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  1. Sorry guys. Missed this one yesterday. Enjoy! https://theathletic.com/1681049/2020/03/17/where-free-agency-stands-for-falcons-following-trade-for-hayden-hurst/ The Falcons are making a move to replace tight end Austin Hooper, who will officially become the NFL’s highest-paid tight end when his new deal with the Cleveland Browns becomes official Wednesday. That same day, Hooper’s replacement will be officially announced. With Hooper cashing in, the Falcons needed an immediate replacement. They found one by trading a second-round pick (55th overall) and a fifth-round pick (157th overall) to the Baltimore Ravens for tight end Hayden Hurst and a fourth-round pick (143rd overall). This acquisition addressed what was suddenly a pressing need, with Atlanta able to cross starting tight end off its to-do list. It comes at a cheaper cost, with Hurst’s 2020 cap figure checking in at $1.48 million. But what about the other positions of need? The Falcons seemingly still have a plethora of positions to fill if they are to be competitive for a playoff spot in 2020. With the team planning to cut Desmond Trufant and Devonta Freeman, to go along with announced cuts of Luke Stocker and Ty Sambrailo, Atlanta now has immediate needs at cornerback, edge rusher, running back, linebacker, blocking tight end and interior offensive line. It has secondary needs at interior defensive line and safety. According to Over The Cap, Atlanta was a projected $2.1 million below the salary cap before Monday, which was less than anticipated after the NFL announced the cap would be at $198.2 million this season. Releasing Sambrailo and Stocker will save a total of $6.35 million against the salary cap. There is a good chance that Trufant is a post-June 1 cut, which would save an estimated $10.75 million, but that has not been announced by the team. As a post-June 1 cut, Trufant’s savings will not apply to the cap until June 2, meaning the money saved with his release cannot go toward signing anyone until the money officially comes off the books. Instead, the money saved from such a post-June 1 release will go toward any moves made leading up to the preseason, during the preseason and during the season. If Trufant is not a post-June 1 cut, the move saves $4.95 million now. It’s also not known yet what Freeman’s designation will be. Teams do get two post-June 1 cuts. If Atlanta designates Freeman’s release after June 1, $6.5 million would free up as opposed to $3.5 million in immediate funds. Again, that money wouldn’t be off the books until June 2 if he received that designation. If Freeman and Trufant are immediate cuts, the Falcons figure to have an estimated $15.42 million available in cap space, factoring in Monday’s cuts and Hurst’s addition. If only Trufant is a post-June 1 cut, the number is an estimated $10.47 million. If Trufant and Freeman are post-June 1 cuts, the estimated cap space would be $6.97 million. The Falcons could still add to the cap casualty count or figure out a way to tweak an existing player’s contract, either through a restructured agreement or an adjustment. If they are to add an edge rusher in free agency, another tweak to lower the cap number further may have to be done. What the immediate numbers suggest is that if the Falcons are to add a pass rusher, it will probably have to be among a veteran group of players still producing at consistent rates. One such player is already off the board in Mario Addison, who, according to ESPN, signed a three-year deal with the Buffalo Bills late Monday. Two remaining potential veteran defensive end options include: Everson Griffen: Griffen posted eight sacks in 2019 and has three seasons when he topped double digits. Griffen, 32, would offer a needed veteran presence as a player who can still produce. But like Quinn, what will it cost to sign him? Markus Golden: Golden, 29, recorded 10 sacks with the New York Giants in 2019 while starting every game for the first time in his career. Golden played last season on a one-year prove-it deal and figures to see his compensation increase with his next contract. Of course, the Falcons could wait out the first wave of free agency and add some other pass-rushing pieces to the group. Or they could wind up deciding not to add an edge rusher while plugging other holes with affordable rotational players. From there, the Falcons would then be forced to address edge rusher in the early rounds of the draft. How Hurst fits the Falcons To a degree, Atlanta is taking a risk with Hurst by further addressing the offense with a high 2020 draft pick. As mentioned, the bulk of the team’s needs are on defense. By trading a second-round pick for a tight end, Atlanta can’t use such a favorable selection to address the defensive line, cornerback or linebacker. Atlanta is hoping the initial scouting report on Hurst out of college proves true in its offensive system. Hurst, taken 25th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft and ahead of former Ravens teammate Lamar Jackson, has good hands and great speed, especially for his position. In Baltimore, Mark Andrews, the third-round selection in that same draft, just happened to be the better pass-catching option for Baltimore’s offense. It works that way sometimes. But just because Andrews proved to be better for Baltimore doesn’t mean Hurst can’t be a productive player elsewhere. Now, Hurst will arrive in Atlanta as the top tight end option. Hurst is an athletic tight end who should see plenty of targets right away. In 13 games, quarterback Matt Ryan threw the ball to Hooper 97 times. He caught 75 of those passes for 787 yards and six touchdowns. With Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley demanding attention on the outside, Hurst should see a lot of single coverage over the middle. The fit is perfect, and the value is tremendous, considering he has two years on his rookie deal before what should be an affordable fifth-year option. The only unknown is Hurst himself. While the athleticism is apparent, the pro tape has yet to materialize as he has posted 43 catches for 512 yards and three touchdowns over two seasons. Based on potential alone, Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, tweeted that he believes the Falcons actually might be improving their offense with Hurst. Now, that does seem like quite the leap to make, considering how valuable Hooper was for Atlanta the past four years. It’s true that Hurst has a lot of upside to his game. But now that he is atop the tight end group in Atlanta, it’s time for Hurst to show why he was viewed as a first-round pick just two years ago.
  2. https://theathletic.com/1679599/2020/03/16/grade-the-trade-falcons-fill-void-at-tight-end-with-ravens-hayden-hurst/ The Baltimore Ravens traded tight end Hayden Hurst and a fourth-round pick to the Atlanta Falcons for second- and fifth-round selections, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. All picks will be made in the 2020 draft. The second-round choice involved will be 55th and was acquired from New England in the Mohamed Sanu trade. Why they made the move The Falcons needed a fallback at tight end after losing starter Austin Hooper to the Cleveland Browns in free agency. Depending upon contract particulars and how Atlanta proceeds in free agency, the Falcons could receive a compensatory choice for Hooper in the third or fourth round in 2021. That doesn’t factor into the trade from Baltimore’s standpoint, but it had to be a consideration for the Falcons as they decided how to proceed at the position. For the Falcons, whose salary-cap situation is tight, the choice could have been between signing Hooper for top dollar at the expense of another veteran or adding Hurst and a fourth-rounder, plus a potential comp pick in 2021, in exchange for second- and fifth-round picks this year. Hurst is under contract through the 2021 season, with Atlanta possessing a fifth-year option. This trade can look very good from the Falcons’ standpoint if Hurst flourishes in a more conventional offense after losing out to Mark Andrews in Baltimore. The Ravens had a glut of talent at tight end and probably could not refuse a second-round pick as part of the deal for Hurst, a 2018 first-round pick who had not met expectations. Baltimore has gotten good production at tight end from 2018 third-round pick Mark Andrews, who had 64 receptions for 852 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, and could afford to part with Hurst. The Ravens also still have blocking tight end Nick Boyle, who led Baltimore’s tight ends in playing time last season and basically matched Hurst’s production as a receiver. Trade grade For the Falcons: B-minus. We’re evaluating the merits of this trade in the context of the Falcons’ broader plan (predicament?) at the position and within the context of their salary-cap situation. Atlanta is betting Hurst can replace Hooper and outperform any of the tight ends the Falcons might have selected in the draft. Having an additional second-round pick from New England via the Sanu trade helped enable the deal. The Falcons essentially exchanged Sanu, Hooper at more than $10 million per year and a fourth-round pick for Hurst at less than $3 million per year, a fifth-rounder and a potential 2021 comp pick in the third or fourth round. Hurst averaged more yards per target than Hooper last season on much less volume. Uncertainty over how well Hurst might produce keeps this grade teetering between a B-minus and C-plus for now. For the Ravens: B-plus. Baltimore missed on Hurst in 2018, but that is not what we are grading. Within the narrow scope of this exchange with Atlanta, the Ravens did well to get a second-round choice. They are parting with the 2020 and 2021 seasons of Hurst, who probably was not going to be a candidate for a fully guaranteed fifth-year option or long-term extension down the line. The Ravens moved on quickly from a player whose role had diminished and got value, which seems quite good for them.
