Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers: 2020 Week 8 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (1-6) at Carolina Panthers (3-4)

Coming into the season, I had the Falcons as the better of these two teams and on paper they have more talent, but the Panthers have actually outplayed them by a pretty significant amount. The Panthers have faced a tough schedule overall and have been competitive in every game, with their only loss by more than one score coming against a dominant Buccaneers team in a game in which the Buccaneers won the yards per play battle, only narrow lost the first down rate battle (+1.28%), and had the game within one score late in the 4th quarter before a meaningless touchdown, despite losing the turnover battle by 2. The Falcons, who the Panthers already defeated in Atlanta back in week 5, have been the easiest opponent on the Panthers’ schedule thus far and the Panthers won the first down battle by 4.76% in that 7-point win.

The Panthers have especially outplayed the Falcons on offense, even though that should be a strength for the Falcons. On the season, the Panthers rank 8th in the NFL in first down rate and that’s even more impressive when you consider they’ve faced the 5th toughest schedule of defenses, including a trio of top defenses in the Buccaneers, Chargers, and Bears. Including schedule adjustments, the Panthers rank 2nd in the league in first down rate over expected at +3.14%. By comparison, the Falcons rank 24th in first down rate over expected. 

The Panthers haven’t fared as well on defense, where they rank 26th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.56%, but offensive stats tend to be much more consistent and predictable week-to-week and the Falcons have just a narrow edge over the Panthers on defense, ranking 24th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.43%, as they haven’t been particularly good on either side of the ball. It’s true the Falcons are three improbable blown lead away from being 4-3, but they needed to win the turnover battle against the Cowboys by 3 to gain their big lead in a game in which they lost the first down rate battle by 10.19% and they also lost the first down rate battle to the Lions and in their one win, against the the Vikings. 

Their only first down rate battle win came against the Bears, despite not having a particularly tough schedule, and, on the season, they rank 29th in first down rate differential over expected at -2.70%, significantly behind the 14th ranked Panthers (+1.58%). The Panthers also have the edge in yards per play differential (+0.5 vs -1.0), point differential (-6 vs. -23), and DVOA (+0.6% vs. -13.8%), although when Football Outsiders’ pre-season projections are factored in, the Falcons have the narrow edge in DVOA (-4.9% vs. -6.3%). That last part and the Falcons’ higher level of talent on paper concern me about betting on the Panthers, because by all indications, the Falcons should be better than them, but that hasn’t been the case thus far this season. 

The Falcons have had injury problems this season and have gotten healthier in recent weeks, even since their week 5 matchup with the Panthers, as they’ll have Julio Jones in the lineup this time around, while the Panthers may be going the other way, without left tackle Russell Okung and a few lesser players on the defensive side of the ball. However, it’s also a possibility the Panthers get feature back Christian McCaffrey back from injury this week, which would obviously be a big boost. 

For now, I’m leaving this as a low confidence pick and this line may change from Carolina -2.5 if McCaffrey is active, but even if it does I may consider betting the Panthers, as long as the line doesn’t exceed 3. Favorites typically are at a big advantage on Thursdays and there’s a good argument to be made for the Panthers being significantly better than the Falcons if McCaffrey can go. I will have an update if needed. I am also locking in the below picks for this week before the lines move. I will have full write ups for those picks with the others as usual this weekend.

MIN +7 @ GB

IND -2.5 @ DET

Update: McCaffrey is out, but I wasn’t really expecting him to play this week and the spread has dropped to 1 as a result. I am comfortable with the Panthers at that number as they have significantly outplayed the Falcons this season, particularly on the more predictable side of the ball.

Carolina Panthers 31 Atlanta Falcons 27

Pick against the spread: Carolina -1

Confidence: Medium

Detroit Lions at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Detroit Lions (2-3) at Atlanta Falcons (1-5)

These two teams are pretty similar. Both teams look like middling teams on paper, but have struggled in first down rate differential, with the Falcons ranking 30th at -5.53% and the Lions ranking 28th at -4.83%. Both teams have primarily struggled on defense, ranking 30th and 31st respectively in first down rate allowed, but their offenses have also been disappointing, as they have the offensive talent to be above average on that side of the ball, but have not been thus far. At their best, these are both middling teams that can compensate for a below average defense with an above average offense.

The Lions have a pair of wins, but one came against the Jaguars and the other came by just three points against the Cardinals in a game in which the Lions lost the first down rate battle by 10.50%, but managed to win because of a +3 turnover margin, which isn’t replicable every week. The Falcons, meanwhile, are legitimately a couple plays away from being 3-3, blowing near impossible to blow leads against the Cowboys and Bears, but they lost the first down rate battle against the Cowboys (-10.80%) and against the Vikings last week (-8.56%). 

When adjusted for strength of schedule, the Falcons have a decent lead in first down rate differential (-3.47% vs. -5.07%) because they’ve faced a much tougher schedule and they have the slight edge in my roster rankings as well, so they should be considered the better team, even if only by a slim margin. However, this line has it somewhat backwards, favoring the Falcons by just a point at home, suggesting the Lions are the slightly better team. It’s not enough to make the Falcons worth betting, but my calculated line is -3 and the Falcons should have a good chance to cover in a game in which they basically just need to win to cover.

Atlanta Falcons 34 Detroit Lions 31

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -1

Confidence: Low

Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings: 2020 Week 6 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (0-5) at Minnesota Vikings (1-4)

The Vikings are just 1-4, but they’ve played much better than their record has suggested. For one, their early schedule has been absolutely brutal, with their easiest game coming on the road in Houston against a Texans team that is also a lot better than it’s 1-4 record. The Vikings won that game and have been competitive in most of their other games, despite the tough competition and despite some fluky things going against them that should even out in the long run (opponents are 6 for 8 on fourth downs, Vikings are 3 for 6, opponents are 15 for 15 on field goals, the Vikings have recovered just 33.33% of available fumbles). In terms of first down rate differential, the Vikings rank 10th in the league at +2.79%, despite the toughest schedule in the league. 

