Atlanta Falcons 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After the Falcons almost impossibly blew a 28-3 lead to the Patriots in the Super Bowl following the 2016 season, the franchise became synonymous with blown leads, but in some ways, that’s nothing compared to what happened to the Falcons in 2020, when they lost four games in which they had a winning probability of 95% or higher at some point in the second half. Their first two blown leads were the biggest collapses, as the Falcons had a 99% chance of winning each game under 5 minutes left in the 4th quarter and the games came in back-to-back weeks. 

Against the Cowboys in week 2, the Falcons led 26-7 in the 2nd quarter, 39-24 in the 4th quarter, and 39-30 with under 5 minutes to play and possession, but somehow managed to lose 40-39 in a game that included a Dallas onside kick recovery. The following week, they led the Bears 26-10 in the 4th quarter, only to allow three straight touchdown drives by the hapless Bears offense. There was a less than 1 in 100 chance that the Falcons would blow either lead, but somehow they managed to blow both leads in back-to-back weeks, a probability of less than 1 in 10,000. And it didn’t even end there. 

Their other two blown leads weren’t quite as egregious, but only by default, as they lost a game to the Lions in week 7 that the Falcons would have won with a kneel down and a chip shot field goal and in week 15 they blew a 24-7 3rd quarter lead to the Buccaneers. Making matters even worse, the Falcons only won 4 games all season, meaning they blew as many almost victories as they had actual victories and could have been a respectable 8-8 rather than 4-12 if they had just held on to those leads. In terms of average lead, the Falcons actually ranked 8th in the NFL last season, which makes the fact that they managed to win just four games seem borderline impossible.

In total, the Falcons went just 2-7 in one score games last season and they had a point differential of -18 which also suggests the Falcons were closer to a 8-8 record. First down rate differential isn’t quite as kind to them, but when factoring in that the Falcons had the second toughest schedule in the league last year, sharing a division with the Saints and Buccaneers, they finished the season with a -0.36% schedule adjusted first down rate differential that was 19th in the NFL, also significantly better than their record suggested. 

A team’s record in close games is one of the least predictable stats on a year-to-year basis and even a seemingly cursed team like the Falcons could see their luck in close games turn around after last season. In fact, the Falcons actually went 49-36 in one score games in the previous 10 seasons prior to last season, so it’s not as if they’re inherently bad in close games. With better luck in close games, it wasn’t hard at the end of the 2020 season to see how the Falcons could have a significantly improved win total in 2021.

However, even with that optimism, the Falcons came into this off-season at a crossroads, for various reasons. For one, they were looking for a new head coach for the first time in 6 off-seasons, after letting go of overmatched head coach Dan Quinn mid-season. The Falcons decided on former Tennessee offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who has worked wonders with a Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry led Titans team over the past two seasons, getting career best play out of both of those two playmakers and riding them to back-to-back highly ranked offensive seasons and back-to-back playoff appearances. However, once Smith and new GM Terry Fontenot were put into place, a direction needed to be decided for this franchise. 

Despite their record last season, this was very much a team that was in win-now mode, with one of the oldest rosters in the league and one of the league’s worst cap situations. By virtue of their 4-12 record, the Falcons were picking 4th overall in one of the better quarterback drafts in recent memory and had the opportunity to draft a quarterback of the future behind the still very capable, but aging and highly paid Matt Ryan, officially starting a rebuilding process that would likely lead to other veterans being replaced and traded/released over the next two off-seasons. The Falcons also had the opportunity to potentially trade down and accumulate extra picks, much needed for an aging team that hasn’t drafted particularly well in recent years, while still adding to their goal of winning now, as a deep rookie class could be the difference between a sub-.500 finish and a trip to the post-season

Instead, they went with neither of those options, staying put at #4 overall and selecting Florida’s Kyle Pitts with the highest ever pick used on a tight end. Pitts is as good of a receiving tight end prospect as the NFL has ever seen, so it’s understandable that he would be a high pick, but you have to question the fit for a team with an already strong passing game, but a lacking running game and various needs on defense, which would have been better addressed with multiple later picks.

