Imagine a Super Bowl-caliber roster full of star-studded talent having their entire season end before it has even begun. Just imagine a team fully devoid of talent within the trenches watch as the fate of their season seals itself within the first 3 games. No pair of descriptions can fully depict the hell that genuine fans of the red, white, and black had to endure in 2018 better than those above. In just 3 games, Atlanta lost Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones and star defensive tackle Grady Jarrett along with All-Pro runner Devonta Freeman for an extended period as well as starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen to season-ending lower leg injuries. However, regardless of key injuries, other pressing issues derailed Atlanta’s Super Bowl hopes into an utterly disastrous and disappointing 7-9 campaign. Surprise, Falcons fans: injuries were the primary reason your team struggled to win games, but a lot more contributed to your abysmal record, and it’s a darn good thing your front office knows a thing or two.
Atlanta fired offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel at the end of an injury-ridden 2018 season, and head coach Dan Quinn himself will take control of defensive play-calling. Most NFL fans should remember the 2013-2015 Legion of Boom, coached to be one of the greatest defenses of all time by the aforementioned Quinn. The former Seahawks defensive coordinator accepting the responsibility for the Falcons’ defense implies the transformation of the Falcons organization into “win-now” mode, emphasizing the willingness of Atlanta’s front office to stress the no-nonsense attitude among the culture of their locker room.
On the offensive side of the ball, the loss of Steve Sarkisian should not affect the Falcons at all. Characterizing Sarkisian’s play-calling as even questionable would be a considerable understatement. After the Falcons’ offense embarrassingly underperformed against Philadelphia in an easily-winnable playoff game, most of the internet called for Sarkisian’s release. While firing Sarkisian would’ve been easily warranted over a year ago, it concurs with the shift into “win-now” mode, and the dismissal of the two coordinators, even after an injury-filled season, asserts the notion that Atlanta’s front office is ready for a new era.
Roster-wise, Atlanta released veteran corner Robert Alford, pass-rusher Brooks Reed, kicker Matt Bryant, and right tackle Ryan Schraeder. Cutting Alford made a lot of sense because he committed 9 penalties in the first eleven games, and his coverage abilities took a massive hit as he gave up 987 receiving yards and allowed a horrifically bad passer rating of 133.3 in 2018. 2nd-year corner Isaiah Oliver displayed flashes of potential near the end of 2018, so Atlanta willingly gave Alford the boot. Reed severely underperformed on the Falcons’ rotation in 2018, totaling 1 sack the entire season. Schraeder started at right tackle for an offensive line that couldn’t protect Matt Ryan in 2018. With the aforementioned offensive line issues, the Falcons needed to release Schraeder and commence the rebuild up front.
Running back Tevin Coleman (SF), linebacker Bruce Irvin (Carolina), and slot corner Brian Poole (NYJ) were also important pieces who left in free agency. Coleman was initially drafted in 2015 to be a change-of-pace, downhill runner for then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s system. However, Coleman’s role developed in the rushing and receiving game, as Shanahan used him and All-Pro runner Devonta Freeman as a dynamic 1-2 punch that sparked Atlanta’s record-breaking offense in 2016. Brian Poole was an undrafted slot corner who was arguably the best athlete on the Falcons’ roster since 2016. While Bruce Irvin wasn’t on the team or long, losing him meant Atlanta would have struggled to secure quality depth on their porous defensive line. Overall, the Falcons made a consistent overall effort to release the underwhelming and to let the expendable find money elsewhere.
Atlanta hired former Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter to coach the offense. Koetter shares familiarity (schematic and personal) with quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones. From 2012 to 2014, Koetter ran a vertical scheme in Atlanta that was notorious for its deep passing game. This scheme led the Falcons to the NFC’s top seed back in 2012, and veteran familiarity should make the adjustment period much easier for the rest of the Falcons.
In the draft, Atlanta selected right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary in the first round, and this investment into one side of the offensive line demonstrates the Falcons’ desire to run the ball in 2019. Koetter may have managed Tampa’s running back situation very poorly, but the Falcons front office has made it clear that running the ball is a large priority, as it was practically absent from their offense in 2018, especially after Freeman’s injury.
Quinn also locked up his blue-chip players on defense, extending the aforementioned Deion Jones and Grady Jarrett to 4 year-deals. If Quinn wants to make his defense elite in 2019, these two are vital components in leading Atlanta’s defense to that high level. To keep building a pass rush, the Falcons drafted edge rusher John Cominsky and signed veterans Adrian Clayborn and Allen Bailey to 1-year and 2-year deals respectively. Defensive end Steven Means was also resigned for 2019 to solidify the depth on the Falcons’ edge.
The Falcons had a quietly great offseason. While their needs on defense weren’t entirely addressed in the draft, the front office added enough veteran presences to bolster the depth on this roster for 2019. The massive extensions for Jones and Jarrett also saved Atlanta from future complications and potential holdouts.
Lindstrom and McGary will attempt to morph the awful offensive line play in past seasons, creating an absolute nightmare for any opponent in 2019. On paper, this team looks like the most dangerous franchise in the entire NFC, and the roster looks like day and night compared to the injury-filled trainwreck of 2018.
Even though this prediction was made before 2018, Atlanta may have waited an entire season just to prove it. Not only are all of Atlanta’s key pieces returning from injury, but the Falcons front office also made sure to focus on positional needs that repressed the team’s potential for the past two seasons.
As a result of this free agency period, not one position in Atlanta (outside of edge rusher) has legitimate question marks. They’re stacked EVERYWHERE. This team can and will compete with the Super Bowl contenders, and god forbid any franchise that enters Mercedes-Benz stadium in the playoffs because no one will want to play them at all, especially when it’s win-or-go-home.
As for who the Falcons face in 2019, most of their schedule is against the NFC West (Seattle, San Francisco, LA Rams, Arizona) and AFC South (Houston, Indianapolis, Tennessee, Jacksonville), with 2 miscellaneous matchups against Minnesota and Philadelphia outside their division games.
This team has a very real chance to claim the top seed in the NFC, because that’s how talented they are. A 10-win record has become the floor for what this Falcons team can accomplish, as they did so with Sarkisian and Manuel holding them back in 2017.
However, to eclipse even 12 or 13 wins, edge rusher Vic Beasley Jr must return to 2016 form, where he led the NFL in sacks, and Takkarist McKinley must prove why the Falcons selected him in 2017 to play opposite Beasley.
Nevertheless, those expectations will not hinder Atlanta next season, as poor production from both pass rushers led to double-digit wins in 2017, and that season was the floor production of both players. If McKinley and Beasley can generate more pressure and production than they have in the past 2 seasons, 13 to 14 wins is most definitely probable.
Just to put the rest of the league on strict notice: The Dirty Birds are BACK and more DANGEROUS than EVER. They aren’t the wounded sparrows of 2018 either; these Falcons are hungry predators who will ruthlessly hunt their way to the top of the league’s food chain. If any brave soul would like to stand in their way of these predators in 2019, enjoy being PREY.