The Vikings’ schedule gets a lot easier this week, as they are hosting the winless Falcons in Minnesota. They’ve been about as bad as there record would suggest, ranking 29th in first down rate differential -4.95%.Their offense is better than it’s played so far (23rd in first down rate differential at 37.57%) but their defense is undoubtedly one of the worst in the league and, with the Vikings being a formidable opponent, I have this line calculated at Minnesota -7.5, even taking into account that the Vikings won’t have star running back Dalvin Cook due to an injury and that they won’t have any traditional fans for this game. This line is at just 4 because the general public doesn’t realize the Vikings have played so much better than their record suggests and we’re getting great line value as a result. This is one of my top picks I am considering for Pick of the Week and, even if it’s not my top pick this week, this still is worth a big play.

Minnesota Vikings 31 Atlanta Falcons 23

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -4

Confidence: High

Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (2-2) at Atlanta Falcons (0-4)

I typically like to go against significant week-to-week line movements because they tend to be overreactions to a single week of play and that is the case here, with the Panthers going from 3.5-point underdogs in this game in Atlanta on the early line last week to just 1-point underdogs now, likely as a result of their home win over the Cardinals last week. That’s a big shift, considering about 1 in 4 games are decided by 1-3 points. The Cardinals were an overrated team entering that game though and they were also very banged up, missing a trio of defensive starters, so the Panthers shouldn’t get too much credit for that.

The Falcons are obviously missing a key player in Julio Jones, who looks likely to miss his 2nd game of the season with a hamstring injury after not practicing all week, but they’re actually otherwise getting a lot healthier, particularly on defense, where they will get safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, edge defender Takkarist McKinley, and cornerback AJ Terrell back this week. None of those players are great, but they provide necessary upgrades for a defense that has been one of the worst few in the league thus far this season. The Falcons should be favored at least by a field goal at home, even without normal homefield advantage, as they are the better of these two teams in their current states. This isn’t a big play, but in a game the Falcons just need to win to cover, they’re worth a bet.

Atlanta Falcons 34 Carolina Panthers 30

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -1

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at Green Bay Packers: 2020 Week 4 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (0-3) at Green Bay Packers (3-0)

The Packers won last week in New Orleans to push their record to 3-0. Making that more impressive is the fact that they were without top wide receiver Davante Adams and top defensive lineman Kenny Clark, who has actually missed each of the past two seasons. Both players are expected to return this week after getting limited practices in every day this week, but that’s not a guarantee and the Packers have other key players who are questionable, with both center Corey Linsley and cornerback Jaire Alexander missing practice on Friday. On top of that, top linebacker Christian Kirksey, blocking tight end Marcedes Lewis, and starting wide receiver Allen Lazard are expected to miss their first game of the season this week.

I can’t bet the Packers confidently given all their injury questions, but if they have most or all of their questionable players in the lineup, I think they’re worth a bet. Not only would we be getting some line value with the Packers (my calculated line is Green Bay -10 if Green Bay’s questionables are active), but the Packers are in a great spot at home as big favorites before a bye. Since 2002, home favorites of 7+ are 63-25 ATS before a bye. I’m leaving this as a low confidence pick for now, but if the Packers are relatively healthy, this line is too low. Even if they’re missing key players, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were still able to take care of business before a bye against this underwhelming Falcons team.

Update: Both Clark and Adams are out again for the Packers. The line has dropped to 5 to compensate, but my calculated line dropped to 6.5, so we’re not getting much value. The Packers are still my pick, but I’m leaving this as a low confidence pick.

Green Bay Packers 34 Atlanta Falcons 27

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -5

Confidence: Low

Chicago Bears at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (2-0) at Atlanta Falcons (0-2)

I wasn’t high on the Bears coming into the season because their defense wasn’t what it once was and their offense didn’t appear to be noticeably approved. It’s early and they’ve had a relatively easy schedule, but their quarterback play and offensive line play have both been better than expected and, perhaps most importantly, they’re one of the few teams in the league that haven’t had significant injury problems yet and they enter this game as close to full strength as anyone. As a result of that, they have shot up to 14th in my roster rankings.

That’s a few spots higher than the Falcons, who are dealing with injuries to several players, as wide receiver Julio Jones, right tackle Kaleb McGary, linebacker Foyesade Oluokun, and edge defenders Dante Fowler and Takkarist McKinley are all highly questionable after either barely practicing or not practicing this week. It’s tough to make a pick without knowing the status of all of those players, but I’m tentatively on the Bears and may even wager on them depending on how many Falcons are out.

Update: The injury report is not good for the Falcons, with Jones, McGary, Oluokun, and McKinley all out, along with cornerback AJ Terrell, who is on the COVID list. Unfortunately, this line moved down to 2.5 to compensate. An Atlanta win by a field goal at home is still a likely possibility, so I don’t love this play against the spread, but I think the Bears have a slightly better chance of winning this game overall than the Falcons (my calculated line is Chicago -1.5), so I like the value getting them +115 to win straight up.

Final Update: Some +3s have started showing up again, with higher vig. Field goal games are so common that I think it’s worth betting that line even if you have to pay a higher vig.

Chicago Bears 26 Atlanta Falcons 24 Upset Pick +115

Pick against the spread: Chicago +3

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at Dallas Cowboys: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (0-1) at Dallas Cowboys (0-1)

Going into the season, I liked the Cowboys’ chances of being a contender, after tough luck in close games in 2019 (0-5 in games decided by 7 points or fewer after going 8-2 in those type of games with roughly the same team in 2018) led to the Cowboys missing the playoffs at 8-8, despite finishing 6th in the league in point differential at +113 and 4th in first down rate differential at +4.28%. However, the Cowboys are having a different kind of tough luck this season, as they’ve been arguably the most injury affected team in the league so far. 