  3. https://theathletic.com/1675202/2020/03/13/arthur-blank-to-pay-all-hourly-employees-during-coronavirus-shutdown/ In response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has halted sports in the U.S., owner Arthur Blank has pledged to continue paying hourly employees who work for each of the businesses he owns. Speaking with The Athletic on Friday afternoon, Falcons team president Rich McKay said the decision to ensure hourly employees were not affected negatively during the pandemic was an easy one to make. McKay mentioned there are numerous hourly employees who work for Atlanta United and the Falcons and also at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the remaining companies that are a part of The Blank Family of Businesses, which is managed by the AMB Group. McKay said AMB Group CEO Steve Cannon distributed a video communication to all employees to ease any concern they may have. “We’ve tried to over-communicate at a time where there’s no question people have personal angst and anxiety,” McKay said. “You’ve got to be empathetic towards it because it’s real.” One of the major economic issues facing the U.S. is how hourly employees will continue to collect paychecks if they become sick or if their place of work is forced to close. Sports teams are no different. Almost immediately after the NBA announced it was suspending its season, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he would ensure hourly employees were taken care of. The Hawks also will pay their hourly employees during this time of crisis. McKay said he was in constant communication with Hawks CEO Steve Koonin and Atlanta Braves president/CEO Derek Schiller about the topic. “One thing we’re led by is our core values and the way Arthur looks at it,” McKay said. “That’s going to lead us in how we treat our people, which I can assure you we’ll do the right thing that way. The financial side of our business and the impact of that side of our business is not something we’re concerned about. It is not something we’ve spent time talking about.” What hasn’t been decided just yet is how game-day workers will be paid. The upcoming schedule at Mercedes-Benz Stadium included a game between Atlanta United and Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, with a long break before the Final Four from April 4-6. The MLS is suspended for 30 days, at least for now, with Atlanta United’s home game against the Portland Timbers scheduled for April 19. As it pertains to the employees who work games, McKay said a policy is still being drafted to ensure payouts for missed work are fairly distributed. “Some work one event, some work two events, some work all events,” McKay said. “We’re working through all those details as we speak. We’ll give it to you when we finish it and hopefully we will finish it within the next day.” Both Atlanta United and the Falcons are in a holding pattern as COVID-19, the coronavirus-caused disease, continues to spread through the U.S. The Falcons initially were closing their facility until Monday but decided to close up shop until March 27. The NFL has yet to make a final determination on whether it will hold its annual draft in Las Vegas in front of fans or if it will alter its plans. Plans all over the sports world have been changing seemingly by the hour, with everyone involved continuing to try to figure out how to best approach sports during a pandemic. “It’s uncharted territory,” McKay said.
  4. https://theathletic.com/1667979/2020/03/10/lets-pull-the-ball-off-people-new-falcons-assistants-plan-defensive-upgrades/ Upon taking the job as the secondary coach and defensive passing game coordinator with the Falcons, Joe Whitt Jr. turned on the game tape to familiarize himself with the players he will be leading. Whitt learned what each of his players did right and what they did wrong, to go with what was corrected over 16 games in 2019. In doing so, he learned a lot about who will line up for him this coming season. One of those players is cornerback Isaiah Oliver, who is set to enter his third season with the Falcons. Oliver, drafted in the second round in 2018, had what could be described as a down-and-up season. As Whitt pored over the game tape, he said Oliver exhibited some glaring issues during the first half of the season. But during the final eight games, Oliver’s play changed tremendously. That happened to coincide with Raheem Morris — now Atlanta’s defensive coordinator — moving from wide receivers coach to defensive backs coach. “I thought in the last eight games, he did a great job of connecting his feet and his hands together in his press game,” Whitt said. “He stayed more square. That gave him the ability, when they got up the field, to connect at the top of routes. Early on in the year, he was doing some things that didn’t connect his feet and hands, and that cleaned up during the year. I think (Morris) and those guys did a very nice job with that.” The Falcons struggled immensely on defense to start 2019. Defensive backs were routinely out of position, getting beat and failing to communicate correctly with one another over the 1-7 start. During the bye week, head coach Dan Quinn moved Morris to coach defensive backs, a move that paid off almost immediately. Morris worked on Oliver’s technique and the change showed in his play. Suddenly, plays weren’t breaking wide open down the field and passes were better contested during the final eight games, which led to a 6-2 finish. The defense’s improvement during that stretch is one of the reasons why owner Arthur Blank elected not to make any major changes to the coaching staff. Morris was credited with much of the turnaround, which led to his promotion. In addition, Atlanta parted ways with Jerome Henderson and hired Whitt to fill his role. Whitt has 13 years of NFL coaching experience and he began as an assistant defensive backs coach with the Falcons in 2007. During 10 of his next 11 years with the Green Bay Packers, with whom he was primarily a defensive backs coach, Whitt’s players picked off 183 passes. His expertise long has been in forcing interceptions, which is what he will look to do with Atlanta, which tied for 17th with 12 interceptions in 2019. “Good guy, lot of experience,” Morris said. “He’s probably another guy on our staff who is able to call (the defense). He’s probably another guy on our staff who is able to be a head coach one day.” By adding someone with Whitt’s experience and track record, Morris should be able to better focus on orchestrating the entire defense. As for Oliver, Whitt said the third-year cornerback can expect a scheme that resembles what was put in place during the latter half of the season, with some additional tweaks. “It’s going to be a little bit different than what they did in the first eight weeks,” Whitt said. “Once we get that scheme understanding down, we’re going to make sure we pull the ball off of people. That’s one thing in Green Bay we did better than anybody in the league. Over the years, I was the secondary coach in Green Bay, we intercepted more balls than anybody else in the league. Hopefully, that’s what we can bring down here, and hopefully, Isaiah will be a part of pulling the ball off of people. He’s doing a better job of connecting at the beginning of the line of scrimmage and down the field. Now, let’s pull the ball off of people.” Working in tandem with the secondary is the pass rush, which the Falcons also improved during the final eight games of 2019. With Atlanta’s defensive backs covering targets for longer, the Falcons had 21 of their 28 sacks during that span. After parting ways with assistant defensive line coach Travis Jones, Quinn and Morris moved Jess Simpson to coach defensive tackles and hired Tosh Lupoi to coach defensive ends. Throughout his coaching career, Lupoi’s specialty has been in coaching the pass rush with edge defenders. “You’re going to see individuals adjusting their stance pre-snap,” Lupoi said. “They’re going to be communicating with each other. We’re going to be anticipating based on the offense, how they’re attacking us and how we prepared each week.” It should help that Lupoi and Whitt have familiarity with one another. The two spent 2019 coaching with the Cleveland Browns. The Browns recorded 14 interceptions (tied for eighth) and 38 sacks (20th). Cleveland also finished eighth in pass defense by allowing 216.9 passing yards per game. “It’s a marriage — pass rush and coverage is pass defense,” Whitt said. “You can’t have one without the other. Tosh is an excellent coach. I’m excited to work with him again because we actually see football very similar. The ability to have those guys rush, understand where they’re going to be, and then on the back end, to make sure they hold the ball that extra second so they can get to the (quarterback). Like I said, it’s a marriage. We didn’t get the job done in Cleveland as a group, but we will get it done here.” As far as getting after the quarterback, Lupoi said his approach will be process oriented. He won’t focus on the end result but instead will coach his players through the steps it takes to get there. In a business like the NFL, however, the end result is what people harp on the most. And the Falcons haven’t had a player record double-digit sacks since Vic Beasley had 15.5 in 2016. The Falcons have said Beasley, a free agent, will not return in 2020. Morris and linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said they believe Lupoi is the right fit to help Atlanta with its pass rush. “It’s really hard to replace really good coaches with really good coaches, and I think we did that,” Ulbrich said. “Tosh is huge. He’ll bring a different perspective as far as the pass rush is concerned, with how you teach it, how you game-plan it. All those things. It’s historically what he’s done in his career at a high level. I’m very excited about what he can bring to us.” As it pertains to Atlanta’s pass rush, many eyes will be on how fourth-year defensive end Takk McKinley performs during what could be a contract year. The Falcons are still debating whether to pick up McKinley’s fifth-year option. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the 2017 first-round selection has totaled 16.5 sacks in his three years, with only 3.5 in 14 games in 2019. Lupoi said his early conversations with McKinley, who is rehabbing his shoulder after surgery earlier this offseason, have been positive. The Falcons’ hope is that Lupoi is just what McKinley needs at this stage of his career. “You guys have mentioned some stuff about productivity with Takk,” Lupoi said. “I think what’s glaring about Takk is that he plays the game the right way and hard. That’s a starting point for any great player.”
