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The Falcons have talent all over — especially on offense — but had issues putting it together

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Seattle Seahawks Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Analysts and writers who feel the need to make predictions with total conviction — that their opinions are in fact not opinions but infallible peeks into the future — are not football experts at all, but carnival barkers. Over a century of evidence in American sports alone tells us that as of yet nobody can predict what will happen in the next season or even the next game with any level of consistency that would make a reasonable person look twice. So there are no predictions in these previews of opponents of the 2019 Seattle Seahawks — only my thoughts and within those thoughts, an opinion of what I believe they will most likely look like in the coming year and straightforward updates on changes to the roster and coaching staff. But any team could be turning over 30% of their entire roster or 100% of their coaches and in some cases, a complete changeover in ownership and/or how they plan to run their franchise. That makes things even more volatile when looking ahead, especially with over three months to go until Week 1, but it’s worth a look ahead anyhow. These are my thoughts, some of which will be wrong, but if I didn’t believe my experience in evaluating football things was at least a little bit valuable, I wouldn’t be writing these. Hopefully that experience gives you a clearer picture of what to expect, while also expecting that these pictures could be erased at any moment.

Previous previews:

Bengals / Steelers / Ravens / Browns / Saints / Buccaneers

The 2019 Atlanta Falcons

Why do the Seattle Seahawks have a better chance of winning the next Super Bowl than the Atlanta Falcons? I can’t think of any good reasons why beyond the usual, expected, or interchangeable ones that exist in Junes; any reason you can give for the Seahawks is easily countered by a reason for the Falcons.

Seattle was better last season, going 10-6 compared to Atlanta’s 7-9. But the Falcons have been to a Super Bowl more recently.

The Falcons had the 31st ranked defense by DVOA, way behind the Seahawks at 14, but Atlanta had a better offense and special teams ranking in DVOA. Seattle has Russell Wilson, Tyler Lockett, Duane Brown, and Chris Carson, but the Falcons answer back with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Jake Matthews, and Devonta Freeman plus Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu, Alex Mack, Austin Hooper, and two first round rookies on the offensive line.

The Seahawks must deal with the LA Rams at the top of their division, the Jekyll/Hyde known as the San Francisco 49ers, and a franchise that fluctuates between awful and decent with the Arizona Cardinals. The Falcons must deal with the New Orleans Saints up top, the Jekyll/Hyde of the Carolina Panthers, and a franchise that fluctuates between awful and decent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

My useless prediction of the upcoming Atlanta season therefore falls very close to my useless prediction of the upcoming Seattle season. I could see either franchise winning 13 games or seven games or in between. The talent is not only similar in the level of play I expect but in how they do what they do, which is not all that surprising given the presence of Dan Quinn with the Falcons. The two teams meet in Week 8 in Atlanta and the game could prove to be a pivotal one in the NFC wild card race if the season goes near to expected.

Quinn is getting ready.

What sort of team should we be expecting to see, besides just a copy of the Seahawks?

The Falcons ranked eighth in offensive DVOA last season, including seventh in passing and 22nd in rushing.

One issue with the run game was an injury that forced Freeman to miss 14 games, massively altering the plan after three seasons of sharing the ball between him and Tevin Coleman. Now with Coleman in San Francisco, Freeman is joined by Ito Smith, Kenjon Barner, and fifth round rookie Qadree Ollison.

Does it matter though when the star of the Atlanta offense will still be the passing game? As an historically great offense in 2016, the Falcons were ranked sixth in rushing. Freeman and Coleman combined for over 1,600 yards rushing, 883 yards receiving, and 24 touchdowns with only two fumbles. Freeman, 27, returns and hopes to put behind the knee and groin injuries that cost him virtually all of 2018. If he’s healthy, the unit seems fine, but on the surface it still doesn’t seem to be as fine as it was with Coleman in 2016-2018.

Because it’s the running back position though, who knows if Barner, Smith (Quinn has mentioned in OTAs how good Smith looks), Ollison, or someone else proves to be exceptional when called upon? But overall, I don’t expect Atlanta to be looking to beat the Seahawks or anyone else next season by being the most unstoppable rushing team in the NFL. Quinn seems content to leave that type of mentality to his former boss.

For the Falcons, Ryan is the huckleberry.

