By: Raynard Churchwell
The Atlanta Falcons are looking to redeem themselves after a disappointing 7-9 season last year. Injuries and failing to perform well in clutch moments derailed the Falcons’ hopes of getting back to the Super Bowl. Luckily, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic going into the 2019 season. Key players have returned, coaching changes have been made, and the Falcons havedrafted talented players and added good free agent signings. The Falcons look to count on a high-powered offense and a much–improved defense as they look to be Super Bowl contenders once again.
The Falcons bring back one of top offenses in the league. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter has taken over the reins as offensive coordinator, which should be a major improvement over former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan looks to continue his dominance as he will be surrounded with a plethora of offensive weapons. Starting running back Devonta Freeman returns fully healthy this season after only playing in three games last year. The team also added depth at the running back position by drafting University of Pittsburg’s Qadree Ollison in the 5th round of 2019 NFL Draft.
The Falcons’ wide receiver group is bound to be one of the best in the league. All eyes will be on 4x All-Pro receiver Julio Jones. Jones, who many consider to be the best wide receiver in the game, led the league in receiving yards last season and looks to be even more dominant this upcoming year. Wide receiver Mohammad Sanu has been a reliable target since joining the team in 2016. Sanu posted a career high in receiving yards last season with 838, and will continue to be a solid receiver for the Falcons. Fans are expecting a breakout season for last year’s first round pick Calvin Ridley. Ridley put up good numbers in his rookie season registering 64 catches for 821 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Some of the most important additions this offseason dealt with solidifying the play of the offensive line. Using the 14th and 31st overall picks, the Falcons drafted guard Chris Lindstrom from Boston College and tackle Kaleb McGary from the University of Washington. The Falcons also acquired four more offensive lineman via free agency to turn one of the Falcons’ biggest weaknesses into a strength. Many believe that this offense can be the best in the league, and the team will go as far as the offense takes them.
On the other side of the ball, the defense looks to bounce back after a lackluster performance last season. Injuries ravished through the defense and made it difficult for the Falcons to win many close battles. Starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen are 100% healthy and look to wreak havoc for opposing offenses this season. Star linebacker Deion Jones is also returningfrom a foot injury that kept him out for 10 games.
The biggest strength of this year’s defense should be the Falcons’ linebacker group. While Deion Jones has established himself as a star, De’Vondre Campbell has been a consistent playmaker for the Falcons during his three–year career. 2nd year linebacker Foye Oluokun looks to build on his impressive rookie season. While filling in for Jones, Oluokun registered 86 totaltackles, exceeding expectations for a sixth round selection.
Another strength of this year’s team is the defensive tackle position. The Falcons were able to re-sign elite defensive tackle Grady Jarrett to a four-year 68-million-dollar contract, with $42.5 million in guaranteed money. The deal makes Jarrett the 3rd highest paid defensive tackle in the league, so expectations will be sky high for him this season. The Falcons also signed former Saints defensive tackle Tyeler Davison to a 1-year deal this offseason. This was a key signing because it gives Jarrett a partner in crime, and it hurts the depth of the fierce division rival New Orleans Saints.
The biggest question marks on the defense come from the defensive end and cornerback positions. It seems to be a make or break year for defensive end Vic Beasley. Since leading the league with 15.5 sacks in 2016, Beasley’s production hasn’t been anywhere close to that in the last few seasons. Beasley is now on the last year of his contract.
If he doesn’t produce this year, he may join the likes of Peria Jerry and Sam Baker as first round draft picks that didn’t work out for the Falcons. 2nd year defensive end Takkarist McKinley showed some promise in his rookie season but has not fully blossomed yet. While at certain points McKinley looked dominant, other times he couldn’t be found. Fans will be looking for more consistent play from him this year. The Falcons also brought back a familiar face this offseason. Adrian Clayborn, who spent last season with the Patriots, is back in Atlanta. His presence brings depth and leadership to the entire defensive line.
With the position of cornerback comes a level of uncertainty. Desmond Trufant’s average performance last season did not live up to the level of his 68-million-dollar contract. While he had 55 total tackles, his zero interceptions in 2018 will not put him in the class of elite cornerbacks. All eyes will be on 2nd-year cornerback Isaiah Oliver. The Falcons released incumbent veteran starter Robert Alford and announced Oliver would be the starter next to Trufant. Oliver’s development will be crucial as the Falcons look to improve a pass defense thatranked 27th out of the 30 last season. A bright spot at cornerback however is 3rd year defensive back Damontae Kazee. Due to injuries, Kazee was forced to play safety last season, but he ended up having a stellar year. He finished with 80 tackles and tied for the most interceptions in the league with seven. Kazee will play the nickelback position this year and will look to continue to be a ball-hawk and turnover machine for the Falcons.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Atlanta Falcons’ investments in the offensive line and their decision to bring in Dirk Koetter to call the plays could get the team’s attack back to elite status. The offense alone could be enough to make Atlanta a contender in a tough NFC South Division. The true key to a successful season will depend on the play of the defense. Will Coach Quinn be able to handle the dual responsibilities of head coach and defensive coordinator? And, can the players expected to take on leading roles stay healthy? If not, it might not matter how many points Matt Ryan and the offense score. Will this be the year the Atlanta Falcons finally break through, or will it be another season of disappoint?
PREDICTION: 10-6, 2nd in NFC SOUTH, MAKES PLAYOFFS WITH A WILD CARD SPOT