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What the Falcons need to do to their roster to get back to being contenders

After two forgettable off-seasons, Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff need to address the glaring needs on the roster and make the right decisions on the pending free agents.

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

It’s another off-season where the Falcons face enormous pressure to craft a championship-caliber roster. They have been labeled as Super Bowl contenders entering the past three seasons, and besides 2017, they have failed to live up to those lofty expectations.

Some of their misfortunes will be attributed to cruel injuries and poor coaching. What can’t be ignored are the personnel weaknesses on the roster. From young players not developing to disastrous free agency signings, the Falcons have become one of the more flawed teams in the league, even if the talent is still evident.

To not be in the playoff hunt over the past two seasons is alarming for a once-yearly contender. It’s an indictment on the poor personnel decisions that have been made in recent years. Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff can’t afford to make the same mistakes. They haven’t had the same amount of draft success over the past few years compared to what they managed to put together in 2015 and 2016.

While the lack of cap space has hindered their ability to pursue notable free agents, the signings that were made have been largely underwhelming. The success rate of their personnel decisions have greatly declined after nailing numerous moves in the draft and free agency in the first two seasons.

Here are five decisions that will improve not only their job security, but more importantly, Atlanta’s overall roster.

Bolster the defensive line

It’s been a yearly off-season priority for the Falcons. Unlike in past seasons, the front office must be prepared to invest heavily into improving the unit. A first or second round pick should be used on an edge rusher or defensive tackle. A major free agent signing should be made for one of those positions as well. There needs to be a major influx of talent for a unit lacking difference-makers. Besides Grady Jarrett, there isn’t a player that consistently plays at a high level. Adrian Clayborn, Allen Bailey, and Takkarist McKinley should be valued as contributors in Quinn’s rotation. Every other lineman on the roster is expendable going into the new year.

Some may view defensive tackle as a surprise need. Considering the current state of their rotation, there is no reason to believe why the Falcons can’t upgrade in that positional area. Tyeler Davison’s play dipped after a strong start. Jack Crawford failed to make an impact after a breakout 2018 season. There is no telling if Deadrin Senat fits what Quinn wants from a one-tech defensive lineman. Bailey and Clayborn can contribute as interior pass rushers, but there are better ways to utilize both players. A true nose tackle and interior pass rusher is needed for a defensive line that failed to stop the run and generate pressure during long portions of the season.

A player like Javon Hargrave or Michael Brockers could make a massive difference up front. It’s obvious they will need to sign an edge rusher with Vic Beasley failing to evolve as a player. There are other additions that will be required to construct a solidified defensive line, and this needs to be a major priority.

Re-sign Austin Hooper

Hooper’s ascendance from being maddeningly inconsistent to encouragingly consistent is one of the biggest positives about the Falcons. From the moment he was drafted in the third round, there were high expectations on the athletic tight end. Hooper seemed like an ideal fit to be the long-term staple at a position in dire need of a playmaker. It hasn’t been a smooth ride for him following a disappointing 2017 season.

By putting in extra training sessions with Matt Ryan, Hooper reaped the rewards for his dedication to be great. His hands have greatly improved, along with his route-running ability. There is a strong rapport between Ryan and him. That’s particularly evident in the red zone, where Ryan looks for him often. Hooper’s ability to make contested catches in tight areas makes him a valuable weapon.

The big question about Hooper is what he will attract on the open market. A young, productive tight end will command a hefty price. Although Dimitroff is adamant on wanting to sign Hooper to a long-term contract, it won’t matter if they don’t seriously invest in him. Nobody knows how much the organization values Hooper. Do they view him as a certified star or someone not worthy of a massive contract? That will be determined in two months.

What can’t be disputed is Hooper’s continued development. He is the complete tight end not many other teams possess on their roster. That should be something the front office keeps in mind moving into the off-season. Allowing star talent entering their prime to leave can set a bad precedent for an organization. After securing long-term deals with Deion Jones and Jarrett last off-season, Hooper should be the next player to join the list.

Back to the drawing board at left guard

Dimitroff and Quinn had a clear strategy to invest heavily in the offensive line last year. After seeing Ryan take a beating in 2018, they wanted to provide better protection for the franchise quarterback. The decision to sign two veteran guards and draft two offensive linemen in the first round resulted in Ryan taking 48 sacks. It was a career-high for Ryan, who endured some grueling seasons in 2013 and 2014. For him to take the most sacks ever in his career after the front office prioritized on upgrading the offensive line is alarming. While some of those sacks can be attributed to Dirk Koetter’s baffling play calling and number of pass plays, there is no disputing the poor performances across the offensive line.

James Carpenter and Jamon Brown were both major disappointments. Carpenter looked sloppy, sluggish, and undisciplined. Although Brown showed glimpses of promise, his poor footwork and slow hands were consistently exploited. Both players can’t be relied upon going into 2020. Signing an enormous guard known for their toughness proved to be a personnel misstep. Quinn must focus on building an offensive line centralized on athleticism and movement. Moving from a zone-blocking based scheme never seemed like a wise decision.

Jake Matthews and Alex Mack are far more effective in the system. From watching Chris Lindstrom take out linebackers at the second level, he appears to be another player who would thrive in an outside zone blocking scheme. The front office should look to add another smaller, more technical guard rather than another plodding, massive guard.

No longer being loyal to Vic Beasley and De’Vondre Campbell

Quinn’s tendency of being committed to certain players has come back to haunt him. Beasley and Campbell are the first two names that come to mind. Both players had outstanding sophomore seasons, as Beasley was the sack king in 2016 and Campbell made numerous big plays in 2017. Instead of taking the third-year leap, both players respectively regressed. Quinn remained committed to them as key players that would help elevate the defense. Both players ended up having major roles in their demise as an overall unit. Opposing tackles realized Beasley is a one-trick pony, who doesn’t possess the strength or technique to be a consistent threat. Campbell’s lack of awareness and inability to get off blocks makes him a liability as a three-down linebacker.

It does have to be noted that both players performed much better when the Falcons won six of their last eight games. That doesn’t erase the 1-7 start, which featured a multitude of horrendous showings from them. As much as Quinn wants to believe in them as players who made significant contributions to his best seasons as a head coach, he must come to terms with the fact that both players have disappointed more often than they delivered. The defense desperately needs a legitimate edge rusher. They also need a reliable linebacker to compete with Foye Oluokun for the inside linebacker spot alongside Jones.

Neither Beasley nor Campbell are capable of being those players. It’s time for them to move on from both players to address the obvious holes within their defense.

Clarity at running back

In the season-ending press conference, Quinn remained non-committal about Devonta Freeman’s future. It’s not the first time Freeman’s status in Atlanta has been questioned. The front office was in talks to send the starting running back to Detroit before the trade deadline. That was a troubling sign for Freeman’s future following another disappointing season. The dynamic running back hasn’t looked the same since enduring a plethora of injuries between 2017 and 2018. He managed to get injured once again, which came at a time when the Falcons definitively beat New Orleans and Carolina. It sparked another debate about his value to the team.

Freeman isn’t as explosive or elusive as he once was. While the run blocking was mostly abysmal, there were times Freeman would make up for the lack of blocking in 2015 and 2016. That was no longer the case this past season. With his contract situation, the probability of him being released is growing. There aren’t any clear-cut options on the roster to replace him. Ito Smith and Brian Hill have their attributes, but neither player appears to be a game-changing talent. It raises the question of keeping Freeman in hoping he can rediscover his tremendous play from 2015 to 2017. Something is bound to transpire this off-season at the running back position.

Whether Freeman’s contract is restructured or he ends up being released, the running back rotation is bound to be different in 2020.