With virtually no hoop nor la, Matt Ryan posted a comparable season in 2018 to the one he did as the MVP two years earlier. With Kyle Shanahan in 2016, Ryan completed over 69%, 38 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 117 rating, 9.3 yards per attempt. With Steve Sarkisian last year, Ryan completed over 69%, 35 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 108, 8.1. The numbers are slightly better with Shanahan, but consider other variables.

Number one, Atlanta had a bit of an advantage by “sneaking up” on teams in 2016. That was clamped down in 2017 and people were hyper aware of who to stop and how by 2018, but Sarkisian managed to exploit the talents of the Falcons just as well as Shanahan did.

Number two, the presence or lack thereof from Freeman. I already mentioned it before, the Falcons had an incredible 1-2 punch at running back in 2016. Ryan passed 105 times to Freeman and Coleman in 2016, compared to 76 passes to Coleman and Smith in 2018. The strategy around Ryan had to change after Freeman went on IR which included more passes to receivers and he was just as effective.

Number three, efficiency. Again, the strategy had to change, Atlanta wasn’t winning as much, and Ryan had to throw it 608 times last season compared to 534 times in 2016. On one hand, it’s more amazing that he threw 38 touchdowns in 2016, but on the other, his efficiency stats like rating and Y/A make more sense now; that being said, Ryan was even more amazing in the playoffs that year.

I’d say Ryan is on his way to a Hall of Fame career already. Teams know what to expect most of the time and they still can’t stop the Falcons offense. Of course his numbers also get better when his supporting cast is better and though there could be concerns with the running game if Freeman isn’t healthy, the passing weapons could be at peak condition.

Julio Jones led the NFL in receiving yards (1,677) for the second time in his career. In his last 82 games he’s averaged 104.6 yards per game. Mohamed Sanu is going into his fourth season in Atlanta and his 8.9 yards per target last season was tied with Travis Kelce for the 16th-highest in the league (minimum 90 targets). Calvin Ridley’s numbers were virtually identical to Sanu’s and he’s only 24, but Ridley also had 10 touchdowns compared to Sanu’s four and Jones’ eight. Tight end Austin Hooper, also 24, made his first Pro Bowl last season.

That top four is fantastic alone but the re-addition of Freeman could make it all too easy for Ryan to move the ball around against defenses, even when they know a pass is coming. Especially given that the offensive line has potential to be even better.

Matthews and Mack return as the veterans, while Quinn brought back an old Seattle friend when the Falcons signed free agent guard James Carpenter to play on the left side between those two. The Falcoholic does a good job of looking into the background of that signing, as well as Jamon Brown, though that came before they spent two first rounders on the line.

First, Atlanta took Chris Lindstrom with the 14th overall pick, then they traded up to 31 (giving up a third) to secure Kaleb McGary. As of now, Lindstrom is expected to start at right guard, McGary at right tackle. The team was not happy with Ryan Schraeder at right tackle and have been swinging around bad veteran guards like Brandon Fusco, Zane Beadles, and Ben Gardner, as well as Wes Schweitzer, a recent sixth round pick.

Overall, the Falcons have invested heavily here:

  • 2019 cap hits include $11 million each to Matthews and Mack, with the latter as the highest-paid center in the league this year
  • $4.3 million this season to Brown and $2.9 million to Carpenter
  • The 14th and 31st overall pick (with the latter requiring a trade up)
  • A three-year extension to versatile backup Ty Sambrailo that guarantees him a cap hit of $3.25 million this season

The Falcons aren’t just content with having a good starting five, they’re looking to have an elite offensive line with a solid backup option behind each one. This has been a clear area of focus and they seem to have set themselves up for success, but there’s also the possibility that the only players here who turn out good next season are Matthews and Mack. And Mack turns 34 in November.

There’s little reason to doubt the Atlanta offense but much like with the Saints and Bucs — as I mentioned in those previews — the potential problems lie on the other side of the ball.

Tampa Bay was the only team to finish with a worse DVOA on defense than the Falcons in 2018. Dan Quinn’s defense was 29th against the pass, 30th against the run, and 25th in points allowed. It further emphasizes the point that it doesn’t really matter what your coordinator job was or how much of an expert you are if you don’t have the talent or you can’t maximize the talent you have to a point of making your team decent overall.

