This weekend I had a chance to pick the brain of staff writer Torgo, our resident expert on the Atlanta Falcons. Here’s what he had to say about the team’s offseason and the outlook for 2016.
The Falcons are entering their second season with their new coaches and schemes. I know you attend practices regularly during training camp every year. What are the biggest improvements in the team that you saw during this year’s camp?
The improved speed on defense was unmistakable, particularly the speed up the middle. The quality of the depth in the WR group was obvious as well – in past seasons, the big question was whether the team could find a suitable fourth and fifth wide receiver. This year even the sixth and seventh guys on the list are looking as good or better than the third and fourth receivers from two years ago.
The advantages of having Alex Mack have been obvious compared to what the team went through a year ago, when they suddenly (and surprisingly) opted to release banged up veteran Joe Hawley in favor of starting Mike Person, who had never started a regular season NFL game and had never played center.
And in general, simply having a year of experience in the system is making a difference. This team is loaded with young players, and they all had to adapt to new schemes last season. This year, the returning players were able to focus more on improving rather than simply learning the system.
Last year Matty Ice seemed to have been ice cold, and not because he had ice in his veins. Do you see Matt Ryan bouncing back this season after struggling last year?
I don’t think the real problem was Matt Ryan himself as much as the change in scheme and the impact it had on the entire team, particularly the offensive line.
The last second decision to release Joe Hawley and start Mike Person at center last year was truly bizarre. Person was a decent guard prospect, but he’s not a center and had only done a light amount of cross-training at center in training camp. They didn’t even have him playing center in the final preseason game. Making him the starter the way they did was just shocking.
Instead of scanning the field and focusing on the defense, Ryan had to focus on just getting the ball from the center. The snaps were erratic all season long. And while the offensive line ended up getting good grades from media outlets, the protection was shaky at best. Ryan usually had time to look to one receiver before having to go straight to the outlet or throw the ball away.
I can’t stress the offensive line issues enough. The coaching staff had no idea what the starting lineup would be during training camp last year and was still doing mad science experiments all through preseason. When the season began, the starting offensive line had never worked together as a unit before. That’s a really bad situation for a quarterback. This year the projected starters spent the entire offseason working together.
But will the team solve its red zone problems? Punching the ball in tends to be one of the weaknesses of zone blocking systems, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s still an issue this year. And a big part of that does fall on Ryan himself. He has to be more careful with his decision making. He didn’t throw a lot of interceptions, but too many of them came in red zone situations.
What about running back? Devonta Freeman was a stud once he came back from a preseason injury but then seemed to fade in midseason. Did his tank run dry or did the rest of the league catch up to him? And Tevin Coleman was disappointing as the primary backup but is expected to eat some carries from Freeman. Do you see the situation improving?
Freeman and Coleman both dealt with hamstring issues in preseason last year, and Coleman was banged up again early in the season. That was a big part of his setback as a rookie. The team had also lost home run threat Antone Smith to a hamstring injury, so we were pretty thin in that group. That left Freeman to carry the load by himself early on, and it wore him down. He has been open about wanting to improve his conditioning for this season and saying he needs to do more to make sure he’s strong at the end.
But more than anything, the team wants to get Coleman more involved. He’s showing improvement in technique, and it was pretty clear from training camp that he’s capable of catching balls out of the backfield. If he can avoid last year’s injuries, he should be a bigger part of the offense. And though that may cut into Freeman’s stats, it will certainly help keep Freeman fresh throughout the season.
Right now, the more pressing question is who will be behind them. Just like last year, the injuries have hit Atlanta’s running back group. Freeman, Coleman, and fullback Patrick DiMarco have no one healthy behind them. Absolutely no one.
Terron Ward missed most of preseason with an ankle injury, which he tweaked again in the final preseason game. Undrafted rookie Brandon Wilds is also banged up. Cyrus Gray was injured and has already been released with an injury settlement. The team resigned Will Ratelle for the final exhibition, but he also got hurt during that game.
It was simply impossible to predict who would be the depth players for the season opener, as none of the candidates on the roster would pass a physical. But Ward survived the game and made the roster, with Gus Johnson making the practice squad as literally the last man standing.
You’ve mentioned Alex Mack already. The team also signed Mohamed Sanu to an eye-popping contract in free agency. He’ll step in and be the #2 right away but do you think he’s worth it? Can he be a dependable option for Ryan or at least keep the pressure off Julio Jones?
This is a great example of the headlines not telling the entire story with those free agency contracts. You see the huge numbers and immediately think they sold the farm to sign an unproven player. But while the headlines are frightening, the structuring of the contract tells a different story.
It starts one step farther back, with the coaching staff’s decision to part ways with Roddy White. Once they made that decision, they absolutely had to land an instant starter to replace him. Sanu was one of the best choices available, so they targeted and signed him.
Throw the headline contract numbers on top of the fact that he’s replacing an Atlanta icon, and there was a lot of immediate sentiment against the signing. But the contract really isn’t that bad.