Of course, quarterback Matt Ryan has to be happy with the pick, as not only does it mean that he likely has another two more seasons in Atlanta, with no realistic way to find a cheaper replacement unless they bottom out again in 2021, but he also gets another dynamic weapon in the passing game. Head coach Arthur Smith also has to be happy with the pick, as he reportedly pushed for the Falcons to draft Pitts rather than a quarterback, believing Ryan still had at least another couple seasons at his current level of play.

Ryan is going into his age 36 season, but Smith’s belief could easily be correct, given the recent history of quarterbacks playing at a high level into their late 30s. Ryan has also barely ever missed time with injury, missing just 3 games in 13 seasons in the league since the Falcons selected him 3rd overall in 2008, and he showed no signs of dropping off in 2020, finishing as PFF’s 11th ranked quarterback and completing 65.0% of his passes for an average of 7.32 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, giving him a QB rating of 93.3 which is very much in line with his career average of 94.5. In total, he’s finished in the top-16 among quarterbacks on PFF in 12 of 13 seasons in the league and I would expect the same from him in 2021.

The Falcons will have to hope so, as they didn’t draft a developmental quarterback at any point and instead brought in veteran journeyman AJ McCarron to be Ryan’s backup. A 5th round pick in 2014, McCarron showed some promise early in his career, but ultimately has made just 4 career starts in 7 seasons in the league, split across three different teams. His 86.7 career QB rating isn’t bad, but it’s hard to know what to expect from a player who has made just 1 total start over the past 5 seasons. You could do worse than him as a backup quarterback, but the Falcons would obviously be in trouble if Ryan missed extended action.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

With the Falcons staying put at 4 and selecting Kyle Pitts instead of trading down and accumulating extra picks, one glaring need that they didn’t address on draft day was running back, which they didn’t use a single pick on. The Falcons signed Todd Gurley last off-season, hoping that the former MVP candidate would bounce back on a one-year deal, but he managed just a 3.48 YPC average on 195 carries and by the end of the season was splitting carries with Brian Hill and Ito Smith. Hill and Smith fared better, averaging 4.65 YPC on 100 carries and 4.25 YPC on 63 carries respectively, but the Falcons still finished the season 31st in the NFL with 3.75 YPC and all three of Gurley, Hill, and Smith were not retained this off-season.

In free agency, the Falcons signed ex-Panther Mike Davis to a 2-year, 5.5 million dollar deal, but Davis isn’t a feature caliber back that the Falcons don’t need another capable back to pair with, so it was very surprising they didn’t add a running back at all on draft day. Davis essentially was a feature back last season with the Panthers, with 163 carries and 51 catches in 12 starts when running back Christian McCaffrey was injured, but his efficiency stats left something to be desired, as he averaged just 3.91 yards per carry and 4.82 yards per target in those 12 starts.

Davis also had never played nearly as significant of a role as he did last year in his previous 5 seasons in the league, entering last season with 247 career carries and 66 career catches, and his efficiency stats weren’t impressive over those touches either, with 3.59 YPC and 5.00 yards per target. A running back in his age 28 season, it’s highly unlikely Davis suddenly breaks out as a feature caliber running back. He figures to be underwhelming for the Falcons, but could total some relatively impressive numbers based on the volume he figures to handle, barring the addition of another veteran running back in free agency.

The Falcons’ decision to not yet add another running back may say something about 2019 5th round pick Qadree Ollison, but it’s hard to expect anything from him, given that he has just a 2.30 YPC on 23 career carries, with just 1 of those carries coming last season. He’s currently penciled in as the #2 running back by default, because Tony Brooks-James, who has just 11 career rushing yards, is their only other running back with NFL experience. 