They lost defensive tackle Gerald McCoy for the year before the season even started and right tackle La’El Collins, tight end Blake Jarwin, and linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee are all out for an extended period of time now as well. The Cowboys do get cornerback Jourdan Lewis back after he missed the opener and the Cowboys are counting on the promising young cornerback as a starter in 2020 to replace departed free agent Byron Jones, but they could be without a far more important player than Lewis in this game, left tackle Tyron Smith, who aggravated a previous injury in practice early this week and has not returned since. 

Smith is listed as questionable, suggesting he has a decent chance to play even though he didn’t practice at all Thursday or Friday, but he may be less than 100% and could easily have an in-game setback and have to leave the game. Without him, the Cowboys would be without their top-3 offensive tackles, with normal bookend Collins and swing tackle Cameron Erving both on injured reserve right now. The Falcons also could be without their left tackle though, as Jake Matthews barely practiced this week through injury and is likely in a similar situation as Smith where even if he plays he could be limited or have a setback. Matthews isn’t as big of a name as Smith, but he’d be as big of an absence to the Falcons as Smith would be to the Cowboys.

With Matthews and Smith both being up in the air, it’s hard to be confident in either side on this one, but there are reasons to like Atlanta, especially if Matthews can go and/or Smith can’t. This line was originally at 7 before all of the Cowboys injuries, but, particularly if Smith can’t go, this line didn’t move enough, down to 4.5. With Smith and Matthews factored in as highly questionable, I have the Cowboys just three spots ahead of the Falcons in my roster rankings and the Cowboys won’t have their normal homefield advantage either, with a limited crowd in the stands, giving us a calculated line of just -3 as of right now.

The Falcons are also in a much better spot schedule wise, as the Cowboys have to turn around and go to Seattle next week, while the Falcons get to host the Bears. Underdogs are 76-38 ATS since 2016 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs and all three of those conditions are almost definitely true here. Depending on injury reports and associated line movement, I may end up placing a bet on the Falcons, but for now this is a low confidence pick because of the uncertainty around Matthews and Smith.

Update: Matthews is playing and Smith is not, but this line has dropped all the way to 3, so there’s isn’t enough line value here. I think the single most likely outcome of this game is still the Cowboys winning by 3, so I’d want at least 3.5 for this to be worth a bet. 

Dallas Cowboys 27 Atlanta Falcons 26

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +3

Confidence: Low

Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Seattle Seahawks (0-0) at Atlanta Falcons (0-0)

The Seahawks weren’t as good as their 11-5 record suggested last season, as they went 10-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less and just 1-3 in games decided by more than a touchdown. They also lost Jadeveon Clowney this off-season and he was arguably their best defensive player last season. Despite that, I still have the Seahawks ranked 11th in my roster rankings, due to the incredible job they’ve done rebuilding their secondary. 

This off-season, the Seahawks added cornerback Quinton Dunbar and safety Jamal Adams to a unit that already saw significant improvement down the stretch last season after adding Quandre Diggs in a deadline trade. Including top cornerback Shaq Griffin, the Seahawks have arguably the best secondary in the NFL, which buoys a roster that is otherwise underwhelming around the quarterback and that is especially weak on the defensive line.

That being said, I don’t really like the Seahawks’ chances week 1, for a couple reasons. For one, they typically are a much better team later in the season, going 38-39-6 ATS in week 9 or earlier and 49-26-2 ATS in weeks 10-17 since Pete Carroll’s first season in 2010. Breaking that down even further, the Seahawks are just 6-13-1 ATS in weeks 1 and 2 over that stretch. This is a well coached team that normally figures it out by the end of the season, but they don’t usually start strong.

The second reason I don’t really like the Seahawks’ chances this week is simply that the Falcons won’t be an easy opponent. I have the Seahawks 11th in my roster rankings, but the Falcons are just one spot behind. I don’t have them making the playoffs, but that’s primarily due to a brutal schedule. The Falcons finished last season 7th in first down rate and 24th in first down rate allowed, giving them the 15th ranked first down rate differential in the league, and offensive performance tends to be much more consistent on a year-to-year basis than defensive performance. They also enter the season without injury concerns.

The Falcons won’t need to have a great or even a good defense to be a competitive football team and if they can be even just a few spots better than last season on defense while continuing their offensive performance, they could easily be a playoff caliber team. Given that, I think they’re a little underrated, opening the season as 2.5 point home underdogs. The Falcons won’t have their normal homefield advantage and very few games are decided by 3 points or fewer, so this won’t be a big bet, but I would consider increasing the play if this line happens to move to a field goal.

Atlanta Falcons 26 Seattle Seahawks 23 Upset Pick +120

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +2.5

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Falcons’ 2019 season got off to a terrible start, as they lost 7 of their first 8 games. That would be bad for most teams, but the Falcons entered last season with one of the most veteran rosters in the league (5th in average age of their roster after final cuts) and surely believed they were capable of being contenders, so having their season essentially be over before the halfway point had to be especially disappointing. Going into the bye at 1-7, many didn’t expect head coach Dan Quinn would make it out of the week with his job, but the Falcons let him at least finish out the season (his 5th with the team) and the team seemingly turned things around overnight, winning 6 of their last 8 games to finish with a 7-9 record, looking like the contender some felt they could be at the beginning of the season.

What changed? Well, that’s a complicated question, but, overall, less changed than you’d think, as they were better than their record during their 1-7 stretch and worse than their record during their 6-2 stretch. For the first 8 games of the season, the Falcons were about even in first down rate differential at -0.29%, as their 1-7 record was largely the result of a -11 turnover margin. The reason why I prefer first down rate differential as a metric over other stats is because it minimizes the effect of outlier players like turnovers that tend to be inconsistent and unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. For example, a team with a +4 turnover margin in a game on average has a turnover margin of +0 the following week and the same is true for a team with a -4 turnover margin.

The Falcons in the second half of the season were a perfect example of that, as they had a +6 turnover margin in the final 8 games of the season and went 6-2 as a result, despite only slightly improving in first down rate differential (+2.56%). With rare exceptions, we should always assume turnover neutral football when evaluating a team going forward, so they aren’t necessarily going to continue the turnover streak they had in the second half of last season, but they still finished last season 7-9 despite a -5 turnover margin and ranked 15th in rate differential on the season at +0.84%, so things are looking relatively hopeful going forward.