  5. https://theathletic.com/1674643/2020/03/13/falcons-move-through-uncertainty-with-coronavirus-outbreak/ These are uncertain times for everyone. Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the coronavirus-caused disease, sports are on hold. The NBA, NHL and MLS have suspended their seasons. Major League Baseball’s start has been pushed back. Upcoming PGA Tour events have been canceled. With the ongoing pandemic, there is no telling when sports will resume in American society. The NFL is in a unique position amid the sports landscape, given that it’s at the beginning of its offseason. Even so, teams have been active with work and travel. With the NFL Scouting Combine completed, teams were starting to attend pro days around the country, which require a lot of travel for the area scouts. That came to a screeching halt for most teams Thursday. The Falcons pulled scouts from the road and will restrict coaches from traveling. The team’s facility in Flowery Branch is undergoing a deep cleaning and will be closed until March 27. The NFL’s annual league meetings, which were scheduled from March 29 to April 1, have been canceled. The league is effectively on hold, with the next big event being the NFL Draft. But with scouts off the road, there is no direction for anyone to head in at the present time. And how the Falcons will navigate the offseason will be dramatically different. A total of 337 players were at the NFL Scouting Combine. Each year, however, there are many prospects taken in the NFL Draft who did not attend the combine. Those players need their pro days to stand out in front of scouts and pro personnel. Georgia Tech and Clemson held their pro days this week. Once the NBA suspended its season, the other professional leagues and the NCAA followed suit. Some colleges already have called off their pro days, while others have yet to make a decision. With the Falcons suspending travel for their employees, scouts will not be at any pro days that take place as scheduled. And if programs like Georgia, which announced it has postponed next week’s pro day, are closed for classes, it seemingly would be tough to ask student-athletes to return to campus and participate. For colleges that will hold pro days, there is an option to get their workouts in front of pro personnel eyes. That would involve college players working out in a pro day setting but with no one available except the athletes and those conducting the drills. The drills would be filmed, with that footage sent to each of the 32 teams. But even with this option, there is certainly a concern with having prospects training in one city traveling back to their college towns for a workout. With every sports league exercising caution, the remaining pro days are likely to be an additional deletion from the sports calendar. In addition, the NFL is restricting teams from hosting and visiting draft-eligible prospects for individual workouts. This isn’t too big of a deal for upper-tier prospects who already were scouted and underwent the various medical tests at the scouting combine. And most of these players would have met with the bulk of teams anyway. For those who didn’t go to the scouting combine, it will be a big deal for them and the teams. For players expected to go in the later rounds, it’s imperative for teams to get a good grasp of their medical history and an understanding of how recent injuries have healed. It’s also important for teams to interview those players who they otherwise weren’t able to speak with. Instead of getting that face-to-face interaction, as The Athletic’s Dane Brugler reported Friday, NFL teams can schedule up to three phone or video calls with a prospect that last no longer than an hour. Each of those calls must be documented. Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich estimated he takes up to five personal visits and up to five visits with head coach Dan Quinn each draft season. Ulbrich said Tuesday it was after he met linebacker De’Vondre Campbell in person that he realized the team needed to select Campbell in the 2016 NFL Draft. “It’s critical,” Ulbrich said. “I remember going back to De’Vondre’s draft. There were a lot of things people wanted figured out about him. I remember going out to Minnesota not knowing what to think. I had some other people’s opinions in my brain. I left that day saying, ‘He’s got to be a Falcon.’ The personality, the learner, the football player, the character, the mover, the athlete — the whole package I was sold on. Had I not spent that day with him I could have never jumped on the table for him in that way.” All of this leads to the NFL Draft, which has three options at this point: The draft could go on as scheduled April 23-25 in Las Vegas, if the powers that be feel comfortable with where things are with the coronavirus’ containment. But there is no information whatsoever to predict where the U.S. will be as this pandemic unfolds. The draft could go on as scheduled but without fans in attendance. It presumably would be televised in a studio, with teams calling in their picks from their war rooms. The picks would be revealed live on national television but with a limited number of people involved in the production of the event. The draft could be pushed back to accommodate a revised pre-draft schedule. But this would require containment to occur in mere weeks so that college teams then would feel comfortable in rescheduling pro days. With college conferences pushing back their sports timelines again Friday, this doesn’t seem plausible. With the new league year beginning Wednesday and the legal tampering period starting Monday, there must be some question as to what will happen without the medical process available for free agents. While it seems simple for a team to sign a player without a physical, that’s not seen as a wise approach in the NFL. Teams want to ensure the players they are signing are physically fit for game action. In this case, it would seem likely for free agents to agree to deals pending a physical. And that physical could take a while to occur.
  6. https://theathletic.com/1657339/2020/03/05/falcons-post-combine-approach-at-edge-rusher-in-house-free-agent-predictions/?source=dailyemail Thomas Dimitroff doesn’t believe the Falcons are in “salary-cap ****.” He also knows they’re far from “salary-cap paradise,” too. With the current contracts on the books, Atlanta is projected to have more than $4 million in cap space. That’s obviously a low number that will involve some nifty maneuvering if the franchise is to bring in some key components to the 2020 roster. There will be some cap casualties to go with a restructured contract or two. As Dimitroff has alluded to in the past, working around Matt Ryan’s $150 million contract hasn’t been easy, since so much of the team’s overall cap figure is tied up in it. A good example of this came last year when the Falcons were unable to be major players when free agency opened. The Falcons have a bevy of needs to address, although much speculation has centered on whether they can afford a top free agent, specifically at edge rusher. As Dimitroff likes to say, the Falcons will need to be “creative” if they are to attract anyone who can help propel them back to the postseason. From the outside, edge rusher would seem to be Atlanta’s greatest need. The Falcons decided not to bring back Vic Beasley, and Takk McKinley will enter the fourth year of his rookie deal, with early signs pointing toward his fifth-year option not being picked up. Adding a pass rusher seems essential to the short- and long-term health of the franchise. The present cap situation would suggest that someone like Jadeveon Clowney, who could make an average of more than $20 million per season, is unattainable. Shaquil Barrett, who led the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2019, also probably falls in that category. Signing someone like Dante Fowler Jr., who could command a salary of more than $15 million per year, also could be tough but perhaps is more doable with the right cuts. Another idea could be to trade for Jacksonville Jaguars edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who will have the franchise tag placed on him. One benefit of this is the Falcons then would be able to keep the 2021 compensatory pick for Austin Hooper’s departure. Of course, this would require a long-term deal for Ngakoue, which figures to get quite expensive. In addition, trading for Ngakoue, who has posted 37.5 sacks in his first four seasons, would probably require at least a 2020 first-round pick. The safest bet likely lies in finding a veteran edge rusher who can help a rookie draft pick develop. With this in mind, Mario Addison, who has 55 career sacks since 2011, seemingly would fit while coming at a much more affordable price than the aforementioned names. If the Falcons are to add one of these edge rushers in free agency, they’ll have to move quickly. There aren’t many on the market this year. “That’s an expensive position,” Dimitroff said. “I think a lot of people are looking at that, trying to compare the worth and the value there. There are some very good football players there.” Falcons’ in-house free-agent predictions Several players from Atlanta’s 2019 roster are expected to hit free agency if new contracts aren’t reached by the new league year’s beginning on March 18. Here are some predictions on whether these players will be back, or if it’s too early to tell. DT Tyeler Davison: Davison put forth a productive season that saw him post a career-best 55 tackles. Davison was stout against the run and impressed the coaching staff with his play. I expect Davison to re-sign. DE Steven Means: A tough edge-setter with some pass-rushing ability, Means tore his Achilles last offseason. The coaches love his game as well as his speed, and missed him a great deal in 2019. I think Means will be back in the fold for 2020 and could even sign a contract before the new league year begins. DE Adrian Clayborn: Clayborn offers an edge-setting presence on the field to go with leadership in the locker room, so a return makes sense. But it’s unknown where the Falcons stand, at least from the outside looking in. RB Kenjon Barner: Barner had a good season as a return specialist and would seemingly have a chance to be back in 2020. That stated, since he’s primarily a special-teamer, Barner probably will be forced to wait until late March or early April to find a landing spot. I’d imagine the Falcons would be willing to bring him back at the right price, although I’d put the odds at 50-50 right now. CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson: Wreh-Wilson held up well when called upon in 2019 and should at least have the Falcons interested in bringing him back on a short-term contract. Wreh-Wilson appeared in 14 games with two starts last season, totaling 25 tackles and seven pass breakups. FB Keith Smith: The Falcons planned to keep Ricky Ortiz if not for a preseason ankle injury. After reaching an injury settlement with Ortiz, they brought on Smith, which shows that the franchise still envisions a role for the fullback position. Smith played well last season and figures to have a shot at returning to the roster. S Sharrod Neasman: With Neasman being a valuable player on special teams, he, like Barner, could be waiting to sign in the second wave of free agency. In addition, Neasman brings value as a backup free safety. It’s unknown where Atlanta views him at the moment. DT Jack Crawford: Having so many needs to fill, the Falcons could take their time with Crawford once free agency begins. If that’s the case, I would have to think Crawford will be with another team in 2020. P Matt Bosher: With the Falcons signing Sam Irwin-Hill and Ryan Allen, the writing appears to be on the wall with Bosher, who was drafted by the team in 2011. LB/S Kemal Ishmael: As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported this week, Ishmael is not expected to return to the Falcons.