The Falcons also signed hybrid wide receiver/running back Cordarelle Patterson in free agency and he has averaged 4.50 YPC over the past 3 seasons on 125 carries, while adding 70 catches in 57 games, but he isn’t a legitimate option for a significant role as a runner, with his career high in carries being the 64 he had last season. This is arguably the most underwhelming running back group in the NFL.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

I will get into Kyle Pitts and this receiving corps shortly, but one player they could have selected with the 4th overall pick if they didn’t have a good offer to trade down was offensive tackle Penei Sewell. The Falcons have used three first round picks on offensive linemen since 2014, including a pair in 2019, but they still had a glaring need upfront going into the draft, with veteran center Alex Mack and veteran left guard James Carpenter not being retained in free agency, one that Pewell could have addressed.

Neither Mack nor Carpenter played all that well last season and the Falcons had 2020 3rd round pick Matt Hennessy, a versatile interior lineman who could have taken over for either one of them, but Hennessy struggled on 225 rookie year snaps and even if he can develop into a capable starter in his second season in the league, he can only start at one position. On top of that, 2019 1st round pick Kaleb McGary has disappointed in two seasons in the league (29 starts), showing some ability as a run blocker, but earning below average pass protection grades from PFF in both seasons, and he could have moved inside to guard if the Falcons selected Pewell 4th overall. 

Instead, the Falcons addressed the offensive line in the 3rd and 4th rounds, adding Michigan’s Jalen Mayfield and Stanford’s Drew Dalman. Mayfield was a tackle in college and it’s possible he stays at right tackle as a professional, moving McGary inside, but Mayfield also fell in the draft because of his short arms and might profile better as a guard at the next level. Either way, he has a good chance to start week 1, even as just a 3rd round rookie, as the Falcons’ next best option would be plugging swing tackle Matt Gono, who has struggled on 379 career snaps since going undrafted in 2018, into the starting lineup somewhere. 

Dalman, meanwhile, could push Hennessy at center if Hennessy continues to struggle there in his 2nd season. It’s good the Falcons addressed their offensive line with multiple picks, but it’s unclear how much either will be able to contribute as a rookie. With Hennessy and McGary being unreliable young starting options as well, particularly the former, the Falcons are hoping that multiple unproven players will surprise upfront. Most likely, left tackle Jake Matthews and right guard Chris Lindstrom will remain the Falcons’ best two offensive linemen. 

Unlike fellow first round pick Kaleb McGary, who has yet to establish himself, Matthews and Lindstrom have proven to be worth the first round picks the Falcons invested in them, in 2014 and 2019 respectively. After a shaky rookie year, Matthews has developed into a consistently above average left tackle, finishing with an above average grade from PFF in all 6 seasons since his rookie year, including 4 seasons in the top-12. He’s never finished higher than 10th at his position in a single season, but he’s been highly consistent and very reliable, with just 1 start missed in 7 seasons in the league, and he’s still very much in his prime in his age 29 season, so I don’t expect any sort of noticeable dropoff from him in 2021.

Lindstrom, meanwhile, was a surprise pick 14th overall when the Falcons selected him, one pick after the Dolphins took Atlanta’s original target, defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. However, after a promising, but injury plagued rookie year, in which he played just 309 snaps, Lindstrom broke out as PFF’s 9th ranked guard in 16 starts in his second season in the league in 2020. He’s not a guarantee to be as good again in 2021, as the development of young players is not always linear, but he’s also only in his age 24 season and could keep getting better and develop into one of the better guards in the league over the next couple seasons. This is probably a below average offensive line, but they have some young players with upside.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Note: This was written before the Julio Jones trade, which I get into in the conclusion.

