2016 NFL Offseason: Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons (Last Year: 8-8)

2016 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
QB Matt Schaub, WR Mohamed Sanu, C Alex Mack, DE Derrick Shelby, DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw, ILB Sean Weatherspoon.
Early Draft Picks:
S Keanu Neal, LB Deion Jones, TE Austin Hooper, LB De’Vondre Campbell. Falcons Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
WR Roddy White, OT Jake Long, DE/OLB O’Brien Schofield, DT Paul Soliai, OLB Justin Durant, S William Moore.

2016 Atlanta Falcons Offense:
For a team with big-name talent, the Falcons have not scored as much as everyone constantly anticipates them to. They averaged just 21.2 points per game last year, and in eight of their final 10 games, they scored 20 points or fewer. Injuries to the star players were not the issue; Matt Ryan and Julio Jones were both on the field all 16 contests. And this isn’t new to this season; Atlanta hasn’t matched its offensive potential the past few years, as the team has endured major red-zone woes for a while now.

So, why is this? Well, the team hasn’t drafted well, and Ryan hasn’t had much to work with beyond Jones for quite a while now. Sure, Jones is one of the top receivers in the NFL and is often unstoppable, but one-man offenses don’t work in the NFL. Ryan used to have Tony Gonzalez and a talented Roddy White at his disposal, but White is now decrepit (and no longer on the roster), while the front office inexplicably hasn’t found a replacement for Gonzalez.

That may have changed, however. The team spent a third-round choice in the 2016 NFL Draft on Austin Hooper, a highly athletic tight end with plenty of upside. That said, Hooper may not be ready to be a big-time contributor this season. If so, Jones will have to do it all by himself again. Mohamed Sanu was signed to be White’s replacement, but the Falcons should have just brought White back as a cheaper solution, given that Sanu is horrible and can’t beat any sort of coverage. The Falcons embarrassed themselves by giving Sanu a $32.5 million this offseason when he probably wasn’t even worth a tenth of that. It might go down as one of the worst free agent contracts of all time. Because Sanu won’t be able to do much, Atlanta will need 2015 fourth-rounder Justin Hardy to step up in the slot.

The Falcons should be able to run the ball well, though that’s not a guarantee. Devonta Freeman took the NFL storm last year after a disappointing rookie campaign. Beginning in Week 3, he rushed for 578 yards and eight touchdowns, and he also caught 27 passes. However, he struggled down the stretch, gaining less than 3.4 yards per carry in all but one game starting in Week 9. This was the Freeman everyone was expecting after he mustered a disappointing 3.8 YPC as a rookie. Freeman will be given the opportunity to start again, but if he performs like he did in November and December, 2015 third-rounder Tevin Coleman will get a chance. Coleman actually managed 4.5 yards per carry in 2015, but offered nothing in the passing game, logging just two receptions all year.

Of course, better blocking could help Freeman’s efforts, and Atlanta should be better in the trenches. That’s because the team paid big money to Alex Mack. He almost lived in a secret world because barely anyone paid attention to Cleveland, but it was quite apparent that he has been one of the top centers in the NFL. Mack will be a huge upgrade over what Atlanta had at the position last year. He’ll be sandwiched by a couple of middling guards in Andy Levitre and Chris Chester, though sixth-round rookie Wes Schweitzer will have an opportunity to claim one of the jobs.

The Falcons are certainly better at tackle than they are at guard. Jake Matthews, chosen in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, had a rough rookie campaign, but he dealt with a nagging injury and wasn’t himself. Matthews improved in 2015. He still wasn’t great, but he at least was a solid starter. Meanwhile, right tackle Ryan Schraeder performed exceptionally well, especially in terms of pass protection.

2016 Atlanta Falcons Defense:
For all the issues the Falcons have on offense, it’s all trivial compared to the problems they have on the defensive side of the ball. They can’t stop anyone, as they’re strong in just one area.

Beginning with the positive, the Falcons have a couple of quality cornerbacks. Robert Alford is a good player, while Desmond Trufant is one of the better corners in the NFL. They are thin at the position though, as Jalen Collins, chosen in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft, was absolutely atrocious as a rookie. Perhaps he’ll improve, but he was brutally torched whenever he took the field.

It wasn’t all rosy in the secondary, as there were major issues at safety entering the offseason. That would explain why the Falcons chose the athletic Keanu Neal with the No. 17 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Neal should help things, but he was seen as a reach; teams thought he would be available at the end of the first round. Despite Neal’s presence, the Falcons are still weak at safety, as the other starter, Ricardo Allen, struggled this past year. He’s an absolutely horrible tackler, and he’s not good enough in coverage to make up for it.

