TE Logan Paulsen, G Brandon Fusco, DT Terrell McClain.
Early Draft Picks:
WR Calvin Ridley, CB Isaiah Oliver, DT Deadrin Senat, RB Ito Smith. Falcons Rookie Forecast Offseason Losses:
WR Taylor Gabriel, WR Andre Roberts, TE Levine Toilolo, DE Adrian Clayborn, DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw, NT Dontari Poe, NT Ahtyba Rubin, OLB Kemal Ishmael.
2018 Atlanta Falcons Offense:
Matt Ryan won the MVP award two seasons ago, as he threw for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns and only seven interceptions, leading the Falcons to a Super Bowl appearance. The Falcons had high expectations heading into 2017, but Ryan's numbers regressed, as his yardage and touchdowns fell to 4,095 and 20, respectively, while his pick total increased to 12. His completion percentage (69.9 to 64.7) and YPA (9.3 to 7.7) also plummeted. Atlanta didn't have any dramatic personnel changes, so the blame can be pointed at one man - offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
Atlanta losing its former coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, to San Francisco's head-coaching vacancy had a profound impact on the offense. The Falcons averaged 34.1 points per game in 2016, but saw that figure collapse to 21.6 last year. The oft-clueless Sarkisian was out-coached on a weekly basis, as his play-calling was extremely predictable and ineffective. The logical choice would've been moving on from Sarkisian, but the Falcons inexplicably retained him. Sarkisian has been a failure wherever he's been, so it was an utterly ridiculous to keep him on as the coordinator.
The only thing the Falcons could do to offset Sarkisian's incompetence was to add more talent to this side of the ball. That's exactly what they did, using the 26th-overall pick on Calvin Ridley. The Alabama product is a terrific route-runner and should be able to transition quickly into the pros. This is important, as the Falcons have been shut down when Julio Jones has gotten injured, as evidenced by their loss to the Bills at home early in the year. Jones is one of the top receivers in the NFL, but Atlanta lacked a valid second option at receiver for Ryan ever since Roddy White retired. Ridley is a perfect answer, and Mohamed Sanu will be able to handle tertiary responsibilities better than secondary ones. Meanwhile, athletic tight end Austin Hooper has been working out harder this offseason to bounce back from a disappointing sophomore campaign.
The Falcons didn't need to bolster their ground attack, as they have two talented runners to split the workload. Devonta Freeman typically gets off to hot starts, but tends to fade down the stretch. Thus, it's good that Tevin Coleman is around to pick up the slack. Both backs averaged 4.0 yards per carry or better in 2017.
Meanwhile, the offensive front returns completely intact, which is key because continuity is crucial for line play. One upgrade was signed, and that was guard Brandon Fusco, formerly of the 49ers. Fusco isn't great, by any means, but he's not a liability, which is something that incumbent right guard Wes Schweitzer can't say. Fusco will be joined in the interior by All-Pro center Alex Mack and left guard Andy Levitre, who missed the end of last season with a triceps tear.
The tackle play should continue to be solid. Blind-side protector Jake Matthews has been a quality lineman ever since being selected in the top 10 several years ago. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder has been a rock for the Falcons, missing just two games in the past three seasons because of a concussion.
2018 Atlanta Falcons Defense:
While Atlanta's offense declined last year, the same can't be said about the defense. In fact, the stop unit improved by a wide margin, surrendering just 19.1 points in 2017 compared to 25.3 the year before.
One of the primary reasons for this was the improved play of the linebacking corps. Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell were second- and fourth-round rookies during the team's Super Bowl run. They did well in their first seasons, but they both took a major step in 2017. Jones was especially dynamic, becoming one of the top linebackers in the NFL. The two will combine with Duke Riley to complete the group. Riley was chosen in the third round a year ago, but struggled as a rookie, partly because he dealt with a knee injury.
While Jones and Campbell were chosen in the second and fourth rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft, the opening-round choice was used on safety Keanu Neal. The Florida product has also been prolific thus far and should continue to improve his game. The Falcons have a tremendous safety tandem in Neal and Ricardo Allen.
The cornerback group is strong as well. Desmond Trufant is a talented No. 1 cornerback. He's not quite shutdown-caliber, but he's a very effective top cover man. He'll once again start across from Robert Alford, who improved his play last year. Brian Poole, a decent nickel corner, will cover the slot once again. The newcomer to the secondary is second-rounder Isaiah Oliver, whom some projected as a first-round prospect. Oliver is a great fit for the defense, and he could eventually challenge Alford for a starting job.
While several players improved on this side of the ball, the one key defender who regressed last year was edge rusher Vic Beasley. The fourth-year pro saw his sack total plummet from 15.5 to five. There were several reasons for this. One was his move to linebacker, which did not pan out. The second was that Beasley dealt with a hamstring injury early in the season. Beasley, how healthy, will be moving back to defensive end in the wake of Adrian Clayborn's departure, joining 2017 first-rounder Takk McKinley and solid veteran Brooks Reed at the position. McKinley is coming off a solid rookie campaign, logging six sacks despite playing just about a third of the snaps.
