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With 2017 in rearview, Falcons must now nail spring to boost fall

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The future will be bright for Atlanta (if they play their cards right this spring).

Wild Card Round - Atlanta Falcons v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

With the maddening doldrums of the offseason beginning to bang their moribund drums, the Atlanta Falcons face one of their trickiest offseasons in quite some time.

After the Super Bowl berth (which is what we’re calling it now because it sounds much easier to stomach), the team had few holes, and fewer decisions to make. Signing Dontari Poe was a bonus, as was adding Takk McKinley to the team’s pass rushers. Duke Riley? Works for us! Wes Schweitzer? Ah, he’ll be fine.

But, even as rocky road as 2017 was, the Falcons still beat an excellent-if-young Rams team in Los Angeles and came a handful of plays away from a second-straight NFC Championship appearance.

If you think the Falcons are in bad shape, think again.

Atlanta is one of the ten best franchises in football right now. In the NFC, outside of Philly, they might have the most stability – franchise QB, excellent head coach and growing coordinators, talent on both sides of the ball, willing ownership, a new stadium, loyal fans, enough cap space in 2018 to take care of business.

Look at these once-heavyweights: Green Bay is changing out coaches and may have to restock their wide receivers group (but they’ve got Aaron Rodgers, who is still Aaron Rodgers), Seattle may be nearing the end of their ferocious defense and have things to take care of on offense, the Panthers may enter 2018 with two new coordinators and are always having to worry about Cam Newton’s health, and New Orleans’ franchise face is nearing 40. Even the NFC Championship-bound Minnesota have uncertainty about their offense heading forward, with Pat Shurmur headed to New York and Case Keenum a free agent.

Teams like Los Angeles and San Francisco have excellent play callers as head coaches, but are young and must prove they can maintain their play-calling prowess with young quarterbacks. They very well might, but any given season.

So, if you think the sky is falling, put the umbrella down, Chicken Little. The future is bright, but it’s also got to be played right.

Offense & Defense

After choppy red zone execution and questionable play calls from Steve Sarkisian, and a defense that continues to get better, but also is prone to lapses, the Falcons are going to have to take the offseason to decide what kind of team they want to be.

OK – we do know, well, what kind of team they want to be: fast and physical; brotherhood; etc.

But, if you look at Philly and Minnesota this season – the two best teams in the NFC – you see commanding defenses, and explosive offenses with sure quarterbacks, strong run games and smart play-calling. That’s kind of what Atlanta had going down the stretch last season – and it’s what they’re going to be working to get back to.

But, would that it t’were so simple.

Ever since Dan Quinn arrived in Atlanta, his mission was to build up the league’s worse defense. It was no small task. But with smart drafting, savvy free agent picks and a revamped defensive scheme with better coaching, the team’s defenders ranked in the top ten for the 2017 regular season when it was all said and done.

Just look at the guys Quinn has shuffled into Atlanta in the last three years: Vic Beasley Jr., Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, De’Vondre Campbell, Takk McKinley, Dontari Poe, Adrian Clayborn, Brian Poole, Brooks Reed, Derrick Shelby, Dwight Freeney, Duke Riley, Damontae Kazee, Courtney Upshaw, Jack Crawford, LaRoy Reynolds, Ahtyba Rubin, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Sharrod Neasman, O’Brien Schofield, Justin Durant, Philip Wheeler, Joe Vellano.

Really, the only two starters remaining from the Mike Smith era are Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford (who Quinn saw to were both re-signed). And, it was Quinn who saw to former fifth-round pick Ricardo Allen move to practice squad cornerback to starting free safety, and Kemal Ishmael find some success moving to weakside linebacker. He also brought Sean Weatherspoon back home to likely finish his career in Atlanta, which was no small gesture of beauty.

Please understand where he had to start – go Wiki the 2014 defense, and see where the team was. Outside of the starting corners, every spot was revamped, rebuilt, remade. And, he’s still not finished yet.

