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Early look shows Falcons pushing chips in on self-improvement for 2019

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Will the in-house gamble work?

NFL: Atlanta Falcons-Training Camp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve all been wondering how the Atlanta Falcons were going to take steps forward in 2019 to improve on what was, in large part, a face plant of a 2018.

Well, we’ve been looking in all the wrong places as to how that might go. Intuition says look outward. At least for now, the Falcons seem to be pointing us back in their direction.

It’s been discussed at length here and beyond about what ails the Falcons: They have to get tougher and better in the trenches, they need an infusion of new talent, they need to get old contracts off the books and reallocate that money to better use, the coaching needs an uptick.

In January, the Falcons took care of the coaching part with three new coordinator changes, and in February, the team released Robert Alford and Brooks Reed and let Matt Bryant’s option expire. One assumed that perhaps a release or restructure was on the way from then, before that glorious influx of new talent started arriving in March.

The early word from the organization might be pumping the brakes on the assumed revamping.

Just in the last week or so, Ty Sambrailo has been extended and flagged as the starter at right tackle, Vic Beasley has been discussed as perhaps returning on his fifth-year option (a cap hit of $12.8 million per Spotrac in 2019, good for fourth overall at the moment on the roster) and Ryan Schraeder ($7.75 million) looks to be sticking around as competition for now.

Insert your favorite “wait, what?” GIF here.

These are crucial decisions the team had to make this offseason. Beasley’s cap hit is prohibitive for a player who, while laden with potential and character, has underwhelmed since his 2016 emergence. Sambrailo is a career reserve who is just recently proving he has starting capability, but still only has a limited sample of on-field success. Schraeder struggled in 2018 and was assumed to be looking for a new home.

If anything, the biggest change is that Sambrailo now costs more against the cap. It’s fair to wonder how expectation and reality clashed so mightily in such a short amount of time.

Past’s Rewards

To their immense credit, the Falcons in the age of Dan Quinn have been pretty steady at zeroing in on issues and correcting them in the offseason.

In 2016, the team fixed its woes by adding a stalwart center in Alex Mack and a sturdy possession receiver in Mohamed Sanu to better run Kyle Shanahan’s system, and brought in a king’s ransom of young defensive talent and a wily veteran rusher in Dwight Freeney.

In 2017, the team got largely content with itself, outside of bringing in Dontari Poe and, later in the year, Ahtyba Rubin, to better the interior defensive line. Those moves gave Atlanta one of its best run defenses in years. First-round pick Takk McKinley also popped in his first snaps to help the pass rush.

In 2018, the team focused on fundamentals like blocking and special teams; moves for Logan Paulsen, Justin Bethel and Russell Gage were all hits in their respective roles. Drafting Calvin Ridley added a dynamic to the Falcons offense it sorely needed, and young players like Isaiah Oliver, Ito Smith and Foyesade Oluokun all flashed potential for down the road.

Letting Poe and Adrain Clayborn walk in 2018 without firm replacements on hand hurt badly, a knock on the team’s philosophy to groom the talent on the roster to new opportunity. But more often than not, the team has been good about this part of its business.

They’ve mostly earned our trust when it comes to addition by addition. But, for the first time, they’re beginning to ask fans to trust addition by maintaining stasis.

Future’s Gamble

Unless something changes, the Falcons seem to be relying on Quinn’s return to play-by-play coaching to fix the problems that linger on defense.

He’s said he’ll take a “hands-on” approach with Beasley, who will make the kind of salary that typically is given to a top-flight pass rusher. Make no mistake, this is a ticket for the riverboat. Right now, the team is gambling on Quinn’s coaching and Beasley’s potential to mesh for this season.

This investment means Beasley will very much start if all goes according to plan, and with Takk McKinley already a starter on the DL, means they’ll be your rusher in the nickel package. It means the team might not draft an edge first in the draft like some hoped they would; they can only take on so many players that aren’t fully where they need to be at such a crucial position on the roster.

Signing a flashy edge in free agency might not be all that realistic now; the big fish of finding Vic’s 2016 potential being chased by Quinn and Beasley in offseason training sessions. With Grady Jarrett’s contract (or franchise tag) on the horizon, the big investments for the defensive line seem to already be in place.

That’s a gamble, and it’s not guaranteed to work.

Nothing really ever is, to be honest. It’s the NFL, and you don’t get guarantees unless they’re in your contract.

Sambrailo’s extension is gamble in and of itself, if only because of the strength in the draft class for the position, as is not voiding Schraeder’s deal before the new league year begins and free agency gets underway.

The team is probably going to have to sit out on the bigger March conversations now, with the cap as it is. They’ll have money to add a few guys, probably not any starters.

The “draft and develop” mentality seems to still be the North Star for this organization. It’s hard to tell if, right now, that’s another wise move for the organization or a showing of reluctance to change and adapt in roster building techniques.

The stakes are high right now for this front office and coaching staff. No one is guaranteed a 2020 if this team falters. They’re betting on themselves to correct the problems at hand, in part with the guys they’ve already invested in.

They’ve earned our trust with their offseason decisions in the past. Should we be more trusting in the process, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense right now?

They’ve mortgaged the immediate future of the trenches for now on guys already in-house. Should we be encouraged or worried?

It’s a roll of the dice that will either make or break problems that desperately, desperately need fixing.