The weakest part of Atlanta's defense has to be the interior of the defensive line. Grady Jarrett is a ferocious presence, but the Falcons didn't have anyone to play next to him, which is why they were pushed around so easily in the trenches during the team's divisional-round playoff loss. Dontari Poe faded down the stretch and was a disappointment. Atlanta was expected to replace him in the offseason, but that didn't happen until the third round of the draft when the front office selected Deadrin Senat. It's unclear if Senat will be able to help right away, so the pedestrian Jack Crawford and Terrell McClain will compete for the job.
2018 Atlanta Falcons Schedule and Intangibles:
In seven seasons, Matt Ryan is 49-24 in the Georgia Dome. However, the Falcons have been a middling 22-20 at home over the past five years, so perhaps the magic has worn off.
The Falcons were poor on special teams last year, being outgained on both punt and kickoff returns.
Matt Bryant has been incredibly clutch over the years. He went 34-of-37 in 2016, including 6-of-8 from 50-plus. He also missed just one of his 57 extra points. He was almost as good in 2017, going 34-of-39, including 8-of-9 from beyond 50. He also hit all of his extra points.
Matt Bosher ranked 14th in net punting average last year, worsening from sixth in 2016.
Atlanta has a very difficult schedule to begin the year, batting the Eagles, Panthers, Saints and Steelers in four of its first five games. That could put the team in an early hole in a tough division.
2018 Atlanta Falcons Rookies:
Go here for the Falcons Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.
2018 Atlanta Falcons Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
2018 Atlanta Falcons Analysis: The Falcons failed to fix their primary reason for regression last year, which was Steve Sarkisian. He'll be back to coordinate the offense, which is bad news for Atlanta. The good news, however, is that the Falcons still have Matt Ryan, numerous offensive play-makers, a strong offensive line and an improving, young defense. They'll be in the mix to reach the playoffs again, but their upside is limited by Sarkisian.
Projection: 9-7 (3rd in NFC South)
2017 Projection: 13-3. 2017 Actual Result: 10-6. 2016 Projection: 5-11. 2016 Actual Result: 11-5.
NFL Draft Team Grade: A- Grade
Goals Entering the 2018 NFL Draft: The Falcons need to focus on their defensive line. Even if they spend three of their first five picks on the unit, they must address this area. Otherwise, they need help at receiver, guard and linebacker.
2018 NFL Draft Accomplishments: If you do a Twitter search of "Calvin Ridley Falcons," you'll find some interesting posts from Atlanta fans back in March, heavily criticizing Mel Kiper for mocking Ridley to the Falcons in a mock draft. The Ridley choice surprised many, but it was a good one. Atlanta's offense has fallen apart whenever Julio Jones has been hurt. A secondary receiver was desperately needed, and Ridley will be able to serve as the top option whenever Jones gets injured. He was arguably the best player available.
"Best player available" can certainly be used to characterize the Falcons' next pick, Isaiah Oliver. The Colorado product doesn't fill a substantial need, but he was a steal at No. 58 overall. Oliver, a tall, lengthy, athletic cornerback, could've been chosen in the 20s or 30s without any complaints. It was shocking that he fell so late in the second round.
The rest of the Falcons' haul wasn't as exciting, though their third-round choice, Deadrin Senat, will fill a huge need in the interior of the defensive line. I wish the Falcons would've taken another defensive lineman over fourth-round running back Ito Smith, who was a major reach. However, Smith was the only pick who earned worse than a "B" grade.
I really like what the Falcons did in the 2018 NFL Draft. They added some very talented players and addressed some needs. The one issue I have is that not enough energy was spent on the defensive line, but Atlanta fans have to be happy with what the front office was able to accomplish.
NFL Draft Individual Grades:
26. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama A- Grade
Everyone was expecting the Falcons to pick a defensive lineman, or perhaps a blocker. Those would've fit the greatest needs, but receiver makes a ton of sense as well. The Falcons' offense collapses whenever Julio Jones gets hurt - they lost at home to the Bills without him this past season - so acquiring a legitimate No. 2 wideout was very necessary. Ridley was once projected as a top-10 prospect, but this range makes more sense. Still, Ridley is a nice bargain at No. 26, and his terrific route running will allow him to develop quickly and contribute as soon as possible. I like this pick a lot, despite Ridley's perceived declining draft stock.
58. Isaiah Oliver, CB, Colorado A+ Grade
I thought the Seahawks would move down for Isaiah Oliver into the 25-35 range. This is a big slip, and it's unclear why. Oliver is a lengthy, athletic cornerback in the mold of Richard Sherman. Given that the Seahawks were interested in Oliver, it would make sense that the Falcons would be. This is a great pick, as Oliver and his size will help defend against the tall receivers in the NFC South.
90. Deadrin Senat, DT, South Florida B Grade
Deadrin Senat is a powerful nose tackle, but doesn't have good length, which could be a problem in the pros. There's some potential here for Senat to be a quality, rotational player, however, and I think the range makes sense for him in the third round. This is a decent choice.