The beauty of the structure is that the team managed to fit Sanu within the same cap space as White for both 2016 and 2017, even after absorbing the dead money from White’s release. That’s a key item that I think the media doesn’t grasp. Sanu’s cap figure for this season is cheap. I like to point out that ex-Falcon receiver Harry Douglas is now with Tennessee, and Sanu’s cap cost for Atlanta this year is actually less than the cap cost that the Titans have with Douglas.
So forget the headlines. Atlanta simply swapped out White for Sanu for what would have been the remainder of White’s contract, with no extra cap pain at all. It really was a brilliant piece of cap manipulation by Atlanta’s front office.
The potential downside is that they are locked in with Sanu for 2017. But after that, they can release him if things don’t work out – or if they have a new OC by then and Sanu is no longer a system fit. I mention that because Kyle Shanahan might be on the hot seat if the offense falters again like it did last year. We have way too much talent on offense to squander it with an ineffective scheme.
But if there is another scheme change or if Sanu flops and the team parts ways in 2018, the cap pain wouldn’t be any worse than the hit from releasing Roddy White would have been this year. The team absorbed that cap pain by backloading Sanu. So the worst case scenario is they kick the can down the road two years on Roddy’s dead money, taking the hit with Sanu in 2018 instead of taking it with Roddy this year.
And if things do work out, they have a pair of top receivers locked in place in Sanu and Julio Jones.
Let’s look at the team’s draft. The general reaction was that the Falcons reached quite a bit in the early rounds. Overall, how do you view their draft and the potential impact of their rookie class, especially that of Keanu Neal and Deion Jones?
The players they selected were all system fits, and many of them will be contributing sooner rather than later.
I know the media “experts” all expected Keanu Neal to go later than the 17th overall pick, but he was the top strong safety on the board, and Karl Joseph had already been taken a couple of picks earlier. Neal was almost certain to be the next safety taken. It was only a question of how soon some other team might pull the trigger and make the move to get him.
Neal’s skill set is exactly what head coach Dan Quinn wanted for his defense, more so than anyone else available. I don’t know if anyone else could have been an instant starter either, so it made sense for them to take Neal when they did rather than risk missing out on him by waiting.
It’s a similar story with second round pick Deion Jones. The Falcons have lacked speed and pass coverage skills at the linebacker position for quite a while. For that matter, in the last couple of years they’ve simply lacked linebackers – period. They dismantled the linebacker group under former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, and they’ve had several setbacks with their efforts to reload.
There are a lot of positives for the team with that pick. Jones is fast and can cover – he even lined up some at cornerback in college. He’s set to take over the starting middle linebacker role when the regular season opens. No one else available was as good a system fit. And they did trade down before taking him, so they got an extra pick out of the deal.
So the media pundits might call it a reach, but the Falcons got exactly the guy they wanted, and they got some extra leverage out of it by trading down.
The team’s only pick that typically received positive grades was third rounder Austin Hooper. Is he the answer at tight end?
That depends. What’s the question at tight end?
Seriously, that’s the real issue. Obviously no one’s going to come in and instantly be another Tony Gonzalez. So the real question is what the role of the tight end will be and what the team needs Hooper and other prospects to do for them to be considered “successful”.
Gonzalez was absolutely critical because the Falcons had such a shameful lack of depth at wide receiver. When Dan Quinn arrived, three of the team’s top four receivers were on the wrong side of 30, and there was no prospect pipeline whatsoever – Atlanta had gone three straight years without drafting a single wide receiver or signing a free agent.
Quinn and his staff have worked closely with the front office, and they’ve spent the last two years getting younger, faster, and generally better at receiver – especially in the back end of the group. It’s now a deep unit, and the coaching staff will have some tough decisions to make with the final roster cuts.
So if the Falcons aren’t dependent on the tight end producing as a true wide receiver, it’s a matter of how much production versus how much blocking they really need from the TE group. Jacob Tamme is a pretty good outlet receiver. At least for now, he’s certainly sufficient as the starter.
The problem is 2017 and beyond. Tamme will be a free agent after this season. Levine Toilolo was a bit of a surprise in making this year’s roster, and this is also his contract year. I don’t see him returning.
So the Falcons needed to start restocking. They needed someone who can block in Shanahan’s outside zone scheme, be an effective #2 right away as well as a core special teams player, and has potential to develop into a future starter.
Hooper can certainly work as a #2 in our offensive scheme. He was never going to replace Tamme as the immediate starter, but he was one of the top prospects available in what was generally a weak tight end class.
I suspect TE will be a top need in future years. But at least for now, Tamme, Hooper and the other prospects should be enough to fit the needs of Shanahan’s system.
You mentioned that many of the rookies will contribute sooner rather than later. Are there any later picks that you see making an immediate impact? I was rather high on De’Vondre Campell and the Falcons scooped him up sooner than some expected him to go?
Yes, Campbell was regarded as another huge reach, but he may be another instant starter. He’ll play a significant number of snaps like a starter, even if he’s technically not credited with starting. He has impressive speed and agility, which is exactly what the Falcons needed.
The knock on him before the draft is that he supposedly needed a lot of coaching on his technique and would likely be a long term project. But Campbell was one of the stars of Atlanta’s offseason workouts and training camp. He’s taking to the scheme very quickly.
