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What success looks like for the Falcons in 2021

There’s no Super Bowl or bust, but there’s plenty the Falcons can do to make this a worthwhile season.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

When Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff were fired last October, it marked the end of an era. All the investments to bolster the roster had clearly failed over the past three years. It ended with the Falcons being out of the playoff picture by October or November every season. It left a plethora of problems on a team that was built to win now. With a franchise quarterback and superstar wide receiver starting to age, the organization found itself in a precarious situation. They had no choice but to start over and build for the future.

Terry Fontenot has made it known that he disagrees with the notion that the Falcons are rebuilding. While the charismatic general manager can make his case, it’s evident to me that the Falcons are currently in rebuilding mode. Signing numerous players in free agency to one-year deals as an effort to fill in holes is a strong indicator. Trading Julio Jones proved it, although they were ultimately left with no other choice. Although they decided to stick with Matt Ryan, there is a sense that he is being considered as a short-term stabilizing solution in an effort to stay competitive during a difficult time period.

The reality is that the Falcons aren’t likely going to compete for a playoff spot this season. That doesn’t mean they aren’t going to be competitive. It shouldn’t mean the season can’t be a positive one. Besides Detroit and Philadelphia, there isn’t a team in the NFC with more question marks than Atlanta. Despite investing heavily into improving the offensive line, the unit still looks unsettled. As special as Calvin Ridley is, it could take Ryan time to adjust to life without his favorite receiver for nearly a decade, along with playing under Arthur Smith’s offense. The hire of Dean Pees is exciting, but it was essentially the only major defensive move the Falcons made this off-season. The massive needs at edge rusher and cornerback weren’t seriously addressed in free agency or the draft.

While it’s obviously important for the new regime to win more than four games, there shouldn’t be a specific win total target for a rebuilding team, though The Falcoholic will have predictions in the days ahead and Aaron Freeman will discuss realistic expectations in an article later today. There are plenty of other important matters that should be assessed when determining if the Falcons made actual progress. This is a team that could need two seasons of roster building and player development before competing with teams like Seattle and San Francisco, let alone Tampa Bay and Los Angeles.

That said, it’s a new era in Atlanta. It’s not about the process or being fast and physical. The time is now to start building the Falcons back up into being a credible team.

First and second-year players developing into long-term starters

The focus will be on Kyle Pitts and A.J. Terrell as the most talented young players on the roster. High expectations should absolutely be placed on the previous two first-round picks. Several other young players need to make their mark for the Falcons to be competitive again. The interior offensive line will feature two new starters going into Sunday’s home opener against Philadelphia. Jalen Mayfield and Matt Hennessey are slated to start at left guard and center. How both players develop will be pivotal in protecting Matt Ryan and creating a legitimate running game, something that has been lacking for the last three seasons in Atlanta.

Mayfield will be facing daunting competition from the start because he’ll have to block Fletcher Cox and Vita Vea. That’s a tall order for any rookie offensive lineman, particularly one who is notably raw.

There must be some advancement in Hennessey’s game after looking overwhelmed in limited action last season. Using him solely at center should only benefit him compared to last season’s bizarre in-game rotation at left guard with James Carpenter.

The same can be said on the other side of the trenches with Marlon Davidson. Multiple injuries, including missing time because of COVID, derailed the first two months of his rookie season. When he was healthy, Raheem Morris didn’t feel he was ready to play and made him a healthy scratch. Davidson admitted that he got caught up in the lifestyle last year. The Falcons desperately need him to show something as an interior pass rusher, along with having the versatility as a possible edge defender in their base package.

It may be difficult for Mykal Walker and Richie Grant to get initial opportunities, but they both possess the talent to be above-average starters. Walker showed great promise in coverage and on blitz packages during his rookie year. His canny ability to knock down passes with his long arms helped him earn more reps as the season went on. An even better second season may help ease the process of the Falcons moving on from Deion Jones, who could be another big-name player that may be traded after this season to clear further cap space.

Grant is the type of playmaker and physical presence that the secondary is in dire need of. Being unable to force turnovers has been a huge problem for the Falcons’ defense over the past several years, including their solid 2017 season. A ballhawk like Grant should make a massive difference for not only forcing turnovers, but also giving Pees even more possibilities in creating coverage disguises.

Making progress over breaking down

For all the attention directed towards the youth movement, three key players face make-or-break seasons. One of Dimitroff’s final aggressive decisions was to trade up in the 2019 draft to select Kaleb McGary. Nobody saw the pick coming at the time, considering the first round was about to end. McGary was also projected to be selected in the second or third round by draft analysts. To draft a right tackle after selecting Chris Lindstrom to solidify the long gaping hole at right guard was surprising, considering how abysmal the Falcons were defensively in 2018.

