Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons: 2021 Week 1 NFL Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (0-0) at Atlanta Falcons (0-0)

Both of these teams are likely to miss the post-season, but the Falcons have the slight edge. That is reflected in this line, which favors them at home by 3.5, which is right around my calculated line. I have gone into both of these two teams in depth in my season previews, so I don’t feel there is anything more I have to say about either team in a game that is a coin flip from a spread perspective. My numbers have the Falcons as marginally more likely to cover, but there is nothing to bet on here.

Atlanta Falcons 24 Philadelphia Eagles 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -3.5

Confidence: None

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

Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (4-11) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-5)

With the playoffs around the corner, the Buccaneers are one of the most balanced teams in the league, joining division rival New Orleans as the only two teams in the league to rank in the top-10 in both first down rate over expected and first down rate allowed over expected. Their defense carried them in the early part of the season and, even as they suffered some predictable regression, they still rank 4th in the league in first down rate allowed over expected on the season at -3.06%, while their offense more than made up for any decline on defense, improving significantly as the season went on, with players like Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown being integrated into the offense after missing time earlier in the season, leading to them ranking 9th in first down rate over expected at +1.26%. 

Overall, the Buccaneers rank 3rd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.33% and don’t have any glaring weaknesses as they prepare for what they hope will be a long playoff run. Their defense might not be quite as good this week, with talented cornerback Carlton Davis, starting linebacker Devin White, top edge defender Shaq Barrett, and rotational defensive lineman Steve McLendon joining long-term injured Vita Vea (out since week 5) on the sidelines this week, giving the Buccaneers their thinnest defense of any week this season, but they still rank 5th in my roster rankings, even with those key absences.

This line is lower than I would have expected, shifting from Tampa Bay -7 last week on the early line to Tampa Bay -6.5 this week, even with the Buccaneers playing probably their best game of the season last week in a 47-7 win in Detroit. Tampa Bay isn’t at full strength and the Falcons played a close game with the Chiefs last week, but the Chiefs haven’t won by more than a single score in a couple months, even against inferior teams like the Panthers, Raiders, and Broncos, and it’s rare to see a line drop even a little bit when a team plays as well as the Buccaneers did last week.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to be betting on the Buccaneers though, as the Falcons play a lot of close games (eight one-score losses, including a 31-27 loss to the Buccaneers in week 15) and have overall been much better than their 4-11 record, with a -1 point differential and an 18th ranked -0.30% schedule adjusted first down rate differential. My calculated line is still Tampa Bay -8, but the Falcons are also in a better spot, as road underdogs against a team divisional opponent who beat them earlier this season. 

Teams cover at a 54.8% rate as road underdogs in a regular season rematch against a divisional opponent who beat them earlier in the season, as it tends to be tough to bring your best effort against an underdog who you’ve already beaten once. I’m still taking the Buccaneers for pick ‘em purposes, but it’s hard to be confident in them at all if they’re not getting significant line value in a bad spot.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31 Atlanta Falcons 24

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -6.5

Confidence: None

Atlanta Falcons at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (4-10) at Kansas City Chiefs (13-1)

Several weeks ago, I said that the rule of thumb with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs was to pick them unless there’s a good reason not to, citing their 28-15-2 ATS record in games in which Mahomes has started in his career, including 18-7 ATS even after Mahomes won the MVP in 2018, as their defense had been noticeably improved since 2018. Since then, the Chiefs have continued winning, but somehow they haven’t managed to not cover the spread in any of their past 6 games, making them the only team in the past 30 seasons to win 6 straight games and not cover the spread in any of them. None of their wins have been blowouts either, with those 6 wins coming by a combined 24 points and none of them coming by more than 6 points.

Mahomes and the offense have not been the problem, as, while they have fallen behind the Bills by a significant amount in first down rate over expected (+4.89% vs. +3.87%), that has more to do with how the Bills’ offense has played in recent weeks against top level defenses than anything to do with the Chiefs’ offense. However, the Chiefs’ defense has struggled and now ranks 18th in the NFL in first down rate allowed over expected at +0.55%. The Chiefs’ defense has been very inconsistent throughout Mahomes’ tenure as the starter, essentially single handedly keeping the Chiefs and their record setting offense out of the Super Bowl in Mahomes’ first season as the starter, but then being the complementary unit needed to go all the way last season. 

