Atlanta Falcons 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Falcons made it all the way to the Super Bowl during the 2016 season, coming about as close to winning a Super Bowl as you can without actually winning it, lead by a dynamic offense that not only ranked #1 in the NFL in first down rate, but did so by a wide margin (3.20%). That allowed the Falcons to finish 3rd in first down rate differential at +5.77%, despite finishing 27th in first down rate allowed. In 2017, their offense was merely good instead of the dominant unit they were in 2016, finishing 5th in first down rate differential, and their defense did not improve significantly (25th in first down rate allowed), so they finished 11th in first down rate differential at +1.28%. They qualified for the post-season again, but couldn’t go on a long run like they did the previous year.

In 2018, the Falcons’ offense once again played well, finishing 9th in first down rate, but their injury plagued defense finished among the worst in the league, allowing the 2nd highest first down rate in the league. As a result, the Falcons finished 21st in first down rate differential at -1.62% and missed the post-season entirely, finishing with a 7-9 record overall. The Falcons could easily have better health on defense this season, but that alone won’t make them a strong unit, so the Falcons’ offense will have to lead the way again.

Fortunately for the Falcons, their offense hasn’t made major changes in recent years, with 7 of their top-11 in terms of snaps played in their Super Bowl appearance still in the starting lineup. Three of the four who are not (slot receiver Taylor Gabriel, right tackle Ryan Schreader, and right guard Chris Chester) have been replaced with recent first round draft picks. The Falcons used their first round pick in 2018 on wide receiver Calvin Ridley to replace Gabriel and then in 2019 they used their first round pick on right guard Chris Lindstrom and then traded up into the end of the first round to select right tackle Kaleb McGary.

Most importantly, Matt Ryan is still the quarterback of this team. Drafted 3rd overall in 2008, Ryan has been a starter since week 1 of his rookie year and has made 174 of a possible 176 starts in 11 seasons in the league. For his career, he’s completed 65.3% of his passes for an average of 7.53 YPA, 295 touchdowns, and 133 interceptions, while finishing in the top-7 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 8 of 11 seasons in the league. His last 3 seasons have arguably been his best 3-year stretch, as he’s completed 68.0% of his passes for an average of 8.36 YPA, 93 touchdowns, and 26 interceptions. Ryan is going into his age 34 season, but shows no signs of slowing down and could easily continue playing at a high level into his late 30s like other quarterbacks have.

Ryan hasn’t missed a game since 2009 and his consecutive starts streak of 147 is the 2nd longest active streak by a quarterback, but on the off chance they need him, their backup quarterback is long-time veteran Matt Schaub. Schaub has 92 career starts and was a solid starter in his prime, but he hasn’t started since 2015 and his last successful stretch as a starter came in 2012. He’s also going into his age 38 season and might not have anything left in the tank. Without another option on the roster, Schaub would start if Ryan went down, which would obviously be a huge blow to this offense.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

As mentioned, the Falcons used a pair of first round picks on offensive linemen this year, taking guard Chris Lindstrom 14th overall and tackle Kaleb McGary 31st overall. Considering they had to give up their 2nd and 3rd round picks to move up to 31 and didn’t pick again until the 4th round, the Falcons committed a huge chunk of their draft capital to the offensive line. Right tackle Ryan Schreader was merely average in 2018 and none of the five players who started at guard (Zane Beadles, Andy Levitre, Brandon Fusco, Wes Schweitzer, and Ben Garland) stood out, but the offensive line didn’t seem like a big need going into the draft, especially after the Falcons signed veterans James Carpenter (4 years, 21 million) and Jamon Brown (3 years, 18.75 million) and re-signed reserve Ty Sambrailo (3 years, 14.25 million) this off-season. All three players are paid like starters.

Instead, the Falcons will likely start rookies at right guard and right tackle, leaving left guard as the only open job. Carpenter and Brown will compete for that role in training camp. Sambrailo can also play some guard as well, in addition to right tackle, but he’ll likely serve as versatile depth. Carpenter has the most experience of the bunch, starting 97 games in 8 seasons in the league, but his play has fallen off in recent years, earning below average grades from Pro Football Focus in back-to-back seasons, and he’s now going into his age 30 season.