However, while not much changed overall with the Falcons before and after their bye in terms of first down rate differential, the kind of games this team played became different. In their first 8 games of the season, they were totally reliant on their offense, which ranked 4th over that stretch with a 41.41% first down rate, while their defense ranked 31st with a 41.70% first down rate allowed. In the second half of the season, their offense actually fell down to a 35.96% rate, 13th in the NFL over that stretch, but they were much more balanced with a defense that somehow shot up to 10th in first down rate allowed over the final 8 games of the season at 33.40%.

I’ll get into the defense later, but the offensive dropoff was reflected in quarterback Matt Ryan’s statistics, as he was less productive down the stretch when they were winning than he was early in the season. Prior to the bye, he completed 70.9% of his passes for an average of 7.61 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions and after the bye he completed 62.2% of his passes for an average of 6.94 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. 

What happened? Well, part of it could be he never fully recovered from an ankle injury that caused him to miss week 8, right before the Falcons’ bye. He also didn’t have the same receiving corps in the second half of the season as he did in the first (more on that later). It could also just be regular variance and randomness within a season as well, as Ryan still finished the season around where he’s used to finishing statistically. His 92.1 QB rating on the season was slightly below his career average of 94.6, as was his 75.8 grade on Pro Football Focus (15th among quarterbacks), but he still had a solid season. Ryan is going into his age 35 season with just 3 missed starts due to injury in his career, at a position where high level players regularly play well into their mid-to-late 30’s, so he should continue getting it done at the same level for at least another couple seasons.

If Ryan does miss time like he did last year, the Falcons would still be turning to veteran Matt Schaub, who was brought back as the primary backup, even though he’s now entering his age 39 season. Schaub hasn’t been a regular starter since 2013 or a capable starter since 2012 and he has thrown just 167 passes over the past 6 seasons combined, but he performed admirably in Ryan’s absence last season against the Seahawks, completing 39 of 52 for 460 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception while leading the Falcons to a 45.07% first down rate in a game they ultimately lost. Schaub is probably in the bottom half of backup quarterbacks in the NFL and his age is a big concern, but he’s an experienced starter who may still have a little bit left in the tank if needed. His presence doesn’t meaningfully affect this position grade.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

As mentioned, Matt Ryan wasn’t working with the same receiving corps in the second half of the season. Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu was traded to New England for a 2nd round pick after week 7, coinciding with Ryan’s statistical drop off, while tight end Austin Hooper and #2 wide receiver Calvin Ridley both missed 3 games with injury. Sanu didn’t do much in New England because he got hurt, but he was on pace for a 75/715/2 slash line before the Falcons traded him and he had a 66/838/4 slash line with the Falcons in 2018. Meanwhile, Hooper’s stats in 13 games would have been a 92/969/7 slash line extrapolated over 16 games, which would have been among the best in the league at his position, while Ridley was on pace for a 78/1066/9 slash line.

When the Falcons had Sanu, Ridley, and Hooper as targets behind wide receivers Julio Jones, they had among the best receiving corps in the NFL, but with Sanu in New England and either Hooper or Ridley missing time with injury, obviously it was a different situation. Ridley is still on the team, but Hooper signed with the Browns this off-season and Sanu is obviously gone, so the Falcons had to reload their receiving corps this off-season. They did so by using the 2nd round pick they got for Sanu to trade for Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst.

Hurst hasn’t played much in 2 seasons in the league (732 snaps), but he’s a former first round pick who has shown plenty of upside in limited action, averaging 1.58 yards per route run and showing promise as a blocker. Hurst hasn’t gotten much playing time because of injuries and players ahead of him on the depth chart in Baltimore, but he has a clear path to a significant starter role in Atlanta, with only blocking tight end Jaeden Graham of note behind him on the depth chart, so, if he can stay healthy, he could easily have a breakout year in his 3rd season in the league on a pass friendly offense. He’s not a sure thing, however, and it’s worth noting he’s old for where he is in his career, already going into his age 27 season.

The Falcons didn’t do anything to replace Sanu though, instead opting to continue playing Russell Gage in the third receiver role, even though he struggled in that role in the second half of last season in Sanu’s absence. A 2018 6th round pick who barely played as a rookie, Gage finished last season with just a 49/446/1 slash line, averaging 1.18 yards per route run, a big drop off from Sanu and Ridley and a big part of the reason why Ryan’s production fell off down the stretch. Barely drafted, Gage isn’t guaranteed to get better in his 3rd season in the league, but they only added former Vikings first round pick bust Laquon Treadwell (65 catches in 53 career games), so Gage has the inside track to a big role as a starter in 3-wide receiver sets.

Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley remain as the top-2 wide receivers and likely the top-2 options in this passing game. Ridley had a solid 2019 season before getting hurt, earning Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked grade among wide receivers, and he was especially productive down the stretch before his injury, unsurprising considering he no longer had to compete with Sanu and Hooper for targets. In his final 4 games of the season, he caught 27 passes for 395 yards and 3 touchdowns, including 22/319/2 on 32 targets in the 3 games he played with Hooper sidelined. 

Ridley was a first round pick in 2018 and has averaged 9.12 yards per target thus far in his career, so he’s dripping with upside going into his 3rd year in the league and what is likely to be the highest target total of his career, even with Hurst coming in to take some targets. Ridley was on pace to exceed 1000 yards last season just by staying healthy and making it through the season and he could easily exceed that total in 2020 if he can stay on the field. He has a lot of breakout potential.