126. Ito Smith, RB, Southern Miss D Grade
Meh. Ito Smith was a late-round prospect and doesn't fit a need at all. The Falcons had bigger priorities than adding someone who could maybe become the No. 3 running back. This seems like a poor selection.
194. Russell Gage, WR, LSU B+ Grade
Russell Gage may not have been on many draft radars before his pro day, but he thrived then. He posted some terrific numbers and then looked great in the drills, prompting some teams to schedule visits for him. Gage certainly has loads of potential, and the Falcons needed a couple of receivers because they had nothing beyond Julio Jones.
200. Foye Oluokun, LB, Yale B Grade
The Falcons needed depth at linebacker, and I actually thought they'd address this earlier. Still, better late than never. Foye Oluokon is someone who has been discussed in the sixth or seventh round, so this is a logical choice.
The Falcons pulled an upset in the opening round of the playoffs, but were just two yards shy of advancing past the Eagles. Their defense was soft in the loss, so that's something the front office will need to address this spring.
Falcons sign CB Justin Bethel
Falcons sign TE Logan Paulsen
Falcons cut TE Levine Toilolo
Defensive Tackle: Dontari Poe signed a 1-year "prove it" deal last summer, but now his time in Atlanta could be up. The Falcons need to get tougher in the trenches anyway.
Wide Receiver: Julio Jones is obviously an elite receiver, but outside of him, and the mediocre Mohamed Sanu, Atlanta doesn't have viable receiving threats. We saw what happens to the offense if Jones gets hurt in the Buffalo home loss, so this is an area that will need to be addressed.
Guard: Atlanta has a strong offensive line, but the sole weakness happens to be at guard, which can be addressed with a second-round pick.
Cornerback: It appeared as though the Falcons were going to have an elite tandem of cornerbacks in Desmond Trufant and Jalen Collins. However, the latter was cut because of off-the-field issues. A new No. 2 corner should be acquired. Signed Justin Bethel
Defensive End Depth: Adrian Clayborn is entering free agency, and he could receive a big contract from some other team. If so, depth will be needed.
Backup Quarterback: The Falcons can do better than Matt Schaub as Matt Ryan's backup quarterback.
Kicker: Matt Bryant happens to be an impending free agent. Re-signed Matt Bryant
Fullback: The Falcons could use a better fullback than Derrick Coleman, who also happens to be a free agent.
Ron Parker, S, Chiefs. Age: 31. Signed with Falcons
Ron Parker had a massive dropoff in production this past season, struggling in both pass coverage and run support. This was a surprise, as he played well in 2016. Perhaps he'll rebound next year, but given that he's 31 (in August), he could just be finished.
Logan Paulsen, TE, 49ers. Age: 31. -- Signed with Falcons
Justin Bethel, CB, Cardinals. Age: 28. -- Signed with Falcons
Atlanta Falcons Free Agents:
Salary Cap: TBA.
Ricardo Allen (RFA), S, Falcons. Age: 26. Tendered by Falcons (2nd round)
Ricardo Allen is a talented, well-rounded safety, and he won't even turn 27 until December. He should have at least five more great years, so he's due for a big contract next offseason.
Dontari Poe, NT, Falcons. Age: 27. Signed with Panthers
Dontari Poe signed a 1-year "prove it" deal this past season after struggling his final year with the Chiefs. He responded well, playing well in both run support and the pass rush. I would be nervous to sign him to a long-term deal, but it could pay off if Poe lives up to his immense potential.
Adrian Clayborn, DE, Falcons. Age: 30. Signed with Patriots
Adrian Clayborn is a rock solid defensive end with no weaknesses. He logged a career-high 9.5 sacks in 2017, though six of them came in one game where Dallas' inept coaching staff didn't adjust for Tyron Smith being injured.
Matt Bryant, K, Falcons. Age: 43. Re-signed with Falcons
If it wasn't for Adam Vinatieri, we'd all be marveling about how amazing it is that Matt Bryant has been kicking so incredibly well into his 40s. Despite his age, Bryant was 34-of-39 in 2017, including a ridiculous 8-of-9 from 50-plus.
Taylor Gabriel, WR, Falcons. Age: 27. Signed with Bears (4 years)
Taylor Gabriel is a speedy receiver with upside, but failed to develop after a strong 2016 season. Perhaps because of Steve Sarkisian, Gabriel's yardage dropped from 579 to 378. Perhaps a better coordinator will make better use out of him.
Derrick Shelby, DE, Falcons. Age: 29. Re-signed with Falcons (1 year)
Derrick Shelby has never registered more than four sacks in a season, but he's a solid rotational end who clamps down well against the run. The Falcons only cut him to save $4.5 million, so Shelby should be able to find a home somewhere else.
Courtney Upshaw, DE/OLB, Falcons. Age: 28. -- Signed with Jets
Kemal Ishmael, OLB, Falcons. Age: 27.
Ahtyba Rubin, NT, Falcons. Age: 32.
Austin Pasztor, OT, Falcons. Age: 27. -- Re-signed with Falcons