Undrafted’s Atlanta Falcons preseason review!
The Falcons struggled last year, and must hold some sort of record for the amount of games they seemed to throw away. Honestly, it was a season to forget for the Falcons, and cost long term head coach Dan Quinn his job eventually. The defence simply couldn’t hold it together when the offence went out and scored points. To put it into perspective, the Falcons were the 4th worst team in yards allowed per game last season, seemingly giving up big plays continuously.
The Falcons are rebuilding a defence, with new coordinator and very experienced football mind Dean Pees coming back to the NFL after a couple of years hiatus. Pees was the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens when Ray Lewis was around, and won a Super Bowl with them in 2013. He was also the linebackers coach with New England in 2005 when they hoisted the Lombardi. So he comes to Atlanta with plenty of experience, and a job on his hands to turn this defence around. I have no doubts that after last season, the morale at least with the defence has to be low, and Atlanta needs to change that fast, because they have an offence that can score points!
That being said, offensively there are gaps and question marks too, such as the running back situation, which seems a little messy. The Falcons signed former Panther Mike Davis to a deal in free agency, after a good performance in Christian McCaffrey’s absence last season, but I’m not seeing anything that said he can be the out and out starter, and I’m not sure the Falcons are convinced of that either. I do like the addition of Cordarrelle Patterson, who will contribute as a running back too, and gives you a very different body type to that of Mike Davis too. You also have the likes of undrafted rookie Javian Hawkins out of Louisville, who has showcased his speed and agility on a few occasions now in training camp.
The offensive line was below average last season, but the Falcons have added some rookie talent there too, and of course, Julio Jones is no longer there to provide a superstar play when you need one. So up steps the likes of Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts, who will need to fill that role between them, and quickly. Let’s take a look at a few key categories for the Falcons this upcoming season…
The Head Coach
Arthur Smith has been with the Titans since 2011, and with the offence since 2012. He spent the last two seasons as the offensive coordinator bringing that offence featuring Derrick Henry, Ryan Tannehill, Jonnu Smith and AJ Brown to life. There’s plenty to take away from his ability to get the best out of those players, as has been most obvious with Tannehill. The scheme Arthur Smith built over the last two years has given these players a chance to flourish, and the 2019 season, his first in charge, was the highest scoring Titans offence in 16 years.
He heads to Atlanta and will reimagine the offence there while the aforementioned DC Dean Pees focuses on the defence. The hire of Smith is particularly beneficial for Matt Ryan, Kyle Pitts, Calvin Ridley. When you consider the rejuvenation of Ryan Tannehill’s career when he landed in Tennessee, it might well be a welcome fresh start for Matt Ryan to open up the playbook again. Jonnu Smith has put on such a show with the Titans the last two seasons that he was offered a big deal to go and play in New England during free agency, so rookie Kyle Pitts has a great set up in front of him for his opening campaign in the NFL too, and Calvin Ridley could benefit in a similar way that AJ Brown did in recent years too.
I love the hire for those guys. I can see Kyle Pitts having a record breaking rookie year. Calvin Ridley firing himself into that elite conversation, and Matt Ryan freshening up his game too. My only concern is how easy is all of that to do without a trojan horse like Derrick Henry terrifying defences by simply standing in the backfield pre snap? We will see!
Some were surprised that given the position the Falcons were in this off season, they didn’t draft a Quarterback to take over from Matt Ryan long term. Ryan, who turned 36 in the summer, had a mid tier year by his career standards, and is still totally serviceable for a few more years, especially if things are made easier for him in Arthur Smith’s new scheme.
Matty Ice doesn’t look like he’s lost it or is struggling to keep up with the speed of the game at all. With Drew Brees last season, he looked like he was struggling, and that it was time. However with Matt Ryan, you can still get another 3 or 4 years out of him, and the Falcons clearly saw it that way too, deciding to draft generational prospect Kyle Pitts instead of a quarterback. Pitts was the first non QB taken off the board in this years draft, and I have no doubt the Falcons received calls for their pick before they made that choice…
Matt Ryan can lead this team and put points on the board, and I genuinely believe he will have a better year this year than the past two seasons, where he managed 26 touchdowns a season in both. The catch is of course that Julio Jones is no longer there for him to lean on when times get tough, but Kyle Pitts will quickly become a favoured target in the upcoming season. I’d imagine in the next couple of seasons the Falcons will consider drafting a rookie QB as Matt Ryan’s excellent career does begin to wind down, but for now, this is his team, and he can be the guy who takes the snaps while the new coaching staff looks to reignite the locker room.
