Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
The Falcons have had to battle through some adversity in the past couple of years. I won't harp on the implosion in Super Bowl LI, except to mention that Atlanta fought back the following year to get all the way to the Divisional Round of the playoffs and nearly made it back for a rematch against the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
This group will need to fight back once again this season. Last year, well, it didn't go well. I'm not going to lie to you. But this is a talented team that is ready to (wait for it) take flight once again. All right, I hate myself for what I just wrote there. Let's move on.
How the Falcons got here
Let's take a quick look back at the ups and downs of 2018.
-- Matt Ryan continued to play like a stud. We'll get to the quarterback in a moment, but he's the biggest bright spot for this team.
-- The Falcons put together two separate three-game winning streaks. The downside was, they won just one other game all season.
-- Injuries slowed the offense. Running back Devonta Freeman played in just two games before being felled by injuries, including a knee injury, a foot injury and a groin issue, with the latter requiring surgery. The Falcons struggled in his absence, finishing 22nd in rushing DVOA, according to Football Outsiders.
-- And the defense! While Kazee shined, safeties Keanu Neal (torn ACL) and Ricardo Allen (torn Achilles) were lost for the year in September, and linebacker Deion Jones missed 10 games. So though Atlanta ranked 10th in points scored, the defense couldn't keep up, and the team finished the season with a point differential of negative-9.
-- The three-game winning streak to close the season kind of hurt their draft position. Instead of drafting in the top 10 or higher, Atlanta ended up with the 14th overall slot. Of course, they were still able to land their man. But we'll talk about that more in a bit.
Head coach: Dan Quinn. Who is Dan Quinn? I mean, I know he's head coach of the Falcons. (Checks notes. Yep, that's right.) But who is he? To me, he's like the TGI Friday's of NFL coaches. I've never really had a bad meal at TGI Friday's. In fact, I've enjoyed their Jack Daniel's-infused appetizers on a number of delightful occasions. But the restaurant chain kind of flies under the radar when it comes to picking places to eat. I feel that way about Quinn. He's not always the most talked about coach, but he's been pretty solid for the Falcons. He got the team to the Super Bowl in his second season. He didn't post a losing record until last season, in Year 4 on the job, and the team still finished 7-9 -- which is quite an accomplishment, when you play in one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL. All that being said, this seems like a make-or-break year for Quinn, who added even more to his plate by taking over defensive play-calling duties.
Quarterback: Matt Ryan. One of the reasons Quinn could be on the hot seat this season is that the Falcons have kind of been wasting one of the better quarterback performances of all time. Ryan was the NFL MVP in 2016, when he led the club to its second-ever NFC championship and trip to the Super Bowl. Last year might have been even more impressive, with Ryan passing for nearly 5,000 yards, 35 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. SEVEN. I know 5,000 passing-yard seasons are no longer the rarity they once were. Like the sight of a toddler running around with an iPhone or something. (I mean, I still remember having to battle my sisters and neighbors to use the party line.) But what Ryan has done over the last couple of years has been impressive. Ryan is 34 and heading into Year 12 of his NFL career. He kind of deserves better than a 4-6 playoff record and two non-winning seasons in the past four years.
Projected 2019 MVP: Ryan. He's going to be a candidate for league MVP. And if he's not, then he certainly should be. (Don't worry, I'll talk about Julio Jones in a bit.)
Projected 2019 breakout star: Foye Oluokun, linebacker. I mean, Oluokon is the best thing to come out of Yale since Rory Gilmore. The Falcons took a flier on his vast physical potential by using a sixth-round pick on him in 2018 -- and we started to see glimpses of that potential being realized in his rookie season. This year, the Falcons didn't draft a linebacker, and Oluokun is presumably being given an even bigger role with the team for the coming season. Kind of like the exact opposite of when Mitchum Huntzberger told Rory she'd never cut it as a reporter. (The "Gilmore Girls" Netflix revival did kind of show that he was right, but that's not the point.) Oluokun is going to be a huge star for the Falcons this season; get on board now.
BTW: How good is Grady Jarrett? Oh, don't worry, I'll tell you. The fifth-year pro has become one of the better defensive tackles in the league and is coming off a career year, having recorded six sacks, a personal best. (Recorded seems like a weird word to use when it comes to sacks.) The former fifth-round pick's rookie contract ran out, but the Falcons placed the franchise tag on him, so he's not going anywhere, at least in 2019.
