The Atlanta Falcons have been a surprising team in the 2016 season. After starting 5-0 in 2015, the team crashed back down to earth, losing 8 of the next 11 games to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs. Fans were understandably disappointed, and expectations were low going into 2016.
An incredibly difficult schedule and Week 1 loss to the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers had some predicting an 0-6 start to the season. But then something else happened that we did not expect: the Falcons actually began to play really, really well.
The offense took off on a historic pace and looked unstoppable against some of the better defenses in the league. On defense, the team started out slow but has shown improvement each week. As a whole, the 2016 Atlanta Falcons have looked better than the 2012 version, which ultimately lost in the 2012 NFC Championship.
Going into Week 7, the team has already played 4 road games and is through the toughest stretch of games on their schedule. Atlanta has emerged 4-2 and legitimately appears to be one of the best teams in the NFL. How, after collapsing into mediocrity in epic fashion only a season ago, did this team transform into a contender?
There are several reasons. The offense as a whole looks more comfortable in Shanahan’s scheme. Matt Ryan is playing at an MVP level. The defense, while not a great or even good unit, has shown solid improvement each week. But, truthfully, the most important change might be the commitment to improving the depth across the board.
In 2015, head coach Dan Quinn inherited a roster with drastic talent deficiencies. The offensive line was in complete shambles. On defense, there were no marquee names and few impact players. The depth was non-existent on both sides of the ball and a single injury meant putting a complete liability on the field at numerous positions.
This was especially apparent at the WR, SS, and LB positions. Injuries to important starters (William Moore, Brooks Reed, Justin Durant) forced the team to start unproven or uninspiring players at key positions. The defense managed to weather the storm and play fairly average football, but the offense completely imploded after Week 5.
In 2016, the team clearly had a goal of improving the roster from top to bottom. Let’s take a look a two key position groups and how they’ve changed from 2015-2016.
First, we’ll examine WR, where the Falcons were embarrassingly undermanned in 2015.
Falcons 2015 WR Depth Chart
WR1 - Julio Jones
WR2 - Leonard Hankerson
WR3 - Roddy White
WR4 - Justin Hardy
WR5 - Nick Williams
WR6 - Eric Weems
The season started out promising enough, with WR Leonard Hankerson playing an important role as a complement to Julio Jones. Although he was plagued by drops, Hankerson had the ability to make plays when in single coverage. The offense looked quite promising as the Falcons started their season 5-0.
Then, Hankerson went down with a serious injury and was cut. That left the Falcons painfully thin at a vital position. Roddy White, a Falcons fan favorite, then became the #2 receiver. Unfortunately, Roddy had clearly lost a step and was unable to create any separation from opposing DBs.
The rest of the depth chart (outside of Julio Jones, who is always amazing) was equally unimpressive. Hardy was a rookie that was inactive for most of the season due to his inexperience (he had never before even used a playbook). Nick Williams was a decent possession receiver but offered nothing after the catch. Weems was a great special teams player that was good for a catch or two but was no more than a JAG at WR.
That led to the Falcons force feeding Julio Jones, who had a great season statistically. However, it did not lead to a great season for the team. The offense was ultimately ineffective and painful to watch as the season went on, largely due to Matt Ryan having only one legitimate target.
Obviously, WR depth was not the only issue with the offense. But it was a key deficiency that contributed in a big way to the failures in 2015.
Now, let’s fast forward to 2016, where Atlanta made a concerted effort to completely revamp the WR corps.
Falcons 2016 WR Depth Chart
WR1 - Julio Jones
WR2 - Mohamed Sanu
WR3 - Taylor Gabriel
WR4 - Aldrick Robinson
WR5 - Justin Hardy
WR6 - Eric Weems
With limited draft resources (which almost entirely went into bolstering the defense), Atlanta addressed the lack of quality options at WR in free agency. They offered a large contract to ex-Bengals WR Mohamed Sanu and signed ex-Washington WR Aldrick Robinson, who had once played under Shanahan.
Then, the team pounced on another previous Shanahan player in ex-Browns WR Taylor Gabriel, who was waived during final roster cuts. Atlanta also carried over special teams ace Eric Weems and second-year player Justin Hardy.
While none of these moves seemed like slam dunks during the offseason, it is clear that this WR group may be one of the most well-rounded and talented groups that the Falcons have ever had.
Sanu, while not a deep threat, is a physical, well-rounded possession receiver that can move the chains and take advantage of smaller DBs. Taylor Gabriel, perhaps the biggest surprise of the bunch, is a lightning-quick player that can burn defenders deep or play out of the slot. Robinson is a deep threat that has shown off good hands and an ability to beat single coverage when called upon.
The top four that consisted of Julio Jones, Sanu, Gabriel, and Robinson had been mauling defenses every week. Then, in Week 6 against the Seattle Seahawks, Taylor Gabriel went down with a concussion, forcing Justin Hardy onto the field in key situations. Hardy responded with several clutch catches, proving that he too was a capable player.
The difference between 2015 and 2016 is clear: an injury to a starting WR is no longer a death knell to the Falcons offense. #2 receiver Mohamed Sanu has missed time due to a lingering shoulder injury, only to be replaced capably by Gabriel and Robinson. Julio has been banged up or double/triple teamed during several games, only to see the other WRs find success against single coverage.
While none of these additions to the WR corps in 2016 are superstars on their own, they are all filling the roles that are needed. Gabriel, Robinson, and Hardy are all responding with solid play when their number is called, which is a far cry from what we saw last season.
