It has been a hectic offseason for most teams in the NFL. With several front offices being more aggressive than ever, it has created a drastic split across the league. The NFC has been the superior conference for the past two years, and this past month reassured everyone that nothing is going to change in the near future.
The Eagles, Vikings, and Rams all made major splashes to continue building their respective star-studded rosters. Unless you have a tremendous draft class like the 2016 Falcons or 2017 Saints, it’s going to be difficult overcoming such well-balanced teams.
Patient is the best word to describe the Falcons’ offseason approach. That was the case last offseason with Devonta Freeman’s contract situation. It appears to be the same going with Matt Ryan. As the front office is working to sign franchise cornerstones to long-term deals, they have been limited in recent off-seasons. There is a growing concern that they have fallen behind in the NFC pecking order. While attempting to rank each team now is senseless, the Falcons must continue to bolster their roster. Staying stagnant is not an option in an ultra-competitive division (let alone conference). Here are three types of players that can help preserve their place as one of the premier teams in the NFC.
Massive nose tackle
There is no bigger positional need than finding someone to play alongside Grady Jarrett. Dontari Poe’s departure left a gaping hole in the middle of the defensive line. Drafting someone who can handle double teams and create openings for the young linebacker group will be vital for the defense’s progression. Poe did an excellent job in both aspects, while generating some interior pressure.
It’s not about finding someone who can instantly replace 784 snaps. Asking a rookie to play that many snaps can be detrimental for their development. Finding the right balance and situational value for the imminent draft pick is the best way to make up for not having the two-time Pro Bowler. The Falcons did well to keep Brooks Reed and re-sign Derrick Shelby, which allows them to maintain their solid base defense alignment. That should benefit whoever gets the opportunity to play in one of the most exciting defenses in the league.
When evaluating the NFC landscape, it doesn’t take long to realize how each top team possesses a lethal running game. New Orleans decimated opponents with their electrifying running back duo. Todd Gurley regained his big play ability in Sean McVay’s offense. Dalvin Cook will be returning after a strong start to his career. While Philadelphia may not have an exceptional running back like the other teams previously mentioned, they make up for it by having the most dominant offensive line in the league. The Falcons have three exceptional talents 25 years old or younger in Jarrett, Vic Beasley, and Takkarist McKinley on the defensive line. One more player will be required to slow down the slew of potent offenses in the NFC.
Explosive wide receiver
Most would assume the Falcons can’t possibly be more frustrating offensively going into the 2018 season. Steve Sarkisian will have several months to learn from his questionable decision making and predictable play calling. There is also optimism that Brandon Fusco will provide stability at right guard, which has been a problematic area for multiple seasons. It’s difficult to find any other major holes within the starting lineup. What can be addressed is adding another multidimensional weapon to the offense.
Following Taylor Gabriel’s departure, it left the Falcons with something clearly lacking in their wide receiving group. Everyone knows Julio Jones is an all-everything wide receiver. Mohamed Sanu has found his niche as a solid possession receiver, who can create mismatches in the slot. The same applies to Justin Hardy in a more reduced role. Without Gabriel, they don’t have a vertical threat outside of Jones. If Matt Ryan and company are going to average more than 22 points per game, a new wide receiver will be necessary for the offense to regain their status as one of the most prolific units in the league.
Dan Quinn mentioned Marvin Hall and Reggie Davis as potential candidates to replace Gabriel. Although both players showed some big play capabilities last preseason, do they really want to entrust two former undrafted wide receivers with limited experience into a major role? The Falcons’ outstanding roster gives them flexibility to be creative. Drafting someone who can jolt past safeties and create space underneath would work wonders for an offense filled with talented pass-catchers. Gabriel proved to be a revelation in 2016. It showed how dangerous the Falcons’ offense can be when featuring a wide receiver with blistering speed. They need a weapon of that caliber or greater, along with Sarkisian knowing how to use a multidimensional playmaker far better than he used Gabriel.
Versatile defensive lineman
As much as the Falcons technically need a fullback, it’s hard to justify the possibility of a full back elevating them over other contenders. A fullback can only influence the game so much in a limited role. That opens up other possibilities for the Falcons to find and properly utilize a potential difference maker. It was surprising that Quinn opted not to re-sign Ahtyba Rubin or Courtney Upshaw. With Poe and Adrian Clayborn moving on elsewhere, it seemed like one veteran would be brought back for depth purposes. Not bringing back either player leaves the defensive line lacking in depth.
Quinn uses a structured rotational based system. That means seven to eight players are receiving significant snaps. There are questions about the long-term future of some veterans. Reed took a pay cut to remain on the team. After being initially a cap casualty, Shelby was brought back on a one-year deal. Both players may not return in 2019. The front office will likely keep that in mind heading into the draft. With Quinn’s commitment towards adding new talent on the defensive line every year, an intriguing prospect should join a nose tackle in the 2018 draft class.
It was no secret that the Falcons wanted Michael Bennett. Reports were emerging about them being one of the more interested teams. Bennett would have been able to line up off the edge in base, before shifting inside in nickel sets. They ultimately fell short in their pursuit. It’s important to find someone capable of generating interior pressure, yet still agile enough to set the edge. That will give the defensive line more flexibility. Based on the last two seasons, the Falcons’ defensive line is at their best when being able to rotate players around. Quinn is one of the best coaches at spotting and developing talent up front. This is another draft for him to continue building a remarkably improved defensive line.