Of course, things would be better in the defensive backfield if the team could register a healthy amount of sacks. Unfortunately for Trufant and company, the Falcons were woeful in that regard. They registered an embarrassing 19 sacks in 2015, and Vic Beasley, Atlanta’s first-rounder in 2015, led the way with just four. A better pass-rusher probably should’ve been obtained with the 17th pick, especially with Shaq Lawson available. Beasley will need to be better; he was just mediocre as a rookie, as was Adrian Clayborn last season. Every other edge rusher was horrible. Newly signed Derrick Shelby, formerly of Miami, could help out a bit, but he’s not a difference-maker.

The Falcons don’t have anyone who can generate a consistent pass rush in the interior either. Jonathan Babineaux used to do that, but he turns 35 in October. He’s fine as a situational pass-rusher right now, but that’s all he can be at this stage of his career. Grady Jarrett can at least stuff the run, but Atlanta figures to continue to struggle in terms of getting to the quarterback.

The linebacking corps may not be any better, though that remains to be seen, based on how a pair of rookies perform. The Falcons selected Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell in the second and fourth rounds, respectively, and the former should be able to challenge for a starting job, as the weakside position is wide open. Other candidates include Philip Wheeler and Sean Weatherspoon, so Jones doesn’t exactly have his work cut out for him. The other two starters figure to be Brooks Reed and former Raven Courtney Upshaw. Reed is a solid player, but Upshaw is terrible.

2016 Atlanta Falcons Schedule and Intangibles:
In six seasons, Matt Ryan is 44-21 in the Georgia Dome. However, the Falcons have been 10-14 at home over the past three seasons, so perhaps the magic has worn off.

The Falcons were sub par on special teams last year, being outgained by just a bit on both punt returns and kickoffs.

Matt Bryant signed a 3-year, $8.5 million contract last offseason, which was well deserved. Bryant has been incredibly clutch over the years, though he was 14-of-18 in 2015. However, he landed on injured reserve with a quad injury, so perhaps that was the reason he was off. It’s also possible that he could be in decline; he turned 40 this offseason.

Matt Bosher ranked 11th in net average in 2012, but improved, finishing sixth in both 2013 and 2014. He dropped to 12th last year, which is still fine.

Atlanta has a chance to get off to a quick start, as the team will take on the Buccaneers, Raiders and Saints the first three weeks. However, as the team learned last year, a hot beginning to the season doesn’t mean anything. Atlanta battles the Panthers, Broncos, Seahawks and Packers in four of the next five games after that.

2016 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.

2016 Atlanta Falcons Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2016 Atlanta Falcons Analysis: The Falcons were extremely lucky to win some of their early games in 2015. Everyone saw the real Falcons late in the year when they dropped eight of 11 games. The 8-8 record was a mirage, and Atlanta hasn’t made enough upgrades to the roster this offseason to avoid finishing worse than that in 2016.

Projection: 5-11 (4th in NFC South)

NFL Draft Team Grade: C- Grade

Goals Entering the 2016 NFL Draft: Atlanta’s defense was pathetic this past season, so the team needs to add help to every level of its stop unit. Additionally, Matt Ryan needs assistance. Better interior blocking and tight end play could help his red-zone woes.

2016 NFL Draft Accomplishments: Excluding the seventh-rounder, every single pick the Falcons made scored a C+ or worse in the individual grades, save for one: Austin Hooper in the third frame. The Stanford tight end is highly athletic and offers tons of upside, and he’ll perhaps finally fill the void created by Tony Gonzalez’s retirement several offseasons ago.

The rest of the draft, as you can tell by the individual grades, was just mediocre, at best. We heard some buzz about Keanu Neal perhaps being chosen at the end of the first round, but the rest of the league was shocked when Atlanta snatched him off the board at No. 17, passing on talented prospects like Shaq Lawson and Darron Lee in the process. Meanwhile, second-rounder Deion Jones was also taken early. A mid third-round prospect, Jones could’ve been obtained via trading down or simply being patient.

In terms of needs, the Falcons filled some, but failed to address the anemic pass rush and interior blocking. Thus, their draft class as a whole is pretty disappointing. I don’t absolutely hate it, but it deserves a C- grade.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

17. Keanu Neal, S, Florida C- Grade
Not a great pick. Keanu Neal was seen as a high second-rounder who had a chance to stumble into the opening frame in the late 20s. This is a reach, especially when considering that Myles Jack and Shaq Lawson were on the board; not to mention Darron Lee and Kevin Dodd. There were better options for the Falcons, who could’ve obtained a decent safety in the second round. I don’t like this very much, but it’s not Millen-worthy.

Follow @walterfootball for updates.