Brown is still in the prime of his career in his age 26 season, but the 2015 3rd round pick hasn’t put it together consistently yet. After flashing in limited action early in his career, Brown earned an average grade from PFF in 16 starts in 2017, but he was suspended for the first 2 games of the season in 2018 and ended up losing his job and eventually his roster spot. He resurfaced with the Giants later in the season, but struggled in 8 starts in New York. Sambrailo, meanwhile, was a bust as a 2015 2nd round pick in Denver, where he struggled on just 450 snaps in 2 seasons, but he’s been better as a spot starter with the Falcons over the past 2 seasons. He’ll likely remain in that role in 2019.

Left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack remain locked into starting roles. Matthews was the 6th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and has made 79 of 80 starts at left tackle since entering the league. After struggling as a rookie, Matthews has earned an above average grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons, including 3 seasons in the top-13 at his position and a 2018 season in which he finished a career best 9th. Still very much in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, I see no reason why he can’t continue playing at a high level in 2019.

Mack has also played at a high level for several years, earning an above average grade from PFF in 10 seasons in the league (149 starts), including 8 seasons in the top-10 among centers. Mack still finished 3rd at his position in 2018, but his age is becoming a concern, now going into his age 34 season. He could continue being an above average starter for another couple seasons, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see his play fall off in 2019. Even a slight decline from Mack could hurt this offensive line, given how well he’s played in recent years. Despite all of their off-season additions, the Falcons’ offensive line might not be much better in 2019 unless one or both of their rookies have a major immediate impact and it could be worse if Mack doesn’t play like he usually does.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

One aspect of Atlanta’s offense that should be better in 2019 is their running game. They averaged a 4.48 yards per carry average in 2018, 13th in the NFL, but that’s skewed by a few long runs. Top back Tevin Coleman ranked just 37th in the NFL in carry success rate among 47 qualifying running backs, averaging 4.79 yards per carry on the season, but accumulating 48.5% of his rushing yardage on his 15 longest carries. Backup running back Ito Smith, meanwhile, averaged just 3.50 yards per carry on 90 carries. Neither running back consistently kept the offense on schedule, which is a disappointment on an offense with so much talent around the running back position. The Falcons also had one of the biggest pass/run splits in the league last season, with 659 pass plays and 351 run plays.

Fortunately, the Falcons get Devonta Freeman back healthy, after he was limited to just 14 carries in 2 games by injuries last season. Freeman finished the 2017 season 9th in carry success rate, while averaging 4.41 yards per carry and scoring 7 times on 196 carries. In 3 seasons as a starter prior to last season’s injury plagued season, he averaged 4.37 yards per carry with 29 touchdowns on 687 carries, while adding another 1,357 yards and 6 scores through the air on 163 catches. He missed just 3 games in his first 4 seasons in the league before 2018, so he doesn’t have a huge injury history, and in his age 27 season he’s not totally over the hill for a running back. Freeman has obvious bounce back potential in 2019.

The Falcons usually like to use two backs in tandem, giving backup Tevin Coleman an average of 9.03 carries per game from 2015-2017, despite Freeman running well ahead of him. Coleman signed with the 49ers this off-season, so Freeman may have to carry a little bit more of the load, but I would see expect whoever wins the #2 back job to have a role. Ito Smith is probably the favorite for the job, despite his miserable 2018 season, because he was a 4th round pick in 2018 and has the upside to make a leap from year 1 to year 2. His biggest competition will be 5th round rookie Qadree Ollison and 2017 5th round pick Brian Hill, who has just 34 touches in two seasons in the league. Depth is a concern here, so the Falcons really need Freeman to stay healthy this year.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Even with Freeman returning, this will still be a pass heavy team. Not only do they have a great quarterback, but they legitimately go three deep at wide receiver with Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Calvin Ridley, and starting tight end Austin Hooper is a solid receiver as well. All four of those players topped 650 yards receiving in 2018 and all four return in 2019. Ridley is the newest addition of the group, added with the 26th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. He showed a lot of promise as a rookie, putting up a 64/821/10 slash line, despite being the third receiver. His 1.77 yards per route run average was 37th among qualifying wide receivers and his 124.4 QB rating when targeted was 8th. He’s earned a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league and has obvious breakout potential if he becomes an every down player. He should open the season as the #2 opposite Julio Jones.