McGary has looked sluggish and technically inept in pass protection. There were signs of progress last season, but he got beat far too often by speed rushers. This is a crucial season for him as a starter. If he can refine his hands and footwork as a pass blocker, he can develop into a solid right tackle and significantly elevate an offensive line with two above-average starters in Lindstrom and Jake Matthews.

Outside of Ryan, there isn’t a player on the roster with more pressure than Dante Fowler. The former third overall pick failed to produce as the primary edge rusher. There were concerns about him not being able to make an impact without a strong supporting cast as he had in Jacksonville and Los Angeles. Those worries proved to be in-game realities as Fowler couldn’t generate any semblance of pressure. Battling a hamstring injury for weeks clearly affected his get-off and power to beat left tackles. That’s the only saving grace for a player who looked like a journeyman rather than a huge free-agent signing last season. Fowler needs to be the difference-maker the Falcons signed him to be as the only legitimate edge rusher on the roster that has been productive in the NFL.

Isaiah Oliver actually showed some progression last season. After getting torched repeatedly in 2019 and early-2020, Raheem Morris moved Oliver into the slot to potentially get the best out of a player who was a major liability on the outside. Watching D.J. Moore run a standard whip route and turn it into a 57-yard touchdown on Oliver was the final straw for the coaching staff. Oliver looked more comfortable in the slot, snuffing out screens and being a consistent open-field tackler. That still isn’t enough to justify the second-round pick selection in 2018. It certainly won’t be enough for him to be on the team in 2022 if he doesn’t make considerable strides in coverage. Whether it’s back on the outside or in the slot, Oliver must be able to change direction better in man coverage and utilize his physical traits in more effective ways.

Building a strong foundation starts with coaching

The combination of Smith and Pees is arguably the most compelling storyline about the Falcons going into the season. They are two highly-regarded, no-nonsense coaches that have worked wonders in difficult situations. What Smith accomplished in two seasons for Tennessee is simply remarkable. Pees’ work in Baltimore and New England stands out on a resume of four decades of coaching. To have eight top-ten scoring defenses in 12 seasons as a defensive coordinator is extraordinary. How both coaches utilize and bring the best out of a roster lacking in several key areas will be crucial in the team’s progress.

From previous interviews to training camp footage, Smith is as cutthroat as it gets. He doesn’t have time for excuses. He doesn’t have time to coddle players. It’s a mentality the team needed after things went awry under Quinn. Smith is a proven play-caller who knows how to design plays for his best players to flourish and maximize role players to be valuable contributors. What will be ultimately tested is how Smith manages time management situations, critical moments, and player relations. Will the team be fully on board with his philosophy? How does he manage adversity both on and off the field? Can he outsmart opposing coaches outside of designing plays? These are some of the biggest questions ahead for this team.

This is the first time the Falcons have had an offensive-based head coach since 2007. As much as everyone wishes to delete that team out of their memory, Bobby Petrino was the last head coach with that background, even though he represents everything a head coach shouldn’t be.

Arthur Smith is in for a big challenge as a first-time head coach in an organization that needs refreshing ideas and powerful leaders. He brings that to the table, along with Pees. They will need to do everything possible under difficult circumstances to make this team respectable.

Steady approach

It’s important to focus on the bigger picture when evaluating the Falcons. As great as it would be for a repeat of 2008 to happen and for the Falcons shock the world, it’s incredibly unlikely to happen in a tough division and ultra-talented conference. How young players develop, how talented players playing for their future perform, and how the coaching staff implements their plan are the biggest factors for the Falcons this season. Whether it results in six or eight wins matters to some extent, but it won’t determine how successful the Falcons’ season is.

To have a defensive lineman not named Grady Jarrett, cornerback outside of Terrell, and safety emerge into potential difference-makers would be massive. If McGary and Fowler can play at a high level in their respective roles, it will help bring much-needed solidity within the trenches. How Smith manufactures creative, efficient game plans and Pees overwhelms opposing quarterbacks will be crucial in building a winning culture back to Atlanta. There will be difficult stretches where the team will get overwhelmed by more talented opposition. Handling the adversity of losses, continuing to play with high intensity, and outsmarting teams will be how the Falcons stay on the right path.

It’s been a long past three years for the Falcons. Barring a dramatic improvement, it will likely be the fourth year of no playoff football in Atlanta. What shouldn’t happen is the fourth straight year of the Falcons being undisciplined, unprepared, and unfocused to start the season. What shouldn’t happen is two months of empty, soulless football starting in November. This team is capable of playing inspired, respectable football for the entire season under the new coaching regime. To do that would mark a successful season and a major step in the right direction going into 2022.