When a coaching change is made, personnel moves are bound to happen in some manner. The Atlanta Falcons have one of the better starting lineups from an offensive perspective. Many teams would clamor for players like Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. An aging Roddy White would even be greatly appreciated by most teams. Despite the obvious star power, upgrades were needed in key positions.
For the past three years, Atlanta’s running game has been mostly stagnant. The decline of a once-solid offensive line, Michael Turner, and Dirk Koetter’s questionable play calling can be attributed to a poor running game. With Steven Jackson’s hefty contract and Jacquizz Rodgers’ lack of upside, change was imminent. A new long-term option was needed to carry the load with Devonta Freeman.
Depth amongst other positions was vital this off-season. The need to upgrade the tight end position in some method was crucial. Despite improved play in the second-half of the season, the offensive line needed some adjustments following the switch to a zone-blocking scheme. There were more changes offensively than some may realize. From rookies to veterans looking to revitalize their respective careers, Atlanta’s offense should be more potent following these acquisitions.
To nobody’s surprise, Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers weren’t brought back due to their limitations. Both players can still be assets in a limited capacity. In the end, Jackson’s age (32 years old in July) and Rodgers’ lack of breakaway speed were the main reasons for their departures. Antoine Smith was brought back following his remarkable season. Not many players can claim to have scored touchdowns of 38 yards or longer in five of the first six games of a season.
Devonta Freeman will be taking a much larger role as expected. The only major change will be the addition of third-round pick Tevin Coleman. It was a surprise to see Atlanta choose a running back with electrifying speed rather than a power back that can run efficiently between the tackles. It’s hard to not be intrigued by Coleman based off his resume. How many running backs do you see running past safeties on a weekly basis for long touchdowns?
The main concern involving this group has to be the lack of a power back. Will an undrafted free agent step up and take claim to being relied upon as a short-yardage situational back? Can either Patrick DiMarco or Colin Mooney possibly be incorporated into short-yardage situations? It couldn’t be worse than having DiMarco run an out route.
Kyle Shanahan will find ways to be successful on short yardage situations. You don’t become labeled as one of the best offensive coordinators without being a diverse play-caller. The trio of Freeman, Coleman, and Smith brings a lot of upside to a team that hasn’t had upside at the position since 2012. Unfortunately, Rodgers’ excellence of being an effective receiver and blocker were overshadowed by his inability to run between the tackles.
Atlanta will always be a pass-first team under Matt Ryan. Balance is still essential for this team to take the next step. For all of the star power within Atlanta’s offense, they haven’t been a top-five scoring team since 2010. Michael Turner was the workhorse running back under a run-heavy Mike Mularkey scheme during that season. While the current offensive scheme is completely different now, that 2010 team showed how an effective running game could lead to scoring more points. Look no further than the Green Bay Packers. Eddie Lacy's emergence has done wonders for that offense. It’ll be crucial for this team to be somewhat effective in generating a running game.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
A common theme from comparing both rosters will be the variety of options at each position. Some fans may still be disappointed by the lack of a big-name acquisition from free agency. That disappointment is justifiable, but the depth at most positions has to be refreshing. Depth has been sorely lacking for the most part over the last two years. It starts within the passing attack, where Matt Ryan can work with a plethora of quality options.
The loss of Harry Douglas won’t be felt, as long as Ryan and fourth-round pick Justin Hardy are on the same page. It became evident that Ryan and Douglas weren’t on the same page through various points of the last two seasons. Douglas was well liked within the locker room and made his fair share of plays. That shouldn’t discount the excessive amount of interceptions thrown by Ryan, where Douglas was the intended receiver.
Hardy is a more aggressive version of Douglas, who can block and catch passes over the middle efficiently. Despite Dirk Koetter’s departure, screen passes will still be utilized throughout each game. A steady upgrade should be noticed immediately from seeing Hardy block compared to Douglas’ constant shortcomings on blocking assignments. What stands out the most from Hardy was his route-running in creating enough separation. We rarely saw Douglas achieve that against man-to-man coverage. Third down conversions should be far more efficient with the insertion of Hardy as the main slot receiver.