  7. https://theathletic.com/1650878/2020/03/03/falcons-mock-draft-1-0-a-post-combine-prediction-at-who-the-team-could-target/ With 51 days remaining before the NFL Draft, a lot can happen when it comes to how the Falcons attack each of their seven selections. Much of the attention has been on how the Falcons will address the many needs they have through the 2020 draft class. The obvious needs are at edge rusher, defensive tackle, linebacker, tight end and cornerback. Running back figures to be one, as well, with Devonta Freeman’s future very much up in the air. Then there are the long-term needs, such as interior offensive line and safety. Of course, with the Falcons deciding not to negotiate further with Austin Hooper and De’Vondre Campbell before the new league year, and with the likelihood of making some cap cuts once a decision on the collective bargaining agreement is reached, it will be interesting to see how Atlanta addresses some of these needs via free agency, as well. But for now, we don’t know exactly how the Falcons plan to hit free agency, which is scheduled to begin March 18. Therefore, this first seven-round mock draft — conducted via an online simulator — is done with the present needs in mind and not with anticipating what might occur in free agency. In addition, this first mock draft features no trades. First round, 16th overall: LSU Edge K’Lavon Chaisson The Falcons, with a head coach and general manager who held a news conference announcing they were remaining on staff, can’t afford to be complacent in free agency. Therefore, you have to wonder if this team will make some internal moves to free up some cash so they can, in turn, go sign a bigger-named edge rusher. For now, however, it remains unknown what Atlanta’s plan is in this area. And therefore, with the first pick of this mock draft, Atlanta addresses this particular need with the best edge rusher available. At the 16th pick, a case can be made for Chaisson or Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa. Both were productive in college and can get after the quarterback. The difference lies in how they get it done. Chaisson has an explosive first step. Epenesa relies on his power and fundamental hands. Considering the fact that head coach Dan Quinn loves defensive ends with a strong initial burst, the pick here is Chaisson, who at the scouting combine likened himself to someone who can speak three languages — rushing the passer, stopping the run and dropping into coverage. Second round, 47th overall: Clemson CB A.J. Terrell If the Falcons decide to keep Desmond Trufant, they should have a starting trio of Trufant, Kendall Sheffield and Isaiah Oliver. Even so, adding depth to the position will remain important, considering the fourth corner on the roster for the time being, Jordan Miller, is suspended for the first three games of the 2020 season. But if Trufant does become a cap casualty, the Falcons almost assuredly will need to draft a corner in their first three picks. And Terrell will be among the best at the position in this year’s draft class. At 6-foot-1 with 31 ¼-inch arms, Terrell has good length for Quinn’s defense. Second round, 55th overall: Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins Under general manager Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons have not selected a running back higher than the third round. Entering this particular mock draft, I planned to stay true to history and do everything I could not to take a player at the position this early. And then the 55th overall selection came, and Dobbins, who fits a position of need, was there as the best player available. At that point, Dobbins had to be the pick. The Falcons haven’t given Freeman any ringing endorsements this offseason, which has led to the speculation that he could be a cap casualty. If a new collective bargaining agreement is reached in the near future, NFL teams will have the post-June 1 designation for cuts available again. And if so, the Falcons will save more money than the $3.5 million they can free up with Freeman’s immediate release. Dobbins made plenty of plays during his three years at Ohio State but ran roughshod over teams in 2019 to the tune of 2,003 yards and 21 touchdowns. His vision is exceptional on zone runs, which would make him a fit in Atlanta. Third round, 78th overall: Dayton TE Adam Trautman By letting Hooper test free agency, this signals he is all but gone from the franchise. Atlanta will need another tight end, since the three on the roster now are Jaeden Graham, Luke Stocker and Carson Meier, with Meier spending most of the 2019 season on the practice squad. When looking for a tight end who has similar attributes to Hooper, 6-foot-4 and 254 pounds, the one who stands out the most is Trautman, who happens to be a near carbon copy at 6-5 and 251 pounds. While Trautman played against FCS competition, he showed the ability to win one-on-one matchups with regularity. He has a basketball background, which shows on the football field with how he positions his body on contested catches. Trautman shined during Senior Bowl week, too, which should help his draft standing in late April. Fourth round, 109th overall: Louisiana G Robert Hunt Last year, the Falcons’ plan on the offensive line was to add more size up front to prevent teams from getting a pass rush up the middle. But then James Carpenter ended the year on injured reserve, and Jamon Brown turned into a healthy scratch in some of Atlanta’s late-season games. While finding a center for the long term will be important, Hunt’s potential as a guard is too much to pass on, especially in the fourth round. Hunt was a four-year starter for the Ragin’ Cajuns, playing tackle and guard. At 6-5 and 336 pounds, Hunt has exceptional power but also possesses good lateral movement. While there is still plenty to work on with his game, Hunt has a lot of upside, especially considering the value in the fourth round. Fifth round, 140th overall: LSU DL Rashard Lawrence At the scouting combine, Chaisson was asked which teammate he would like to play with at the professional level. His answer? Lawrence. “I know he would 100 percent give everything he’s got,” Chaisson said. “I’ve watched this man cry in front of my face when he got injured. Not because he couldn’t play and put stats on the board. But because he wanted to play all-out for his brothers. The ability he could give, I would want something like that.” Lawrence has a high motor, which certainly has to stand out to Atlanta’s coaching staff. With the Falcons needing defensive line depth, Lawrence could prove to be a worthy later-round addition. Seventh round, 206th overall: Penn State LB Cameron Brown If the Falcons are unable to sign a free agent linebacker or select one in the earlier rounds, they gladly will take a project player with hopes of him turning into the next Foye Oluokun. Brown worked at multiple positions in college and has plenty of experience playing in a zone defense. While there will be plenty for Brown to work on if he’s to make it in the NFL, he fits the mold of being a new-age linebacker with a lean body and speed.
  8. Don't know if it's Falcons related, but it's the Falcons beat writer, so..... https://theathletic.com/1647524/2020/03/02/how-tragedy-heartache-and-unexpected-loss-shaped-nfl-prospect-leki-fotu/ INDIANAPOLIS — Leki Fotu towers over most people he meets. He’s a mountain of a man at 6-foot-5 and 335 pounds, with nearly 11-inch hands engulfing those of the mere mortals he meets. As a result, it typically turns into a tough day at the office for those who encounter him on the football field. But inside that massive frame, which is menacing for opponents on the field, is a gentle soul, which has been shaped by tragedy, sorrow and pain. Life hasn’t been easy for Fotu, who has been forced to deal with heartbreak and unexpected loss at a very young age. It’s why, if you’ve noticed, before every game’s kickoff, Fotu takes a knee behind his team’s bench to say a prayer. “We were struggling our whole life,” he said. “Before it happened, there was a beauty in the struggle.” ‘One day he’s going to help take care of you’ Fotu’s parents, mother Toa and father Likiliki, were raised in Tonga, a Polynesian island nation located in the Pacific Ocean, more than 3,000 miles east of Australia. With Toa’s relatives living in the United States, his parents began thinking of relocating to the U.S. as they were already traveling frequently between countries. In 1996, Toa decided she wanted the family, with children Alice, Joe and Anthony, to live in the U.S. As she put it, she and Likiliki made the risky decision to overstay their visas and settled in Oakland, Calif. The parents were now living undocumented and finding work — Toa as an elderly caregiver and Likiliki as a landscaper — through friends at the church they joined. By 1998, Toa and Likiliki were still struggling financially in their quest to save up enough money to apply for permanent residency. That’s when Toa became pregnant with Leki, which turned into the toughest pregnancy of her six children. Battling a bout of pneumonia around the same time, Toa said she couldn’t hold any food down. Trips to the hospital for intravenous fluids became regular. “I was so sick — morning sickness — and I didn’t eat anything for almost three months,” Toa said. “The doctor suggested that if I wanted to have an abortion that it would help me. I was just skin and bones.” Toa’s mother cried at the mere suggestion of an abortion, suggesting her daughter would be just fine if she should stay strong through it all. “One day he’s going to help take care of you,” Toa’s mother told her. After four months of what was a self-described ****, Toa’s pregnancy with Leki began to ease. She could eat and drink again. On Aug. 23, 1998, Leki was born. Toa and Likiliki had two more children in the following years: David and Ema. Ema, the baby of the bunch, was admired by everyone. Leki referred to her as the “light in our family.” While the first five of the Fotu clan were soft-spoken and reserved, Ema was an extrovert. At an early age, Ema would prance into her mother’s closet and emerge in oversized clothing and three-sizes-too-big high heels. Ema commanded the attention of everyone around her, and her brothers and sisters loved her for it. As a young family, Toa and Likiliki continued to save money to afford permanent U.S. residency. In 2004, eight years after overstaying their visas, Toa said she paid an attorney $17,000 to apply for permanent residency for herself, Likiliki, Joe and Anthony — Alice, the oldest, actually was born in the U.S. while Toa was visiting family. Shortly after, they received work permits that allowed them to work legally in the U.S. Toa continued to work as a caregiver but was now able to work both in a facility as a certified nursing assistant and in people’s private homes. Likiliki was battling health problems stemming from diabetes and high blood pressure. The decision was made for Likiliki to be a stay-at-home father and take care of the six children while Toa worked around the clock as the family’s breadwinner. Likiliki cherished this role. “He would wake us up early from school,” Leki said. “He’d have a whole setup of breakfast on the table. He tried his best and hardest to make sure we felt like we had the best life ever. That, to me, just shows how much he cared, not just for his kids but for other people as well, from what I’ve been told by family members and friends, about how selfless he was.” The Fotu family may not have had much money, but there was more than enough love in the household. Long term, the goal was to raise the Fotu children in the U.S. and to ensure they had greater opportunities than what was available in Tonga. Ten years into their life in America, the family’s world would come crashing down. ‘Our whole lives changed’ When Toa and Likiliki lived in Tonga, Likiliki worked as a DJ at nightclubs. In the U.S., as they were saving to apply for permanent American residency, the family also put some money aside to buy a DJ kit so Likiliki could get part-time work. Once they were able to purchase the needed equipment, Likiliki was able to charge between $200 and $300 per gig. One such assignment was to work for a family