The folks at Football Outsiders do some incredible work every year, and we’re lucky enough to get to ask them about the Falcons on an annual basis. Check out writer and analyst Rivers McCown’s sometimes brutally honest answers below, and be sure to check out the 2016 Football Outsiders Almanac.
Dave Choate: The Falcons are mired in a three-year slump, with .500 or worse finishes every year, and I think optimism has been hard to come by. Looking at the additions to this roster, do you see a reason to believe the Falcons can finish with a winning record, or even push for a playoff spot?
Rivers McCown: I think the best optimism you can point to on the roster is the belief that the coaching staff seems to have in a Matt Ryan comeback year. Clearly they believe that what happened last year was more about a new offense, his poor receivers, and Julio Jones' injury than a sudden drop-off in performance. Atlanta could have the best offense in this division. Now, the defense … well, they could have the best offense in this division.
Dave Choate: Similarly, Matt Ryan has been trending downward for the last couple of seasons, at least. Is the improved supporting cast going to be enough to lift him out of that, or are the trend lines indicating a more lasting decline?
Rivers McCown: By our numbers, Ryan only really declined last year. And, as explained above, I think you can take heart in the talent evaluators and coaching staff believing that he can recapture the form of the past. It feels like Ryan has been around forever because of how short most NFL careers are, but he's only 31.
Dave Choate: The Falcons just signed Dwight Freeney, and we’re all pretty excited about that. How do you see him fitting into the defense, and what kind of production can Atlanta expect from him?
Rivers McCown: Freeney is a very good situational pass rusher at this point in his career. His Old Man Skills and that devastating spin move should keep him in the 5- to 7-sack range as long as he doesn't lose another step. Players this old are always in danger of completely collapsing physically, but the Falcons are so bereft of edge pressure that they might as well gamble on it.
Dave Choate: We’re all watching to see if young players like Vic Beasley, Ra’Shede Hageman, and new signing Derrick Shelby break out for a front seven that has been pretty lackluster in recent years. Do you see reason to believe any (or all three) of them will?
Rivers McCown: I think Beasley is a bit advanced for this company. I know he only had four sacks last year, but I believe in his talent and I'm expecting an uptick from him, if not a fullblown Khalil Mackenning. (I am worried about the Falcons trying to drop him into coverage, though.) Derrick Shelby wouldn't really go in the "young" category for me, but I think it was a worthwhile gamble to see if how he produced in Miami last year will translate to a full-time role. I have no hopes for Hageman as anything but a block-eater at this point.
Dave Choate: Matt Bryant is over 40 years old, dealt with an injury a year ago, and was a little shakier than usual. Does your data suggest that he can bounce back, or have we seen the best of his career?
Rivers McCown: I'll level with you, collecting data on which 40-year-old kickers are going to survive is beyond the grasp of our organization. It's a project that could be handled as more data trickles in – perhaps with some baseball analytics that look at kick speed, trajectory, and the like. We don't really have that kind of data at the moment. The generic answer is: with any player that old, he's either going to keep playing like he has, or he's going to fall apart. I see no reason based on the medical data that we should fear Bryant falling apart, but we did not write Football Outsiders Health Prospectus 2016 for a reason. We don't have access to team medicals.