Some may be disappointed that Atlanta didn’t address the tight end position with a big name free-agent or prospect. The idea of Jordan Cameron in Atlanta’s offense had me salivating for about two months. In the end, this offense has enough quality playmakers to be prolific. Jacob Tamme should provide an upgrade over Levine Tolilolo within the red zone and through intermediate routes. That doesn’t say much, but it was promising that the front office realized that Toliolo was a massive liability as a starter. As our own Alex Welch mentioned a few days ago, Toilolo ran 491 routes and caught just 31 passes last season. That rep total needs to be cut down to 150-200 routes, unless something substantial happens in training camp or pre-season.
The two wild card signings were Leonard Hankerson and Tony Moeaki. These are quality depth signings, which Atlanta lacked last year. Instead of Bear Pascoe, Moeaki will bring far more value as a receiving tight end. Tamme and Toilolo (to an extent) will be relied upon for run-blocking duties. Moeaki has an opportunity to revitalize his career through being the fourth or fifth option on passing downs. That wasn’t the case for him in Kansas City or Seattle.
Hankerson’s role will probably remain unclear throughout the season. We may see him receive ten to twelve reps a game depending on how much Shanahan values Devin Hester as a receiver. While both players have questionable hands, both have excellent speed and the ability to make defenders miss in the open field. Even though Eric Weems will always have a spot in Atlanta, he brings neither of those qualities as a wide receiver. The signings of Moeaki and Hankerson provide intrigue and quality depth. That wasn’t the case over the past few years watching the likes of Drew Davis and Toilolo being overwhelmed as starters. Every team needs to be ready for the worst possible circumstances, given how brutalizing an NFL season can be. Atlanta has done an excellent job in doing that through these signings and draft picks.
The well-documented switch to a zone-blocking scheme brought the biggest change across the offensive line. It also led to the departure of Justin Blalock, who has been the most dependable offensive lineman in Atlanta for the past three seasons. With his age (31 years old), an expensive salary, and being more of a power blocker, the move was somewhat inevitable. It has now left a gaping hole at left guard that wasn’t truly addressed this off-season.
That gaping hole will lead to an intense training camp battle. Mike Person has the inside track so far, but the real battle starts in late July. Harland Gunn, Jared Smith, James Stone, and possibly Sam Baker will all be in contention. It’s concerning that the Falcons are likely punting at this position. We saw how the coaching staff made Toilolo the immediate starter without any competition.
While their certainly won't be a shortage of competition for the left guard opening, each player has minimal or no starting experience. That has to be concerning between two players coming off major injuries in Jake Matthews and Joe Hawley. The entire left side of the offensive line should be watched closely throughout pre-season.
Tyler Polumbus was the other addition from the off-season. Besides possibly pushing Lamar Holmes or being inserted as a swing tackle, it’s hard to see Polumbus being much of a factor. He has been one of the worst pass blockers amongst right tackles over the past two years. With Ryan Schraeder quietly developing into a solid player, Polumbus won't be competing for a starting position. Once again, these type of signings will bring in much-needed depth for a team that has lacked it. He should be an upgrade over Gabe Carimi and push Holmes, who looks to be in a make-or-break year.
Besides the zone-blocking scheme change, there aren’t many changes in the overall personnel. Matthews, Hawley, Jon Asamoah, and Schreader were all projected as starters going into the off-season. The left guard battle will be watched closely throughout pre-season. Can Person or Smith break out from out of nowhere, similar to Harvey Dahl in 2008? Will Baker possibly revitalize his career or at least remain healthy? Gunn showed promise in late 2013, although that was from playing right guard. So many possible options, yet none of them can be classified as viable options yet. It’ll be difficult to replace Blalock’s dependable shoes, however.