With the Falcons lacking financial flexibility this off-season, their biggest off-season addition was 4th overall pick Kyle Pitts. Tight end wasn’t really a need, but Pitts is an elite receiving prospect who can be an obvious upgrade over Hayden Hurst, a former 1st round pick in his own right who the Falcons acquired from the Ravens for a 2nd round pick last off-season, but who has failed to live up to expectations throughout his career, averaging just 1.27 yards per route run in 3 seasons in the league, with 99 catches in 44 games. Old for a rookie, Hurst is already going into his age 28 season, so it’s unlikely he has significant untapped upside. 

Hurst had a 56/571/6 slash line last season, but he is unlikely to get the opportunity to even come close to those numbers, which came on 88 targets, while Pitts has a good chance to exceed those numbers even as a rookie. However, he might not exceed those numbers by as much as you’d expect, as rookie tight ends notoriously have a steep learning curve in the NFL and only 13 tight ends exceeded that receiving total in 2020. Pitts will make an impact on this offense, but it’s unlikely to be the impact needed to justify his draft slot, especially on a team that already had a good passing game.

Last season, that passing game was led by third year receiver Calvin Ridley, as the former first round pick finished with a 90/1374/9 slash line (5th in the NFL in receiving yards) and became the first Falcon other than Julio Jones to lead this team in receiving yardage since 2013. Ridley showed potential in the first two years of his career, averaging 1.73 yards per route run and he took a noticeably step forward in his third season in the league, with his yards per route run shooting up to 2.44, 8th in the NFL. Ridley might not quite be as good in 2021, but he looks like one of the better young receivers in the league.

Julio Jones is still on this team, but injuries limited him to 468 snaps in 9 games in 2020. He still showed his usual form when on the field, averaging 2.60 yards per route run, in line with his career average of 2.68, and ranking 9th among wide receivers on PFF, his 7th straight season in the top-9 at his position. Both of those make him among the most accomplished wide receivers of the past decade, but the injuries are starting to pile up for a receiver who hasn’t finished in the top-10 among wide receivers in routes run in a season since 2014 and, now going into his age 32 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his efficiency decline as well. 

Jones will probably remain one of the better wide receivers in the league even if he does decline, but wide receivers tend to drop off pretty suddenly around 33-34. The Falcons also have reportedly explored trades for Jones and his 18.05 million dollar salary, but they’re unlikely to move him unless they get the kind of offer they’re unlikely to get from a team. The Falcons already signaled by keeping Matt Ryan and not selecting a quarterback at 4 that the Falcons still view themselves in win-now mode and trading Jones for a draft pick in 2022 or beyond would not work to that goal.

The Falcons will probably use more two tight end sets this season with Pitts being added and Hurst now becoming one of the better #2 tight ends in the league, but they also have decent depth at wide receiver, with 2018 6th round pick Russell Gage stepping up as the Falcons’ #3 receiver in his third season in the league in 2020. Gage had averaged 1.24 yards per route run in limited action in his first two seasons in the league, but saw that increase to 1.52 yards per route run in close to an every down role last season, with Jones injured or limited for much of the seasons, leading to Gage finishing the season with a 72/786/4 slash line. 

With Pitts coming in and Jones likely to give the Falcons more than he did last season, Gage will probably see his playing time and targets drop, but he’s still a capable #3 receiver. The Falcons also have hybrid player Cordarelle Patterson, who was mentioned in the running back section. This is obviously a talented receiving corps, but it doesn’t mask the Falcons’ concerns at running back and on the offensive line enough for this offense to be significantly improved over their 16th ranked finish in first down rate over expected in 2020.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The Falcons also had numerous defensive needs they did not adequately address this off-season, most notably the edge defender position. The Falcons have seemingly needed pass rush help forever, somehow not topping 39 sacks in a season since 2004 and totaling a well below average 29 sacks last season. It’s even worse than that looks for their edge defenders, as their team leader in sacks with 4.5 was blitzing linebacker Deion Jones, followed by defensive tackle Grady Jarrett with 4, while no edge defender had more than 3 sacks.

