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2020 Team Report: Atlanta Falcons

Last updated: Thu, Jul 9

Offensive Philosophy

Before the 2019 season the Atlanta Falcons hired the pass-happy Dirk Koetter as their new offensive coordinator. With a former league MVP under center, a running game that failed to inspire, and an atrocious defense, Koetter's Falcons were the only team in the league to call a passing play on more than 2 out of every 3 offensive snaps. While some regression is certainly in the cards, there's little doubt that the Falcons will once again be among the league leaders in passes in 2020.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Matt Ryan
Backup(s): Matt Schaub

Starting QB: Matt Ryan enters his 13th season as the Falcons starting quarterback, missing a mere three games over the span. Ryan has oscillated between decent and great over the past four seasons, including two years of at least 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions in each of his two peaks. Ryan led the NFL in completions in 2019, largely due to a struggling run game and a team rarely salting away a sturdy lead. In terms of efficiency, 2019 was arguably Ryan's weakest season in at least five years. Ryan adds some mobility, averaging more than 120 yards per season over the last four, but is one of the lower-volume rushers at the position in the NFL. Ryan's weapons are improved from a year ago with Todd Gurley a significant upgrade over an eroding Devonta Freeman in the backfield and Hayden Hurst acquired in a trade from Baltimore to replicate the tight end role vacated by Austin Hooper.

Backup QB: Matt Schaub returns for his fourth season as Matt Ryan's backup in Atlanta. Schaub, entering his age 39 season, has minimally played in his most recent stint with the team but did see one start in 2019 in a clear comeback effort. The Falcons have spent minimal capital to see a younger backup with starter potential since Schaub arrived. As an injury-away option, Schaub's situation is close to option - minus strong mobility to boost is rushing potential - with a strong cast of supporting weapons.

Running Backs

Starter: Todd Gurley
Backup(s): Ito Smith, Brian Hill, Qadree Ollison
Fullback(s): Keith Smith

Starting RB: Todd Gurley found one of the few wide open starting running back jobs in the NFL with his signing in Atlanta this offseason. Gurley rebounded from his confounding end to the 2018 season and the Rams' Super Bowl run with only one missed game and more than 250 touches. The Rams offense was a limiting factor with a struggling offensive line and a passing game losing efficiency. Gurley's passing game involvement fell off a cliff as well with his targets nearly cut in half from his elite 2017-2018 seasonal peaks. With Atlanta, their offensive line was mediocre at best last season but partly to blame was a collection of running backs struggling to create on their own. A huge potential boost for Gurley is usage in the passing game. Atlanta running backs saw nearly double the targets as the Rams backfield in 2019 with lead back Devonta Freeman at a robust 71. With a strong contract - albeit a one-year test drive - Gurley is in a prime position to rebound from his barely 1,000-total-yard campaign a year ago.

Backup RBs: Ito Smith has missed games in both of his NFL seasons, including more than half the year in 2019. Smith has been primarily a backup to Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman of note, with a career high of only 11 rushes in a game. As a sub-sized option, Smith is a tough projection to strong touch volume even with a Todd Gurley injury. Brian Hill had his best NFL season in 2019, his second with the Falcons, and seeing an elevated role with Atlanta suffering a string of injuries at the position overall. Hill has prototypical size and receiving ability to pair with his good enough movement to have upside with more volume. Qadree Ollison was a big back selection on Day 3 for the Falcons in 2019 and his rookie season was a marginal one with a meager 23 touches over eight active games and 2.3 yards per carry.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley
Backups: Russell Gage, Laquon Treadwell

Starting WRs: The biggest quibble with Julio Jones has been a lack of touchdown upside any singular season (career high of 10 back in 2012). This speaks to the dominant consistency for Jones with strong volume, big plays, and still impact speed after age 30. Jones has averaged more than 90 receiving yards per game each season since 2013 and has missed a mere four games over the last six years. Jones has seen little physical erosion to-date and now enters his age 31 season again as the cornerstone passing weapon for the Falcons. Calvin Ridley has enjoyed playing the ancillary role to Julio Jones for two seasons. Yet to see 100 targets in season, Ridley was on pace in 2019 if not for three missed games to close the year with injury. Ridley's touchdown rate is among the highest in the NFL over the past two seasons. Ridley's ceiling remains tempered with Hayden Hurst added to replace a departed Austin Hooper, Todd Gurley signed as the lead running back, and Julio Jones to take the lead for another year of Calvin Ridley's rookie contract.

