not nearly as athletic or refined as a pass rusher.
Both Senat and McClain are only base package options, so interior pass rushers Jack Crawford and Derrick Shelby will be counted on for pass rush snaps in sub packages. Crawford, a 6-5 288 pound converted defensive end, played about 30 snaps per game in that role in the first 3 weeks of the season last year before going down for the year with a torn biceps in week 4. He rushed the passer on 72.3% of his snaps. He hasn’t gotten a positive grade for a season from PFF since 2012 though and, in his last healthy season in 2016, he finished 49th among 53 eligible 4-3 defensive ends with the Cowboys. Now going into his age 30 season coming off of a major injury, he’s unlikely to be much better.
Shelby played all 16 games last season, but was limited to 397 snaps in primarily a base package defensive end role in his first season back from a torn achilles that ended his 2016 prematurely. He played well in that role though and he has some pass rush ability as well, with his best season coming in 2015 with the Dolphins when he finished as PFF’s 12th ranked 4-3 defensive end. He played 862 snaps that season, earning positive grades against the run and as a pass rusher, with 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 31 hurries.
Going into his age 29 season, Shelby has some bounce back potential and could fill a much needed role for this team as an interior pass rusher in sub packages. He has good size at 6-2 280 and lined up on the interior on 105 of his 183 pass rush snaps in 2017. He had just 1 sack on the season, but he did hurry the quarterback 15 times and he could easily be better another year removed from that injury. With Poe out of the picture, the Falcons are going to need him to be.
Shelby could also see some snaps at his natural defensive end position. Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley, and Brooks Reed are locked in as the top-3 defensive ends, but depth is needed. The 8th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Beasley led the league with 16 sacks in 2016, which led to him being prematurely anointed as a top level defensive player. The sack number was impressive, but he struggled mightily against the run and had just 4 hits, 36 hurries, and 1 batted pass, so he wasn’t actually as efficient of a pass rusher as his sack total suggested. He finished just above average overall on PFF.
In 2017, his sack total dropped all the way to 6 and his peripheral stats were not any better, as he had just 22 hurries and 2 batted passes, while not getting a single additional quarterback hit all season. As a result, he earned a below average grade from PFF for the season. He won’t play linebacker anymore in 2018, but considering 67.1% of his snaps over the past 2 seasons have come off the edge as a pass rusher, him playing some linebacker in base packages wasn’t really the problem last season. He only dropped into coverage 32 times last season.
Beasley also lacks the size to hold up against the run as a defensive end at 6-3 246 and may just be a sub package edge rusher. That’s not to say that he couldn’t have a strong season in that role. Beasley went 8th overall for a reason and has obvious pass rush upside, still only going into his age 26 season. An early season hamstring injury may have limited him throughout 2017. He only missed 2 games, but was not the same player upon his return and only played 482 snaps on the season, part of the reason why his pass rush stats dropped.
Now healthy, Beasley could easily have a bounce back year getting after the quarterback, even if he’s never been as good as the 16 sacks he had in 2016 would suggest. With Adrian Clayborn (10 sacks, 8 hits, 37 hurries, 9th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF) no longer on the team, they’ll need him to do that. The Falcons clearly still believe in him, picking up his 5th year option for 2019, which will be worth an estimated 12.81 million.
Takkarist McKinley is also a first round pick defensive end, going 26th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. McKinley is very much a Vic Beasley type player at 6-2 250 and played just 112 run snaps out of 401 total snaps as a rookie. He impressed as a pass rusher and will have a bigger pass rush role in his 2nd season in the league with Clayborn gone and he also held up against the run pretty well, so he may play more of an every down role. A breakout year for him would be a big boost for this defensive line, but that’s far from a guarantee.
One of Beasley or McKinley will have to play more base package snaps because Brooks Reed is their only true base defensive end, aside from Derrick Shelby. Reed isn’t big at 6-3 254, but has a good motor and a knack for setting the edge. Of his 413 snaps last season, 212 of them came on run snaps, but he also impressed with 4 sacks, 3 hits, and 15 hurries on 198 pass rush snaps. On the season, he actually finished 13th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF. The 7-year veteran has never been that good before and is going into his age 30 season, but he’s a useful role player who should have another solid season. Even so, this is not the same defensive line as it was last season, as they lost a pair of key contributors and did not really replace them.
