We're going to be keeping one eye on 2016 the rest of the way, given that Atlanta is basically out of the playoff hunt and have very little to play for except for pride and growth. With that in mind, here's five reasons to feel good about the Falcons heading into next year, and five reasons to feel pretty lousy.
Why You Should Be Optimistic
- Julio Jones is still here. Team has been able to shake him out of the gameplan a bit simply by virtue of the rest of the offense's performance, but with even a modest step forward in 2016, he'll be a force of nature again. Having someone that talented in your receiving corps makes life easier for a quarterback, even if he obviously needs some help.
- The Falcons have two talented young backs. We know Freeman is good, so long as the blocking in front of him is competent. Coleman is the guy who looks like he could take a big step forward with some tinkering on his stride, decision-making, and ball security. That's a fine one-two punch for a long time, potentially, and I'm extremely bullish on the running backs.
- The interior of the line is excellent. The Falcons could cut ties with Jonathan Babineaux, Paul Soliai, or Tyson Jackson (though not all three) and still have a very talented interior. Ra'Shede Hageman is growing in fits and starts, even if he's not maturing the way we'd like, and Grady Jarrett looks like a true gem. The Falcons need to build at linebacker and on the edges, but they've got a fine start up front.
- The secondary looks very promising. No one's enamored with Jalen Collins, but he's got some upside, and he's the weak link in this secondary right now. Ricardo Allen looks like a keeper in the short term, Robenson Therezie has room to grow, and Desmond Trufant is stellar. Assuming Robert Alford is better than his Week 14 effort against Carolina, this secondary will be a strength again, giving the Falcons a clear enough blueprint to rebuilding the rest of the defense.
- Special teams is still a core strength. You won't win a ton of games with special teams efforts, but having a solid unit can help a good team immensely by giving them quality field position, setting them up for a reliable three points, and pinning teams deep. Even if Devin Hester goes, this team has a bunch of key players locked up and one of the best coaches in the business.
Why You Should Be Pessimistic
- Where's the pass rush? Even if we assume Vic Beasley takes a big step forward, there's not a single other player on this roster who is getting consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. If you have a couple of legitimate options, they can make life easier for everyone else, but the Falcons don't look any closer to a competent quarterback-killing defense than they did four years ago.
- The lack of discipline is concerning. The Falcons look like a hot-headed team prone to penalties, and considering they have a new coach who is supposedly preaching discipline and staying level, plus several veteran locker room leaders who have drawn praise in the past, that's a big problem. This team has lost at least two games thanks to mental lapses.
- Can you overhaul a receiving corps in one offseason? Nobody can seem to get open quickly, and while Julio Jones is a fine start, teh Falcons are going to need a legitimate #2 option, improvement from Justin Hardy, and either an upgrade at tight end or slightly better play from Jacob Tamme in the context of an improved offense to have a passing attack worth caring about. You can mitigate that a little bit by giving Matt Ryan more time in the pocket, of course, but somebody still has to get open.
- Can you overhaul an interior offensive line in one offseason? The Falcons seemed to do a nice job of cobbling a line together early, but Andy Levitre, Mike Person, and Chris Chester have been increasingly dismal in pass protection, and the entire line has failed to block effectively for the ground game for a few weeks now. You more or less have to toss out two of these three—and even three if you think Mike Person and/or Andy Levitre won't improve next year—but filling those spots with quality players isn't a given. We've come to the point where I think we realize that a Matt Ryan with no time and no receiving options is going to be a problem, but can you really fix both of those in one offseason?
- What if Dan Quinn isn't a great coach? The Falcons can and will improve their defensive personnel, and going from their current group of linebackers to some younger, more dynamic players will be a massive change. But what if Quinn and his staff aren't all that great?
There frankly hasn't been a lot of evidence that Quinn is a great coach, and only some that he's a competent one. He's blown some in-game decisions, his Falcons haven't been great about adjusting to what opposing teams are throwing at them, and he doesn't seem to have great answers to what ails the Falcons each week. Even when he does have answers, the Falcons don't seem to do anything with them. I think this team's problems probably stem more from talent than coaching, but this is going to be in the back of everyone's minds after this season.
QB Matt Ryan: I will tell you with some confidence that this season does not represent Ryan's true ability, but after three years of getting rocked in the pocket and now a season of throwing costly picks and seeing the offense evaporate, it's fair to wonder whether Ryan's ever going to be the same guy again. If he bounces back big time, 2016 will be a better season. If he doesn't, things are going to get real awkward around here heading into 2017.
Share your best reasons for optimism and pessimism below.