Backup WRs: Russell Gage surged in usage with Mohamed Sanu traded during the 2019 season as the team's third receiver. Gage had 66 targets over the final nine games, three of which included Calvin Ridley inactive. Gage was a short-range target and found the end zone only once as a low-end replacement if needed if Julio Jones or Calvin Ridley were to miss time in 2020. Laquon Treadwell is in full reclamation mode after flaming out of Minnesota following his Round 1 selection in 2016 and few flashes over four seasons. Treadwell logged only 701 yards and two touchdowns over 49 games. Treadwell will compete for third or fourth receiver duties in Atlanta for 2020.

Tight Ends

Starters: Hayden Hurst
Backups: Jaeden Graham

Former first-round NFL Draft selection Hayden Hurst was acquired by the Falcons in the offseason as the replacement for now-departed Austin Hooper. Hurst was sparsely used in Baltimore as early injuries paved the way for Mark Andrews to seize, and never relinquish, the starting job. Hurst progressed in 2019, his second season, but collected only 39 targets and found the end zone twice. The Falcons provided a hearty 121 tight end targets last season as a team, including Austin Hooper having the sixth-most looks of any tight end with 97 on his own. Hurst has a golden opportunity to see a massive uptick in targets from his opening two seasons as a secondary or likely tertiary weapons within Atlanta's passing game. Jaeden Graham made Atlanta's active roster as an undrafted rookie in 2019. His highlight stretch came in the second half of the year with a three-game stretch filling in for Austin Hooper, converting eight targets over the span into a sturdy 7-117-1 stat line, including multiple big plays and a touchdown. Graham projects as the injury-away tight end for Atlanta again in 2020 with enough athleticism to impact the deeper quadrants of the field behind Hayden Hurst, who has yet to fulfill his Round 1 pedigree expectations.

Place Kicker

Younghoe Koo: The Falcons thought they were going to move on from Matt Bryant last year, choosing to field a competition between Giorgio Tavecchio and Blair Walsh instead. At the end of camp, they found themselves turning back to Bryant, who in turn only made 9 of 14 field goals and lost the team's trust halfway through the season. Atlanta signed Koo, who failed in his chance to be the Chargers kicker in 2017, but passed his Falcons audition with flying colors in 2019. In addition to being the best onsides kick specialist in the league, Koo made 23 of 26 field goal attempts and 15 of 16 extra point attempts, and even collected two NFC special teams player of the week awards. His number project out to top end kicker scoring, but he is still going outside of the top 10 kickers, making him a top target for teams that are among the last in their league to take one, although watch for competition to be brought in, as the belief is that the team wants to add someone at the position.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Kendall Sheffield, Ito Smith

After parting with Kenjon Barner, the Falcons seem prepared to enter 2020 without a dedicated return specialist on the roster. Instead, those duties will likely fall to cornerback Kendall Sheffield, although running back Ito Smith has also played on special teams in the past.

Punt Returners: Kendall Sheffield, Ito Smith

After parting with Kenjon Barner, the Falcons seem prepared to enter 2020 without a dedicated return specialist on the roster. Instead, those duties will likely fall to cornerback Kendall Sheffield, although running back Ito Smith has also played on special teams in the past.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: OT Jake Matthews, OG James Carpenter, C Alex Mack, OG Chris Lindstrom, OT Kaleb McGary
Key Backups: OT Matt Gono, OL Justin McCray, C Matt Hennessy [R]

Left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack remain the strength of this unit. Matthews is 27 and still performing at a high level but the end could be near for 34-year-old center Mack. The team drafted Matt Hennessy from Temple in the third round to apprentice for the job. Right guard Chris Lindstrom returns from an injured rookie year and he should form a solid duo with right tackle Kaleb McGary in the zone running scheme favored by the coaches.

Team Defense

The Falcons defense had seven sacks, four takeaways and a lot of terrible game scripts in the first half of the season. When Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich took over defensive playcalling in the second half of the season, they responded with 21 sacks, 16 takeaways and two defensive scores, which made them one of the best team defenses in fantasy football. They added Dante Fowler to boost the pass rush in place of Vic Beasley and drafted AJ Terrell in the first round to replace Desmond Trufant, a cap cut. They will have to replace DeVondre Campbell, who left for Arizona in free agency, likely with Foyesade Oluokun. They will need strong play from their young corners and better health from Keanu Neal to be able to improve against the pass. Last year's surge hasn't been reflected in ADP and the Falcons can be had at the end of best ball drafts as a 2nd/3rd unit.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Grady Jarrett, DT Tyeler Davison, DE Dante Fowler, DE Takkarist McKinley
Backups: DT Deadrin Senat, DT Ra'Shede Hageman, DT Marlon Davidson [R], DE Michael Bennett, DE Allen Bailey, DE John Cominsky, DE Steven Means, DE Charles Harris