Julio Jones will continue being Ryan’s most frequent target. He’s been one of the most targeted receivers in the league over the past 3 seasons, with 447 total targets, 4th in the NFL. He also ranks 6th in catches (284) and 1st in yardage (4,530) over that time period and has averaged a league leading 3.03 yards per route run. A top-5 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus for 5 straight seasons and arguably the top receiver in the entire league, Jones is going into his age 30 season and could begin to decline in the next couple years, but he should still be among the league’s leaders in receiving yardage in 2019. He’s owed just 21.026 million over the final 2 seasons of his contract, but he’s fully expected to get a long-term extension this off-season that pays him among the highest paid wide receivers in the league.

Mohamed Sanu started all 16 games opposite Jones last season, but could be more of a slot specialist in 2019 if Ridley plays a bigger role. Sanu has averaged a 64/731/4 slash line in 3 seasons in Atlanta and he’s been even better than that suggests, catching 70.8% of his targets with just 8 drops total, earning him an above average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons. Already a better real life player than fantasy player, Sanu’s numbers could take a bit of a hit this season if he plays a smaller role, but he’s still a great 3rd receiver to have. He’s going into his age 30 season, which is a bit of a concern, but assuming he continues to give them solid play, this is one of the best wide receiver trios in the NFL. They’ll play the vast majority of the wide receiver snaps, with Justin Hardy (76 career catches in 4 seasons in the league) likely coming in during 4-wide receiver sets.

Tight end Austin Hooper will be a significant part of this passing game again. He’s not a great receiver, but finished 7th among tight ends in receiving yards and 4th in catches last season with a 71/660/4 slash line and he is an adequate blocker as well. His well-roundness allows him to be an every down player and his 809 snaps played in 2018 ranked 9th among tight ends. The 2016 3rd round pick has improved in every season in the league and could easily take another step forward, still not even turning 25 until October. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he’s a candidate for a big pay increase on a long-term extension.

Logan Paulsen played 362 snaps as the #2 tight end and blocking specialist in 2018, but the Falcons signed Luke Stocker in free agency and his contract (5.5 million over 2 years), suggests he’ll have a role over Paulsen. Both are very similar players, blocking tight ends who don’t contribute much in the passing game. Paulsen has 91 career catches in 120 career games, while Stocker has 68 career catches in 99 career games. Stocker flashed as a receiver down the stretch last season, forced into action for a banged up Tennessee team and averaging 1.50 yards per route run on 110 routes, probably part of why the Falcons felt he would be an upgrade on Paulsen, but Stocker is going into his age 31 season and his 9th season in the league, so I don’t expect him to suddenly break out as a receiving threat. Whoever wins the #2 tight end job will have a minimal role in this passing game, especially with so many other reliable targets on the team.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

As mentioned earlier, the Falcons’ defense dealt with a lot of injury absences last season. In terms of adjusted games lost, they “only” had the 8th most, but most of the absent players were among their best defensive players, including linebacker Deion Jones and safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, who all spent time on injured reserve. Those injuries couldn’t be overcome, as they finished the season 31st in first down rate allowed at 41.13%.

The Falcons should be better defensively in 2019, with better health, but there are still a lot of concerns on this defense, which hasn’t played well in recent years, even when healthy. In 2017, they had the 8th fewest points allowed, but that was primarily because they faced the fewest drives in the league, ranking 18th in points per drive allowed. They were strong in the red zone, allowing the 2nd lowest red zone touchdown percentage in the league, but struggled between the 20s, finishing 25th in first down rate allowed. Even in their Super Bowl year, they ranked just 27th in first down rate allowed and points per game allowed.

Their biggest problem is their defensive line. The Falcons had the 2nd worst pressure rate in the league last season, despite their defensive line staying relatively healthy. Despite that, the Falcons didn’t do much to improve this unit during the off-season, with limited cap space to work with in free agency and most of their draft capital going to the offensive line. The Falcons were targeting Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins at 14, but he went one spot earlier to the Dolphins, forcing the Falcons to settle for Chris Lindstrom instead.