With Vic Beasley moving to defensive end full-time, 2nd year linebacker Duke Riley is locked in as the 3rd linebacker with Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. Riley only played 224 snaps as a rookie, but wasn’t bad in the limited role and the 3rd round pick has good upside. The 3rd linebacker role is only a base package role anyway, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, so Riley should be able to do a good job in it. Riley is undersized at 6-1 218, but has good sideline to sideline speed.
That’s true of all three of the Falcons’ starting linebackers, as Jones and Campbell are 6-1 222 and 6-4 232 respectively. Both are also young, going into only their 3rd year in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Jones was a capable starter from the word go (29 starts in 2 seasons) and had a breakout 2017, finishing 5th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, including 2nd in coverage grade. Still only going into his age 23 season, Jones has a sky high upside.
Campbell also was a starter as a rookie and has 26 starts in 2 seasons, but the 4th round pick took his rookie year lumps, finishing 28th among 31st eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. He was better in 2017, grading about league average. He’s not as naturally talented as Jones is, but he’s a capable all-around linebacker that could easily have another solid season in 2018. This is a solid young linebacking corps.
The Falcons return all of their key players in the secondary as well, led by #1 cornerback Desmond Trufant. Trufant was injured during the Falcons’ playoff run in 2016, tearing his pectoral muscle 9 games into the season and getting placed on injured reserve, but rebounded to finish as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked cornerback in 2017. A first round pick in 2013, Trufant has made 72 starts in 5 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-20 at his position in all 5 seasons. The Falcons locked him up long-term last off-season with a 5-year, 68.75 million dollar extension.
Safety Keanu Neal is another former first round pick that has developed into a great starter in the secondary. The 17th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Neal flashed in 14 starts as a rookie and then broke out as PFF’s 5th ranked safety in 16 starts in 2017. Like so many of the Falcons’ defensive starters, Neal is still very young and has a high upside. He could continue to improve in 2018 and beyond.
Fellow starting safety Ricardo Allen is a relative veteran, as he was drafted in the 5th round back in 2014. Allen didn’t play a snap as a rookie and remains under contract inexpensively with the Falcons for one more year as a restricted free agent, but he’s earned a bigger contract, making 45 starts in the past 3 seasons and earning a positive grade from PFF in both 2016 and 2017. With the Falcons now committed to Matt Ryan at 30 million annually for the foreseeable future and other young players’ contracts coming up soon, Allen may not get the money he wants in Atlanta and could depart as a free agent next off-season. 2017 5th round pick Damontae Kazee waits in the wings and flashed on 164 snaps as a rookie.
Robert Alford is locked in as the #2 cornerback opposite Trufant. A 2nd round pick in the same draft as Trufant (2013), Alford has not had the same career Trufant has, but he’s developed into a starting caliber player. He’s made 61 starts in 5 seasons in the league, including 47 of 48 starts in the past 3 seasons. Over the past 3 seasons, he’s earned positive grades from PFF twice. An older rookie, Alford is already going into his age 30 season and also has a pretty expensive contract, as he’s owed 8.5 million non-guaranteed in both 2019 and 2020. The Falcons used a 2nd round pick on Colorado’s Isaiah Oliver in this past draft, so maybe they will cut ties with Alford for cap reasons in next off-season or two.
In the meantime, Oliver will compete with slot cornerback Brian Poole for the only unsettled role in the secondary. Poole went undrafted in 2016 and was mediocre on 630 snaps last season, but he’s a more natural fit on the slot than Oliver at 5-10 211 and he was better as a rookie in 2016, earning a positive grade from PFF on 833 snaps. He’s likely the favorite for the slot job, leaving Oliver as valuable depth. It’s an above average secondary.
The Falcons will likely never be as good offensively as they were in 2016 again, but they still have one of the most talented offenses in the league and they should be more efficient in the red zone. Defensively, they’re unlikely to be as efficient in the red zone and they lost a pair of key defensive linemen without really replacing them, but their young defense could easily continue developing and end the season as a serviceable unit.
On paper this is one of the more talented teams in the league and they should compete for the NFC South title. Unfortunately, they play in the loaded NFC in arguably the toughest division in football, so they’re far from a guarantee to win the NFC South or even grab one of the two wild card spots, as talented as they are. The key for them will be remaining healthy, as they’ve had among the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the past 2 seasons. They may not be as fortunate in 2018. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.
Final Prediction: The Falcons are one of several teams that will contend for the Super Bowl in the loaded NFC.
Prediction: 11-5 1st in NFC South