Quarterback Matt Ryan took home a well-deserved regular season MVP award, edge rusher Vic Beasley Jr. gathered 15.5 sacks to lead the league along with First Team All-Pro honors. A number of rookies improved the roster for Atlanta as well as safety Keanu Neal, linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, and tight end Austin Hooper all displayed quality play in their initial seasons.
The 2016 season was huge for the franchise and of equal importance, the offseason must establish the same focus in order for the team to build and improve. Before the offseason truly kicks off with free agency, the draft, and offseason workouts, here is a critical offseason checklist for the Falcons of tasks to take care of.
5. Improve the linebacker corps around Jones and Campbell
The solid rookie duo are two building blocks for the sneaky athletic Falcons defense. Around them, the Falcons will probably see a little overhaul with Sean Weatherspoon, Philip Wheeler, and Paul Worrilow all unrestricted free agents. All three are possible cuts as well. There are a few bargain buys in free agency should Atlanta dismiss all three.
However, the team will likely also pluck an upgrade via the draft as well as free agency. Late round selections such as Houston’s Steven Taylor, Illinois’s Hardy Nickerson Jr., and Tennessee’s Jalen Reeves-Maybin are possibilities. This past season was an obvious sign that Jones and Campbell are the future at the position. It will be imperative that the team surrounds them with a little more youth and talent.
4. Add pieces at the tight end position
Having Hooper provide quality play in the regular season and the playoffs was a definite sight to see. Early in the regular season, the team also saw steady play from veteran Jacob Tamme. That was, until a shoulder injury suffered in week eight against Green Bay placed Tamme on the shelf for the rest of the year.
Now, Tamme is an unrestricted free agent. As is four-year veteran Levine Toilolo, who has been lackluster over his career. There is a distinct possibility that the Falcons can wave goodbye to both. Of the two tight ends facing free agency, Tamme would be the most likely to return. Although it’s not a guarantee. Undrafted free agent Josh Perkins flashed a little in 2016, and the team may look to see what they have in his skill set this offseason.
The Falcons offense gets plenty from the tight end position and under offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, they will see plenty of two and three tight end sets. The Falcons offense can even take another step with some added athleticism at the position with Hooper. Clemson’s Jordan Leggett or Evan Engram of Ole Miss would provide a distinctive element for Atlanta via the draft. Both are day two possibilities.
If the Falcons wait until later, South Alabama’s Gerald Everett or Toledo’s Michael Roberts are two mid-round guys that can help out tremendously. Expect Atlanta to add to the tight end corps this offseason. Expect the draft to be the reliable source.
3. Take care of the current assets
After a regular season MVP and an historic season overall, quarterback Matt Ryan has earned a new contract that will pay him like the elite quarterback he is. Cornerback Desmond Trufant missed most of the season but it has already been established that he is an upper-echelon corner. Trufant will be an unrestricted free agent in 2018 but general manager Thomas Dimitroff has made it known that he will not even see that day. Running back Devonta Freeman has also worked his way into negotiations as a future Falcon.
Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel is a restricted free agent this season. Same goes for free safety Ricardo Allen. Both are in the plans for Atlanta to lock in and keep as viable assets. The Falcons have a little work to do to keep a young and successful team together. Dimitroff and the Falcons front office will apply full effort to maintain the nucleus of the team.
2. Upgrade at the guard position
The offensive line for the Falcons is one of the strengths of the team. Led by center Alex Mack and tackles Schraeder and left tackle Jake Matthews, the Falcons have a solid set of bodyguards to make life easy for Ryan, Freeman, and running back Tevin Coleman.
What is interesting is that right guard Chris Chester is a free agent this offseason and of all the positions on the line, Chester is a player that can likely be replaced. At the age of 34, he has also hinted at retirement.
The draft is a key spot to improve here. Indiana’s Dan Feeney is a possible first round selection for Atlanta. The same can be said for Western Kentucky’s Forrest Lamp. Both fit the characteristic of this offensive line: mobile, physical, and lean in the weight department.
If the team wants to snag a free agent pickup, Cincinnati’s Kevin Zeitler, Green Bay’s T.J. Lang, and Jacksonville’s Luke Joeckel are all considerable possibilities.
1. Fix the defensive line
Yes, the defense made strides this past season with 34 sacks. Yes, the defense improved in terms of technique and skill. However, there is no bigger task to fix than to add more to the biggest aspect of the 4-3 Under defense which is the defensive line.
Injuries to defensive ends Derrick Shelby and Adrian Clayborn set back the defensive line to an extent and getting the two back healthy will be solid additions but more his needed, especially at the LEO position and at the 3-tech defensive tackle spot.
Jabaal Sheard is a nice option for Atlanta in free agency. In the draft, Missouri’s Charles Harris, Michigan’s Taco Charlton, and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett are first round possibilities in the draft. Kansas State’s Jordan Willis and UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley are also to prospects to monitor closely.
At defensive tackle, Grady Jarrett and Ra’Shede Hageman proved to be key pieces on the defensive line but again, more is truly needed. Especially with veteran Jonathan Babineaux retiring and defensive tackle Tyson Jackson a possible cap casualty. So adding Caleb Brantley from Florida or Malik McDowell from Michigan State via the draft can give the unit a true boost.
The Falcons will make a few moves in this department alone. It will be vital that the Falcons add to this unit in both the draft and free agency in order to take that next step as a defense.