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Update: The Falcons traded Julio Jones to Tennessee after I finalized this piece. While I understand and lean toward the argument that this puts them in “no man’s land”, and that they either should have drafted a quarterback at 4 or kept Julio, an alternate explanation I could lay out is that the Falcons believe Ryan has enough years in him for the quarterback to be a part of their long-term rebuild.
The Atlanta Falcons firmly established the direction of their new regime under GM Terry Fontenot and Head Coach Arthur Smith with the selection of tight end Kyle Pitts with the 4th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. They added another blue-chip pass-catching prospect to go along with receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, but as importantly, reaffirmed their commitment to quarterback Matt Ryan.
There are several reasons to believe that Smith has the ability to get Ryan’s production back to the levels he reached with former offensive coordinator Kyle Shannahan. Like Shannahan, Smith has shown the ability to install a run-based scheme that naturally creates opportunities in all aspects of the passing game. In Tennessee, Smith’s system revived the career of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and now he’ll have a chance to do the same with Ryan, a player with a notably superior track record. Further, in his stint as the Titans offensive coordinator, Smith showed a remarkable ability to tailor roles for tight ends with a variety of skill sets, which is reason to be optimistic that he will make the most of Pitts, as well as fellow tight end Hayden Hurst.
Atlanta is going through a transition on the offensive line, where longtime center Alex Mack has departed. Jake Matthews remains in place as a steady, if not dominant, left tackle, and right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary, both selected in the first round of the 2019 Draft, will be expected to continue to progress after both showed improvements in both performance and availability in their second seasons. There will be new starters at center and left guard, with the roles likely to be filled by second-year player Matt Hennessy and rookie Jalen Mayfield, a third-round pick. Their ability to get up to speed will have a significant impact on the fortunes of running back Mike Davis, a free-agent addition from Carolina slated to handle starting duties, as well as the offense as a whole.
On defense, coordinator Dean Pees has once again come out of retirement to assist a first-time head coach. Pees, who most recently worked on Tennessee’s staff when Mike Vrabel took over as head coach, has a strong track record, and it will be interesting to see whether he gets more out of this group than the previous regime. The group has standout players in defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and linebacker Deion Jones, as well as a rising star in linebacker Foyesade Oluokun, but that trio is surrounded by question marks and developing players.
The Falcons turned over their safety group, adding free agents Erik Harris and Duron Harmon before drafting Richie Grant early in the second round. That group will join the corner trio of A.J. Terrell, Kendall Sheffield, and Isaiah Oliver in the back end, and given the lack of pass rush options beyond Jarrett, Atlanta’s ability to cover will be critical. It is possible that Pees gets more out of edge rusher Dante Fowler than others, but given Fowler’s track record of only performing in contract years, I would need good odds to take that bet, even though I love Fowler’s game when he’s rolling.
The Saints and Panthers are in transition at quarterback, which could leave Atlanta as the most dangerous threat to the Buccaneers, who are the clear favorite to win this division. If the Falcons are going to push for the NFC South title, it will need to be on the back of the talented offense. Update: That will be more difficult to accomplish without Julio, but Arthur Smith has shown he’s a heck of an offensive coordinator in his time with the Titans, and he may figure out a way to maximize Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst at tight end and make this offense hum.
QB Passing Projections
QB Rushing Projections
Skill Projections, Rushing
Skill Projections, Receiving