If Ridley exceeds 1000 yards, the Falcons figure to have two 1000+ yard receivers, with Julio Jones having easily exceeded that mark in 6 straight seasons. Over that stretch, he has averaged a 104/1565/6 slash line, best in the NFL, and he has five top-3 finishes among wide receivers on PFF. Age is becoming a concern as the prolific pass catcher is in his age 31 season and could easily decline this season, but even a slightly declined Jones is still one of the better wide receivers in the league. At the very least, he should have another couple strong seasons left in the tank, barring injuries. This is a top heavy receiving corps with little depth, but Jones and Ridley are a great wide receiver duo and Hurst has a lot of upside as a pass catcher at tight end.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Falcons had a productive passing game all season, but struggled mightily on the ground for most of the season, which held this offense back, even if they did finish 7th in first down rate on the season. Part of the problem was the offensive line, which I’ll get into later, but the Falcons also needed to add talent at the running back position, especially after letting go of injury prone lead back Devonta Freeman, who would have been owed 6.5 million in 2020 he had stayed on the roster. Freeman has been limited to a 4.03 YPC and 9 touchdowns on 394 carries over the past 3 seasons, so he’s not hard to replace and he wasn’t worth his salary, but, after releasing him, the Falcons became incredibly thin at the position.

The Falcons found a replacement with another released veteran running back, ex-Ram Todd Gurley. Gurley would have been a much hotter commodity two off-seasons ago, but he’s had injury problems as well, so the Falcons were able to snatch him up on a one-year, 5.5 million dollar flyer. It’s a worthwhile flyer, but he comes with a lot of risk. From 2017-2018, Gurley averaged 268 carries for 1,278 rushing yards (4.77 YPC) and 15 touchdowns per season, while adding an average 62/684/5 slash line through the air, and looked like an MVP candidate for a dominant Rams offense. However, arthritic knees started becoming a problem down the stretch in 2018 and that, combined with having less talent around him, especially on the offensive line, led to him rushing for just 857 yards and 12 touchdowns on 223 carries (3.84 YPC) in 2019.

The Rams could have brought him back for a potential bounce back year in 2020 for only 8 million more than releasing him, but they likely believed Gurley’s knee problems, which started in college, would prevent him from ever being the same running back again, and made the decision to cut him loose before the 4-year, 57.5 million dollar extension he signed two off-seasons technically even started. Given that the Rams guaranteed him about 19 million in new money on that new contract and he never actually played a snap for the team during any of the extension years, it has to go down as one of the worst extensions in recent memory.

However, it arguably would have gotten worse if the Rams hadn’t cut ties when they did, as Gurley could easily have been a sunk cost for them. The upside is still potentially there for a player still only going into his age 26 season and he’ll have the opportunity to be an every down back in Atlanta, but he comes with a lot of risk and, even if he does have a big bounce back year, he can earn up to another 3.5 million in incentives and the Falcons would likely have to give him a big contract to keep him in free agency next off-season, which caps the upside of this contract. The Falcons desperately needed help at the position, so it’s an understandable contract and if nothing else he’s probably a better option than Freeman was, but he could easily disappoint.

It’s also surprising the Falcons didn’t add another running back at some point, given the uncertainty with Gurley. The Falcons have always liked to rotate in a 2nd back somewhat frequently anyway, but they don’t have a good option right now. Holdovers Ito Smith and Brian Hill, who have ranked 2nd on the team in carries in the past two seasons respectively, figure to compete for the primary backup job. 

Hill, a 2017 5th round pick with a career 4.74 YPC average, has shown more in his career than Smith, who has averaged just 3.76 YPC in 2 seasons in the league since going in the 4th round in 2018, but they have just 109 carries and 112 carries respectively in their careers, so they aren’t proven in the slightest at the NFL level. It’s possible one emerges as a capable backup, but they’d likely split carries if Gurley were to get hurt, which would be a very underwhelming backfield situation. This group needs Gurley to stay healthy and perform at least better than he did last season, which is asking a lot.

Grade: B- 

Offensive Line

As mentioned, the Falcons’ offensive line was part of the problem with their running game last season. Part of the problem on the offensive line was injuries, especially at guard, where week 1 starters James Carpenter and Chris Lindstrom were limited to 675 snaps and 309 snaps respectively. Carpenter being healthy wouldn’t have necessarily have helped matters, however, as he was one of the worst guards in the league when on the field, finishing 82nd out of 89 qualifying guards on Pro Football Focus. Injuries may have been part of the problem, but he’s also finished below average on PFF in 3 straight seasons and is now going into his age 31 season, so he’s a very underwhelming starting option. 

Wes Schweitzer, who led the position with 697 snaps last season, including 5 starts at left guard, is no longer with the team, so Carpenter’s only competition for the starting job is fellow veteran Jamon Brown, whose experience is primarily at right guard. Brown wasn’t much better last season, finishing 68th out of 89 qualifying guards on 587 snaps on PFF as an injury replacement for Lindstrom on the right side and he has been an underwhelming starter throughout his career (47 starts in 5 seasons in the league), so he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade, especially since his experience on the left side is limited. Left guard figures to remain a weakness.

Lindstrom’s return at right guard is a much bigger deal, as he was the 14th overall pick by the Falcons in the 2019 NFL Draft and showed promise in limited action at the beginning and end of the season, with a big chunk missed to injury in the middle. Lindstrom should be fully healthy for his second off-season and second season in the NFL, so he could easily have a breakout season. Guards rarely go in the top-15 and Lindstrom was a minor reach by a team that saw their original target Christian Wilkins go one pick ahead of them to the Dolphins, but Lindstrom has the upside to be one of the top-10 players at his position in a few years if he can stay healthy and develop.

Incumbent starters Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, and Kaleb McGary remain at left tackle, center, and right tackle respectively. McGary was a first round pick like Lindstrom and stayed mostly healthy as a rookie, making 16 starts, but he was part of the problem, finishing 77th out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF in a disappointing rookie year. McGary could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but he was a reach like Lindstrom and doesn’t have the same upside, going 31st overall when he was more of a 2nd-3rd round talent. Even if he improves, he still could struggle for stretches.

Matthews and Mack are the long-time veterans on this line, joining the team in 2014 and 2016 respectively and starting at their current spot since arriving. Matthews was the 6th overall pick in 2014 and, after a rough rookie year, he has finished above average on PFF in 5 straight seasons, including 4 seasons in the top-12 and a 10th ranked finish in 2019. Still only going into his age 28 season, Matthews is very much in the prime of his career and already has 95 starts under his belt, only missing one game to injury in his career.