It’s not as if the Falcons have not tried to address the position over the years, making numerous big investments. They used first round picks on edge defenders in 2015 and 2017, taking Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley, but both proved to be busts and are no longer with the team, Beasley not being retained as a free agent last off-season and McKinley being cut in the middle of last season after a disappointing 85 snaps in his first 4 games. 

The Falcons also handed out a big contract to free agent Dante Fowler last off-season, signing the former Jaguar and Ram to a deal worth 45 million over 3 years, but he too proved to be a bust in his first season in Atlanta, managing just 3 sacks, 6 hits, and a 7.8% pressure rate and ranking 118th among 125 eligible edge defenders on PFF on 601 snaps. Fowler’s contract guaranteed him 6 million of his 2021 salary, so the Falcons didn’t have a choice but to bring him back and hope he bounces back, but his contract was an overpay even before last year’s terrible season, as he’s never finished higher than 33rd among edge defenders on PFF in 6 seasons in the league. 

Fowler had 11.5 sacks in 2019 with the Rams, which is why the Falcons paid him like they did, but that was a misleading total, as he had just 6 other hits, though he did have a 13.1% pressure rate. That sack total is also out of line with his career numbers, as he’s never topped 8 sacks in another season and, in total, has just 30.5 sacks, 28 hits, and a 10.5% pressure rate in 77 career games. Fowler might not be quite as bad as he was last season, but I wouldn’t expect more than middling play from him and he shouldn’t approach his 2019 sack total.

This off-season, the Falcons didn’t have the opportunity to make a big investment on the position, without financial flexibility in free agency and with other needs to address in the draft. As a result, 5th round rookie Ta’Quon Graham and veteran journeyman Barkevious Mingo, who is in his age 31 season and who has played just 464 snaps on defense over the past two seasons combined, were their only off-season additions at the position. As a result of that, the Falcons will likely rely on Steven Means as the starter opposite Fowler once again.

A 5th round pick in 2013, Means was primarily a special teamer in his first 7 seasons in the league, playing 333 snaps total on defense over that stretch, but, purely out of desperation, the Falcons played him on 645 snaps last season, almost doubling his previous career total. Means predictably struggled, finishing 92nd out of 125 eligible edge defenders on PFF and totaling 3 sacks, 2 hits, and a very underwhelming 6.2% pressure rate. Now going into his age 32 season, I don’t expect a sudden late career breakout, but he could see a similar snap count, again purely out of desperation.

Along with Mingo and Graham, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner also figures to be in the mix for a reserve role, after playing 376 snaps in one last season, but he finished just 113th out of 125 eligible edge defenders on those snaps, so he too is an underwhelming option, especially since he is a 2018 undrafted free agent who had played just 187 career snaps prior to last season. This should remain one of the worst edge defender groups in the league again this season, which will severely limit this defense.

Grade: C

Interior Defenders

The Falcons are better on the interior, but largely by default and primarily because of Grady Jarrett, who was their best defensive player overall last season and could do so again in 2021. Jarrett’s 4 sacks don’t jump off the page, but he added 18 hits and a 10.0% pressure rate, while dominating against the run, leading to him earning PFF’s 15th ranked grade among interior defenders. That’s nothing new for the 2015 5th round pick either, as he has totaled 21.5 sacks, 48 hits, and a 9.6% pressure rate over the past 4 seasons combined, while finishing in the top-16 among interior defenders on PFF in all 4 seasons. Still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, with just 3 games missed in 6 seasons in the league, I see no reason to expect anything different from Jarrett in 2021, barring a fluke injury.

The rest of this group left something to be desired last season, but there are some intriguing options in this group. A 4th round pick in 2019, John Cominsky only had 1 sack last season, but he added 2 hits, and a 8.0% pressure rate in a limited role, playing 399 snaps overall. He also flashed on 100 snaps as a rookie and has earned a larger role in his third season in the league, particularly in passing situations. Second year player Marlon Davidson also figures to see a larger role in 2021, after being limited to 132 snaps in 8 games in an injury plagued rookie year. Davidson didn’t show much in that limited action, but he was a 2nd round pick and could easily be significantly improved in year two, especially if he can stay relatively healthy.