Wilkins would have made a nice duo inside with Grady Jarrett, who is easily their best defensive lineman. Just a 5th round pick back in 2015, Jarrett has improved in every season in the league and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked interior defender in 2018. He finished 16th in 2017, but only had 4 sacks, 10 hits, and a 7.7% pressure rate. In 2018, he took his game to the next level as a pass rusher, with 6 sacks, 11 hits, and an 11.4% pressure rate. Even though he rushes from the interior, he still might be this team’s most effective pass rusher and he’s a dominant run stuffer as well. The Falcons couldn’t afford to lose him as a free agent this off-season, so they kept him on a 15.209 million dollar franchise tag and are working on a long-term deal. Expect him to end up among the highest paid interior defenders in the league (15-18 million annually).

In base packages, the Falcons will start either second year player Deadrin Senat or free agent acquisition Tyler Davison next to Jarrett. Davison was a 5th round pick by the Saints in 2015 and has developed into a solid run stuffer in the past two seasons, but he doesn’t generate any pass rush, with 3.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 3.9% pressure rate in his career. Senat is a similar player, but the 2018 3rd round pick has more upside. He didn’t have a sack as a rookie and managed just a 5.0% pressure rate, but he flashed as a run stuffer and has the higher ceiling overall. Both players will likely see snaps, but I would expect Senat to end up as the nominal starter.

Converted defensive end Jack Crawford is also in the mix as a sub package interior rusher. Crawford was an underwhelming player in his first 6 seasons in the league, but the 6-5 288 pounder seemed a lot more comfortable inside with the Falcons last season, generating 6 sacks, 4 hits, and a 7.9% pressure rate. He’s a one-year wonder going into his age 31 season, but he could prove to be a late bloomer, now at a position where he seems to fit better. The Falcons don’t have bad depth after Jarrett, but Jarrett is their only defensive tackle who can play every down.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The one addition the Falcons did make on the defensive line through the draft was 4th round pick John Cominsky. He comes from Division II Charleston College, but could still have a role as a rookie. He’s raw as a pass rusher, but has the size at 6-5 287 to have a base package role. That’s needed because the Falcons’ top two edge defenders Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley are undersized at 6-3 246 and 6-2 255 respectively and do not hold up well against the run.

McKinley is at least a solid pass rusher, leading the team with 7 sacks in 2018, while adding 9 hits, and a 12.2% pressure rate. The 2017 1st round pick also flashed on 401 rookie year snaps and could take another step forward in his 3rd season in the league in 2019. Vic Beasley is also a former first round pick, going 8th overall in 2015, but he hasn’t played like one recently. He led the league with 15.5 sacks in 2016, but even that season he wasn’t that great, adding just 4 hits and with an 11.2% pressure rate, while struggling mightily against the run. He finished 22nd among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus that season, solid, but not what his sack total would suggest.

In the two seasons since, he has just 10 total sacks, 5 hits, and a 7.9% pressure rate, while continuing to struggle against the run. His 23 missed tackles over the past 2 seasons lead his position and he finished dead last among edge defenders overall on PFF in 2018. The Falcons still believe in him, keeping him on his 5th year option at a 12.81 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, and he’s still theoretically in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, but he’s far from a guarantee to bounce back as a pass rusher.

The Falcons also added Adrian Clayborn to the mix in free agency, welcoming back a player who played for the Falcons from 2015 to 2017, before spending 2018 in New England. Clayborn has good size at 6-3 280, but is just a situational pass rusher and has never played the run well. He had a strong year rushing the passer in 2017, with 9.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 13.0% pressure rate, but that’s an outlier when you look at his career. In 8 seasons in the league, he’s totalled 32.5 sacks, 66 hits, and a 10.7% pressure rate. Last season in New England, he could barely get on the field, playing just 318 snaps total, after averaging 554 snaps per season in 3 seasons in Atlanta. He could play a larger role in 2019 now back with the Falcons, but he’s going into his age 31 season and is unlikely to come close to the kind of pass rush production he had in 2017. Only signed to a 1-year, 2 million dollar contract, he doesn’t fix the Falcons’ defensive line problems.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Probably the Falcons’ biggest injury loss last season was middle linebacker Deion Jones, who missed 10 games with a foot injury and was replaced by 6th round rookie Foyesade Oluokun, an obvious downgrade. In the 10 games Jones missed, the Falcons allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 44.23% rate, as opposed to 36.36% in the 6 games Jones played. That’s still middle of the pack and, as mentioned earlier, the Falcons have struggled defensively in recent years even with Jones healthy, but there’s no denying that Jones’ return will be big for this defense.