Mack, on the other hand, is going into the twilight of his career, going into his age 35 season, but he still finished 8th among centers on PFF last season, his 11th top-12 finish in as many years in the league. That was slightly down from 2016-2018, when he finished in the top-4 in all 3 seasons, but he hasn’t shown much sign of really slowing down. That could change quickly at his age though, which would be a big blow to this offensive line. The Falcons may have selected his long-term successor in the 3rd round, Temple’s Matt Hennessy, who could potentially play a little guard in a pinch as a rookie if needed. Left guard and right tackle figure to be positions of weakness, but if Mack can hold up another season and Lindstrom can stay healthy, the rest of this line should be in good shape.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

As I mentioned, the Falcons’ defense got significantly better in the second half of last season, going from a 31st ranked 41.70% first down rate allowed in their first 8 games of the season to a 10th ranked 33.40% first down rate allowed in their final 8 games of the season. The reasons for their improvement were much more scheme change related than personnel change related, as head coach Dan Quinn ceded defensive coordinator and play calling duties to assistants and it seemed to make a huge difference. It’s probably unrealistic to expect the Falcons to continue their defensive level of play from the second half of last season, but the arrow is finally pointing up for the Falcons on defense after years of subpar finishes (31st in first down rate allowed in 2018, 25th in 2017, 27th in 2016, and 30th in 2015).

The Falcons also made some big investments in their defense this off-season, using their first two draft picks on defenders and signing ex-Ram Dante Fowler to a 3-year, 45 million dollar deal with 23 million guaranteed in free agency. Fowler has had an interesting career. Drafted 3rd overall in 2015 by the Jaguars, Fowler tore his ACL at his first practice as a professional, missed his whole rookie season, and had lost his starting job by his return, playing just 30.7 snaps per game in 39 games for the Jaguars before they traded him to the Rams for a 3rd and 5th round pick in the middle of the 2018 season. Fowler had shown promise as a pass rusher in limited action with the Jaguars, with a 10.6% pressure rate, but was underwhelming in his half season with the Rams, with a 9.0% pressure rate.

Fowler hit free agency last off-season because the Jaguars had declined his 5th year option, but the Rams were willing to bring him back on a one-year, 12 million dollar deal and were rewarded, as he had 11.5 sacks, a 13.2% pressure rate, and finished 34th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus. With the Rams unable to afford to keep him around this off-season, the Falcons swooped in and got a player who is still only going into his age 26 season and potentially has several prime years left. Fowler is a risky signing because he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being the player he was last season, but he’s a worthwhile risk for a Falcons team that tied for the 2nd fewest sacks in the league with 28 last season.

Fowler will replace Vic Beasley, who, despite a bit of a late season run, still finished with a 9.0% pressure rate in 2019 and was overall inconsistent enough throughout 5 seasons in Atlanta that the Falcons felt they needed to find an upgrade this off-season. Takk McKinley remains as the other starting edge defender, but the Falcons declined his 5th year option for 2021, even though it only guaranteed him 10.05 million for injury, so they don’t seem to be much happier than McKinley, their first rounder in 2016, than they were with Beasley, their first rounder in 2014. 

McKinley is likely going into his final season with the team, but still has some upside, going into just his age 25 season. Thus far in his career he’s gotten middling grades on 34.8 snaps per game from PFF, struggling a bit against the run, while pressuring quarterbacks at a solid 11.8% rate, but he could take a step forward in his 4th year in the league, especially with significant money on the line, now in a contract year.

Adrian Clayborn (439 snaps) was the primary reserve last season and earned an above average grade from PFF for his play, but he left in free agency and was replaced by another former first round pick Charles Harris, who the Falcons acquired this off-season from the Dolphins for just a 7th round pick, just 3 seasons after Miami took him 22nd overall. Harris has just a 9.4% pressure rate and has averaged just 31.0 snaps per game in 41 games in 3 seasons in the league, but could still get better going into his age 25 season. 

 

The Falcons could also get more out of 2019 4th round pick John Comisky, who flashed on 100 snaps as a rookie, especially against the run. Neither McKinley nor Harris play the run well so Cominsky could have a significant role in base packages in his 2nd season in the league. There is upside with this group, but a lot of downside, especially if Dante Fowler regresses after a breakout 2019 contract year.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

As mentioned, the Falcons also used their first two draft picks on defensive players, including using the 47th overall pick on Auburn defensive tackle Marlon Davidson. Davidson figures to be part of the Falcons’ interior defender rotation immediately and could directly replace the 431 snaps left behind by off-season departure Jack Crawford. Davidson will likely have growing pains as a rookie, but Crawford was Pro Football Focus’ 117th ranked interior defender out of 125 qualifiers last season, so it wouldn’t be hard for Davidson to be an upgrade.

The rest of this position group remains the same as last season, though it’s possible 2018 3rd round pick Deadrin Senat could carve out a larger role after surprisingly being limited to 20 snaps despite being healthy last season, after playing 370 snaps as a rookie. Tyeler Davison and Allen Bailey were retained as free agents on deals worth 12 million over 3 years and 8.2 million over 2 years respectively and should play similar roles to last season, when they saw 560 snaps and 511 snaps respectively. Both were primarily base package players, focusing on stopping the run on early downs. Davison earned an above average grade from PFF for his play against the run, but had just a 4.7% pressure rate, while Bailey had a slightly better pressure rate (5.3%), but was underwhelming overall.

Davison has earned an above average run stuffing grade in 3 straight seasons and should remain a useful early down player, but has just a 4.0% career pressure rate in 5 seasons in the league and is unlikely to improve this season. Bailey, meanwhile, is more experienced going into his 10th season in the league (66 starts in 117 games), but has never been particularly good in any one aspect of his game and is now going into his age 31 season. He may remain a capable rotation player for another couple seasons, but I wouldn’t expect much out of him. 