The Falcons also have veteran Tyeler Davison, who played 519 snaps last season, but struggled across those snaps, finishing 87th out of 138 eligible interior defenders on PFF. He’s never been much of a pass rusher, with 5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 4.7% pressure rate in 93 games in 6 seasons in the league since being selected in the 5th round by the Saints in 2015, but he had typically been a solid run stuffer before last season. 

Davison is not over the hill, only in his age 29 season, but it’s still possible his best days are behind him and he’s never been more than a situational player who has topped out at 588 snaps in a season. Still, he could be better in 2021 than 2020, especially if he plays a more limited role and is able to stay fresher. I would expect this position group to be better this season than last season and Jarrett is one of the best players in the league at this position, but there are still question marks here.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Falcons’ linebackers were their best group on defense last season and, while that’s not saying much, they were a solid unit overall and should remain one in 2021. Deion Jones leads the way as an every down player, playing 895 snaps last season and finishing 16th among off ball linebackers on PFF, his 4th straight season in the top-17 at his position. Jones is above average both in coverage and against the run and, still very much in his prime in his age 27 season, I wouldn’t expect anything different from him in 2021.

Foyesade Oluokun is their second linebacker and he plays close to every down as an outside linebacker, seeing 895 snaps in 15 games. A 6th round pick in 2018, last season was by far the most single season action of his career, but he flashed potential across 835 combined snaps in his first two seasons before earning a middling grade last season, so it’s not as if his solid season came out of nowhere. Now entering the final year of his rookie deal, I would expect more of the same from Oluokun in 2021.

The Falcons run a significant amount of sub packages, so they don’t use a third linebacker all that often, but 2020 4th round pick Mykal Walker excelled in that role in limited action last season, flashing a ton of potential on 387 snaps, actually earning PFF’s 9th highest off ball linebacker grade in his limited action. He’ll likely remain in that same limited role in his second season in the league in 2021, but the long-term plan may be for him to replace Oluokun as an every down player, with Oloukun set to hit free agency next off-season and, in the short-term, he could easily remain an above average option as a third linebacker for the occasions when the Falcons need to line up in base packages, even if he isn’t quite as good on a per snap basis he was in 2021. This is a solid group overall.

Grade: B+

Secondary

After selecting Kyle Pitts with the 4th selection, the Falcons used their next draft pick, 40th overall in the early second round, on a safety, addressing one of their many defensive needs by taking UCF’s Richie Grant. Grant is expected to have a chance to start immediately for a defense that no longer has its top-4 safeties from last season in terms of snaps played, including long-term starters Keanu Neal and Ricardo Neal. The Falcons didn’t get great play from their safeties last season, but they had to completely retool the position this off-season.

The Falcons did a good job of that all things considered. Grant may show growing pains as a rookie, but was a solid value with the 40th overall pick and projects as an above average starter long-term. Grant is also expected to start next to veteran safety Duron Harmon, who the Falcons signed for just over the minimum this off-season. Harmon was never higher on the depth chart than the third safety in his first 7 seasons in the league with New England from 2013-2019, but he still saw plenty of action, averaging 621 snaps per season in his final 5 seasons with the team and generally holding up well, before getting his first actual starting job with the Lions last season, with whom he made 16 starts and earned a middling grade from PFF for his efforts. 

Harmon doesn’t come with a high upside and his best days could be behind him, now heading into his age 30 season, but he could easily have another capable season as a starter and prove to be a good value as a cheap free agent signing. The Raiders also signed another veteran Erik Harris, to a cheap deal in free agency, and he has decent experience as well, with 30 starts over the past 3 seasons, but he’s generally been a level below Harmon and finished last season 72nd out of 99 eligible safeties on PFF. The Falcons also have 2020 4th round pick Jaylinn Hawkins, who saw just 76 snaps as a rookie, but could be in the mix for a role in his second season in the league in 2021.