52. Deion Jones, LB, LSU C+ Grade
I was shocked to see the Falcons pass on Darron Lee and reach for Keanu Neal in the first round. This is yet another reach, though not nearly as blatant. Deion Jones seemed like a mid third-round prospect, but he definitely fits a need. It’s also not completely surprising to see him chosen, as he fits Atlanta’s athleticism requirement. Jones has great upside, but his floor is pretty low as well, as he doesn’t seem to have the strength to play very much right now.

81. Austin Hooper, TE, Stanford A- Grade
The Falcons continue to draft their supreme athletes. Austin Hooper definitely is one, as he tested extremely well, which may have mitigated his lack of experience in college. Still, he’s a very good pick for Atlanta, as he could’ve been chosen a round earlier. He’d fill an extremely obvious need, as the Falcons have had a big hole at tight end since Tony Gonzalez retired.

115. De’Vondre Campbell, LB, Minnesota C- Grade
I don’t think I can get behind De’Vondre Campbell in the fourth round. Campbell, who was probably a sixth-round prospect, maintains below-average athleticism and put together mediocre film from his time in Minnesota. He’s a project for sure, and he’ll be relegated to special teams. The Falcons could’ve done better.

195. Wes Schweitzer, G, San Jose State C- Grade
It’s a good thing that the Falcons added some offensive line depth, but I didn’t have Wes Schweitzer ranked in my top 400 players. From the confusion going around with him, I’m guessing most people didn’t think he’d be drafted. Schweitzer projects as a fit for Atlanta’s blocking scheme, but he probably could’ve been obtained as a UDFA.

238. Devin Fuller, WR, UCLA B+ Grade
Credit the Falcons for buying low with this pick. Devin Fuller played well prior to 2015, but dealt with numerous injuries this past season. A solid athlete, Fuller has the talent to make Atlanta’s final roster if he can remain healthy. That’s a good thing, as Mohamed Sanu is terrible and needs to be upgraded eventually.

Season Summary:
Remember when the Falcons began the year 5-0? It’s difficult to believe now, especially when considering how poorly they played down the stretch. Of course, this does not include the team’s upset victory over undefeated Carolina. Perhaps Atlanta will be able to use that as momentum heading into 2016.

Offseason Moves:
  • Falcons re-sign G Chris Chester
  • Falcons re-sign OT Ryan Schraeder
  • Falcons sign DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw
  • Falcons sign OLB LaRoy Reynolds
  • Falcons re-sign ILB Paul Worrilow
  • Falcons sign WR Aldrick Robinson
  • Falcons sign ILB Sean Weatherspoon
  • Falcons re-sign OT Bryce Harris
  • Falcons sign WR Mohamed Sanu
  • Falcons sign QB Matt Schaub
  • Falcons re-sign DE Adrian Clayborn
  • Falcons sign DE Derrick Shelby
  • Falcons sign C Alex Mack
  • Falcons cut WR Roddy White
  • Falcons cut DT Paul Soliai
  • Falcons cut S William Moore
  • Falcons cut OLB Justin Durant

    Team Needs:
    1. Center: The Falcons must fix the offense this spring, and they’ll need to begin with protecting Matt Ryan. It all begins at center, where Mike Person played poorly last year. Signed Alex Mack

    2. Wide Receivers: Atlanta was so stagnant offensively in the second half of the season because Roddy White completely fell off and there was no one to take any sort of attention away from Julio Jones. One of the Falcons’ initial draft picks should be on a wideout. Signed Mohamed Sanu

    3. Tight End: Atlanta struggled mightily in the red zone, though that was nothing new. The Falcons have been unreliable deep in opposing territory for a while now. That could be fixed if the team finally obtains a replacement for Tony Gonzalez.

    4. Two Linebackers: The Falcons will have to focus on finding some linebackers to complement Brooks Reed, the only talented player in the group last year. While the Falcons’ top needs will be difficult to address at No. 17 overall, the front office could certainly find help for the linebacking corps with its first-round choice. Signed Sean Weatherspoon and Courtney Upshaw

    5. Defensive End: This another one of the few biggest need that has a good chance of being addressed at No. 17 in the 2016 NFL Draft. O’Brien Schofield played way too many snaps for the Falcons last year. This needs to change. Signed Derrick Shelby; re-signed Adrian Clayborn

    6. Guard: Chris Chester was a mediocre starting guard in 2015. He’s an impending free agent, but the team can do better. Re-signed Chris Chester

    7. Safety: William Moore hasn’t been able to stay healthy, so Atlanta may opt to part ways with him this offseason.

    8. Cornerback Depth: Some cornerback depth must be obtained if Phillip Adams leaves via free agency.

    9. Defensive Tackle Depth: Paul Soliai was cut, so the Falcons will have to find some better reserves on the defensive interior.