Atlanta’s not done the best job of finding or maximizing talent on defense, though injuries have played a significant role in their downfall.

In four years under Quinn, the team has drafted Vic Beasley, Keanu Neal, Takkarist McKinley as first round defensive players, and Jalen Collins, Deion Jones, and Isaiah Oliver in round two. Of those six, Jones is the best and he missed 10 games in 2018. Neal is the second-best and he missed virtually the entire season. Those are two reasons for their failures a year ago and two potential reasons for hope in 2019. Neal will be a year removed from ACL surgery when the season begins and it could take him a little while to get back up to speed — though that’s not always the case.

Then there are the other four.

Beasley had his fifth-year option picked up because pass rushers are rare, he was good once, and he’s only 27 in July. But he’s had 10 sacks and 13 QB hits over his last two years combined. Quinn won’t give up on his first pick as a head coach though and that could be to his benefit or detriment.

McKinley had 5.5 sacks in the team’s first six games but only 1.5 over the final eight. (He missed two.) He had a high overall pressure rate but clearly consistency was an issue and now Quinn has even tried him at linebacker at OTAs.

Oliver was only a rookie last year and after a rough start, he’s expected to be the starter in 2019 next to Desmond Trufant. Much was made of Shaquill Griffin taking Richard Sherman’s spot at left cornerback and now Oliver is taking some snaps on the left side after Trufant had owned that spot for six years. Oh and the sixth player, Collins, was out of the league after two years — technically he’s remained in the league and is with the Colts but Collins has been suspended four times and has not played since 2016.

That’s a view from a recent draft perspective which I think is fair because there isn’t much talent on Atlanta’s defense outside of Jones, Neal, McKinley, Beasley, and potentially Oliver.

The best player I haven’t mentioned yet is Grady Jarrett, a fifth round pick in 2015 (four rounds after Beasley and a player that Quinn can be plenty proud of if he wants to spare some focus from the “elite” edge rusher) who is playing on the franchise tag. Jarrett will get over $15 million this year barring an extension or holdout. It’s been a steady rise for the defensive tackle as he’s gone from one sack to three to four to six. His QB hits have gone from two to nine to 13 to 16.

Jarrett is arguably the most underrated defensive tackle in the league, but given that he’s now on the tag it’s not as though people are unaware that he’s a difficult inside player to contain. Jarrett is the type of player who has often given Seattle guards and centers issues, which is one of the reasons the team is potentially going after veteran guards (DJ Fluker, JR Sweezy, Mike Iupati, Luke Joeckel) as of late.

To fill out a defensive line next to Beasley, McKinley, and Jarrett — which by itself already looks pretty decent — will be some combination of Deadrin Senat, Jack Crawford, Adrian Clayborn, Ra’Shede Hageman, and others.

The name you likely know is Hageman, a second rounder in 2014 who has missed each of the last two seasons after a domestic violence charge that led to a guilty plea for misdemeanor disorderly conduct and various other incidents. The Falcons are giving him another shot after releasing him in 2017 and he will be suspended for the first two games of the year assuming he even makes the team.

Crawford, formerly of the Cowboys, had a career-high six sacks in his first full season under Quinn. There are high expectations for Crawford, but at 31 in September, it’ll be interesting to see if he indeed has a lot more room to grow. Clayborn had 9.5 sacks in 2017, but six of those came in a single game against Dallas. He won a Super Bowl with the Patriots last season (2.5 sacks) and is back in Atlanta.

Overall, the defensive line seems to be the strength of the Falcons defense: Jarrett is their franchise tag player, McKinley still has potential to be a dominant pass rusher, Beasley once was for a brief period of time, Crawford is solid when healthy, Clayborn is a good option when he’s not your starter, and Senat was an instant fan favorite as a third round rookie nose tackle.

Can Quinn feel confident in the second and third levels of the defense? There are areas to highlight and areas that they’d probably like you to ignore.

Deion Jones is a special linebacker having recorded eight interceptions (three touchdowns), 27 pass deflections, 297 tackles, 15 tackles for loss while playing in 37 of a possible 48 games. He was taken three spots after Jarran Reed ... and one spot after Christian Hackenberg. Could he be seen as a player on the level of someone like Bobby Wagner some day?