At cornerback, however, the Falcons did not do a good job of addressing their need. The Falcons have used premium draft picks on cornerbacks in recent drafts, taking Isaiah Oliver in the 2nd round in 2018 and AJ Terrell in the 1st round in 2020, but both have been inconsistent and have yet to live up to their draft range. Last season, the Falcons highest rated cornerback was actually veteran slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard, but he was unspectacular and played just 439 snaps in 8 games due to injury, before being allowed to walk as a free agent this off-season.

With Dennard gone, I expected the Falcons to use a premium pick on a replacement, but instead couldn’t address the position until taking Darren Hall and Avery Williams in the 4th and 5th rounds respectively. With both players unlikely to be a factor as a rookie, Terrell and Oliver look likely to remain as the starters, with 2019 4th round pick Kendall Sheffield taking over as the 3rd cornerback. Terrell has the most upside of the bunch, as he was a first round pick just a year ago and was decent as a rookie. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take a step forward and become an above average starter as the Falcons’ de facto #1 cornerback.

Oliver and Sheffield are less inspiring. Oliver flashed on 241 snaps as a rookie, but since becoming a starter over the past two seasons, he has finished 95th among 135 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in 2019 and 76th among 136 eligible in 2020. Sheffield, meanwhile, has been even worse, finishing 124th out of 135 eligible on 697 snaps in 2019 and 131st out of 136 eligible on 524 snaps. The Falcons have youth at the cornerback position, so they have some upside, but overall they’re in a tough situation at the position. Even though their safeties look decent, this secondary still figures to struggle to stop opposing passing games all season.

Grade: C+

Kicker/Punter

The Falcons are in good shape at both punter and kicker going into 2021, bringing back Sterling Hofrichter and Younghoe Koo. Koo is the better known of the two because he is the only kickoff specialist who can kick recoverable onside kicks at any sort of statistically above average rate and he’s also developed into an above average placekicker as well, making 48/52 extra points and 60/65 field goals over the past two seasons, including all nine attempts from 50+ yards. However, Horichter is a solid player as well, finishing 12th among punters on PFF in his first year in the league in 2020, after being selected by the Falcons in the 7th round. It’s possible he could be better in year two and this should remain a solid duo.

Grade: B+

Return Specialists

Brandon Powell was both the Falcons’ punt and kickoff return specialist last season. He did a decent job on punt returns, averaging 8.9 yards per and finishing above average on PFF across 17 returns, but he averaged just 20.1 yards per on 17 kickoff returns and was PFF’s worst ranked kickoff returner out of 51 eligible. Powell is no longer with the team and on kickoff returns will be replaced by one of the best kickoff returners in NFL history, Cordarelle Patterson, who has averaged a whopping 29.8 yards per return with 8 touchdowns on 239 career returns.

Patterson has only ever returned one punt, but the Falcons’ 5th round rookie cornerback Avery Williams was a prolific return man in college, averaging 11.6 yards per punt return with 6 scores on 82 attempts and 27.4 yards per kickoff return with 3 scores on 38 attempts. He figures to be the primary punt returner, while providing insurance behind Patterson. The Falcons figure to get good return play from both spots in 2021.

Grade: A

Special Teamers

The Falcons’ special teams were middling at best as a whole in 2020 and there is serious concern beyond their kicker, punter, and returners. The Falcons had nine players see at least 150 snaps as a special teamer in 2020. Three of them earned above average grades from PFF, but LaRoy Reynolds (266 snaps) and Edmond Robinson (182 snaps) are no longer with the team while Jacob Tuioti-Mariner (209 snaps) could be needed more on defense and see fewer special teams snaps as a result. Even if he doesn’t, last season was his first season on special teams, so he doesn’t have a proven track record.