member’s graduation party at a San Francisco hotel. It was like any other day in June of 2006. Likiliki asked Toa and Alice to join him for the event and to bring Ema along, as well. As Likiliki DJed, Ema wandered off — and in a split instance — into an open elevator. The elevator went up a couple of floors before Ema walked out. Seeing a potted plant by an overlooking balcony, the toddler curiously started to climb on it. It was then that she lost her balance. “She fell to her death,” Toa said. They rushed her to the hospital. Ema fought for her life, but she died that night, at the age of 3. Back in Oakland, Leki and his brothers were with their cousins and had no idea what happened. The next morning, Toa, Likiliki and Alice returned home and gathered everyone together. It was then they learned what happened. “I was confused about what my mom was telling us,” Leki said. “Just seeing everyone’s reaction, it broke my heart, not only that I found out about the news, but to see my parents like that at a young age — broken down. We tried to regroup as a family during that time. The only person that took it worse was my dad.” Leki was only 8 years old at the time, but he understood clearly that Ema wasn’t coming home. The family grieved hard. Leki especially adored his little sister. “She’d probably be the most popular girl in school,” Leki said. “Just from what we grew up with her, we just knew she was going to be someone special.” Already battling health issues, Likiliki became increasingly depressed. One month passed and almost another until Likiliki’s body couldn’t take anymore. The stress, pain and sadness became too much to the point, along with his high blood pressure and diabetes, that he suffered a stroke. In nearly a two-month span, Leki lost his 3-year-old sister and father. “He dropped dead in front of the kids one evening,” Toa said, sobbing. “It’s so hard to explain the pain.” Said Leki: “Just from that point, our whole lives changed.” The wake-up call There was a profound sadness in the Fotu household. Toa’s mother moved in with the family, as did Likiliki’s first cousin, Viliami Mafi, who offered to help raise the children prior to later marrying Toa in 2010. In between Ema and Likiliki’s passing, the family moved from Oakland to San Leandro, which is where they eventually settled for some time. Continuing as a caregiver, Toa started a homecare agency two years later where she would screen and hire her own employees so she could be at home for her children. With such tragedy condensed into a two-month span, it was recommended to put the Fotu boys in sports to keep them busy. It didn’t hurt that 5-7 Likiliki and 5-8 Toa somehow produced four sons who would far surpass them in height — all measure in at around 6-5. Given their size, football made sense for the boys. Joe and Anthony were the first to play college football — Joe at Illinois via a junior college; Anthony at Arizona and West Georgia. They were also rugby standouts who were named All-Americans. But growing up, Leki wasn’t initially a fan of football. He didn’t particularly like it at the Pop Warner level. He didn’t play the sport in middle school but picked it back up as a freshman at San Leandro High School. Leki also played basketball, where he was dunking and breaking backboards at a young age. As a junior, however, Leki stopped playing football. Toa suggested her son participate in rugby, just like his older brothers. Toa drove Leki across the bay from San Leandro to Redwood City to play for the local rugby club. Not a fan at first, Leki warmed up to rugby after he received some positive reinforcement from his new teammates. “Everybody loved him,” Toa said. “Everybody told him how lucky he is to have the size. They praised him right there. I think that made him feel good. It gave him confidence. It’s just the brotherhood of being a rugby player. The brotherhood of being on a rugby team is different than being on a football team.” At the time, Leki was already 6-5 and weighed roughly 265 pounds. With his lower body built powerfully, it became increasingly tough for his opponents to stop him when he had the ball. In only one season, Leki, like his brothers, became a rugby high school All-American. Past the early hardship and tragic deaths, it seemed like the family was finally moving forward. But just as there seemed to be a sense of normalcy, the family would take another crushing blow. Due to an unforeseen hardship, Toa was suddenly unavailable to afford the San Leandro house where the family resided. During his junior year of high school, Leki and his family moved to Herriman, Utah, where Toa knew one relative. After enduring great sadness before, the family was forced to start over again. “We ended up losing our house in California, which made us bounce around for a little bit, not knowing where to live,” Leki said. “My mom put a bet on our family to move out to Utah to start fresh. I didn’t really know anyone in Utah at all. I knew my mom had a cousin out there. I think that’s all the family we knew. Losing our house in California, I think that was my wake-up call, despite everything that already happened. My two older brothers were already in college. It was just me and my little brother, my uncle, my mom and my oldest sister. I think that event was a wake-up call for me.” ‘Very honest, very loyal’ It’s quite possible that Leki would have been content with playing rugby had his mother never lost the house. But all of the children were given an edict to do everything in their power to not only go to college but to graduate. Realizing his mother was going through some financial hardship again, Leki turned back to football as his key to securing an education. Upon moving to Utah, Leki approached Herriman head coach Dustin Pearce, who was floored that a player of his size had all but fallen into his program. “I’m thanking the Lord above,” Pearce said. Leki’s approach to football was much different this time around. There was a purpose involved to be among the best. And the camaraderie he established playing rugby transitioned to the Herriman football team. Pearce notified the Utah football coaching staff that Leki moved to the area. And once the Utah coaches saw him at a team camp, there was no time wasted in extending a scholarship offer. “We took one look at him and it was like, ‘Yes. Absolutely. This is a real guy,’” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. Pearce recalled almost vividly the sequence where he realized Leki was going to be a behemoth for opposing teams to deal with. “We did a 10-play scrimmage and ran a double tight formation, and he was the right tight end,” Pearce said. “We ran a toss to the right. He reached a wide, wide, wide nine — you could call it a 15 if you wanted to. He reached the guy. I was like, ‘Whoa!’ And the next series on defense, you’re supposed to not touch the quarterback, and sure enough, he comes off the edge and launches himself. I thought the quarterback was dead.” An unknown prospect in recruiting circles before Utah offered, Leki’s name got around to just about everyone in the Pac-12 not long after. He also had a dominant senior season for Herriman, helping lead the high school to its first-ever state championship. In a semifinal game, Fotu actually caught a 24-yard touchdown pass on a trick play. As the other schools came calling, Leki remained loyal to the first team that offered and signed with the Utes. That fact isn’t lost to Whittingham. “He’s very honest, very loyal,” Whittingham said. “We were able to gain his trust and the family’s trust. It speaks volumes to who he is because he stuck with that commitment from start to finish.” Appearing in only one game as a freshman, Leki became a key contributor during the ensuing three years. He recorded 25 tackles in 2019, with his primary responsibility being to occupy blockers. As a nose tackle, teams were forced to dedicate two or three men to block him on any given play. When they didn’t, he typically got into the backfield, either redirecting runners or making the stops himself. The attention he required helped free up his teammates. “Oh my gosh, it’s incredible,” former Utah linebacker Francis Bernard said. “Having a guy who can take two guys, three guys on at a time, just by his size and his athletic ability. His presence is key for me because it allows me to run free and make plays on the ball. When guys try to take him one on one, that’s when he shines. Guys aren’t really able to do that against him.” It’s worth noting that his senior season could have been more productive had he not suffered a calf injury before the season began. Leki didn’t want to miss any game action, choosing to be there for his teammates instead. It was yet another sign of loyalty for a player who didn’t want to let anyone associated with Utah down. “The fact he came and played the bowl game with us says a lot,” defensive tackles coach Sione Po’uha said. “He said, ‘We started together, we’ll end together.’ I’d add to do that, ‘We go through it together.’ That was his motto.” Po’uha first got to know Leki as a student assistant in 2016 before moving to a director of player development in position. After coaching at Navy in 2018, Po’uha came back to lead the defensive tackles in 2019. What stood out to Po’uha was that Leki was the same person in each role he has held at Utah. “He was always at my meetings 20 minutes early,” Po’uha said. “We talk about being five, eight minutes early. This guy is sitting over there, no worries. I never had to check his classes. I never had to wonder if this guy was going to be here for a 6:30 meeting. There was not a worry at all for me. He was a self-governed type of guy who is loyal to the people he is around.” As for using football to secure an education, Leki will soon follow through with that responsibility bestowed upon him. As he finishes his final class while preparing for the NFL Draft, Leki will soon hold an undergraduate degree in family consumer studies and human development from the University of Utah. Sharing the moment With everything Leki’s family has been through, the fact he has a chance to be selected during the first three rounds of next month’s NFL Draft is incredibly meaningful. For the pain and sadness Leki has experienced, this now marks a new chapter, one where he can ensure his mother never has to worry another day in her life. During the week leading up to the NFL Scouting Combine, Toa texted Leki to let him know how proud she is of how he turned out. “I don’t think anyone understands that more than the people who went through it,” Leki said. “But to know whatever you’re going through or been through, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. Working hard and knowing your goals in life, with the help of the right people and the right guidance, anything is possible. I believe that I am one of those living proof of going through something me and my family went through and still having those struggles here and there. But to make it this far, it’s living proof you can get through anything with the right direction and right people in your life.” At the scouting combine, Leki met with teams, ran the 40-yard dash in 5.15 seconds and put up 21 reps on the bench press. Up next will be Utah’s pro day. After that, all he can do is wait for the draft. And that weekend, Leki plans to have those who have been by side through all the tough times with him. He wants to take in that moment with them first and foremost. Not long after he finds out where he will begin his professional career, he plans to visit Ema and Likiliki’s gravesite, where the two rest next to one another. When he prays before each game, he’s asking Ema and Likiliki to watch over him. He said he can feel their presence, knowing how proud they would be with how far he has come. It’s certainly a sad affair to deal with such loss as a youth. With Leki’s professional career set to begin, the daunting toll it has taken will never be forgotten. “Sometime after the draft, I plan to go back and share that moment with my dad and my little sister back in the Bay Area, where they’re buried at,” Leki said. “I’ll go see them there and hopefully get my family there. We’ll share the special moment of everything we’ve been working on.”
