2017 NFL Offseason: Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons (Last Year: 11-5)

2017 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
FB Derrick Coleman, WR Andre Roberts, G Hugh Thornton, DE Jack Crawford, NT Dontari Poe.
Early Draft Picks:
DE/OLB Takkarist McKinley, LB Duke Riley, G Sean Harlow, CB Damontae Kazee. Falcons Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
FB Patrick DiMarco, WR Aldrick Robinson, WR Eric Weems, TE Jacob Tamme, G Chris Chester, DE Dwight Freeney, DE Tyson Jackson, DT Jonathan Babineaux, OLB Sean Weatherspoon, ILB Paul Worrilow.

2017 Atlanta Falcons Offense:
Matt Ryan won the MVP award last season, and given that he threw for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns and only seven interceptions, it wasn’t a surprise that voters considered him to the most valuable player in the entire league. Ryan has developed into a terrific signal-caller, but he’s just a year removed from maintaining a mediocre touchdown-to-interception ratio of 21:16, so there were obviously other factors in Ryan claiming the award.

The primary reason Ryan improved so much in 2016 was because of his offensive line. The blocking unit was completely dominant this past season, as three of the five starters performed on a Pro Bowl level, while a fourth was pretty solid. The best player up front was center Alex Mack, who will go down as one of the best free-agent signings of this decade. Mack is one of the top centers in the NFL, and his elite blocking was a boon to Atlanta’s offense. Meanwhile, guard Andy Levitre and right tackle Ryan Schraeder were also excellent.

Left tackle Jake Matthews wasn’t as good as the aforementioned trio, but that could be attributed to a troublesome knee. Matthews didn’t miss any action – in fact, he’s played in 47 of 48 possible regular-season games in his career – but he clearly wasn’t 100 percent. He’ll be better in 2017 if he can recover. Meanwhile, the one weakness up front from last year was guard Chris Chester, who announced his retirement this offseason. Fourth-round rookie Sean Harlow and 2016 sixth-rounder Wes Schweitzer will compete for the job.

Of course, Ryan can point to Julio Jones for a big reason why he was able to post such great numbers this past season. Jones is arguably the top receiver in the NFL, and at 28, he should be able to perform on an extremely high level for at least four more seasons. However, Jones was hobbled throughout the playoffs, as he was playing on an injured toe. Had Jones been healthy, the Falcons may have won the Super Bowl, so they’ll be hoping their star receiver can remain healthy throughout all of 2017.

The Falcons needed someone to step up across from Jones with Roddy White in retirement. Some thought that would be former Bengal Mohamed Sanu, but he had only a couple positive performances in his first season in Atlanta, as he continued to struggle to separate from coverage. Taylor Gabriel, conversely, showed some serious explosion and game-breaking ability. He barely did anything prior to Week 8, yet finished with 630 yards from scrimmage and seven total touchdowns. His numbers figure to increase in 2017, and the same could be said for Austin Hooper, who snatched 19 receptions as a rookie. Hooper was a third-round rookie with great athleticism, so he’ll have a more prominent role next year.

Meanwhile, the running game was extremely potent, which is not a surprise. The offensive line blew open huge holes for Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and defenses couldn’t exactly pay attention to them with Ryan launching bombs to Jones. Freeman averaged 4.8 yards per carry and logged 54 receptions. He’s entering his contract season, but even if he leaves after 2017, the Falcons appear to be in great hands with Tevin Coleman, who gained 4.4 yards per carry despite dealing with an ankle injury.

2017 Atlanta Falcons Defense:
When the Falcons signed Alex Mack, most expected them to own a prolific offense. The question was how Atlanta would look on this side of the ball. The going was rough at the beginning of the season, and it seemed as though all hope would be lost when star cornerback Desmond Trufant was knocked out for the season, but the Falcons somehow improved after that, and their defense helped get them to the Super Bowl.

