What will they do at defensive tackle?
The Falcons will have Grady Jarrett, Jack Crawford coming off an injury, and two practice squad players in the mix at defensive tackle next season. Dontari Poe, Courtney Upshaw, and Ahtyba Rubin are all free agents, and so is Adrian Clayborn, who can play inside in a pinch. Jarrett is an otherworldly talent set to anchor this line for years, but there’s nobody else there that even looks like a full-time player.
The Falcons have to pair someone with Jarrett who can play 40-50 snaps per game at a high level, or add multiple rotational options to give them options. Poe returning is one option, but he’s expensive, and the likes of Sheldon Richardson and Star Lotuleilei will not come cheap either. The Falcons could re-sign Rubin and Upshaw, add one more player in the draft, and sort it out from there, but that seems like a
The likeliest option of all? That’s probably a first or second round pick at defensive tackle, with Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne proving to be a popular early mock draft choice for Atlanta. That would give the Falcons a young, reasonably cost-controlled option on the interior as the rest of the line starts to get expensive in the seasons ahead.
Who starts at both guard spots?
This is a big one that may have an obvious answer. The Falcons could keep Andy Levitre or even re-structure his contract to ensure left guard is taken care of, and I think they’re very likely to keep third-year guard Wes Schweitzer as a starter at right guard. That would leave Sean Harlow as the team’s backup for both guard spots, with a Ben Garland re-signing tying up the position pretty neatly.
Assume nothing, though. The Falcons kept Schweitzer in mothballs in 2016 and he won a spot, so Harlow could be in the mix if he shows progress. There’s also the possibility that those of you clamoring for a major upgrade will get one after the team reviews the season, with the team choosing to draft a successor for Levitre or a Schweitzer replacement in the first few rounds of the draft. I don’t see it happening, but one never knows.
Who is the #3 receiver going to be?
The Falcons may well like Taylor Gabriel enough to keep him around, considering his very good partial season in 2016 and his obvious speed and playmaking ability. Perhaps Steve Sarkisian feels confident that he can figure out a way to get Gabriel more involved in the offense, the team will agree on a reasonable deal with a still-young player, and what I’m about to right will be decisively proven wrong.
All that said, I’m not sure Gabriel comes back. The Falcons were not able to use him productively on screen passes, Turbo had a couple of errors on his targets, and he very rarely got decisively open. Considering he was here the full season this time, his production was not impressive, and the Falcons too often were unable to get their receiving options opened, he feels like a logical candidate to move on to a team that might be able to better maximize his talent.
If that’s the case, I’d expect Atlanta to explore the draft for a new option in the slot. There just aren’t a ton of great receivers hitting the market, and Justin Hardy isn’t likely to get a shot after he clocked his third straight solid but unspectacular season as the team’s fourth receiver. I’d bet the team’s #3 isn’t on the roster today, unless Marvin Hall or Reggie Davis make a gigantic leap forward this offseason.
Are the Falcons working on extensions?
They have to be, right? Matt Ryan, Jake Matthews, Tevin Coleman, Grady Jarrett and Andy Levitre are all set to hit the open marketing in 2019, and while Coleman and Levitre may well walk in free agency, the other three names most certainly will return.
The Falcons have shown a knack for getting extensions done a little early, which has allowed them to sign the likes of Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, and Ryan Schraeder at slightly below market rates. They’ll need to do so with Jarrett, Matthews, and Levitre/Coleman if they want to keep the nucleus of this team together as long as possible, while Ryan is just going to get a preposterous deal regardless of when he actually signs. It would be smart for the Falcons to get as many of these deals done as possible so they have a good sense of their future commitments, and so we know who will be here in 2019 and beyond.
Are changes to the coaching staff coming?
It’s fair to ask. Steve Sarkisian is sticking around and Marquand Manuel is here at least one more year before he starts getting serious head coaching inquiries, but Keith Armstrong interviewed for the Arizona Cardinals head coaching job and could get it. The Falcons, after weathering a disappointing season on both offense and special teams, could choose to shuffle the decks a little bit and pick up new assistants, though I doubt any of the coordinators change if Armstrong isn’t hired away.
One thing to keep an eye on: Quarterbacks coach, where the Falcons currently have a vacancy. They’re interviewing interim UCLA head coach Jedd Fisch for that opening, and as a coach with previous NFL coordinating experience, he’d be an interesting addition to a staff that could probably use a couple more veteran coaches.
What big questions are you mulling?