  9. https://theathletic.com/1643515/2020/02/28/chauncey-rivers-overcame-mistakes-at-uga-to-put-himself-in-position-for-nfl/ INDIANAPOLIS — Chauncey Rivers wanted to make a new name for himself. His freshman year at Georgia, back in 2016, ended with a dismissal after a third marijuana-related arrest. In only seven months, Rivers went from being a rotating contributor on Georgia’s defense to needing a new place to play and a new university to attend. The place to begin his turnaround would be at East Mississippi Community College in Scooba, Miss., the location where the Netflix docu-series “Last Chance U” was filmed for its first two seasons. Rivers was one of the featured players during the second season, which went into detail with his story. In the year he spent at East Mississippi, Rivers’ goal was to re-create the narrative he set for himself as a freshman. And even with the Netflix camera crew following him, Rivers credited his turnaround to the year he spent in a city that can be considered the middle of nowhere. “It really helped me just rebuild my character and rebuild my image, to show people that I wasn’t the same guy I was at the University of Georgia,” Rivers said. “I don’t want to be portrayed as the same guy that I was back then. It took a lot of me just to dig myself out of the hole I dug myself in. I just want to be the guy that shows up positive in the community and be a guy who is a positive person and a person who can lead a team and a person who can be counted on.” Numbers are thin on the Falcons’ roster at defensive end heading into the 2020 season. Rivers said he hasn’t met with the Falcons, but he is a local product. Aside from starting his college career at Georgia, he attended Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain. While edge rusher could be a position Atlanta targets in the early rounds, it would not be a surprise to grab another in a later round, as well as a couple of undrafted free agents. Rivers’ draft standing is mixed from draft analysts. He’s considered anywhere from a mid-rounder to a priority free agent. Rivers was one of East Mississippi’s team leaders and parlayed his lone season in Scooba into a scholarship opportunity at Mississippi State. Rivers was forced to take an academic redshirt in 2017 before finishing his final two seasons as a focal point of Mississippi State’s defense. He started all 13 games as a senior in 2019, totaling 43 tackles and five sacks, including 1 1/2 sacks against LSU’s Joe Burrow. Being kicked out of a place like Georgia might have been the end for a lot of players. Instead of wallowing in his sorrow, Rivers reinvented himself, which has given him the opportunity to work out in front of NFL coaches and general managers at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine. Rivers said every team he has spoken with brought up his past at Georgia. He wants to let everyone know he’s not going to put himself in the positions he was in as an 18-year-old. “I don’t want to be the same person,” he said. “I had to look at myself in the mirror and show what kind of person I wanted to be portrayed as, what kind of person I want people to look me in my eyes and see. It’s one of the biggest things I had in my life, one of the biggest things I’ve had to overcome. That’s one of the things I pride myself on. I’m happy that I turned it around.” Notable quotes from 10 potential Falcons prospects LSU edge K’Lavon Chaisson: “I’m going to be honest. I’m actually the most valuable player in the draft, when it comes to it. We all know that. When you hire someone, do you want to hire someone who speaks one language or do you want to hire someone that speaks three languages? I speak three languages. I do pass rush. I can drop in coverage and cover anybody you want me to cover. I can play the run. And no offensive lineman has ever just moved me off the ball or bullied me. So I feel like that’s what makes me more dimensional. And a more valuable player than anybody else in the draft.” Iowa edge A.J. Epenesa: “I’m confident that my best abilities are in the power rush, just using length and using speed and kind of combining it together to move people backwards and make the quarterback uncomfortable by getting in his face.” Oklahoma LB Kenneth Murray: “I think I’m an extremely instinctual player. I watch between five to six hours of tape every day. First guy in the building in the morning with my position coach watching film. All those things, they pay off, and (I’m) able to use them on Saturdays. So I think my intelligence — something that here I’m just trying to harp on when I’m in meetings, formal interviews with teams is just letting guys know, letting guys see how smart I am.” Utah DT Leki Fotu: “In making the transition from rugby to football, I knew right away I wanted to play defense. It felt more comfortable on that side. I started off playing D-end in high school. When I got to Utah, that’s when I started putting on more weight and moved inside to D-tackle. Now I’m here where I am.” Alabama edge Terrell Lewis: “I feel like what I’m trying to tell teams is I’m basically a funny guy. I’m a guy that’s comfortable playing any role in a team. Obviously, I feel like I’m versatile as far as the player on the field. You’ve seen me play at the edge, rush from three-technique, play at the nose, play stack backer and drop back into space and stuff like that. I try to express to teams that I can play in multiple ways as far as the team.” Florida State RB Cam Akers: “I’ve always been a willing receiver. I do a lot of studying of other backs in the league and my peers who also do the job well receiving. I take a lot of notes and pick up a lot from that.” Florida RB Lamical Perine: “You can’t be one-dimensional in this game. I feel like you have to be able to do everything, and that is one of my biggest traits. I am not just a one-dimensional guy; I am able to catch the ball out of the backfield and do everything the NFL wants these days. I feel like I can contribute really early.” Washington OL Nick Harris: “I’m an outgoing guy. Vibrant. A lot of people are attracted to that. Being at the center position, I think that’s important, especially at the next level. Being able to command the huddle. Being able to run the show up there and tell guys what to do. You have to be able to show that in the interview because you only get so many football reps to show it. So being able to present yourself as such is important. I want to make that known to them.” LSU C Lloyd Cushenberry: “I’m a low-maintenance guy. Don’t have a lot to say. But on the field, I flip that switch. In my first years, it took longer to develop that vocal leadership, but once I took over the center job, I knew I had to step up. As soon as 2018 came around, I was more vocal, and I had no problem with it. … Once I got the starting center job, all of that went out the window. I felt like I worked hard enough to be able to speak my mind when I wanted to and guys respected me. It’s not a problem at all.” Dayton TE Adam Trautman: “(I bring) a relentless style of play along with an edge. Every level I’ve been at, I’ve been not good enough. Coming out of high school, you’re not good enough to play FBS. And then going to Dayton, no one’s ever really played in the NFL — especially drafted since the ’70s. I’m here to keep fighting that and always use that edge and carry it with me.”