Defensive performance tends to be much more inconsistent week-to-week than offensive performance anyway, so the Chiefs’ defense could certainly swing back the other way, but they’re also no better than a middling group in my roster rankings, so it’s definitely a concern for this team. The general consensus is this Chiefs team is borderline unbeatable, but I don’t think they’re balanced enough for that to be the case, even if they are rightfully the Super Bowl favorites right now. In fact, their underwhelming defense drags them down to “only” 3rd in both schedule adjusted first down rate differential and in my roster rankings, so, while they’re obviously a great team, I think they’ve been a little overrated.

Even with their recent non-covers, the Chiefs remain overrated as 10.5 point home favorites over the Falcons. Some of their recent non-covers are as a result of opponents scoring garbage time touchdowns, but when a line is 10.5, garbage time touchdowns that lead to a backdoor cover is definitely something that needs to be considered and I think there’s a great chance that could happen this week, even if the game isn’t close throughout.

The Falcons shouldn’t be trusted to win anything, now having blown the same amount of games in which they had a 95% chance to win (four) as they have actual wins, but they can definitely keep a game like this close. Their 10 losses have come by a combined 67 points (6.7 points per game) and just three of them have come by multiple scores. If they had held on to win in even some of those improbable losses, the Falcons could easily be a .500 team right now and their point differential of +2 is right in line with a .500 team. The Falcons are slightly worse than that in schedule adjusted first down rate differential because of an underwhelming schedule, but their 22nd ranked differential of -1.05% is still significantly better than their record would suggest. My calculated line is Kansas City -8.5, so we’re not getting a ton of line value, but I like the Falcons’ chances of keeping this one close, enough to bet on it.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Atlanta Falcons 27

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +10.5

Confidence: Medium

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 15 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) at Atlanta Falcons (4-9)

The Falcons are just 4-9, but they’ve been competitive in most of their games, losing just three times by more than one score and losing three games in which they had a 95% chance of winning late. None of their losses have been decided by more than 15 points, while two of their wins have featured margins of victory larger than 15. They have a positive point differential at +6 and, despite a relatively easy schedule overall, they still rank 21st in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.70%. 

The Buccaneers, meanwhile, rank 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate at +3.99%, but they’ve been slipping a little in recent weeks. They’re led by their defense, which ranks 5th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.99%, but defensive performance tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance and their defense hasn’t been as good recently as it was earlier in the season.

That was expected, but I would have also expected to see their offense improve as their defense declined, as Tom Brady got more familiarity in this system and with his new receiving corps, particularly Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, who missed significant time earlier this season with injury and suspension respectively. That hasn’t happened though, in part because Brady seems to be slowing down at age 43. We’re not getting much line value with the Falcons (my calculated line is Tampa Bay -5.5), but they’re the pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 Atlanta Falcons 19

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +6

Confidence: None

Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 14 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (4-8) at Los Angeles Chargers (3-9)

Both of these teams have had disappointing seasons in the win-loss column, but both have been better than their record. The Chargers were blown out 45-0 by the Patriots last week, but most of their losses have been close, as they previously hadn’t lost by more than 10 and seven of their nine losses have come by one score, including blown leads against high level teams like the Chiefs, Saints, and Buccaneers. The Falcons, meanwhile, don’t need to be told about blowing leads, as they’ve blown three leads in games in which they had a very high win probability late, which has them at 4-8 despite a +9 point differential. Despite both team’s losing records, both teams have actually spent more time with the lead than trailing this season. 

The Chargers rank a little higher in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (-0.49% vs. -1.00%), but the Falcons have the better offense (-0.51% vs. -2.04%), which is more predictable and consistent, and they have the edge in my roster rankings as well (16th vs. 22nd). Overall, I have the Falcons about 2 points better than the Chargers, which gives us a calculated line of Atlanta -1.5 if we give the Chargers a half point for nominal homefield advantage. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where this line is, so we’re not getting any line value either way. I’m taking the Chargers purely because I think they’ll be the more motivated team, trying to avenge last week’s blowout loss (teams are 63-39 ATS since 2002 after losing by 35 or more points), but I don’t have much confidence in them.

Atlanta Falcons 24 Los Angeles Chargers 23

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +1.5

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 13 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (9-2) at Atlanta Falcons (4-7)

When these two teams met a couple weeks ago in New Orleans, the Saints won pretty easily by score of 24-9. Saints head coach Sean Payton was credited for his decision to start hybrid player Taysom Hill over backup quarterback Jameis Winston in that game in place of the injured Drew Brees, but ultimately the decision probably didn’t matter, as the Saints won that game primarily with their defense, holding a capable Falcons offense to a 23.73% first down rate that is among the worst single week marks in the league this season. The Saints then got another defensive led victory over a Broncos team that literally didn’t have a quarterback last week, so it’s safe to say the jury is still out on Hill as an NFL quarterback. 