Grady Jarrett remains as an every down player and the leader of this position. The 2015 5th round pick has averaged 47.4 snaps per game over the past 4 seasons and figures to be around there again in 2020. After solid play early in his career, Jarrett broke out as one of the best at his position in his 3rd year in the league in 2017 and has not looked back, finishing in the top-16 among interior defenders on PFF in 3 straight seasons, including a career best 4th in 2019. Still only going into his age 27 season, I see no reason for him to decline any time soon, so he should remain one of the best defensive tackles in the league for at least another few seasons. He elevates an otherwise underwhelming position group.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Along with Grady Jarrett, linebacker Deion Jones is one of the best players on this defense. He missed 10 games with injury in 2018 and the impact of his absence was noticeable, as the Falcons allowed a 36.36% first down rate with him active and a 44.23% first down rate when he was out with injury. Having him healthy for a full season in 2019 seemed like it would be a big boost to the Falcons and, while that boost didn’t come until the second half of the season, Jones was a big part of their second half success and had a strong year overall, finishing 9th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, his 3rd straight season in the top-17. Now going into his age 26 season and his 5th season in the league, Jones is very much in the prime of his career and, outside of that fluke injury in 2018, he’s missed just 1 game in his career. He should remain one of the top off ball linebackers in the league for several years.

De’Vondre Campbell also played a big role on this defense, playing 921 snaps (just 25 fewer than Jones), but he left as a free agent this off-season. His departure could be addition by subtraction though, as he was PFF’s 80th ranked off ball linebacker out of 100 qualifiers last season. He’ll be replaced internally by Foyesade Oluokun, a 2018 6th round pick who has shown enough in limited action in 2 seasons in the league (835 snaps total) to warrant a shot at a larger role. He’s a projection to that larger role, however, and far from a sure thing, though it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Campbell.

The Falcons also signed veteran Deone Bucannon to a one-year deal in free agency and he figures to be the third linebacker in base packages. A first round pick by the Cardinals in 2014, Bucannon seemingly had a breakout second season in the league in 2015, finishing 29th among off ball linebackers on PFF, but he hasn’t come close to playing at that level since. Injuries limited him to 13 and 12 games respectively in the next two seasons and he fell to 58th among off ball linebackers and then 92nd among off ball linebackers in the process, clearly limited by lingering injuries. In 2018, he lost his starting job and continued to struggle in a limited role (389 snaps) and then was cut midway through an equally disappointing 2019 season after signing with the Buccaneers as a free agent, ending the year with just 244 underwhelming snaps between the Buccaneers and Giants. 

At this point, he’s nothing more than a long-shot flyer based on one good season he had now 5 years ago, though he’s young enough (age 28 season) that he could theoretically still have some upside. The Falcons also don’t really have another option for the third base package linebacker spot, besides 4th round rookie Mykal Walker, who isn’t likely to be an upgrade as a rookie. Fortunately, Bucannon wouldn’t have a significant role in this defense in terms of snaps, so he doesn’t factor into this grade overall that much. Like the interior defender position, the Falcons’ linebacking corps is heavily elevated by top linebacker Deion Jones.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Falcons’ first round pick was used on a cornerback, Clemson’s AJ Terrell, and the 16th overall pick figures to start immediately as a rookie. He’ll directly place veteran Desmond Trufant, who was let go this off-season ahead of a non-guaranteed 10.75 million dollar salary for what would have been his 8th season in the league. Trufant didn’t have a bad 2019 season, finishing 34th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, his 7th straight above average season in as many years in the league, but he hasn’t been the same since finishing 11th in 2014 and in recent years has especially been limited by injuries, including 7 games missed last season. 

Trufant’s salary wasn’t unreasonable for him, but the Falcons were up against the cap this off-season and needed to let Trufant go to add Fowler in free agency. They could have kept Trufant and added an edge defender like LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson (the eventual 20th overall pick) with the 16th overall pick instead of signing Fowler and drafting Terrell, but evidently the Falcons liked the cornerbacks available at 16 more than the edge defenders and were confident they could find a replacement for Trufant at 16. Terrell comes with a lot of upside, but was a minor reach and could have growing pains as a rookie. It’s tough to rely on him as arguably your best cornerback. 

Third year cornerback Isaiah Oliver figures to continue starting at the other cornerback spot, after making all 16 starts last season, but he wasn’t particularly good, finishing 95th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. The 2018 2nd round pick flashed on 240 snaps as a rookie and is still only going into his age 24 season, so he still has a lot of upside, but he’s not a sure thing to improve. Kendall Sheffield, a 2019 4th round pick who played 697 snaps as a rookie, figures to be the 3rd cornerback, and the Falcons will obviously need him to improve as well, after a rookie year in which he finished 124th among 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. The Falcons also used a 5th round pick in 2019 on cornerback Jordan Miller, but the 25 snaps he played as a rookie suggests he’s squarely behind Sheffield on the depth chart, as much as Sheffield struggled as a rookie.

Blidi Wreh-Wilson is the only real veteran in the mix. He was solid on 336 snaps last season and was part of why the Falcons were improved down the stretch, playing all but 13 of his snaps in week 7 or later, but that was the most snaps he’s played in a season since 2014, when he struggled mightily on 675 snaps, and he’s now going into his age 31 season, so he’s nothing more than a depth cornerback and special teamer, barring an unlikely late career breakout. He may still see snaps the 4th cornerback, but can’t be counted on for more than that.

Damonte Kazee also has some experience as a slot cornerback, but he’s better as a safety. A 5th round pick in 2017, Kazee barely played as a rookie (165 snaps), but was thrust into significant action in 2018 (991 snaps) when starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen both got hurt early in the season and he earned PFF’s 21st ranked grade on the season. With Neal and Allen both returning for 2019, the Falcons moved Kazee to cornerback, his collegiate position, and played him on the slot, but he struggled and was ultimately moved back to safety when Neal got hurt again and he played better at safety than he did at cornerback, though not as well as he played in 2018. Neal should return for 2020 and Allen is still around, so Kazee doesn’t have a clear path to playing time at safety, but it’s unlikely they use him in any significant role as a cornerback, so he’ll likely be hybrid depth at both spots.