Jaylinn Hawkins (150 snaps) and Mykal Walker (182 snaps) also had solid seasons on special teams in 2020, but they are candidates to see more playing time on defense and less time on special teams in 2021, in just their second seasons in the league. On top of that, Sherrod Neasman (296 snaps) and Luke Stocker (219 snaps), while not playing all that well last season, are no longer with the team and could be missed for experience purposes. Keith Smith (256 snaps) and Jaeden Graham (214 snaps) are likely to return to their same role, but both earned below average grades from PFF in 2020. Smith has at least been somewhat better in the past and is experienced with five seasons over 200 special teams snaps, but Graham also struggled across 300 snaps in his first career special teams action in 2019.

The Falcons added a couple reinforcements in free agency. Safety Erik Harris is also a candidate to play on defense, but he’s earned above average grades from PFF across 200+ special teams snaps in three of the past four seasons, including a career best finish in 2020 and would likely be their best regular special teamer if used in that capacity. Reserve cornerback Fabian Moreau will likely be a special teamer if he makes the team, but he’s been underwhelming at best across 590 special teams snaps in 4 seasons in the league. The Falcons are likely to be relying on several rookies for significant snaps in this group in 2021.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The good news is the Falcons should have better luck in close games and hold on to more leads this season, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them have fewer leads in the first place. With an aging roster, no financial flexibility this off-season, and significant draft capital being spent on a tight end to add to an already good passing game, the Falcons are likely to enter the season with several glaring weaknesses on both sides of the ball. 

This roster is not clearly better than last season and, while they’ll almost definitely have better luck in close games, they should have worse injury luck, after having the third fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league last season, which would be a problem for an overall top heavy roster. The Falcons are unlikely to seriously compete for a playoff spot this season and it’s not hard to see how injuries to multiple of their key star players could land this team among the worst in the league. I will have a final prediction for the Falcons at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Update: When I wrote this, I didn’t expect Julio Jones to get traded because the Falcons seemed to still be trying to compete in 2021, keeping an aging Matt Ryan and not adding a quarterback of the future behind him when they had the chance. Instead, the Falcons have sent Jones to the Titans for a trade centered around a 2022 2nd round pick. I don’t hate the compensation the Falcons got, but it’s a bit puzzling why a team otherwise trying to compete now would not trade Jones before the draft to ensure they could get a draft pick that could help their team as soon as possible.

Instead, a team with an aging quarterback just flipped his long-time #1 receiver for a draft pick they won’t even get to use for a year. If the Falcons had managed to get a first round pick out of waiting to trade Jones, then it would be somewhat understandable as the Falcons likely would not have gotten a 2021 first round pick for him, but I have a hard time believing the same teams interested in Jones would not have been interested in him at the same price of around a second round pick in this past year’s draft, which they could have used on a necessary addition at any one of their outstanding positions of need.

Making this move now is basically ensuring you’re going to waste one of Matt Ryan’s few remaining seasons. Jones will be replaced in three wide receiver sets by either Cordarrelle Patterson or one or two young former undrafted free agents, Christian Blake and Olamide Zaccheaus, who have just 24 catches and 23 catches respectively in their careers. Even if Jones was getting up there and age and a second round pick was reasonable compensation for him, there is no denying that is a significant downgrade.

8/8/21: The Falcons will get some benefit from their special teams, which is more predictive than I realized, but their defense also fared significantly worse in yards per play allowed than first down rate allowed and yards per play tends to be the more predictive of those two metrics.

9/4/21: The Falcons could have easily won more than 4 games last season and are starting from a higher base point than last season’s record suggests, but they also still have one of the worst defenses in the league, they lost Julio Jones, and, even if their receiving corps can be solid without him, they still have an aging quarterback and can underwhelming offensive line and running game. They seem likely to finish below .500 again. The Falcons would have been better off starting a rebuild in full this off-season if they were planning on trading Jones.

Prediction: 6-11 3rd in NFC South

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