“It’s not a total rebuild, but there is plenty of work to do” is the best way to describe the current state of the Falcons. A season marred by injuries, younger players failing to step up, and questionable coaching leaves Dan Quinn with plenty of questions needing to be answered. How will he respond after his first losing season as a head coach? Taking full control of defensive play calling duties is an encouraging first step. The next step will be identifying which positions need to be addressed and deciding which players should be relied upon going forward.
Quinn has already started on the latter by opting to release long-time starter Robert Alford. It’s not a surprising move, considering Alford’s drastic decline and contract situation. Alford wasn’t the only departing starter from the memorable 2016 team. Matt Bryant and Brooks Reed were the latest players to be released. Other players will likely join the list in the coming days. It will give the front office more opportunities to be aggressive in free agency, which will be vital in their quest towards improving in the trenches and re-signing key players. Here are five of the most essential things the Falcons must do this off-season.
Keeping your assets
When a team is looking to bounce back from a disappointing season, it’s easy to pinpoint their biggest flaws and devise potential strategies to fix each personnel problem. This is a common approach for an organization that is accustomed to being successful. What can’t be overlooked during this process is the top-level talent on your current roster. There are plenty of reasons why the Falcons were a popular Super Bowl pick last August. They have a plethora of talent on both sides of the ball. One poor season doesn’t change the entire landscape of the franchise. There are players on the roster that need to be valued. It starts by re-signing Grady Jarrett.
The star defensive tackle is coming off the best season of his career. Despite missing two games, he produced careers highs in sacks, pressures, and forced fumbles. Jarrett built a reputation on being an explosive gap-destroyer against the run. For him to develop into a more consistent pass rusher solidified his status as one of the best defensive tackles in the league.
Other than Deion Jones, there is no other defensive player on the roster more valuable than him. Thomas Dimitroff spoke about re-signing Jarrett as the biggest priority this off-season, along with extending Julio Jones’ contract. The most successful teams don’t let their best players go elsewhere. If the Falcons are going to get back to playing football in January, Jarrett and Jones will be at the forefront of their pursuit.
Adding much-needed solidity on the interior
As poorly as the Falcons’ defense fared last season, the biggest positional need comes on the offensive side of the ball. A once-formidable offensive line turned into one of the worst units in the league. Losing Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco certainly played a significant role behind their regression. Ryan Schraeder’s unforeseen decline only further intensified their issues up front. For Matt Ryan to get hit 106 times speaks volumes on how much the offensive line needs substantial upgrades. It’s why Quinn’s comments weren’t unsuprising about each position being reevaluated outside of left tackle and center.
It will be extremely difficult to add two high-level starting guards in one off-season. With offensive line play being mostly subpar across the league, expectations should be tempered on what the Falcons can do. The most realistic plan would be making a guard their biggest free agent signing and use a high draft pick on another guard. Levitre isn’t expected to return following multiple season-ending injuries. Fusco can’t be expected to develop into a long-term solution. There isn’t much evidence to suggest Wes Schweitzer is a capable starter after two seasons of being largely overmatched.
The front office must be aggressive in addressing the interior offensive line. It would go a long way in solving their infuriating short-yardage woes, along with providing Ryan the necessary protection to attack defenses downfield.
A bigger presence off the edge
After using two first round picks on edge rushers over the past four years, it will be fascinating to see how Quinn approaches this problematic area on the roster. Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley failed to live up to expectations as his primary edge rushers. Both players were expected to take leaps in their development. Between Beasley looking regularly overwhelmed to McKinley being overly reliant on his bull rush, neither player showed the capabilites of becoming a consistent force. That puts extra pressure on Quinn to bring in another edge rusher.
Bruce Irvin provided a spark, but he isn’t someone who can elevate a defense. The front office should look towards adding a more consistent player rather than an aging talent. Expecting them to make a splash for Dee Ford or Trey Flowers would be ambitious. They likely won’t have the cap room to afford either premium pass rusher entering their prime. Signing a more reliable veteran or drafting another highly regarded edge rusher are viable options.
An edge defender that can play in Quinn’s base defense would be beneficial as well. With Derrick Shelby suffering another season-ending injury, the Falcons won’t likely re-sign him again. The coaching staff does seem committed to using Beasley in some capacity. Dimitroff mentioned Beasley’s upside during the annual end of the season press conference. That shouldn’t prevent them from making a major push for an edge rusher, especially in a scheme built on primarily generating pressure with four.
Upgrading the defensive tackle rotation
It’s no secret that the Falcons never recovered from losing Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn. Both players were vital in the defense’s progression into becoming a top-ten caliber unit. Between Poe’s ability to clog running lanes and Clayborn’s knack for causing havoc as an interior pass rusher, they proved to be two dependable contributors on the defensive line. Not properly replacing them proved to be costly. Terrell McClain failed to make any positive impact, while Deadrin Senat endured some growing pains as the season progressed. Jack Crawford’s emergence gave them some life on the interior outside of Jarrett. It’s still not enough for a team that has championship aspirations.
Quinn is always looking to add talent across the defensive line. It’s one of his main principles as a head coach. Given the price it will cost to re-sign Jarrett, the front office will likely look towards the draft to add another defensive tackle. Instead of targeting a specific type of tackle, they should focus on simply acquiring the most talented player.
There is an obvious urge to add a true run-stuffer. Although the Falcons desperately need to improve against the run, the same can be said about generating pressure inside. A 320-pound nose tackle doesn’t guarantee an enormous improvement. Adding a potential game-changer is what Quinn should be focused on to take some pressure off Jarrett.
Addressing the right tackle conundrum
For the first time since 2014, the Falcons must address the entire right side of their offensive line. Schraeder’s journey from being undrafted to one of the top players at his position deserves huge praise. He was one of the most pivotal figures in making the Falcons’ offensive line one of the better units in the league. His unexpected drop-off in 2018 leaves the organization in a predicament. With Schraeder turning 31 years old in May, it’s difficult to see him being relied upon after being such a major liability in pass protection.
With holes all across both lines, right tackle falls slightly behind on the off-season need list. That isn’t a knock on the position, as it’s proving to become extremely valuable in recent years. Most defenses are starting to use their top pass rusher on the left side. Because of this trend, the era of left tackles being far more important than right tackles is over.
There are still more pressing needs when assessing the Falcons’ roster. Signing a veteran or drafting a tackle on day two to challenge Schraeder may be a realistic option. It would at least provide much-needed competition. The front office knows they must heavily invest in both guard positions. Moving in a more efficient direction to upgrade at right tackle would be ideal for them, given the circumstances surrounding the roster going into this off-season.