The Falcons ranked among the top fifteen teams in most offensive categories despite a weak ground game and lousy offensive line, so there's plenty of reasons to be optimistic about how the unit will fare in 2015. For those relatively new to the team, or those having trouble keeping track of the offseason,
Let's break down each position, examine the likely starters and reserves, and learn a little bit more about the players who will hopefully vault this offense into greatness in 2015.
The franchise's all-time leading passer is a bit of a divisive figure, but he's also a very good quarterback. With his plethora of receiving options and a (hopefully) healthy offensive line, Ryan should have little trouble posting better numbers than he did in 2014, when he was regularly harried behind a makeshift line. Ryan will need to take steps to cut down on his interceptions, because there were a few backbreaking ones last season. For all that, though, you can expect Ryan to have a lot of success in a Kyle Shanahan system that mixes deep routes with the kind of short looks that Roddy White and Justin Hardy thrive on. The question, once more, is whether he'll have the protection to get truly comfortable in the pocket, when he thrives.
T.J. Yates and Sean Renfree
Yates is a cagey veteran with some success in his past, though he hasn't been able to do much in his preseason reps for the Falcons. The team likes his ability to manage a game and make the occasional strike downfield if he' called upon, but we'll hope he's only featured in garbage time.
The athletic Renfree has some real upside, particularly in a Shanahan offense that is friendly to quarterbacks with accurate arms, but he may lose out to Yates because of that veteran experience. If the team elects to keep three quarterbacks again, Renfree's the likely #3.
Your Running Backs
Devonta Freeman is going to push hard for this job, but ultimately I think Tevin Coleman will wind up as the lead back. His speed justifiably gets all the headlines, but Coleman is willing to be physical, fits well in a one-cut scheme like the one we all assume Kyle Shanahan favors, and is a decent enough receiver out of the box to be useful on three downs.
This is likely to be a bit of platoon before all is said and done, but Coleman's speed makes him such a potential weapon that I think he'll prove to be a nice fit for the offense, and at least the de facto starters.
Devonta Freeman, Antone Smith
I think the Falcons will only carry three backs plus a fullback this year, but go ahead and pencil in Jerome Smith if you feel like it.
Freeman is a well-rounded bloke, and he's certainly in the mix to start. In limited opportunities a year ago, Freeman showed us he can block, he can catch and he can run at least reasonably well. Coleman is the more exciting player purely from a rushing standpoint, but Freeman may be able to offer the team more on three downs than him this year.
Smith will return to the gadget role that's so familiar to him, occasionally splitting out wide and always forcing wary defenses to account for his game-breaking speed and agility. The only question is whether he'll be all the way back from his injury or not, but either way, expect him to top out at something like 10-20% of the team's carries in this offense.
Mooney's a terrific story and has a real shot at this job, but DiMarco remains the favorite. Despite a notoriously ugly drop a year ago, DiMarco quietly served as an effective blocker, occasional target in the passing game and core special teamer on Keith Armstrong's unit. Versatility may be slightly less prized under Dan Quinn, who likes to specialize and rotate players, but DiMarco is productive enough to stick around.
Julio Jones and Leonard Hankerson
Julio's the no-doubt, slam dunk top option in the passing game, and his size, physicality, speed and hands make him one of the best receivers in the NFL today. The tall, speedy Leonard Hankerson has an advocate in Kyle Shanahan, and with the new coaching staff, Hank Time could be the #2 receiver, if only in name.
Roddy White, Justin Hardy, Devin Hester, Eric Weems
Roddy's a franchise icon and still a productive receiver, albeit one who wins more on quick cuts and guile than speed and agility at this stage of his career. Regardless of whether Hankerson ends up as a de facto starter or not, he'll get plenty of targets from Matt Ryan, because the two have a tremendous rapport.
Hardy is a promising rookie who isn't afraid to go over the middle, boasts sticky hands and generally has the ability to win on short routes. He'll primarily operate out of the slot, and he figures to be at least the #4 option in the passing game.
Hester and Weems will get occasional targets in the passing game, especially Hester with his legendary wheels. If either is getting regular snaps, however, something has gone awry on the depth chart in front of them.
A reliable-enough option in the passing game, the lead-footed Tamme isn't a terrible blocker and can muscle through coverage near the goal line in a way Levine Toilolo couldn't a year ago, making him a clear upgrade over what the team was working with a year ago. He's unlikely to be more than the fifth option in the passing game and could be taken off the field in favor of Toilolo or another tight end when the team needs a better blocker, but I expect he'll have a pretty productive year as a jack-of-all-trades in Shanahan's system.
Tony Moeaki and Levine Toilolo
When healthy, Moeaki is a productive pass catcher with sure hands and enough speed to make him a headache for opposing defenses. Health is the major concern here, and Moeaki is merely a decent blocker, meaning he's unlikely to be on the field much on first and second down unless he's running routes.
Toilolo didn't do much a year ago, but he's still got tremendous size, and he's arguably the best pure blocker currently on the roster. He'll have a part-time role, at best, but I'm hoping he'll develop and flourish under this coaching staff into something more than a limited red zone and blocking option.
Jake Matthews, Chris Chester, Joe Hawley, Jon Asamoah, Ryan Schraeder
On paper, this is a solid if unremarkable unit, but a lot hinges on the fortunes of the team's two young tackles. Matthews was drafted in the top ten a year ago to help out a perennial sore spot at left tackle, and the talent is there for him to do just that if he's healthy. Schraeder had a fine season on the right side, and with another year of growth and refinement of his technique, he could thrive in the zone blocking scheme.
Asamoah is the picture of stability at right guard, Chester is a nice fit for Shanahan's system and is familiar with it after spending years in Washington, and Hawley is a good player who will have to fight through some lingering injury issues to be truly great. If he can stay healthy, I expect this to be his best year yet.
Health will determine the fortune of this line more than anything else, but it looks better than it did a year ago, and there's enough athleticism here to handle the demands of Shanahan's blocking scheme.
Tyler Polumbus, James Stone, Mike Person, Lamar Holmes
Holmes is a huge question mark here due to injury, but I still think he'll stick if he can return any time in the near future. Otherwise, a signing may be in the offing.
Polumbus is familiar with Shanahan and has had flashes of quality play over the years, but at this stage of his career he's little more than the glass you don't want to have to break in case of injury.
Person is a versatile lineman who has played nearly every spot on the offensive line in his career, though he doesn't have a ton of in-game experience to show for it. He'll be the super sub option here, particularly at guard, and is a scheme fit.
I expect Stone to beat out Konz. He's a capable athlete, he was impressive given the scenario he walked into last season, and he can line up at center or guard for the Falcons.
I have more questions about the backups here than any other unit, I'll note for the record. It wouldn't shock me to see the Falcons replace two or more of these players with other options who are either on the roster already or coming off the street in August.
The bottom line
This is an offense with a top ten quarterback, top five wide receiver, plenty of other options in the passing game and a pair of intriguing young players at running back. If the line adapts to the scheme and stays healthy, you'd be foolish to bet against this being one of the 10-12 best offenses in the NFL for the 2015 season, and that can carry the Falcons a long way even if the defense flounders a bit in its first year under Quinn.
What are your expectations for the offense?