Now, let’s shift our attention to the defense—in particular, the LB corps.
Falcons 2015 LB Depth Chart
WLB1 - Justin Durant
WLB2 - Joplo Bartu
MLB1 - Paul Worrilow
MLB2 - Nate Stupar
SLB1 - Brooks Reed
SLB2 - Phillip Wheeler
The Falcons went into the season with what several of us (myself included) believed was a better LB group. Brooks Reed was the biggest free agent signing of the offseason, and the hope was that ex-Cowboys LB Justin Durant could return to his Pro Bowl form.
Unfortunately, our hopes were dashed early on. Reed was injured and barely played during the 2015 season, forcing Phillip Wheeler into extended work. Durant was disappointing even when healthy, and also missed a fair amount of time to injury. Worrilow was what we expected: a below-average ILB with glaring deficiencies in coverage.
The depth was a significant part of the problem, too. While Stupar filled in admirably at times and was a key special teams player, Bartu was awful and eventually found himself cut. Wheeler was decent at times playing SLB, but was forced into action at other LB positions due to injury.
While the defense as a unit looked improved, week after week we saw opposing offenses abuse the Falcons LB corps, which was certainly in contention for worst in the league. Serious changes needed to be made if the LBs, and the defense as a whole, were to improve going forward.
Let’s take a look at how the team changed the depth chart in 2016.
Falcons 2016 LB Depth Chart
WLB1 - De’Vondre Campbell
WLB2 - Paul Worrilow
MLB1 - Deion Jones
MLB2 - Sean Weatherspoon
MLB3 - LaRoy Reynolds
SLB1 - Vic Beasley
SLB2 - Phillip Wheeler
Dan Quinn clearly realized that the LB corps was a huge liability and was holding his defense back. Many fans, however, were upset when the Falcons largely ignored the position in free agency. I, personally, wanted the Falcons to pursue names like Danny Trevathan and Jurrell Freeman. Instead, the team signed a relatively unknown player named LaRoy Reynolds.
Then, in the 2016 NFL Draft, the team double-dipped on LB. Quinn selected the supremely athletic Deion Jones in the second round, and De’Vondre Campbell in the fourth round. Many of us were skeptical about two rookies starting on this defense, and understandably so, but were willing to see if these two could be molded into capable NFL players.
Quinn, as it turns out, appears to be smarter than all of us. Deion Jones has looked great, despite missing some time with an injury, and has been one of the best rookie defenders in the league. Campbell looked excellent in preseason and has been a capable starter, although he has also missed several weeks with an injury.
The two new starters both look like potentially good-to-great players in the NFL. But, as I mentioned above, both have missed time thus far. This is where Quinn’s commitment to improving the depth with under-the-radar signings really shines through.
Ex-Falcon and fan favorite Sean Weatherspoon was brought back on a cheap deal. He was forced into action during Campbell’s absence, and played like a capable NFL starter for several weeks. Unfortunately, he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 4, but his presence alone is worth mentioning. Clearly, Weatherspoon was better than last year’s starter in Justin Durant, and he was at best the #2 option going into the season.
During Week 4, rookie Deion Jones was also hurt. Going into Week 5, the Falcons were down two starters and two backup LBs (Weatherspoon and Worrilow). This forced Atlanta to play third-string LB and special teams player LaRoy Reynolds at MLB against the Super Bowl champion Broncos alongside backup SS Kemal Ishmael, who manned the WLB spot.
During previous years, this would have undoubtedly spelled a terrible day for the Falcons defense. But, somehow, Dan Quinn made this rag-tag amalgamation of players into a quality unit that baffled Broncos’ rookie QB Paxton Lynch and put the clamps on a quality running game for four quarters.
The difference this season is that Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff identified players at all levels that were capable of stepping in and playing without being a liability. LaRoy Reynolds came in with zero expectations, and yet, he has managed to fill in as a quality backup for two straight games. Kemal Ishmael has stepped in at a completely new position and managed to hold it down against two good opponents.
What we are seeing now is a different philosophy to team and roster-building. Instead of a top-heavy roster that is competitive as long as everyone stays healthy (i.e. what we normally got during the Mike Smith era, to some success) we are now getting a more well-rounded team that can withstand a few injuries and still contend for a championship.
The changes are most apparent when viewing the difference between the 2015 and 2016 versions of the WR and LB corps, but it is happening at other positions as well.
At TE, the Falcons now have three (maybe four, depending on your opinion of Josh Perkins) quality options that can all block and catch. At C, the Falcons got arguably the best in the league in Alex Mack and made last year’s starter the backup. On the DL, the team kept last year’s core group together and added several contributors (Freeney, Shelby). At CB, the team found two quality options off the UDFA scrap heap in nickel starter Brian Poole and developmental player C.J. Goodwin.
This roster is undoubtedly much better in 2016 than it was in 2015, but this approach should also continue into 2017 and beyond. It’s clear that Quinn, Dimitroff, and the coaching staff have an eye for talent (particularly at DB and WR) and an ability to mold players into effective pieces for the scheme.
After the collapse and disappointing end to the season that we all witnessed in 2015, it was reasonable for us to have reservations coming into this season. But, Quinn and Dimitroff have instead shown us that they are serious about turning this team into a contender and are capable of doing so sooner than we could have possibly hoped. It’s happening right before our eyes, and I for one am excited to witness quality Falcons football again.