New face to know: Qadree Ollison, running back. Freeman's return to form would be wonderful. There is no doubt about that. But Ollison could be a sneaky play this season. The fifth-round pick has got some size to him (6-foot-1, 228 pounds), but most importantly, he can catch the ball, which means he could force his way onto the field. The Falcons lost Tevin Coleman to free-agency this offseason, and the rookie is one of those dudes who could end up breaking out with a small role, like we seem to see every year. Yes, that was a fantasy tip for you.
The 2019 road map
More balanced with Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator? The Falcons moved on from coordinator Steve Sarkisian after two seasons and brought back Koetter, the former Bucs head coach, who was the OC in Atlanta from 2012 to '14. Last season, Atlanta ranked fourth in passing offense and 27th in rushing offense. Quinn wants to run the ball more. But was that imbalance really Sarkisian's fault? Freeman was hurt. The offensive line was miserable. Which leads us seamlessly into our next item ...
Able to fix their woes on the offensive line? Ryan was sacked 42 times and still completed almost 70% of his passes. Like, come on, Atlanta; do something about this. (It couldn't have helped that Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco missed most of the season with injuries; Levitre retired this offseason, and Fusco was released.) The Falcons weren't afraid to throw money at the problem, adding on the O-line like an executive with a corporate expense account, inking free-agent guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown, then drafting Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary. The Falcons selected Lindstrom 14th overall, even though he was graded by NFL.com's Lance Zierlein as a second-rounder. Then they traded back into the first round to pick McGary, whom many thought would be available in the second. All that said, I do kind of hate when people play the whole, You could have drafted him later game. Because A) you never know, and B) get your guy! I respect it. I remember one time, there was a huge line at Chick-Fil-A, and I was supes hungry. So I offered this guy $20 for his biscuit. And you know what? I regret that. Well, now. But at the time, it was the best transaction I ever made. So, you do you.
Stop anybody in the air? As we've discussed, injuries in the secondary hurt the Falcons, who finished 28th in overall defense last year and 27th against the pass. Meanwhile, 41.5 percent of offensive drives by their opponents resulted in a score, which was the third-worst rate in the NFL. So the team is going to need to get after this problem. In addition to welcoming back Neal and Allen and tagging Jarrett, Atlanta signed Tyeler Davison (from the Saints) and ex-Falcon Adrian Clayborn. Two other guys who can help are second-year cornerback Isaiah Oliver, who really started to come on last year, and rookie defensive end John Cominsky, out of Charleston. Hey, look, if he can be an athletic find like Oluokun was last year, then the Falcons could really be much improved. If the defense doesn't start to trend in the right direction again, well, Quinn's decision to assume control could come under scrutiny.
Three key dates:
-- Week 3 at the Colts. The first three games of the season make for a tough combo: two road matchups against legit playoff hopefuls (Minnesota and Indianapolis) sandwiched around a prime-time showdown against the team that recently did something Atlanta couldn't (beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl). How the Falcons wrap up this difficult opening stretch could set the tone for the season.
One storyline people are overlooking:Calvin Ridley is pretty damn good. I mean, you do get a pretty good rub playing opposite of Julio Jones. It's like when Randy Orton was part of Evolution. He was performing with the best in the business, but you knew it was just a matter of time before he took off. Ridley shined during his rookie season, leading the team with 10 touchdown receptions.
One storyline people are overthinking:Julio Jones doesn't score enough touchdowns. I might be too close to this, because it's one of the dumb things the fantasy community talks about, and it gets kind of annoying. I swear, sometimes, the fantasy community can be the human equivalent of cargo shorts. And while I suppose it's annoying for fantasy enthusiasts (not me, though, because I'm a sane person) for Jones to not score double-digit touchdowns (the last time he did it, he scored 10 in 2012), dude is the one of the best receivers in the game, if not the best. He led the NFL in receiving for the second time in four years with 1,677 yards. He's averaged more than 100 yards receiving per game in five of his last six years. And he missed just three games over that stretch. His down year was 2017 ... when he had 1,444 yards and averaged 90.3 yards per game.
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Falcons MUST ...
-- Play with some consistency.
-- Get back to the playoffs.
-- Make a postseason run.
Expectations are high, which is tough. But the good news is, this is a talented roster. Injuries likely cost the Falcons another trip to the playoffs last year. If everyone stays healthy this year, Atlanta should return to the postseason. And, at the very least, Julio is going to be a beast for my fantasy team. Even if he doesn't score that many touchdowns. (Not that I really care; you're great, Julio!)