The offense was no doubt partly Kyle Shanahan’s vision for his guys, but even over there, it’s been pretty game-changing, all things considered, with guys like Alex Mack, Tevin Coleman, Mohamed Sanu, Andy Levitre, Wes Schweitzer, Taylor Gabriel, Austin Hooper, Justin Hardy, Chris Chester, Nick Williams, Aldrick Robinson.

So, after Quinn’s first year, which was absolutely a transition season from the depths of 2013/2014, the Falcons have made a Super Bowl and have won three playoff games. They’ve had to fight things most teams wouldn’t even dream of, and overcome some substantial losses. But, even when they didn’t thrive, they survived. And when they were past surviving, they were thriving.

Looking Ahead

2018 could ironically be Quinn’s best year with Atlanta – it’s his easiest schedule since 2015, and he’s finally got his team on the field – they one he came here to build. The NFC is shifting a bit, and there are no sure bets when we return to action. Atlanta’s got every chance in the world next year to host a playoff game and begin the march anew.

But, to make the journey as simple as possible, they’re going to have to play their cards right this spring.

You’re going to hear 1000 opinions about 1000 directions Atlanta could go. They should sign X, and extend Y! But, Z! What of Z! They should draft Z, and sign D, and extend Q! Ah, you’re daft! Signing X would break the bank. Who they should go after is J. J is very good. No! Not J! A!

The truth is, you and I have no idea what’s best for Atlanta, or even what they’re thinking. But, it’s probably a better plan than any of us are going to come up with, so let’s defer judgement to the professionals, eh?

But, in a grand sense, they’re going to have to decide where the money goes, and who it goes to.

Will they re-sign Dontari Poe? How about Adrian Clayborn? Is Taylor Gabriel as good as gone? What will they do about the tight end position? Is Wes Schweitzer the guy for the future? How about Duke Riley? Who gets extensions? Will they draft offensively or defensively in the first two rounds? Will they make a trade? Would Michael Bennett be the defensive player to put them over the edge? Where’s my doggie bag for the nerves of what’s going to happen with all these big contracts on the horizon?

This column cannot answer all of this, but it can give a general word of advice for all offseason moves for Dirty Bird minds.

Time to decide once and for all – are the Falcons going to be a team with an elite defense, and a really good offense, or an elite offense, and a really good defense?

The threshold is there for this to be a reality on either side – and the Eagles arguably had elite-ness on both sides of the ball. Sometimes, you just luck out, and it sparks a championship push.

Atlanta’s got the ground floor pretty firmed up. They’re fine when it comes to crossing off all the spots of worry. But, they’ve got to nail this next application of paint if the room is to look as nice as it needs to.

Where the resources go in free agency and the draft will tell us where Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff’s minds are.

Are they going to build up this front seven into a Philly-like monstrosity? Will they attempt to invest so heavily into the offensive line Matt Ryan won’t have to worry about sacks for days? Will they replenish the pass catching department? Will they attempt to make sure they’ve got the next Legion of Boom?

Also, will they continue to develop guys? Will they invest more resources in ready-now players, who cost more, but provide more return now? Quinn loves developing young talent, but he can’t have a defense that’s always waiting on that one spot to mature. Seattle’s defense should be example enough of the glorious mesh in draft talent and effective veteran acquisitions.

Where the team spends its money, and its draft picks, will indicate where they hope to spend their future. Well, they want to spend it in Atlanta next February, in pads, in front of the home crowd, playing for that elusive Lombardi.

How they play their cards in the next month will help determine if this team ready to be, once again, just good enough, or, hopefully, even better.

Good enough was good enough for a divisional loss. Even better could be, well, even better.

The Falcons are in sound hands – don’t let the lunacy of worry let you think anything but that. Quinn’s not perfect, but neither is Belichick, or Nick Saban. He’s building a perennial contender in Atlanta, and you can bet your bottom dollar he’s going to have the time to do so.

Sarkisian is the main worry, but even if he’s only slightly better than he was in 2017, that might be all they need. Any further improvement than that could skyrocket this team back to the Super Bowl.

But, first, they’ve got to decide where to spend, where to save, where to pick, and where to invest.

It’s going to be tricky, but if they walk the fine line, we might be in for something special.