  10. https://theathletic.com/1635163/2020/02/25/verbal-mixup-aside-falcons-still-undecided-on-takk-mckinleys-fifth-year-option/?source=dailyemail INDIANAPOLIS — When it comes to fifth-year options being exercised, history has fared well for Falcons players under head coach Dan Quinn. Vic Beasley, a first-round pick in 2015, had his option picked up and exercised for the 2019 season. Keanu Neal, a 2016 first-rounder, had his option picked up with the expectation being that it will be exercised when the time comes. Takk McKinley, a 2017 first-rounder, could be the first to buck this trend in the Quinn era. For context, shortly after the 2018 season concluded, the Falcons revealed their intention to pick up Neal’s fifth-year option. Conversely, the team has remained mum on McKinley’s status all offseason. Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were asked at the NFL Scouting Combine about McKinley’s standing with the team after the 2020 season. Dimitroff was asked first about McKinley in a scrum with local reporters. “We haven’t planned on anything yet,” Dimitroff said. “We’re still talking about it. Those aren’t easy situations as you can imagine. It doesn’t always indicate your fondness for a player. Sometimes it has a lot to do with other situations as you can imagine. We’ve exercised it over the years. We’re big believers in keeping the people we drafted, of course. You can’t make mistakes on that, and we’ll keep our eye on that.” Dimitroff noted that a recent trend suggests teams aren’t picking up the fifth-year option. In 2019, 12 teams declined to pick up the option, and two released their first-round pick prior to their contract’s expiration. With the New England Patriots forfeiting their 2016 first-round pick because of the Deflategate scandal, the remaining 17 teams exercised the fifth-year option. Shortly after Dimitroff spoke to reporters, it was Quinn’s turn to hold court with the local media contingency. After McKinley was brought up, Quinn was asked about his status following the 2020 season. From the interview: So are you guys close to a decision on picking up his fifth-year option or not, for Takk? “Yes,” Quinn replied. So you are going to? “No.” No, you’re not going to? “Correct.” A few questions later, the topic was brought back up, with Quinn being told that Dimitroff said the team was still deliberating McKinley’s fifth-year option. Quinn then said that Dimitroff’s depiction was accurate and that the team was “still deciding” whether to pick up the option. About 30 minutes after Quinn’s media availability wrapped up, a team official told The Athletic that Quinn misinterpreted the original line of questioning and that Atlanta’s official stance is that no decision has been made regarding McKinley’s future. NFL clubs have until May 4 to execute the fifth-year option on players taken in the first round of the 2017 draft. Two years ago, the Falcons elected to execute Beasley’s option and honored it last offseason. While teams execute fifth-year options heading into a player’s fourth season, those agreements guarantee for injury only and can be voided prior to the subsequent league year’s beginning of that player’s fifth year. Last offseason, Atlanta felt it could get Beasley back into 2016 form when he totaled 15.5 sacks en route to helping the franchise reach the Super Bowl. Considering McKinley is also a pass-rushing defensive end, the situation seems similar, although McKinley has yet to post a season with double-digit sacks. “In our situation with Vic, we felt strongly that we wanted his pass-rush prowess around for another year,” Dimitroff said. “That was important for us. We decided to go forward with him. He had eight sacks. Would we have liked for him to have 16? Potentially. He has the ability to do it. Unfortunately, we didn’t get there. He obviously played better in the second half of the season.” Dimitroff said the franchise is hopeful that defensive ends coach/defensive run game coordinator Tosh Lupoi’s addition will help McKinley put forth a strong campaign this coming season. Lupoi was with the Cleveland Browns in 2019 and spent the previous five years at the college level with Alabama. Lupoi’s expertise has long been in the edge-rushing area, which will be needed if the Falcons are to improve upon the 27 sacks they posted in 2019. While McKinley underwent a second shoulder surgery early this offseason, Quinn is remaining positive about his potential for the 2020 season. “I think we’re going to get the best version of him,” Quinn said. “He’s really putting out in getting strong. To have a second shoulder surgery, that’s a big deal. You want to make sure you’re going to hit every marker as strongly as he can.” Said Dimitroff: “I think Takk has really good upside about him. I think if Takk stays healthy, continues to have a coach he works well with, who continues to push him, we’re excited about having Tosh here. I think that’s going to be an important thing for that D-line, as well. We’ll see how he continues to develop.” McKinley’s standing with the team wasn’t the only news Atlanta’s brass made during its appearance at the scouting combine. Dimitroff revealed that the Falcons will allow tight end Austin Hooper, outside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and offensive lineman Wes Schweitzer to test free agency. Hooper is coming off his best season, which saw him catch 75 passes for 787 yards and six touchdowns. As perhaps the top free agent at his position, Hooper could command a salary well above $10 million per year in average annual value. Campbell led the Falcons with 129 tackles, which marked the second consecutive season he was able to accomplish that. He also should see some sizable contract offers come his way. While he began each of the past two seasons in a backup role, Schweitzer was plugged in as a starter in both years because of injuries along the offensive line. While the Falcons are planning to allow these players to hit free agency, Dimitroff said he will keep the lines of communication open with their respective representation. “In no way does that mean we’re not interested in continuing to negotiate,” Dimitroff said. “It’s just we need to get to the market to help us gauge where we are, being one of the teams that’s right in the spot where we need to be smart about how we approach our salary cap into the future.”
  11. https://theathletic.com/1632481/2020/02/24/fifteen-prospects-the-falcons-should-keep-an-eye-on-at-nfl-scouting-combine/ INDIANAPOLIS — Since Thomas Dimitroff became the Falcons’ general manager in 2008, the franchise’s draft philosophy has been to take the best player at a position of need. Sometimes, there aren’t that many positions of need, which allows the team to home in on a specific group. This year seems a bit different. While edge rusher is probably the most glaring need, there are plenty of other positions the Falcons need to address. For instance: • Edge rusher: The Falcons will not re-sign Vic Beasley after five years with the franchise. Takk McKinley is coming off a season during which he recorded only 3.5 sacks. The Falcons need another edge presence who can get after the quarterback, considering the team hasn’t had a player record double-digit sacks since 2016. • Defensive tackle: Two of Atlanta’s top three defensive tackles are slated to be free agents in Tyeler Davison and Jack Crawford. While it would be wise to re-sign Davison, who is only 27 years old, the Falcons could bolster their depth at the position for pass-rushing purposes. • Linebacker: If De’Vondre Campbell is allowed to leave via free agency, there will be a major hole at the position. In this scenario, Atlanta would have only one proven player in Deion Jones at linebacker, with Foye Oluokun suddenly propelled into a bigger role. • Cornerback: If the Falcons decide to make Desmond Trufant a cap casualty — the team can save $4.95 million with his release — there will be a major need at the position with only Kendall Sheffield and Isaiah Oliver returning to the roster at the present time. If the Falcons decide to part with Trufant because of financial concerns, cornerback actually could jump to the top of the needs list. • Safety: While the Falcons will be fine at safety in 2020, Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee are all set to be free agents entering 2021. With three standout players at the position for the upcoming season, this might not be a position to target in the first round, but it could be one to look at in the middle rounds. • Interior offensive line: Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary will return as starters up front. Left guard remains the only position to fill. In addition, Mack is entering the final year of his contract, so it could be useful to find someone who can fill in at left guard in the short term but projects as the center for the future. • Tight end: Austin Hooper is set to break the bank this offseason, and the Falcons might not be able to afford him. If not, there will be a glaring absence at tight end. Hooper was valuable to Atlanta’s offense, setting career bests in 13 games with 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns. • Running back: Much of this hinges on whether Atlanta releases or trades Devonta Freeman, which would save $3.5 million against the salary cap. Dimitroff has stated that his preference is to use the middle rounds to find running back talent, and for now, there is no reason to suggest he wouldn’t take that approach with the 2020 draft. There is a lot to sort through when it comes to Atlanta’s seven picks. But the franchise will have plenty of opportunities to find some upper-tier talent since it has four picks in the top 100: Nos. 16, 47, 55 and 78 overall. With the NFL Scouting Combine beginning this week, here are 15 prospects who could pique the Falcons’ interest: 1. Auburn DT Derrick Brown 2. South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw 3. Clemson LB/S Isaiah Simmons It would take a rather unlikely and unforeseen scenario for the Falcons to be able to trade all the way up to No. 2 overall to take Ohio State defensive end Chase Young. But there are still some players at positions of need the Falcons could trade into the top 10 for if they feel that works in their best interest. Brown began the draft season as the top defensive tackle in this year’s class but has seen some competition come forward with Kinlaw’s rise. Kinlaw had a spectacular showing during Senior Bowl week, which seemed to propel him from the middle of the first round and into the top 10. Brown and Kinlaw are explosive and seemingly would pair well with Grady Jarrett along the interior. With the quick game becoming more popular with offenses around the NFL, applying an interior pass rush has become vital. Pairing either of those prospects with Jarrett likely would make head coach Dan Quinn a happy camper. The wild-card prospect the Falcons could also trade up for is Simmons. Simmons is perhaps the most intriguing prospect in this class since he can play either at linebacker or safety. Teams might even want to design a hybrid role for Simmons because of his versatility. Linebacker and safety are positions of need for Atlanta, with the Falcons possibly addressing two positions if they were to draft Simmons. Simmons also can rush the passer when needed. 