Our offseason blueprint for the Atlanta Falcons
Step one: stick with Sark
Dan Quinn recently confirmed that embattled OC Steve Sarkisian would return in 2018. And even with some new candidates on the market (like Todd Haley and John Morton), that’s still the right move in my mind.
Obviously, Sarkisian disappointed in his NFL debut. The offense looked tentative, the timing looked off, and the unit regressed. Most noticeably, Matt Ryan fell from historic heights and a 38:7 TD/int ratio down to 20 TDs, 12 ints, and a 91.4 QB rating that’s merely above-average.
But then again, some regression was going to be inevitable. Matt Ryan and the 2016 Falcons were lights out all year long. Perhaps even an outlier. Ryan’s 2017 performance was more in line with the rest of his career. In fact, PFF still graded him as a top 5 QB and his 7.74 yards/attempt still represented the second highest mark of his career.
The “cure” here, if one is necessary, is continuity. In fact, Ryan’s 2017 relative struggles mirror his struggles to adapt to Kyle Shanahan’s first year as coordinator back in 2015. That season, he actually performed worse with 21 TDs, 16 ints, and a QB rating of 89.0. That second season in the same system proved crucial and allowed for a breakout year to follow. Obviously, you can’t count on the exact same boost because that was quite rare, but it should be easy to count on some improvement next season.
Nevertheless, I like the news that they’re interviewing high-profile potential QB coaches like Darrell Bevell and Ken Dorsey as a backup plan. In a sense, it’s a win-win. If Sark can’t find his rhythm (or struggles with his own demons), they’d represent a ready-made replacement. Alternatively, they’d be available to replace him in the event that the offense does click and Sark resuscitates his stock enough to land a head coaching job. The idea of Sarkisian as a head coach again (either in the NFL or college) isn’t ludicrous; he’s had success in college and would be several years sober at this time in 2019.
Step two: play Eenie Meenie Miney Poe with the D-line
Dan Quinn’s defense is chocked full of speedsters in their back seven. Their front four…? That’s more of a hodgepodge unit, relying on depth more than anything else. And hey, you can’t blame the team for prioritizing that after gassing out in the Super Bowl against New England.
Unfortunately for them, tough decisions will have to be made that may split up that gang. Two of their higher profile linemen are free agents — DE Adrian Clayborn and DT Dontari Poe. Ideally, you’d like to keep both in the fold, but their cap space is tighter than most teams. They may have to “pick one.”
There’s an argument to make for Adrian Clayborn, who had his best season with 9.5 sacks. Sure, 6 of those came in one game against Dallas, but Clayborn still played well regardless. Better yet, he has nice size at 280 pounds to complement Vic Beasley and Tak McKinley, two lighter ends that the team often uses off the edge. The free agent DE market is limited, so Clayborn may become one of the higher-profile names on the board.
Meanwhile, Dontari Poe fared well himself after being signed on a one-year “prove it” deal from Kansas City. He’s a beefy dude with surprising athleticism and explosion for his size (when he’s in shape and motivated.) Like Clayborn, he’d be one of the top linemen on the free agent market.
If I had to pick ONE, I’d lean to Poe. He’s two years younger and has proven more durable of the two. Despite his size, Poe has missed just 2 games over his six-year career. Clayborn, on the other hand, has missed 31 (in seven years.) Back in college, Clayborn got dinged in the draft process for a condition known as Erb’s Palsy that affects shoulder nerves; in fact, some thought he wouldn’t last five years in the NFL. He’s proven that wrong, but he would still worry me as a power player entering his 30s.
Even if the team retains Dontari Poe, I’d still consider adding more talent to this defensive line in the draft. As mentioned before, depth becomes crucial for a scheme like this. I like DTs Mo Hurst (Michigan) and Da’Ron Payne (Alabama) as potential impact players who may be available at their pick at # 26 overall.
Step three: Don’t be satisfied with your offensive line either
As a whole, the Falcons have a solid offensive line, highlighted by center Alex Mack, LT Jake Matthews, and LG Andy Levitre. That said, there’s always room for improvement. RT Ryan Schraeder grades about “average” (77.5 on PFF), and RG Wes Schweitzer grades much lower than that (43.7). Schweitzer’s still growing into himself at 24 years old, but it’s starting to look like should be a depth player rather than a starter.
Although you may say the “need” here is guard, I would recommend the Falcons draft a tackle instead if they select an offensive lineman as high as R1. Why? It would allow them some more flexibility. Rookie tackles can always transition to guard. Schraeder may be able to transition to guard himself. And in the back of the team’s mind, they may be wondering if Jake Matthews is an elite of a LT as his reputation suggests; if a superstar comes along, he has the versatility to shift around, too. Basically, drafting another tackle gives them a host of options moving forward.
This draft is strong in terms of tackle depth, which means a starting-caliber player could slide their way. Among the tackles with potential R1 grades: Orlando Brown (Oklahoma), Mike McGlinchey (Notre Dame), Martinas Rankin (Mississippi St), Kolton Miller (UCLA), and Brian O’Neill (Pitt). You have to figure at least 1-2 may be available for Atlanta to consider in R1.
Another option in R1 that may be intriguing to me would be Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk. WR doesn’t jump out as you as a big “need” at all, but Kirk’s the type of talent you may take regardless. He’s simply a natural at the position, racking up 1000 yards in his true freshman year. He doesn’t have insane measurables (and he’s only 5’11”), but he’s a high-IQ receiver who should thrive outside or in the slot. With Taylor Gabriel slated for free agency, Kirk would represent an upgrade. I don’t know how any team could defend Atlanta in the passing game if they had Julio Jones, Kirk, and a RB like Freeman capable of catching passes out of the backfield.
The bottom line
As long as the Matt Ryan – Julio Jones battery stays healthy and active, the Atlanta Falcons should feel good about their chances at another trip to the playoffs. A few tweaks and tune-ups may be all they need to get their engine back to full speed and power them back to true title contention.