The Falcons have done a great job of drafting recently, and it was their young players who improved toward the end of the 2016 campaign. Numerous players were responsible, including cornerback Jalen Collins, who had to step up as the team’s No. 1 cornerback in the wake of the Trufant injury. Collins missed time at the beginning of the season because of a PED suspension, but his presence was enormous down the stretch. In fact, Atlanta’s cornerbacking group figures to be extremely potent, as Collins will be able to be the No. 2 corner with Trufant due back. Meanwhile, rookie Brian Poole did a good job in the slot this past season, so he should be even better now that he has some experience.

There were two other young players who thrived in Atlanta’s secondary: safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen. Neal was hardly a surprise, given that he was a first-round pick last April. He missed the first two games with a knee injury, but made his debut Week 3 and never looked back. Allen, meanwhile, has really improved his play throughout his 3-year career; he was a fifth-round choice in 2014.

Perhaps Atlanta’s top young player was Deion Jones, whose presence improved the linebacking corps by leaps and bounds. Jones was terrific in coverage, but struggled a bit against the run, so he spent time this offseason packing on muscle to improve in that regard. The rest of Atlanta’s linebackers need to improve, as De’Vondre Campbell didn’t perform well as a fourth-round rookie. Duke Riley was chosen in the third round this spring, and he could challenge for playing time.

One area in which the Falcons absolutely had to upgrade this offseason was the pass rush. Vic Beasley, a 2015 first-round pick, improved last year after a lackluster rookie campaign. The Falcons, however, had no one else to generate consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. As a result, the front office moved up in the back end of the first round for UCLA edge rusher Takkarist McKinley, who had quite the emotional outburst when chosen. McKinley is a talented player who dropped a bit because of injury concerns. However, the Falcons took a similar gamble on Neal last spring, and it certainly paid off.

The one prominent free-agent signing the Falcons made this offseason was obtaining Dontari Poe, who should help clog running lanes in the interior of the defensive line. He’ll start next to Grady Jarrett, another young player who has exceeded expectations as a 2015 fifth-round pick. Jarrett is a well-rounded player who should continue to improve.

2017 Atlanta Falcons Schedule and Intangibles:
In six seasons, Matt Ryan is 44-21 in the Georgia Dome. However, the Falcons have been a middling 17-17 at home over the past four years, so perhaps the magic has worn off.

The Falcons were sub par on special teams last year, being outgained on kickoff returns, but beating opponents on punt returns. No touchdowns were scored either way.

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. Bryant just turned 42, but Adam Vinatieri is still kicking strong in his mid-40s.

Matt Bosher ranked 12th in net average in 2015, but improved to sixth last year.

Atlanta has a fairly balanced schedule coming up. The Falcons have some easier games, including the Bears, Bills, Dolphins and Jets, but they also have to take on the Packers, Patriots, Cowboys and Seahawks.

2017 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.

2017 Atlanta Falcons Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2017 Atlanta Falcons Analysis: The Falcons have to be considered the favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. They have an MVP quarterback, a stalwart offensive line, stellar play-making weapons, and a young, improving defense. Barring injuries, Atlanta will almost certainly making a deep run in the playoffs once again.

Projection: 13-3 (1st in NFC South)

2016 Projection: 5-11. 2016 Actual Result: 11-5.

NFL Draft Team Grade: B- Grade

Goals Entering the 2017 NFL Draft: The Falcons don’t have many needs, but the few holes on their roster are pretty glaring. They’ll need to focus on upgrading their edge rush, one of the guard positions, and the interior of their defensive line.

2017 NFL Draft Accomplishments: While three teams that moved up in the first round did so for quarterbacks, the Falcons had a different goal in mind. They had a specific pass-rusher they wanted, and so they shifted up five spots to select the emotional Takkarist McKinley.

I’m fine with McKinley as a prospect for the most part, but the trade didn’t make much sense to me. There were lots of edge rushers still available for the Falcons, so they didn’t have to panic by making a move. They could’ve remained patient and still snatched McKinely, or a player of his caliber. McKinley likely won’t be able to play in the early portion of the 2017 campaign anyway. I do like him long-term if he can remain healthy, but not very much for 2017.

