With the draft behind us and the schedule available, it’s projection season. Few projections are as comprehensive as those of ESPN’s Mike Clay, who builds his for all 32 teams. The good news is that his projections for the Falcons are interesting, and the bad news is that they’re not really all that flattering.
We should note at the start that Clay is a fantasy guy by trade, but also someone who has shown himself to be pretty good at this. His projected 8 (technically 7.7, but you gotta round up) wins for the Falcons last year closely mirrored a lot of fans who didn’t expect this team to crater quite so hard, but he was off just 10 on their total points scored, 20 on their points allowed, and missed Matt Ryan’s final stat line by just 70 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. If he’s that close again in 2021, it’ll be bad news for Atlanta.
Why? Here’s a few quick very quick pulls from his projections:
Points scored: 402
Points allowed: 417
Matt Ryan: 4,490 yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 40 sacks
Sack total: 42
Aside from Ryan essentially having the same year he did in 2020—Clay has A.J. McCarron popping into one game—he’s projecting the Falcons to both allow more points and only score 6 more points than they did last season. That would be a gigantic letdown for Arthur Smith and this offense, given that we’re hoping and frankly expecting this staff will be a huge upgrade on Dirk Koetter and company, and even a modest pullback on the defense would mean an easier schedule would be the only thing keeping them reasonably afloat. Given that this is a projected 8-9 season, “afloat” might be the wrong word in the first place.
It is not particularly difficult for me to believe that this defense might have more sacks and still be pretty lousy, but the offense is trickier. Smith’s success in Tennessee, and more broadly his inventive and smart game planning, suggest this offense will be better-managed. It has added talent in the form of Kyle Pitts and Mike Davis, and barring utter incomeptence at left guard and center or a ten-car pileup of injuries, there’s no way I can see it being so modestly improved that the Falcons don’t make real and significant strides. If this is an 8 win team with basically no tangible offensive improvement aside from a bit on the ground, then I doubt they’re actually just an 8 win team.
At the end of the day, how closely will the Falcons hew to this reality? That’s a question that remains to be answered, but if Clay is at all right about the projections he has in place making this an 8 win football team, I’m optimistic they can beat that total based on my expectations for this Falcons offense alone. A generally more favorable schedule and the changeover on the offensive staff feels like it’ll have this team looking better than this projection, at least on that side of the ball.