Atlanta’s settled on its roster, for the moment, and a summertime of obsessive analysis, position battles, and endless terrible takes (I am looking in a mirror, here) have come to a close. Now we have but a brief time to eye this roster critically before the games start and we’re surprised and/or depressed by what we actually see.
Here’s a look at some positions of strength and weakness for this Falcons team.
Terron Ward aside, the Falcons have some of the better backs in the game, in my humble opinion.
Devonta Freeman slowed down mightily in the second half of last year, but even if he doesn’t repeat the memorable five game stretch that defined his 2015, he’s still a competent, physical runner with excellent vision. Free is also an excellent receiver out of the backfield and one of the better, more willing blockers on this team, which makes his lead role in this committee justified in so many ways.
Then there’s Tevin Coleman, who could break out in a major way in 2016. His fumble issues limited his appeal in 2015, but he showed flashes of tremendous speed, will likely line up wide on occasion after showing improved hands this summer, and should get a much larger slice of the carries this year. He and Freeman are a tremendous 1-2 punch.
It helps that Patrick DiMarco is paving the way for them. A Pro Bowler and Pro Football Focus’s #1 fullback in 2015, DiMarco should again be one of the five or ten best lead blockers in the game, and he’s a legitimate (if seldom used) option in the passing game.
Even Ward is a perfectly legitimate third option, with some short yardage chops, decent blocking ability, and genuine special teams value. The Falcons will just have to hope they don’t need to rely on him to carry the load due to injury in the corps.
There are many question marks here, but there’s potential for this group to be a real asset for Atlanta.
That all starts with Julio Jones, who can change the course of games by himself. There are very few players in the NFL today who can boast his speed, his physicality, his size, or his raw ability, and virtually none that combine all those assets. He’ll be one of the league’s elite options again in 2016.
Mohamed Sanu is new here, and regardless of what questions you might have about his ability, he should get the volume to be a difference maker. He’s shown himself to be a useful possession receiver, at minimum, and Kyle Shanahan is likely going to try to feature him in unique ways. If Sanu steps up, it will be big for the offense.
I like the options the rest of the way down the depth chart, too, from sure-handed second year pro Justin Hardy to fourth receiver Aldrick Robinson, who has tremendous speed and balled out in preseason. New Falcon Taylor Gabriel offers intriguing speed, if nothing else, and Eric Weems can help out in a pinch, as well.
The depth is shaky at center, in particular, but the unit as a whole projects to be one of the strongest the Falcons have had in years.
That starts with new acquisition Alex Mack, arguably the finest center in the NFL and the centerpiece of the Falcons’ offseason. He should lock down center so long as he’s healthy, which he’ll need to be, given that the Falcons only have Ben Garland and Mike Person to back him up.
At tackle, the Falcons boast emerging young studs Ryan Schraeder and Jake Matthews. Schraeder is a favorite of the analytics crowd and inarguably one of the better right tackles in the league. Matthews was much better after a shaky rookie season and should continuing growing into a premier left tackle. Veteran Tom Compton is probably an upgrade on Bryce Harris, last year’s swing tackle.
At guard, the Falcons don’t have great starting options, but Chris Chester and Andy Levitre are solid enough to work beside three excellent lineman, and the Falcons have promising late round rookie Wes Schweitzer, Garland and Person as depth. They could shuffle their depth in the weeks ahead, but the line should be an asset if everyone can stay healthy.
With Keanu Neal missing the first week or two of the season, this isn’t the genuine strength it may be later, but it’s still one of Atlanta’s strong position groups by a good margin.
Ricardo Allen is a young, athletic safety with genuine ball skills who could up his game considerably in his second year in this defense. Neal is a supremely gifted, physical rookie who will make some mistake initially, but could also be an enforcer on the back end. They’re backed up by hard-hitting veteran Dashon Goldson, ballhawk and run support guru Kemal Ishmael, and promising second year UDFA Robenson Therezie, who has looked very good this preseason. This is one of the few positions on the roster where an injury or two won’t doom the Falcons to failure, and I mean that as genuinely high praise for these safeties.
We all hate Jacob Tamme, the NFL’s most despised man, but he was a pretty solid tight end a year ago. Solid is about as good as it gets for this corps, though, even though there’s some young players with upside.
Tamme, for starters, is a sure-handed but plodding tight end who isn’t a great blocker, limiting his ability to impact games. He’s also not a huge red zone threat, so while he’s a valued fourth option in this passing game, that’s about all he’ll be in 2016.
Third round pick Austin Hooper showed in preseason that he has a ways to go before he’s impactful, though he has a ton of upside as a pass catcher. Initially he’ll likely be Atlanta’s third tight end, and I’m not sure he’ll be more than a part-time player at any point this year.
Levine Toilolo made the roster purely to block and to catch one or two impressive red zone grabs that make you think he’s on the cusp of pulling it all together. Undrafted free agent Josh Perkins is fast and seems to have great hands, but he’s no lock to stay on the roster very long, and will probably be down developing on the practice squad at some point this year. Hooper and Perkins could be the core of the next quality Falcons tight end group, with D.J. Tialavea developing into the blocking tight end beginning next year, but this is a bit of a 2016 weakness for Atlanta.
Simply put, we know that at best this team’s pass rush is going to be improved. It’s probably not going to be anywhere near great, and even good might be pushing it.
Vic Beasley is one reason for optimism, even if a poor preseason left many wondering about his 2016 fortunes. Beasley sometimes appears too in love with his spin move, but he’s a smart, young pass rusher with all the skill and physical attributes (besides maybe weight) to pull it all together. I fully expect him to take a big step forward this year.
The other reason is Dwight Freeney, the veteran pass rusher who always seems to find his way to the quarterback, no matter how old he gets. His presence can only help free up Beasley and others, and even if he doesn’t approach eight sacks again this year, Freeney’s likely to help put genuine pressure on opposing teams for the first time in...well, a long time.
Derrick Shelby, Adrian Clayborn, Grady Jarrett, and the team’s young linebackers will be counted on to help out, as well, but nobody in that group seems particularly likely to bring consistent heat and/or put up more than 4 or 5 sacks. The question here is whether the Falcons will a disappointing pass rush once again with some incremental improvements, or whether they’ll actually make the strides they’ll need to in order to field a strong 2016 defense.
Cornerback (Sort of)
On one hand, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are one of the strongest duos in the NFL, and their presence alone makes cornerback a strength. On the other hand, the Falcons are going to be relying on an undrafted free agent rookie (Brian Poole) and promising if untested wide receiver-turned-cornerback C.J. Goodwin behind Trufant and Alford.
Even when Jalen Collins returns, we don’t know if last year’s second round pick is ready to be an impactful player just yet, so there are potentially huge question marks here. Given how often the Falcons trot out nickel sets, one of those guys is going to have to step up before we can consider cornerback a true, top-to-bottom strength.
What are the strengths and weaknesses you’re keeping an eye on?