The Saints have arguably the best defense in the NFL, but defensive play tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive play and the Saints aren’t healthy on defense either, with a pair of key players in cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive end Marcus Davenport picking up new injuries that will cause them to miss this game. If the Saints’ defense isn’t as dominant as they’ve been recently, the Falcons have a good chance to pull off this upset, especially since the Saints’ offense is also missing a key player beyond Brees, with stud left tackle Terron Armstead out for the second straight week. Meanwhile, the Falcons will have a key player in Julio Jones back from injury after missing the last game and a half, including the majority of the first matchup between these two teams two weeks ago.

The Saints are in a little bit better of a spot, with only an easy trip to Philadelphia on deck, while the Falcons are coming off of a huge upset victory over the Raiders, which typically tends to be a bad betting spot (teams are 32-44 ATS after a home upset victory by 17 points or more as underdogs of 3 points or more), but it’s hard to see the Falcons looking past a huge divisional rival that just beat them recently, so they should be mostly focused for this one. 

The line did move significantly from New Orleans -3.5 on the early line last week to 2.5 this week, a significant swing considering 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal, but this line has crept back up to a field goal in some places, and if we can get a good +3 before gametime, I will probably end up betting on it. The money line is worth a bet as well at +130 because this game should be considered about a toss up.

Atlanta Falcons 24 New Orleans Saints 23 Upset Pick +130

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +2.5

Confidence: Low

Las Vegas Raiders at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (6-4) at Atlanta Falcons (3-7)

The Raiders are the only team to beat the Chiefs this season and they nearly beat them a second time last week and, even with that loss, they are still 6-4, but I’m still not that impressed with them. They seem to match up well with the Chiefs, but overall, they have just a +10 point differential and, while they’ve faced a tough schedule, they rank just 21st in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.34%, as they have benefitted from an unsustainably high 51.61% third conversion rate on offense. That lines up with my roster rankings, which have them right at average as the 17th ranked roster in the league. 

The Raiders’ near win in Kansas City last week and the Falcons loss in New Orleans to backup quarterback Taysom Hill and the Saints has pushed this line from even on the early line last week to a full field goal this week, a significant swing given that 1 in 4 games are decided by three points or less. That’s an overreaction because the Raiders’ close game with the Chiefs was more about the Raiders matching up well with the Chiefs, while the Saints still rank 6th in my roster rankings despite losing Brees, so the Falcons’ loss in New Orleans isn’t as bad as it seems. 

The Falcons are just 3-7, but they could easily be 5-5 or even 6-4 if not for blowing three nearly impossible to blow leads. They haven’t faced a tough schedule outside of last week’s game against the Saints, but they aren’t far behind the Raiders in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -2.40% and, in my roster rankings, they’re actually slightly better than the Raiders, suggesting they’ve underachieved their talent level this season. 

The Falcons being higher in my roster rankings is even taking into account that Falcons #1 wide receiver Julio Jones is questionable and seemingly a true gametime decision after practicing very little this week due to a hamstring injury. Jones’ status obviously will have a big effect on this game, but, even without him, the Falcons are a decent value for pick ‘em purposes and, if Jones plays and this line stays at a field goal, I’ll likely end up betting on the Falcons. I’ll have an update before gametime if that is the case.

Update: Jones is out for the Falcons, but they will have tight end Hayden Hurst and edge defender Dante Fowler healthy, which was in question, while the Raiders will be without questionable defensive end Clelin Ferrell, who is a valuable part of the Raiders’ defensive front even if he doesn’t have big sack numbers. Meanwhile, this line has shifted to 3.5 in some places. My calculated line is just Las Vegas -1, so that’s pretty decent line value. The Falcons have struggled to move the ball without Julio Jones this season, but they still have a mismatch with the Raiders secondary and should be able to move the ball pretty well. I like getting more than a field goal in a game that should be a close shootout. 

Las Vegas Raiders 31 Atlanta Falcons 30

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +3.5

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 11 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (3-6) at New Orleans Saints (7-2)

I have been saying all season that I was planning on betting the Saints pretty consistently once they finally got healthy because they were my pre-season #1 team in my roster rankings and because they typically shake off slow starts, going 4-17-1 ATS in weeks 1-2 since 2010 and 88-57-7 ATS in weeks 3-17. The results were great once the Saints were finally all healthy, including a blowout victory in Tampa Bay, but it lasted less than six quarters before Drew Brees suffered a significant rib and lung injury that now has him sidelined for at least three weeks. The Saints were still able to close out the 27-13 victory over the 49ers and they still have a very talented and most healthy roster around the quarterback, but their projection obviously takes a big hit without their signal caller.