    10. Backup Quarterback: The Falcons don’t have a viable backup behind Matt Ryan, so they should consider finding one this offseason. Signed Matt Schaub

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2016 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Alex Mack, C, Browns. Age: 30.
      Signed with Falcons (5 years)

      You’d have to be living in a pretty secret world to not be aware that Alex Mack would be opting out of his contract. Mack, who is just 30, is one of the top centers in the NFL and has plenty left in the tank. He signed a 5-year, $42 million offer sheet two offseasons ago, so he should receive a similar sort of contract this spring.

    2. Derrick Shelby, DE, Dolphins. Age: 27.
      Signed with Falcons (4 years, $18 million)

      Derrick Shelby took over as the full-time starter once Cameron Wake went down with an injury. He handled himself well and showed no weaknesses in his game. He was at his best when stopping the run.

    3. Courtney Upshaw, DE/OLB, Ravens. Age: 26. — Signed with Falcons
    4. Mohamed Sanu, WR, Bengals. Age: 27. — Signed with Falcons (5 years, $32.5 million; $14 million guaranteed)
    5. Sean Weatherspoon, ILB, Cardinals. Age: 28. — Signed with Falcons
    6. Matt Schaub, QB, Ravens. Age: 35. — Signed with Falcons
    7. LaRoy Reynolds (RFA), OLB, Bears. Age: 25. — Signed with Falcons

    Atlanta Falcons Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: TBA.
    1. Ryan Schraeder (RFA), OT, Falcons. Age: 28.
      Re-signed with Falcons

      Ryan Schraeder has emerged as one of the NFL’s top right tackles. He’s an exceptional pass protector. Just 28 in May, he still has at least four strong years remaining.

    2. Adrian Clayborn, DE, Falcons. Age: 28.
      Signed with Falcons (2 years, $9 million)

      Adrian Clayborn signed a 1-year “prove it” contract after playing just one game in 2014 after tearing his biceps. He showed well, putting a decent amount of pressure on the quarterback, though his stats don’t show it.

    3. Chris Chester, G, Falcons. Age: 33.
      Re-signed with Falcons

      Chris Chester isn’t strong in pass protection, but he happened to be a primary reason for Devonta Freeman’s outburst. Chester, however, has turned 33, so he doesn’t have too many quality seasons remaining in the tank.

    4. O’Brien Schofield, DE/OLB, Falcons. Age: 29.
      Ideally, O’Brien Schofield would be a situational pass-rusher. However, the Falcons had to use him on most plays last season, thanks to the poor talent up front. He wasn’t bad, but he was far from a strength.

    5. William Moore, S, Falcons. Age: 31.
      William Moore used to be a solid player, but injuries have sapped him of his talent. He has missed 14 games the past two years and has played in all 16 contests just twice in his career. Perhaps he can get healthy and bounce back, but that’s not very likely.

    6. Paul Soliai, NT, Falcons. Age: 32.
      Signed with Panthers (2 years, $7 million)

      Paul Soliai is no longer the force he once was, but he’s still a very solid rotational run-plugger. He’ll turn 33 in December, but he might be able to put together another quality season or two.

    7. Jake Long, OT, Falcons. Age: 31.
      I’d probably have Jake Long at 1.5 stars and write-up-less if he didn’t happen to be such a big name. Long used to be a mega talent, but injuries wrecked his career, unfortunately.

    8. Roddy White, WR, Falcons. Age: 34.
      Roddy White should be a 1.5-star player at this point, but I’ll give him one final write-up before he either retires or disappears into oblivion. White was a great player for a long time, and he helped Matt Ryan develop. Unfortunately, his career has come to an end. He turns 35 in November and can’t get any sort of separation any longer. He caught just 43 passes for 506 yards in 16 games in 2015. If a team signs him for some reason, it shouldn’t be for anything more than the veteran minimum.

    9. Justin Durant, OLB, Falcons. Age: 30.
    10. Kroy Biermann, DE/OLB, Falcons. Age: 30.
    11. Paul Worrilow (RFA), ILB, Falcons. Age: 26. — Re-signed with Falcons (1 year, $2.553 million)
    12. Phillip Adams, CB, Falcons. Age: 28.
    13. Tony Moeaki, TE, Falcons. Age: 29.
    14. Nathan Stupar, ILB, Falcons. Age: 28. — Signed with Saints (3 years)
    15. Gino Gradkowski, C, Falcons. Age: 28. — Signed with Panthers
    16. Bryce Harris, OT, Falcons. Age: 27. — Re-signed with Falcons

    NFL Free Agent Tracker:
    Top 90 | QB | RB | FB | WR | TE | OT | G | C | DE | DT | OLB | ILB | CB | S | K/P | FA Grades | FA Rumors

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