The Falcons had five more picks after that, and four produced grades of “B” or better. The lone exception was the C+ given to Sean Harlow. The Oregon State product potentially fills a need, but he was chosen too early. On the other end of the spectrum, Brian Hill was a steal in the fifth round, and he could be a solid replacement for Devonta Freeman if Freeman leaves via free agency after this season.

I think the Falcons did a decent job overall. The unnecessary trade for McKinley will hurt their grade because they surrendered a valuable resource for no reason, but it’s not going to put them in the C/C+ range, or anything.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

26. Takkarist McKinley, DE/OLB, UCLA: C+ Grade
So, let me get this straight? Jonathan Allen and Reuben Foster fell because of injury concerns, yet Takkarist McKinley doesn’t? Maybe McKinley could’ve gone a bit earlier, but he won’t be able to play to open the 2017 season, unlike Allen and Foster. The Falcons are attempting to reach the Super Bowl this year, so not being able to have McKinley at full strength isn’t ideal. He could be a great player for the Falcons once he’s healthy, but the injuries are a concern. I’m giving the Falcons a C+ as a result. I don’t like giving up the third-rounder to get McKinley when there were lots of good pass-rushers on the board.

75. Duke Riley, LB, LSU: B Grade
Duke Riley doesn’t have much experience as a 1-year starter at LSU, but he was a big-time play-maker this past season. He’s very athletic, which the Falcons love. Atlanta needed a linebacker, so this pick makes sense. Riley fits the range as a solid third-round prospect.

136. Sean Harlow, G, Oregon State: C+ Grade
The Falcons had to fill a big void at guard, but I’m not sure Sean Harlow is the answer. He’s a tough blocker, but has lacking athleticism and sub-par size. On the bright side, he’s versatile, as he can play tackle or center in a pinch. He’ll be a quality backup, but probably not much else.

149. Damontae Kazee, CB, San Diego State: B+ Grade
Damontae Kazee fits the range, as I had him slated as a fifth-round pick, and teams can never have enough cornerback depth. Kazee seems like he’ll play in the slot, where he could snatch a decent amount of interceptions if he gets the playing time because of his positive ball skills.

156. Brian Hill, RB, Wyoming: A Grade
This is a great value pick for the Falcons, as Brian Hill was seen as a potential third-round prospect by some, including myself. Hill is a very talented runner, but really needs to work on his pass-protection skills. The Falcons are loaded at running back for now, but Devonta Freeman is an impending free agent after this season, so Hill provides insurance.

174. Eric Saubert, TE, Drake: B+ Grade
Eric Saubert is an athletic tight end who was productive at Drake. He’s a bit of a project, but he has big-time upside, and he could pass Austin Hooper if Hooper doesn’t develop as expected. This is a solid choice.

Season Summary:
The Falcons had a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl, but choked down the stretch. The good news is that they have a young defense that will only improve over the next few seasons.

Offseason Moves:
  • Falcons announce retirement of G Chris Chester
  • Falcons sign G Hugh Thornton
  • Falcons sign FB Derrick Coleman
  • Falcons sign DT Dontari Poe
  • Falcons sign WR Andre Roberts
  • Falcons re-sign S Kemal Ishmael
  • Falcons re-sign CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson
  • Falcons sign DE Jack Crawford
  • Falcons re-sign TE Levine Toilolo
  • Falcons re-sign ILB LaRoy Reynolds
  • Falcons re-sign DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw
  • Falcons re-sign QB Matt Schaub

    Team Needs:
    1. Defensive Tackle: Atlanta’s No. 1 priority is addressing the trenches on the defensive side of the ball. The team proved to be very soft up the middle, so finding an upgrade in the defensive interior is a must. Signed Dontari Poe

    2. Defensive End: Vic Beasley showed major improvement in his sophomore campaign, but the Falcons didn’t have any other sort of pass-rushing presence. Dwight Freeney got to the quarterback on occasion, but he can’t be relied upon at his age. Signed Jack Crawford

    3. Linebacker: It would help if the Falcons found a third linebacker to go along with Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. Sean Weatherspoon and Philip Wheeler were used in that role this past season, and both were major disappointments.

