Guessing Atlanta’s final record this year feels like a bit of a fool’s errand, not that it’ll dissuade us from trying. There are questions about how quickly the new coaching staff can create positive change, how good the offense can be, whether the defense can be even passable and the impact of losing Julio Jones, among a hundred other worthwhile things to ask. When a team goes through this much upheaval—and, it must be said, when a team has been bad and cap-strapped for a while—uncertainty lingers like mildew in a humid bathroom.
The hope is that they’ll be better, a worthwhile and enjoyable team that leaves the misery of 2019 and 2020 in particular behind, and perhaps even that they’ll surprise and make a deep playoff run. We’re not exactly expecting that last bit—I’d love to see it, but getting my hopes up that high isn’t happening before we get some of those questions answered—but not having to sit through something like a 4-13 or 5-12 season would be nice.
Pro Football Focus threw their hat in the ring with a series of simulations that gave them a best case and worst case scenario for each team in the league. Atlanta’s worst, keyed by an awful defense, put them at a sad 6-11, which still would be better than last year. The best case scenario was the surprise here, as it would put the Falcons at a 12-5 that probably would have a smiling (he does do that occasionally) Arthur Smith helming one of the best teams in the NFC.
Here’s the worst case scenario writeup.
One of the worst defenses in the league on paper has no tricks up its sleeve. Dante Fowler Jr. and Marlon Davidson don’t add much of a spark along the defensive front, leaving Grady Jarrett as a one-man army once again. Jarrett’s 57 pressures in 2020 were more than double any other defender on the team.
The disappointing play from Atlanta’s recent investments in the cornerback position — Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield and A.J. Terrell — only makes the lack of pass rush more apparent. Arthur Smith’s new offense, sans Julio Jones, isn’t enough to overcome those defensive woes.
And here’s the best case scenario, which focuses on the offense:
The offense is one of the best in the NFL, even after the Jones trade. Arthur Smith’s scheme, which helped lead the Tennessee Titans to a fourth-place finish in EPA per play over the last two seasons, draws the best out of Matt Ryan. Kyle Pitts quickly finds himself in the upper tier of tight ends as a rookie, capable of winning as a receiver in-line, from the slot and out wide. And Calvin Ridley steps forward as a true No. 1 option, as he did when Julio missed time in 2020. Ridley’s 2.44 receiving yards per route run last year was over a half-yard more than his previous career high.
I have a hard time imagining this team landing at 12-5, just because I’m skeptical about the defense generally and I’m not expecting the offense to be truly spectacular this year. Nonetheless, it’s not outside of the realm of possibility that a strong offense could carry this team a ways and potentially keep them in contention until late in the year at minimum, which would be welcome after the team was dead in the water before midseason each of the past three seasons. My working prediction with a relatively easy schedule has been somewhere around 8-9 or 9-8—I’m expecting considerable offensive improvement and perhaps modest defensive improvement—and the fact that there’s a hypothetical universe out there where they’re much better than that is at the very least a cheery thought.
I think the biggest unknowns are addressed in these two scenarios, given that the offense will need to carry the day to some extent given that this will not be Dean Pees’ most talented defense by a long shot barring any late summer additions, with the Falcons termination of Barkevious Mingo’s contract after the awful news of his arrest for a child sex crime removing a player who was expected to play a lot of snaps, even if he was also not expected to be an impactful defender. If Smith and company can elevate Matt Ryan’s game, make up for the loss of Julio Jones and achieve a balanced attack in Atlanta, the Falcons will be fun to watch at worst and in the thick of the hunt for a Wild Card spot at best. Given the way losing has worn us down in recent seasons, my hope is PFF’s 90th-percentile case here is exactly where we end up, however unlikely that may seem.