Welcome to 2019, Falcons fans. Here’s a list of all the things we think Atlanta needs to accomplish in the coming months to enjoy a successful year and put the bitter taste of 2018 far, far behind us.
- Let Tevin Coleman go. It’s painful because Coleman has had some genuinely special moments as a Falcon, and was a great complement to Devonta Freeman. But the Falcons already paid top dollars for one running back, and both Ito Smith and Brian Hill showed they’re at least capable backups throughout the course of 2018. Paying Coleman upwards of $4 million per year—and perhaps north of $6 million per year—would be a huge mistake for a team that is going to have tight dollar years coming up with Matt Ryan’s contract, Julio Jones’ impending contract, and big deals for Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, and Keanu Neal ahead. They just can’t pay everyone, and Coleman is one of the most expendable pieces they have at the moment, as good as he is and can be.
- Fix the offensive line. I’m not hugely concerned about the depth at receiver or tight end—Eric Saubert looks at least capable and Alex Gray is waiting in the wings at TE, while Marvin Hall and Russell Gage are fine wide receiver depth—but I am concerned about the line. It’s telling that the Falcons got considerably better along the line when they signed Zane Beadles and got Ty Sambrailo in the lineup, and that says nothing good about the likes of Brandon Fusco, Ben Garland and Ryan Schraeder. The Falcons can’t close their eyes and hope that they can get by with a motley assortment of options, not with Alex Mack getting older, Fusco returning from injury, and Andy Levitre unlikely to return.
You’d hope Atlanta would invest a Day 2 draft pick in either guard or tackle to shore up one spot, and allow Wes Schweitzer, Ty Sambrailo, Fusco and a free agent signing to duke it out for the remaining guard spot. It’s not going to be possible to completely overhaul this unit in one offseason, but standing pat would be a colossal failure on Atlanta’s part.
- Go get a creative, dynamic offensive coordinator. The Falcons drew the wrong lessons from Kyle Shanahan’s success and tried to continue with a familiar scheme in the hands of a frankly lesser coordinator. Steve Sarkisian’s tenure in Atlanta wasn’t all bad, but you can reasonably argue that he did not get the most out of a talented offense, even if the offensive line badly limited him at times in 2018. The Falcons need to avoid drawing the wrong lessons again from this season and assuming they just need a more experienced coordinator, because placing this side of the ball in the hands of a Darrell Bevell or Greg Knapp is unlikely to push this team forward at all.
- Do something with Vic Beasley’s contract. If the Falcons think Beasley’s late season flashes were indicative of improvement around the corner, fine. If they love his locker room presence or think he’s an essential man going forward, given his youth and obvious physical tools, then that’s great. But they can’t, with the contracts they have now and the contracts they have coming, commit $12. 8 million to a player with ten sacks over the last two seasons, only one season with eye-popping production as a pass rusher, and a justified reputation as one of the worst Falcons defenders of 2018 for at least the first half of the season.
The Falcons would be wise to try to find a way to get Beasley under contract for a couple of seasons at a much more reasonable price as a complementary pass rusher until proven otherwise. If he bristles at that, which is well within his rights, they should probably move on and try to find their next useful pass rusher in the draft. I like Vic a great deal and it pains me to say it, but the Falcons can’t go into 2019 with Beasley opposite Takk McKinley and just dust their hands.
- While you’re at it, re-tool the defensive end position entirely. Takk remains a building block despite his shaky production in 2018, but there are no other indispensable men here. It would be nice to get Bruce Irvin back and fine to bring Beasley back on a new deal, but Brooks Reed is set to cost this team $5.4 million and hasn’t played up to that level. The team could release him and save $4.4 million to go toward Irvin and other needs.
That’s not even to mention Derrick Shelby, who has been a colossal disappointment since signing with the Falcons a couple of years ago and should be on his way out of Atlanta. The Falcons should try to keep Irvin and Steven Means around as useful rotational pieces and use a Day 1 or Day 2 pick on a promising pass rusher to get this thing righted, and if they move on from Irvin and Means in favor of some interesting free agent options, so be it. They’re really only a single defensive tackle away from having a very good rotation there, so I hope they focus more time and energy on DE.
- Sort out the secondary. The Falcons have an abundance of quality options at safety—you could even say they’ll be spoiled with Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen returning next year—but that leaves them with a logjam at the position. They’re less deep and rich at cornerback, where Robert Alford just struggled through his worst year since 2014, Isaiah Oliver is not yet a proven commodity, and Brian Poole remains an incredibly useful player but far from an elite nickel cornerback when it comes to coverage. Kazee might get some time at cornerback, Alford may or may not be here, but the Falcons will have to get that figured out to ensure they’re putting a winning group on the field.
- Get Dan Quinn some help. This isn’t truly under defense, but since he’s the new defensive coordinator and still the head coach, it just makes sense. Quinn’s largest struggles to date as a head coach have come in effectively managing time and making good situational decisions, something every NFL coach struggles with to an extent. But some of his worst calls have been so egregious that having another voice in his ear saying “we should absolutely not call a timeout here” would be extremely welcome, and would benefit the entire team.
There are plenty of head coaches who are going to be grappling with the same thing this offseason—Mike Zimmer’s drawn plenty of criticism for his handling of the clock, for example—but Quinn hasn’t taken concrete steps to address that via the addition of staff or like, enrolling at coach clock school. That second set of eyes doesn’t solve everything—you saw Sean McVay make some puzzling choices even with Jedd Fisch to help him—but it would help to ensure those gameday decisions aren’t being made solely by a man with sometimes shaky aptitude for them.
- Settle the kicker position. The Falcons somewhat absurdly carried two kickers through a large part of the year, partly because Matt Bryant was dealing with a balky back and partly because Giorgio Tavecchio clearly intrigues this organization. Bryant hit a career high percentage of field goals (20 of 21, 95.2%) and the second-lowest percentage of extra points (33 of 35, 94%), while Tavecchio was a perfect 5 for 5 for field goals. Tavecchio, then, was excellent in a limited sample size, while Bryant was typically fantastic.
Bryant is going to be 44 years old in 2019, and while he’s shown no signs of slowing down, the Falcons would save $3 million (with about $1 million in dead money for 2019) by moving on in favor of Tavecchio, who is under contract next year for about $645,000. The Falcons obviously did this to give themselves flexibility this offseason, but Bryant remains excellent and it’s extremely likely that Tavecchio will prove to be a downgrade from him if Atlanta moves on. I hope the Falcons keep Bryant around for one more year, but it’s true that at age 44 there are no certain things, and the Falcons will weigh that carefully. You just hope their choice works out, whatever it may be.
- Get me a return game, goodness gracious. Marvin Hall was fine as a kick returner and should be competing for both jobs in 2019, but Justin Hardy was not effective as a punt returner. The return game under Keith Armstrong has been anemic for a little bit now, with Andre Roberts looking awful in 2017 and then going on to great success this year. Whether it’s a change of philosophy and personnel to try to get more effective blocking, or bringing in a more high-upside option as a returner, it should happen. It’s not the highest priority, but I am tired of being aggravated by returns, as I suspect all of you are.
There are many other changes to be made, big and small, but if the Falcons nail these big picture items I think they’ll be in very good shape for 2019. Add yours to the pile, if you would.