Between the two injuries (2018 torn ACL and 2019 torn achilles), Neal has been limited to 203 snaps over the past 2 seasons and now a once promising career is suddenly a question mark, so having Kazee around as depth is certainly useful. A first round pick in 2016, Neal finished 21st and 17th among safeties on PFF in his first 2 seasons in the league respectively and is still only going into his age 25 season, so he has obvious upside, but he’s an obvious injury risk as well. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he could be facing a make or break year in the league.

Allen, meanwhile, stayed healthy in his first year back from his 2018 torn achilles, playing all 16 games, but he didn’t seem to be the same player, finishing 78th among 100 qualifying safeties on PFF, after earning top-42 grades in 3 straight seasons from 2015-2017 prior to the injury. Going into his age 29 season, Allen still has time to bounce back and could be better another year removed from the injury, but it’s definitely possible his best days are behind him. The Falcons are better at safety than they are at cornerback, but their secondary is definitely the weakest unit on their roster.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Falcons got off to a very disappointing start in 2019, but got better as the season went on and were better than their final 7-9 record suggests, finishing 15th in first down rate differential. Going into 2020, not much has changed, but they made a few changes that could pay off and, with three wild card spots available this year, the Falcons’ chances of sneaking into the post-season got significantly better, even with division rival Tampa Bay getting better this off-season and the fellow division rival New Orleans still around are seemingly the top dogs in the division. The Falcons’ defense will likely prevent them from being true contenders, but defenses tend to be much more inconsistent than offenses from year-to-year, so it’s possible the Falcons could surprisingly put together a solid defensive season and somewhat continue how they played down the stretch in 2019.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: The Falcons could make the post-season, but their chances are hurt by a tough schedule that includes 8 games against teams in the top-8 in my rankings (Saints, Buccaneers, Packers, Seahawks, Chiefs, and Cowboys). They’ll need an unexpectedly good performance from their defense to even go 3-5 in those 8 games and even that would leave them needing to go 6-2 and 7-1 in their other 8 games to qualify for the post-season.

Projection: 7-9 (3rd in NFC South)

Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (6-9) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-8)

One of the biggest betting edges I’ve discovered over the years is the lack of week-to-week correlation between turnover margins. The winner of the turnover margin wins the game about 80% of the time, but turnover margins have no predictability week-to-week. Teams that lose the turnover battle by 4, on average, have a turnover margin of about +0.0 the following week, while teams that win the turnover battle by 4, on average, have a turnover margin of about +0.1 the following week. You can test this at killer sports for yourself if you’d like, but this holds true regardless of what a team’s turnover margin was the previous week. For this reason, I use first down rate as my primary evaluative stat, as it has much more week-to-week correlation and minimizes the impact of turnover margin and other inconsistent metrics on an evaluation of a team.

The Falcons are a great example of this in action. Through their first 8 games of the season, the Falcons had a -0.29% first down rate differential, but were just 1-7 due in large part to a -12 turnover margin. Since the bye, the Falcons are +5 in turnover margin and, as a result, have won 5 of 7 games. Their first down rate differential has improved slightly, as they are at +3.16% over those 7 games, but the big difference has been turnover margin. They’re still negative in turnover margin on the season at -7, but now at 6-9, their first down rate differential of +1.14% on the season (in the NFL) is much more in line with their record. 

I do make a few exceptions to the inconsistent turnover margin rule. One is the Patriots, who have proven to be the exception to most rules over the past two decades and have consistently won the turnover battle throughout the Brady/Belichick era. Since 2000, they have a +210 turnover margin and the next closest team is at +95. Another exception is Buccaneers’ quarterback Jameis Winston, who has consistently been among the league leaders in giveaways in his 5 seasons in the league. 

In 69 career starts, Winston has 136 combined interceptions and fumbles, 31 more than any quarterback in the league over that stretch. The Buccaneers are more than just their quarterback, but it would make sense that they would have a negative turnover margin with a quarterback like Winston under center. Since Winston entered the league in 2015, the Buccaneers have the 4th worst turnover margin in the league at -33, including -11 this season (5th worst in the NFL).

That’s not to say that Winston doesn’t bring a lot to the table that is good, as he has a career 7.74 YPA average, including 8.15 YPA this season, 5th in the NFL, which has led the Buccaneers to a 37.02% first down rate, 12th in the NFL, but after 5 years in the league it’s clear that he’s just more turnover prone than the average quarterback. Making matters even worse, Winston is playing this game at less than 100% through an injured thumb and without his top-2 wide receivers. 

The Buccaneers have the edge over the Falcons in first down rate differential this season (+2.20% vs. +1.14%) and their defense has been significantly better since week 7, ranking 8th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 33.33% over that stretch, due to the return of edge defender Jason Pierre-Paul from injury and the emergence of several young defensive backs in what was once the worst secondary in the NFL, but my roster rankings have the Falcons ranked slightly higher than the Buccaneers, which I think is more accurate. The Falcons have also faced a significantly tougher schedule this season, with a 56% combined opponents winning percentage (highest in the NFL), as opposed to 50% for the Buccaneers.

All that being said, we’re actually still getting some line value with the Buccaneers this week, as this line is even, suggesting the visiting Falcons are about 2-3 points better than the hometown Buccaneers. My calculated line is Tampa Bay -2. Winston’s turnover proneness is a problem, but as I’ve mentioned he also does a lot well, even at less than 100%, and the Buccaneers’ defense has actually been downright stifling over the past few weeks, ranking 3rd in first down rate allowed at 29.59% over the past 6 games. The absences of wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are obviously significant, but the Falcons are missing key players like wide receiver Calvin Ridley, cornerback Desmond Trufant, and defensive ends Takkarist McKinley and Adrian Clayborn. There’s not enough here to bet on the Buccaneers confidently, but they should be the right side.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23 Atlanta Falcons 20

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay PK

Confidence: Low