Part of it is that Quinn and defensive coordinator Richard Smith have worked to simplify the defensive assignments. The buzzwords here are “fast and physical”. They don’t want the players bogged down by having to make complex reads.
Overall, Atlanta will have a very young defense this season. They’ll all have their growing pains, but the coaches insist they can live with that. Campbell fits right in and looks to be a significant part of Atlanta’s defense even as a rookie.
I also had really big hopes for seventh rounder Devin Fuller. He was part of the youth movement at wide receiver and was having an outstanding preseason, catching everything that was thrown in his direction. Unfortunately, he suffered a preseason injury and will spend the year on IR.
Sixth rounder Wes Schweitzer is not starting yet, but watch for him to take over at right guard, perhaps even in midseason this year. The team is grooming him as the successor to Chris Chester.
The Falcons did not draft a pass rusher this year. They recently added Dwight Freeney, but do you really expect him to be the answer for the team’s pass rush woes?
Well, they didn’t draft an edge rusher this year, but they did add Vic Beasley with a top ten draft pick last season. A few media analysts were quick to label him as unsuccessful as a rookie, but there’s another side to that story – he played the entire season with a torn labrum.
It would have been nice to add an extra edge rusher in this draft, but you can’t have everything – especially when you go into the draft with only five picks. Of course, having Dwight Freeney around will help, perhaps even more as a mentor to Beasley than as a situational pass rusher in his own right.
Offhand, I think a bigger problem is that it has been far too easy for opposing quarterbacks to get first downs with easy outlet passes. You’re not going to get many sacks when the QB can simply dump the ball off to the tight end or running back at the first hint of pressure and get the first down nearly every time.
That has been a huge frustration for Falcons fans. At times it seemed as if the defense simply didn’t understand that the tight end was an eligible receiver. I don’t think the national media really gets it on that one. Either that or they’re just being lazy – it’s easy to point to a low number of sacks and claim that explains everything.
But naturally there are reasons behind the numbers, and while the media pundits insisted that the Falcons just HAD to take an edge rusher with the #17 pick, it’s silly to think that adding one extra rookie pass rusher would magically solve all of the team’s problems.
Atlanta has been near the bottom of the league in sacks for over a decade but has still been able to field at least an adequate defense, even winding up as the #1 seed in the NFC a couple of times during that span. More sacks would always be nice, but the bigger picture is that they have to do more to get off the field on third downs.
We cringe at some now infamous quotes from our former coaching staff along those lines, but there was a lot of truth in what they were trying to say. If the other team doesn’t convert on third down, you’ve done your job even if you don’t get a sack. Just get the defense off the field.
A huge part of that is taking away all those ridiculously easy outlet passes, making it more difficult to find open receivers in the middle zones. The front office and coaching staff made that a top priority this offseason, drafting Neal and Jones with their first two picks plus bringing linebacker Sean Weatherspoon back to Atlanta.
And there are other changes besides Freeney that will affect the pass rush, such as free agent Derrick Shelby replacing Tyson Jackson at the other end spot, second year player Grady Jarrett replacing Paul Soliai at the nose, and having Brooks Reed healthy this year as a blitzing linebacker or playing the “LEO” pass rush position.
So the team didn’t add the “one big splash” guy in the draft, but they’ve made a lot of upgrades throughout the front seven. This defense should be better overall, even if they don’t light up the league with boatloads of sacks.
What do you see as the team’s biggest remaining issues or question marks?
Unless they pick up someone else really soon, they’ll be going with an inexperienced nickel corner. They simply don’t have anyone with real experience at CB outside of starters Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.
They like the prospects, but the total lack of game experience does matter. It may prove to be the weak point of this defense. I’d be more comfortable if they added someone, at least for now, so they can get the prospects a little more seasoning before throwing them into the fire.
For the offense, the most glaring question mark from presesason play is whether they have done enough to eliminate the red zone turnovers that plagued them last season. They had another bad one in the third preseason game, so that really is the elephant in the room.
We’ve also lost two backup centers to injury, and the other backup candidates have been shaky in preseason. I would not be the least bit surprised if the team added a backup center at the roster cuts or early in the regular season.
The Falcons haven’t had a winning season since making the NFC Championship in 2012. What’s your outlook for this season?
The tradition of the NFC South is that the division is always up for grabs. Carolina had a great season and ran away with it last year, but the rest of the division is catching up.
Atlanta got lucky in a few games they won early last year, but they also blew several games that should have been safely in hand. That included at least three of their games within the division.
Our local media likes to say the team has a difficult schedule this year. Some of that is true in the sense of having so many west coast trips and other factors outside of just listing the opponents. But the whole strength of schedule thing is way overblown. Except for two games, you play the same opponents as everyone else in your division. If you can get it done within your division, the rest will usually take care of itself.
That’s where Atlanta fell short last year. The Falcons went 1-5 in divisional games. I expect them to do better this year. And if they do, they’ll be strong contenders to make the postseason. Make no mistake about it – this is a team on the rise.