I’d say: Absolutely.

They are different as linebackers but perhaps equally talented; note that it is hard to compare right now because Jones missed 10 games of his third year. Wagner actually missed five games during his third year, which still turned into his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro nod.

Next to him is leading tackler De’Vondre Campbell, an overlooked player who has steadily planted himself into the defense.

Funny to think about Quinn building his defense and comparing it to what he witnessed from Carroll: Wagner and Jones, second round linebackers. Campbell and K.J. Wright, fourth round linebackers. Beasley’s pro comparison was first round linebacker/edge rusher Bruce Irvin. Earl Thomas, 14th overall pick and Keanu Neal, 17th overall pick. (Neal’s closest pro comparison: some have said he plays most like Kam Chancellor.)

The WILL is expected to be Foyesade Oluokun, a sixth round rookie in 2018 who had 91 tackles. He’s stepped ahead of former third rounder Duke Riley, who struggled as the starter before losing his job. With Jones and Campbell, the linebacker corps could be as effective, if not more so, than the defensive line. It depends a lot on health and growth of course, but Jones to me still represents the best player on Atlanta’s defense.

My favorite player on the defense plays in the secondary though and that’s still an area of massive concern.

Neal was a Pro Bowl safety in 2017 but missed all but a handful of snaps last season. Damontae Kazee played well but was not the same. Kazee is now being moved to the slot because he played well enough for Quinn to not want to take him off the field — and slot corner is more important now than ever. Trufant is the vet going into his seventh season and while he hasn’t been viewed as effective as he was from 2013-2015, he’s considered an above-average starter.

The team also lost safety Ricardo Allen to a torn Achilles after only three games and he’s got to be questionable for the start of the season; backup Jordan Richards was considered the weak spot after Allen’s injury and he’s no longer with the team. Instead they could turn to J.J. Wilcox or Sharrod Neasman if needed at strong safety.

There are questions, but a secondary with Trufant-Oliver-Kazee at corner and Neal-Allen at safety may not be that bad. I also wouldn’t say it’s great. The defense that Quinn coached in Seattle had Sherman, who is simply a level (or three) above Trufant. That’s just how good Sherman was. He had Earl Thomas at free safety and Neal did not have the opportunity last year to show if he could play free safety as effectively as that. He had Kam at strong safety, and now it is a weakness. He had players opposite of Sherman — Byron Maxwell, Brandon Browner, for example — who we know were good and we don’t know that about Oliver or Kazee yet.

The upside of the secondary seems to be that it’s pretty good because of Neal, Trufant, and some growth. The downside is that this team was awful against the pass last season and that could happen again. Even with a healthy Neal and Jones and Allen plus Robert Alford, Atlanta was 20th against the pass in 2017. That’s fine.

How many times has Quinn coached the Falcons to having a top-16 pass defense in his four years as head coach?

Zero times.

Outside of a perfect storm, I don’t really have a good reason to believe that the Atlanta Falcons will have a great defense in 2019. I’m only basing this off of the fact that even when they’ve run out their best players — Neal, Jones, Jarrett — they haven’t had a great defense. I wonder if Quinn tinkers too much. He’s moved around Beasley. He’s now moving around McKinley. He’s hoping that Kazee is as effective at corner as he was at safety.

And it may only take one injury for the collapse into being what they were in 2018: abysmal.

That being said, on their best day the Falcons are a team that could potentially beat any team 33-27. Or 45-30. Or 25-24. (But not 28-3.) If things go exceptionally well, then maybe the defense does repeat a 19 PPG average that they had in 2017 and not the 26.4 PPG they allowed a year ago. Even in their Super Bowl season in 2016, Atlanta gave up over 25 points per game but the offense was just that good.

The offense could be that good again and I have no really good reason to think that the Seahawks are any better than the Falcons right now, but there’s plenty we need to learn about their efforts to repair their issues (two rookies on the offensive line, two defensive stars returning from injury, Beasley’s last stand, McKinley’s consistency, Trufant’s age, inexperience and uncertainty in the secondary, Freeman’s injuries and the depth behind him) before we can truly understand what lies ahead.

Some of those questions will be answered when the two teams meet midseason. But I expect this to be one of the more difficult challenges facing Seattle in 2019 regardless of the answers.

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