    4. Guard: Chris Chester happened to be Atlanta’s lone liability on the offensive line this past season. His contract is expiring in March anyway, so the Falcons could use a second-day selection on an upgrade. Signed Hugh Thornton

    5. Fullback: Patrick DiMarco is a very solid blocker, but he’s set to hit free agency in March. He’ll need to be replaced if he leaves. Signed Derrick Coleman

    6. Backup Quarterback: Matt Schaub is a free agent, so if he leaves, the Falcons will have to find a new backup quarterback. Re-signed Matt Schaub

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2017 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Dontari Poe, NT, Chiefs. Age: 27.
      Signed with Falcons

      Dontari Poe had one of the worst seasons in his career in 2016, thanks to a back injury. Poe is still a monstrous presence in the interior of the defensive line, and he’ll only be 27 in August.

    2. Jack Crawford, DE/DT, Cowboys. Age: 28. — Signed with Falcons (3 years, $10.3 million)
    3. Andre Roberts, WR, Lions. Age: 29. — Signed with Falcons
    4. Hugh Thornton, G, Colts. Age: 26. — Signed with Falcons (1 year)
    5. Derrick Coleman, FB, Seahawks. Age: 26. — Signed with Falcons

    Atlanta Falcons Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: TBA.
    1. Ricardo Allen (RFA), S, Falcons. Age: 25.
      Re-signed with Falcons (1 year)

      Ricardo Allen was selected in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, but he has evolved into a very skilled starting safety. He missed some tackles this past season, but was very good in coverage.

    2. Patrick DiMarco, FB, Falcons. Age: 28.
      Signed with Bills

      Patrick DiMarco is a one-dimensional fullback, as he does nothing but block. However, he’s very good at what he does. He’s routinely blasted open big holes for Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

    3. Taylor Gabriel (RFA), WR, Falcons. Age: 26.
      Tendered by Falcons (2nd round)

      Taylor Gabriel has been a nifty gadget player for the Falcons, but he’s very talented and young (26 in February), and his role will figure to increase in 2017.

    4. Dwight Freeney, DE, Falcons. Age: 37.
      Dwight Freeney played about half of Atlanta’s defensive snaps in 2016, serving as a situational pass-rusher. He did a good job in his reduced role, collecting three sacks. Freeney told the media that he’s not considering retirement quite yet.

    5. Kemal Ishmael, S, Falcons. Age: 26. — Re-signed with Falcons
    6. Jacob Tamme, TE, Falcons. Age: 32.
    7. Paul Worrilow, ILB, Falcons. Age: 27. — Signed with Lions
    8. Aldrick Robinson, WR, Falcons. Age: 28. — Signed with 49ers
    9. Levine Toilolo (RFA), TE, Falcons. Age: 26. — Re-signed with Falcons
    10. Eric Weems, WR/KR, Falcons. Age: 32. — Signed with Titans
    11. Courtney Upshaw, DE/OLB, Falcons. Age: 27. — Re-signed with Falcons
    12. Chris Chester, G, Falcons. Age: 34. — Announced retirement
    13. Tyson Jackson, DT, Falcons. Age: 31.
    14. Jonathan Babineaux, DT, Falcons. Age: 35.
    15. Sean Weatherspoon, OLB, Falcons. Age: 29.
    16. Matt Schaub, QB, Falcons. Age: 36. — Re-signed with Falcons
    17. LaRoy Reynolds, ILB/ST, Falcons. Age: 26. — Re-signed with Falcons
    18. Tom Compton, OT, Falcons. Age: 28.
    19. Dashon Goldson, S, Falcons. Age: 32.
    20. Ben Garland (RFA), G, Falcons. Age: 29.
    21. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB, Falcons. Age: 27. — Re-signed with Falcons (1 year)
    22. Philip Wheeler, OLB, Falcons. Age: 32.
    23. Nick Williams, WR, Falcons. Age: 26.
    24. D.J. Tialavea (RFA), TE, Falcons. Age: 26.


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