In Jones’ last healthy season in 2017, he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked off ball linebacker, in just his 2nd season in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Jones has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league and, still only in his age 25 season, he has the upside to be one of the best off ball linebackers in the league for years to come. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he’s another player the Falcons need to figure out how to keep long-term.

In Jones’ absence, outside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell had to take on more responsibilities on defense and he struggled, finishing 68th out of 96 qualifying linebackers on PFF, especially struggling in coverage. A reliable tackler and run stuffer, the 2016 4th round pick has been better in the past and could bounce back with Jones now healthy again, but he’s a middling starter at best. He’ll continue to play close to an every down role, for lack of a better option.

Duke Riley opened last season as the 3rd linebacker, playing only in base packages, and he briefly took on a larger role after Jones went down, but he struggled mightily, which is when the Falcons turned to Foyesade Oluokun and moved Riley back into the 3rd linebacker role. Despite being a 3rd round pick in 2017, Riley has shown very little in 2 seasons in the league, struggling as a rookie, getting benched, and playing 224 snaps total, and then finishing 90th out of 96 qualifying off ball linebackers on 408 snaps last season. He could easily lose his base package job to Oluokun, who was close to an every down linebacker for a stretch last season and held up better than most 6th round rookies would have. This is a much better group with Jones healthy, but there are still some concerns.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Falcons also get week 1 starting safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal back from injury, after going down with a torn ACL during week 1 and a torn Achilles during week 3 respectively. Damontee Kazee played well in their absence, finishing 20th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, but at the other safety spot both Jordan Richards and Sharrod Nesman, a pair of career special teamers, were both underwhelming.

Neal was the bigger absence, as the 2016 1st round pick finished 21st and 17th among safeties in his first 2 seasons in the league and likely would have had a similar season in 2018 if not for the injury, but Allen is a big re-addition as well, as he made 45 starts from 2015-2017 and earned average or better grades from PFF in all 3 seasons. It’s possible they aren’t 100% in their first games back, but they should still be a good safety duo.

With Allen and Neal back, Damontee Kazee is expected to move to slot cornerback, where he’ll replace Brian Poole, who wasn’t bad on an average of 766 snaps per season in 3 seasons in Atlanta, but was still non-tendered by the Falcons this off-season as a restricted free agent. Kazee is a one-year wonder, playing just 165 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2017, and could prove to be better at safety than cornerback, but cornerback is actually his natural position, so he’s an obvious fit on the slot now that the Falcons’ starting safeties are back healthy.

The Falcons are also replacing outside cornerback Robert Alford, who finished 114th out of 131 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF last season, making him an easy release at an 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. Second year cornerback Isaiah Oliver will take over his starting spot, after flashing on 240 snaps as a rookie, and he has the upside to be a big upgrade on Alford. He’s unproven, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be better than Alford was last season. The Falcons also added cornerbacks in the 4th and 5th rounds of the 2019 draft, taking Ohio State’s Kendall Sheffield and Washington’s Jordan Miller, but neither one is expected to have much of a rookie year role.

Desmond Trufant remains locked in as the #1 cornerback. He’s coming off of a bit of a down year, finishing 45th among cornerbacks on PFF, but he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in all 6 seasons in the league (88 starts), with his best seasons coming in 2013 (11th among cornerbacks on PFF), 2014 (11th), and 2016 (20th), and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. He could easily bounce back in 2019. With Trufant likely being better in 2019, Isaiah Oliver likely upgrading on Robert Alford, and both of their starting safeties running from injury, this should be a much improved group in 2019.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Falcons’ passing game was one of the best in the league in 2018, but an inconsistent running game and a terrible defense kept them out of the playoffs. With starting running back Devonta Freeman and a trio of key defenders in Deion Jones, Ricardo Allen, and Keanu Neal all set to return, the Falcons could easily be a playoff team again in 2019. Injuries are almost certain to happen and the Falcons didn’t have a ton of injuries overall in 2018, with the 16th most adjusted games lost to injury, but if injuries strike less critical players in 2019 that should show up in the standings. I wish they would have focused more on this defensive line rather than their offensive line in the draft and the 12.81 million they are giving to Vic Beasley could probably have been spent in better ways, but this is still a pretty talented roster overall. 

Prediction: 10-6, 2nd in NFC South

Team Score: 76.37 (8th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 78.44

Defensive Score: 74.30

team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

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