The Rookie To Watch
This is not a question. As I said, Kyle Pitts was the first name called that wasn’t a QB in this years draft, and with good reason. Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen described Pitts as a unicorn, and that just about does it justice…
The opportunity for the lightning fast tight end in the post Julio Jones Atlanta Falcons era is monumental. He can take those reps, and be that pass catcher that Matt Ryan looks to in key situations. He’s a total match up nightmare, and if you line him up as a tight end off the line, his ability to chip a defensive lineman and then get into space makes him unplayable. I could count the linebackers that can cover him stride for stride on one hand, and those guys are no taller than 6 foot, so even if they can run with him, he’s going to catch a ball straight over their heads.
I want to see the Falcons get creative with Kyle Pitts. He’s fast enough and built with the right frame to play as an outside receiver, so I want to see them do that with him. Let him break out of the huddle and go and line up outside. Confuse defences by putting him all over the line up pre snap, and just focus on getting him open.
For me, Kyle Pitts is a sure bet, and a good selection from the Falcons. He’s going to be a key piece in the facelift that this Falcons team so desperately needs, and offers so much to them straight out of the gate. He appears to be settling in just fine, making plays in training camp already, and still looks huge compared to his team mates, despite being the rookie of the bunch.\
I will also give a nod to UCF prospect Richie Grant, the safety that the Falcons drafted in the 2nd round. Grant has a job to do in filling the shoes of the now vacated safety positions left by Damontae Kazee and Keanu Neal, who both went over to Dallas to rejoin Dan Quinn. Richie Grant is versatile and can play in various roles on the back end, but will be best suited to a free safety role, which I expect to see him take over as the full time starter. He’s an exciting young prospect with great ball skills, and could contribute early to rebuilding that defence with high energy and some good speed!
The New Kid On The Block
I’ve done this segment for a lot of teams in the NFL already in the past few weeks, and had no trouble finding an exciting free agent or traded player of some sort that’s joined the roster and can create some excitement. However, I’ve come unstuck here with the Falcons. And this is my concern. It’s difficult to see where they’re heading this year, and while Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts might carry them to some touchdowns, and they have some elite talent on defence with the likes of Grady Jarrett. I’d argue that they haven’t got better this off season. Pitts replaces Julio Jones production from last year, at least. Julio had 770 yards and 3 touchdowns, and of course missed some time. So Pitts can make up those numbers. But the run game is an issue, and the line isn’t totally convincing by any means either.
The secondary was woeful last season, with AJ Terrell having a tough rookie year with little to no help. They have of course added some players, but the additions leave a lot to be desired, and I get the impression that Atlanta wasn’t exactly a favourable landing spot for any prospect this off season. The Falcons added Erik Harris from the Raiders, and Duron Harmon from the Lions, both of which add some experience, and Harmon is a pretty consistent safety. He’s also 30 years old, and Erik Harris (who was poor last year), is 31. I suppose my pick would be Fabian Moreau, who joins the Falcons from Washington, and at 27 years old on a fairly minimal deal, has an opportunity to ignite his career in a secondary in desperate need of some playmakers.
Overall though, there really isn’t anybody worthy of taking this headline on their own, and that’s a concern that leads me to believe the Falcons might not beat that 4-12 record by too many this year…
The Up & Comer
I’m giving this one to wide receiver Russell Gage. Gage had a career year in 2020 including a 114 yard performance in the season opener last year against the Seahawks. Julio Jones no longer in town, guys need to step up and make an impact, and nobody in the receiver room behind Calvin Ridley is better placed to do that than Russell Gage.
Gage contributed 786 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2020, and I expect him to be the third target in line on the offence this year. He’ll likely continue to occupy the slot for around 70% of his snaps, however can also line up outside, and in a team that is going to improve throwing the ball this year under the new head coach, Gage is another who could benefit from that.
Calvin Ridley of course, is on everybody’s radar to have an even bigger impact year, but Russell Gage is also climbing the depth chart.
Record Prediction: 5-12
Sorry Falcons fans, but this is a rebuild now. The franchise is wilting, and while I would love to see that offence propel the team into much better standings, I just don’t see where the wins are going to come from. They’re going to give up a lot of points this year, at least, looking at the depth chart, it feels that way, and it puts so much pressure on the offence to keep up with the opposition all the time.
I feel for the talent on this roster, and I know there will absolutely be bright sparks on this roster this season, but it’s not a winning year for Atlanta, not yet at least anyway. They’re playing in a division with the Super Bowl champion Bucs, up and coming Carolina Panthers, who seem to have their identity all figured out, and even the Saints, who lost Drew Brees this off season, just totally out match this Falcons roster on talent.
Arthur Smith has his work cut out, and at the least I’d like to see him implement a new culture and inject some belief into this depleted Falcons team. If they’re going to turn things around, it’s not going to be instant, and it’s going to take a lot of work. It’s a learning year for a lot of young players, led by the coaching staff and vet signal caller Matt Ryan.
A couple more high draft picks, and you’ll be well on your way to rebuilding your franchise.
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