As training camp starts in full force, the Falcons are preparing for another Super Bowl push. Expectations have never been higher for Dan Quinn’s group. Matt Ryan believes this is the most talented team he has ever been on. That is a big statement, considering Ryan’s experience playing for Super Bowl-caliber teams. It’s also not a bloated statement by any means, as the Falcons have one of the best rosters in the league.
In a ridiculously stacked NFC, they will need every key player at the top of their game. There isn’t much room for error against the likes of Philadelphia, Minnesota, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. How some players rebound following disappointing (or slightly underwhelming) seasons is going to be vital in securing a playoff spot. Here are five players that can play much better in 2018.
Despite entering his fourth season, there is still plenty of uncertainty surrounding Beasley. Is he someone that can truly be a consistent game-wrecker or does everyone have to accept him as a mere one-trick pony? Beasley’s wicked first step is easy to recognize when evaluating him. Combining that with his ultra explosiveness and change of direction ability should create a near dominant force. Those flashes of dominance in 2016 turned into long stretches of being anonymous in 2017.
Beasley did suffer some setbacks last season. A hamstring injury kept him sidelined for a month. Playing as a strong side linebacker to compensate for the loss of Duke Riley didn’t help matters either. Beasley’s gaudy sack total in 2016 didn’t mean he was a finished product. It’s no secret that he capitalized on favorable matchups and turned pressures into sacks at an astronomical rate per Pro Football Focus. That type of production wasn’t going to be sustainable, which was proven in a disappointing third season.
A full-time move back to left defensive end should benefit him. It will allow Beasley to solely focus on improving as a pass rusher rather than worrying about responsibilities as a linebacker. Refining his technique and mastering a few moves would do wonders for him going forward. Opposing tackles know the blueprint when blocking Beasley. Due to his undersized frame, it’s highly unlikely that he is going to generate pressure from using a sheer bull rush. Beasley finds success from using his first step and blistering speed off the edge. He’ll need to find more ways to be effective in order to reach double-digit sacks again.
The coaching staff was right to give Hooper another season as the default starter. There was some speculation that competition was going to be brought in. With Logan Paulsen being signed to replace Levine Toilolo as a pure blocker, Hooper will have plenty of opportunities to prove himself. The young tight end appeared to be on the right track early in the season. From creating big plays after the catch to finding openings against zone coverage, it seemed like Matt Ryan found another reliable weapon.
That strong rapport vanished after Hooper’s drop in the fourth quarter against Miami. A perfectly thrown ball that should went for a big completion ended up in Rashad Jones’ hands. Scouting reports were concerned about Hooper’s hands coming out of Stanford. He ended up finishing sixth in drops amongst tight ends. A brutal drop that resulted in another interception against New Orleans was a major low point. Ryan rarely looked his way following that game, as Hooper only received 15 targets in the remaining five games.
The addition of Calvin Ridley will likely limit his production. That doesn’t mean Hooper can’t improve. How he develops could drastically influence the offense’s efficiency in the red zone. An athletic tight end, who knows how to use his body to catch passes in traffic, must make plays for a team that finished 23rd in red zone conversion rate.
There was a considerable amount of backlash following Riley’s forgettable rookie season. He looked overwhelmed when trying to taking on blockers. Despite being a tremendous athlete, it didn’t translate into making plays in coverage. Riley was either a step behind or caught flat-footed. What was most troubling about his rookie season was the sheer inability to finish plays. Riley missed four tackles in games against Chicago and Buffalo. It wouldn’t have been surprising to see him get benched at some point.
He ended up suffering a serious knee injury against New England, which practically ended his rookie season. Quinn didn’t play Riley very often during the Falcons’ playoff push and two playoff games. Watching from the sidelines can only help an inexperienced player. The former LSU Tiger only started one full season in college. Not every linebacker with limited experience can produce from day one like Deion Jones.
That is why the criticism should be lessened. Riley possesses outstanding athletic traits and instincts. There were moments when he read the play well and was in prime position to make the stop. Completing those stops will go a long way in solidifying his place on a talent-rich defense.
On a defense filled with rookies, Poole was somewhat forgotten about two years ago. The national media kept mentioning how the Super Bowl will feature a defense starting three rookies. A remarkable 2016 draft class produced difference makers in Jones, Keanu Neal, and De’Vondre Campbell. Poole should have been mentioned as well. With defenses playing nickel for nearly two-thirds of the game, Poole was essentially playing as many snaps as a starter. He made those snaps count on a consistent basis.
The undrafted cornerback became popular for his instincts and hard-hitting ability. After being plagued by poor nickel corner play for several seasons, the Falcons viewed Poole as a revelation. That wasn’t quite the case last season. Although he was far from a liability on the level of Robert McClain (2013-2014 version) or Christopher Owens, Poole didn’t make the same amount of impact plays that he did in his rookie season. His pass breakup total dropped from nine in 2016 to four last season.
There are plenty of reasons why Isaiah Oliver was drafted in the second round. Competing with Robert Alford, who is coming off the best season of his career, isn’t one of them. Poole will need to raise his game in order to maintain his place as the primary slot corner.
Based on how strong the Falcons’ roster stands, it’s difficult to pinpoint a fifth player for this list. That leads to assessing how the best players performed and contemplating if they played as good as advertised. To label Trufant’s past season as underwhelming would be extremely harsh. The former Pro Bowler managed to play at a high level for the majority of the season. For a player of his caliber, most would expect him to be playing at an elite level. That is the bar Trufant set for himself following his exceptional performances in 2014 and 2015.
He didn’t quite reach that premier cornerback level in 2017. It was surprising to see Trufant a step behind on several big plays. After starting to be known as a shutdown corner, quarterbacks found some success targeting him downfield. Robbie Anderson and Michael Thomas gave him fits on the outside. Trufant was beaten at the line of scrimmage on more than a few occasions.
His issues didn’t grow into something problematic. There were plenty of games where Trufant didn’t allow a single catch. That was evident in him only allowing a reception once every 15.5 snaps according to Pro Football Focus. Trufant is still one of the top cornerbacks in the league. If he limits some of the big plays he allowed last season, there is nothing holding Trufant back from regaining his lockdown status.