In Brees’ absence last week, former Buccaneers starter and current Saints backup Jameis Winston played most of the snaps, playing 34 snaps total, while hybrid player Taysom Hill played 22, and Winston also attempted all 10 of the Saints’ non-Drew Brees pass attempts, but the Saints seem to be throwing everyone a curveball and going with Hill for his first career start. There have been varying reports of how much the Saints plan to use both quarterbacks, from Hill playing all game, to Winston and Hill splitting time based on certain packages, but it’s clear the Saints plan to use Hill more than they’ve ever used him before, particularly as a passer. Hill has just 18 career regular season pass attempts and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he exceeded that total in this game alone.

The big question is whether that would be a good thing for the Saints or if they would be better served using their two quarterbacks like they did in the second half last week. Hill has made some big passing plays downfield in his career, but he’s never shown consistent accuracy, he has rarely played as a traditional drop back passer outside of the pre-season, and he’s also had some fumbling problems this season. His athleticism will obviously help him, but he’s a 30-year-old quarterback who has never started and didn’t show much as a passer in college, so this move could easily backfire or cause the Saints to have a mid-game pivot to Winston playing more. Hill will have plenty of talent around him, but this Saints passing game takes a big hit with him starting compared to Brees or even compared to Winston.

The Falcons, meanwhile, are relatively healthy coming off of a bye and, even though they haven’t played particularly well this season compared to their easy schedule, ranking 26th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.58%, they could easily be 5-4 or 6-3 if not for blowing three nearly impossible to blow leads. They’re also more talented on paper than the statistics suggest they’ve played thus far and could underachieve less going forward, especially since they seem to be playing better since firing Dan Quinn and going with interim head coach Raheem Morris. 

My roster rankings have these teams about even, so with the Saints having minimal fans in attendance for this one, we’re getting good value with the Falcons as more than a field goal underdogs at +3.5. The Saints could still pull out the victory, but about 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less, and I would expect this one to be a close one either way, so the Falcons are worth a bet.

Update: Marshon Lattimore is out for the Saints, despite practicing all week in limited capacity. Lattimore hasn’t played that well this year, so his absence doesn’t move the needle in this game as much as you’d think, but it’s more good news for Atlanta bettors, especially since the line has stabilized at +3.5, rather than dropping to 3.

New Orleans Saints 27 Atlanta Falcons 26

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +3.5

Confidence: Medium

Denver Broncos at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 9 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (3-4) at Atlanta Falcons (2-6)

Everyone knows the Falcons have blown three games where they had a very high win probability late and that the Falcons would be 5-3 if they hadn’t blown those leads, but the Broncos could also have a better record if quarterback Drew Lock had been healthy all season. Lock isn’t playing that well, but he’s supported by a strong defense that ranks 4th in first down rate allowed over expected at +3.83% and he’s gone 2-2 in the four games he’s been healthy, with one of the losses coming on the road at Kansas City.

Defense tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offense and the Broncos offense hasn’t been good this season even with Lock under center, but the Falcons haven’t been particularly good on either side of the ball, ranking 21st in first down rate over expected and 20th in first down rate allowed over expected. Despite the fact that they could easily have 4-5 wins right now, they still rank 25th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.78% and haven’t played well overall. 

The Falcons’ offense should theoretically be better than this because they’re more talented than how they’ve played, but on the flip side, their defense is very underwhelming, especially missing their top-2 edge defenders in Dante Fowler and Takkarist McKinley. Despite that, the Falcons are favored by 4 points at home with limited homefield advantage. There isn’t quite enough here for the Broncos to be worth betting, but if Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley is unable to play through a questionable tag after not practicing all week and/or Broncos defensive tackle Shelby Harris is able to get cleared from the COVID tracing protocol, the Broncos would probably be worth a play as long as the line remains above a field goal. I will have an update if needed.

Update: Ridley is out for the Falcons, but the Broncos will not only be missing Shelby Harris, but also surprisingly slot cornerback Bryce Callahan, who practiced Thursday and Friday. Callahan is one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league and his absence is an even bigger deal because the Broncos will also be without top outside cornerback AJ Bouye. The Broncos are simply too depleted in the secondary and on the defensive line to continue playing like they have in recent weeks. I’m still on the Broncos, but I would drop this to the bottom of your pick ’em pool.

Atlanta Falcons 27 Denver Broncos 23

Pick against the spread: Denver +4

Confidence: None