Starting DL: The Falcons opted for stability among their coaching staff heading into an uncertain 2020, but their defensive front was given a facelift. Gone is perennial underachiever Vic Beasley, the former first round pick who flamed out and, apart from one season, never reached his potential. Adrian Clayborn was also allowed to walk. The big-ticket addition was Dante Fowler, the former Jaguars edge player who enjoyed a renaissance of a season last year in Los Angeles with the Rams, totalling 11.5 sacks. Fowler will line up at Leo in Dan Quinn's defense, a position that will allow him to scream off the edge and wreak havoc. Takkarist McKinley will play the opposite edge, facing a pivotal 2020 that could define his prospects as a pro after flattering to deceive in his first three years. Grady Jarrett will anchor the interior, delivering a lethal combination of speed, quickness and power to overwhelm offensive lines. He can take over games on occasion. The Falcons re-signed Tyeler Davison to a three-year deal worth about $12m, so he will likely man the spot alongside Jarrett.

Backup DL: The Falcons have plenty of bodies among the backups on the defensive line, but not necessarily any players that stand out as difference makers. Last year's draft pick John Cominsky will be expected to take a step forward, while the likes of Deadrin Senat and Allen Bailey offer flexibility in Atlanta's fronts. Marlon Davidson, an experienced college player with 51 starts at Auburn, was drafted by the team in the second round. His burst is just average, but his frame and versatility will be an asset as a rotational player behind the edge rushers. The team acquired former 22nd overall pick of the Miami Dolphins, Charles Harris, for a 2021 seventh round pick in early May. Harris could contribute as a rotational edge player.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Deion Jones, WLB Foye Oluokun
Backups: LB LaRoy Reynolds, LB Edmond Robinson, LB Mykal Walker [R], LB Deone Bucannon

Starting LBs: The Falcons parted ways with De'Vondre Campbell this offseason, paving the way for Foye Oluokun in a rag-tag group of linebackers. The anchor of the group is Deion Jones, who rebounded last year after an injury nightmare cost him the majority of his 2018 campaign. Jones is a virtual lock for 100+ total tackles. Oluokun will likely take up the weakside position alongside Jones, but the Sam position is very much up for grabs, with only an inexperienced trio in the mix.

Backup LBs: LaRoy Reynolds has bounced around the league throughout his career, mostly making his impact as a special teams ace. Edmond Robinson was picked up late in March after he showed well during a short stint in the XFL. Mykal Walker was drafted in the fourth round to provide special teams depth, while a role could also be envisioned for him as an off-ball contributor in the short-term future. Bucannon signed on post-draft after failing to revive his career in his second stint under James Bettcher last year with the Giants.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Isaiah Oliver, CB A.J. Terrell [R], SS Keanu Neal, FS Ricardo Allen
Backups: CB Damontae Kazee, CB Josh Hawkins, CB Kendall Sheffield, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB Jordan Miller, S Sharrod Neasman, S Jaylinn Hawkins [R]

Starting DBs: With Desmond Trufant heading to greener pastures with the Lions, the Falcons face something of a deck shuffling job at cornerback. Isaiah Oliver got the opportunity to start last season and did not disgrace himself, ostensibly doing enough to earn the trust of the coaching staff for 2020. Damontae Kazee played safety last season but could be moved into slot cornerback - or even a starting outside cornerback - if the team is in a bind. However, the more likely scenario is that first round pick A.J. Terrell will slide in after the team selected him in the first round. He primarily played press man at Clemson and will be asked to do the same for the most part in Dan Quinn's scheme. Keanu Neal tore his Achilles in Week 3 of the 2019 season, abruptly ending his campaign and consigning him to a long rehabilitation period. All reports indicate Neal is on track to be ready for Week 1. Ricardo Allen played the most snaps among Falcons safeties last season and should remain in place at free safety. Offseason reports have been optimistic that he will be able to return 'on schedule' after shoulder surgery.

Backup DBs: Kendall Sheffield disappointed when called upon last season, stepping in when Desmond Trufant went down to injury. Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Jordan Miller featured in 2019, with neither player distinguishing themselves with their play. Josh Hawkins most recently played in the XFL and was signed in mid-April to provide depth. Rookie Jaylinn Hawkins was drafted at the end of the fourth round and projects as a special teams contributor this season.