The end of the 2015 season came in an embarrassing loss to the Saints, which sort of put Falcons fans into a dour mood heading into the offseason. That mood still persists in many quarters of the fanbase because of wariness over the state of the offense, a sense that the pass rush is not a finished product, and perhaps concerns over the team’s overarching direction.
For all that, though, I feel very good about this being an improved football team in 2016. I think you’ll see a better offensive and defensive effort, and I’m genuinely excited about young talent like Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, and De’Vondre Campbell. If you take the record out of the equation, this has the potential to be a very positive season for Atlanta.
Unfortunately, we can’t take the record out of the equation, and I’m sitting at 8-8, the same mark I predicted after the season ended when people were already bugging me for a projection. Here, I’ll explain why.
Every NFL team has a tough schedule, that’s true, and those schedules rarely work out the way they look on paper. For all that, though, the Falcons have the entire NFC South to face, plus the Seahawks, Broncos, Packers, and Cardinals. Given that they went 1-5 in the NFC South last year (!), we can’t take those wins for granted, and the rest of the teams on this list are playoff contenders at minimum.
Think about where the Falcons improved, for a moment. The offense should be better, which help a ton, but they’ve effectively traded shaky solutions at several spots on defense for younger, more dynamic players. That’s going to be a positive going forward, but as we all know, it’s the rare rookie that excels in his first year, and the Falcons still lack a complete pass rush, even if Dwight Freeney and Vic Beasley offer more this year. Offensively, they’re still heavily reliant on Matt Ryan connecting with Julio Jones and establishing the run early.
Then think about facing a team like Seattle or Denver with their talented offenses and elite defenses, and think both about how this current Falcons team will likely stack up and how they’ve stacked up in the past. I can’t see Atlanta suddenly winning all those battles.
Oh, and on the young player front...
Reliance on youth
It was clear the Falcons were going to clean out some of their veterans this offseason, and they’ve done so, leaving them with fresh starters at defensive tackle, linebacker, cornerback, and safety at the very least. That’s exciting, but every time you rely on rookies, you have to expect mistakes along the way that will wind up hurting your team.
Take Keanu Neal, who will miss the first week or two of this season. He’s a hard hitter and clearly a gifted, physical safety who could be a great before long, but his coverage errors were glaring in preseason at times. De’Vondre Campbell and Deion Jones looked excellent in preseason . Grady Jarrett’s entering his second year and should be great, and I have no caveats to offer up with him except that he’s not going to be an elite pass rushing option.
The youth movement is overdue, and the kind of athleticism and skill that these young guys bring to bear is needed in Atlanta. It’s just not necessarily going to translate into a massive improvement this year.
Red zone questions
The Falcons can’t be considerably worse than they were in the red zone last year, when they turned the ball over frequently and regularly stalled out inside the 20. While the offense made many moves that should help improve this offense, I’m not as bullish on their ability to score gobs of points.
The reasoning behind that is relatively straightforward. Besides Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, the Falcons didn’t have any receiving threats that really struck fear into defenses’ hearts, and they still don’t. Mohamed Sanu simply doesn’t score a ton, Justin Hardy isn’t going to magically transform into a red zone threat, and Jacob Tamme is a more useful option in the passing game between the 20s. Austin Hooper should become that useful option, but he’s not ready for a major role just yet.
Even on the ground, the Falcons got a lot of touchdowns out of Freeman that they may or may not get again, and Tevin Coleman doesn’t loom as a particularly huge short yardage threat. If Matt Ryan improves considerably this year and the line is up to the task, the offense will be better, but realistically they’re not going to suddenly score at a top five clip.
Ultimately, Atlanta’s a better team, but it’s unlikely to be reflected in major gains in this year’s standings. If the Falcons can go 8-8 or better, show some exciting improvement and get their young players rolling, I’ll wind up feeling pretty good about the team heading into 2017. We’ll all just hope I wind up being a little pessimistic about this year’s fortunes, and I fully expect you to rub it in my face if I am.