4. LSU edge K’Lavon Chaisson 5. Iowa edge A.J. Epenesa 6. Oklahoma LB Kenneth Murray Behind Young, Chaisson and Epenesa are the next pass rushers considered to be first-rounders, at least at this time. Chaisson, at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, boasts great athleticism off of the edge and checks all the boxes when it comes to physical ability. Epenesa is the other edge defender of note, although he’s bigger and not as explosive. At 6-6 and 280 pounds, Epenesa offers great length and is fundamentally sound at the position. If both edge defenders are available, and this is the route the Falcons want to take at No. 16 overall, it will all come down to preference considering the differences in the players. But if the Falcons don’t go with an edge defender in the first round, it could be due to someone like Murray standing out among everyone else. A smart player at linebacker, Murray has exceptional speed for his size and possesses great instincts. With Campbell’s future uncertain, someone like Murray could wind up stepping in if that particular position needs to be filled. After the first round: 7. Utah DT Leki Fotu If the Falcons wait on a defensive tackle, Fotu could make a great fit in the second round. He has great agility and movement for someone who happens to be 6-5 and 337 pounds. His days as a high school All-American in rugby helped develop this as there might not be a better athlete at his body type in this year’s draft. 8. Mississippi State CB Cameron Dantzler Even if the Falcons decide to keep Trufant, adding a cornerback isn’t a bad idea, simply because of the adage that you can never have enough at the position. Dantzler fits the mold of what the Falcons typically look for with their cornerbacks. He’s 6-2 and 185 pounds with great arm length. 9. LSU C Lloyd Cushenberry Cushenberry is exceptionally durable since he hasn’t missed a start since his sophomore season. If the Falcons wanted to get a head start on finding Mack’s replacement once his contract expires, Cushenberry could be someone to watch throughout the draft season. 10. Dayton TE Adam Trautman If the Falcons are unable to keep Hooper, they could find themselves trying to find a player at the position with a similar skill set. Known for being an athletic tight end with a basketball background, Trautman is an intriguing prospect for teams looking to find a tight end near the end of day two. 11. Washington C/G Nick Harris Harris is intelligent and versatile, which are great traits for interior offensive linemen. While only 6-1, Harris is great at identifying certain checks before the snap and offers great agility after the snap. He played both interior offensive line positions at Washington, which should bode well to any team, such as Atlanta, needing short term help at guard while holding a long-term need at center. 12. Lenoir-Rhyne S Kyle Dugger Dugger needed to impress at the Senior Bowl and did just that, wowing scouts with his athleticism, speed and ball skills. A late bloomer, Dugger has all physical makeup to play at the next level but obviously will see a tremendous uptick in competition going from Division II to the NFL. 13. Florida RB Lamical Perine If the Falcons stay true to philosophy, they shouldn’t take a running back until the third round at the earliest. A slew of quality backs should still be on the board then, including Perine. While the Florida rushing game struggled at times, Perine managed to average 5.1 yards per carry in 2019. He has good vision as a runner and solid power to break tackles. In the late rounds: 14. Southern Miss WR Quez Watkins 15. Tulsa CB Reggie Robinson II Late-round prospects must be ready to contribute on special teams immediately. Before he earned rotational time last season, receiver Russell Gage was primarily a special-teams contributor. Now that he’s set to play more on offense, the Falcons could use another receiver who could offer good value in this department. Watkins is 6-2 and 190 pounds with good speed. He caught 64 passes for 1,178 yards and six touchdowns in 2019. Robinson is the true definition of a sleeper at this year’s combine. He has great height at 6-2, but more importantly, his arm length of 32 3/8 inches will draw a lot of scouts’ eyes his way.
  12. https://theathletic.com/1622493/2020/02/20/early-offseason-position-breakdown-thin-numbers-at-lb-specialists-to-compete/ The Falcons’ 2016 draft class proved fruitful during the past four seasons. Safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Deion Jones have reached the Pro Bowl. Tight end Austin Hooper is in line for a big paycheck after his four years with the franchise. In addition, fourth-round linebacker De’Vondre Campbell has been an instrumental presence on Atlanta’s defense since he was selected. While Jones recently was re-signed to a big deal, salary-cap concerns could keep the Falcons from doing the same with Campbell. And with linebacker already a thin position, this figures to be a position of major interest that the Falcons address this offseason. While linebacker is important, so are the two specialist positions that Atlanta will hold competitions for throughout the offseason and preseason. The Falcons are carrying two punters, Ryan Allen and Sam Irwin-Hill, on inexpensive one-year contracts. Atlanta reached a similar agreement with place-kicker Younghoe Koo, who was an exclusive-rights free agent, before the beginning of the new league year. Although Koo performed well for the Falcons — 23-of-26 on field-goal attempts, with a long of 50 yards — the team is likely to bring in a competitor at some point this offseason. Here’s an early offseason look at where Atlanta stands at linebacker and with its specialists: Linebacker Under contract: Jones, Foye Oluokun. Free agents: Campbell. The starters: Jones finished his 2019 season on a high note by recording a pick-six against Jameis Winston in the season finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which gave the Falcons a victory. It also made Winston the first player in NFL history to throw for at least 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season. Jones broke his foot in 2018 and continued to deal with some lingering effects from that in 2019. Jones, who signed a four-year, $57 million deal last offseason, should be closer to 100 percent healthwise this coming season. Oluokun, regarded as Atlanta’s best value pick of the 2018 draft, will have a great opportunity for more playing time as he enters his third season. Oluokun also has been instrumental on special teams during his first two seasons. Backing up: As it stands, Jones and Oluokun are the only linebackers on Atlanta’s roster, so this figures to be a position the team addresses this offseason. There is an argument to be made that the Falcons should draft a linebacker in the early rounds to ensure the appropriate depth is in place while bolstering the talent group at the position. The Falcons must target numerous positions of need, which makes it difficult to pinpoint when, where and how they will address linebacker. Regardless, adding quality depth players who can step up in case of injury will be important. Offseason outlook: While teams employ the nickel package more than the base package these days, the Falcons probably will want to have at least four linebackers on the roster — although they did finish the 2019 season with only three. Campbell figures to be in for a sizable payday in free agency, which could be too rich for the Falcons under the expected 2020 salary cap. Of course, if a new collective bargaining agreement is reached that expands the cap by a greater-than-expected margin, then perhaps Atlanta can bring Campbell back. Atlanta, like many teams, is in a holding pattern with many of these decisions until the new cap agreement is finalized. Specialists Under contract: Koo, Allen, Josh Harris, Irwin-Hill. Free agents: Matt Bosher. The starters: The only guaranteed starter returning is Harris, who has been the Falcons’ long-snapper since 2012. While it wouldn’t be a surprise for the Falcons to add a long-snapper to keep him fresh during training camp, Harris, regarded as one of the NFL’s best, is set to be Atlanta’s starter once again. Competition: This offseason will feature competition at punter and place-kicker. The Falcons have two punters under contract in Allen and Irwin-Hill. Allen finished this past season as Atlanta’s starting punter and averaged 41.9 yards with a 37.5 net average. Allen landed 14 of his 28 punts inside the 20-yard line and performed well with his coffin-corner punts near midfield. But before Allen’s arrival, Irwin-Hill was given a crack at the job before Atlanta’s game against Arizona, only to be released due to an issue with his work visa. The Australian’s work visa has now been fixed to where he can compete with Allen this offseason. Irwin-Hill last played with the defunct Alliance of American Football’s San Diego Fleet and posted an overall average of 43.7 yards per punt, with a net average of 38.6. Koo is the only place-kicker on the roster now, but the Falcons are expected to add another player at the position this offseason, perhaps after the NFL Draft. Koo will be given every chance to win the job, but it won’t come without competition. Offseason outlook: With two punters on the roster, the natural assumption is that the team will move on from Bosher, who has been Atlanta’s punter since 2011. Bosher, a sixth-round selection in 2011, accounted for a $2.545 million cap hit in 2019, which is something that can be reduced to a league-minimum number with either Allen or Irwin-Hill as the starting punter. Considering the decision to put two punters under contract before free agency began, the likelihood that Bosher returns appears slim to none. As for place-kicker, if Atlanta is serious about an actual competition, it would be wise to bring in a priority undrafted free agent — much like the Baltimore Ravens did in 2012, when they brought Justin Tucker in to compete with Billy Cundiff.
  13. The Falcons were a completely different team during the second half of the 2019 season. Much of that had to do with how the secondary improved almost instantaneously following the Week 9 bye. Throughout a 1-7 start, the Falcons found themselves missing assignments and unable to communicate on the back end. During this time, there were no signs that such a sudden improvement could take place. Conventional wisdom suggested that, after the bye, the Falcons’ defense would remain easy to attack for any opposing offense. As it turned out, head coach Dan Quinn moved then-receivers coach Raheem Morris to defensive backs, and Morris got to work fixing some technical issues with the young cornerbacks. Atlanta went into a Week 10 meeting against the New Orleans Saints and held them to nine points and fewer than 300 passing yards. During the first eight games, Atlanta allowed 31.3 points and 261.1 passing yards. That number dropped to 18.6 points and 228.6 passing yards during the final eight games. With a lot of attention focused on Atlanta’s lack of a pass rush, the secondary’s inability to cover led to easy pick-ups and easy third-down conversions. In addition, sacks became hard to come by for Atlanta’s defensive line. During the first eight weeks, Atlanta led the NFL by allowing teams to pick up 65.6 passing yards per game when a quarterback releases the ball in two seconds or fewer, according to radar360. That number fell to 56.8 passing yards per game, albeit still third-worst in the league, from weeks 10-17. More importantly, however, is that the Falcons went from the worst team in defensive third-down percentage (53 percent) in the first half of the season to the best during the second half of the season (25.8 percent). While the Falcons only had two interceptions during those first eight games, they tied for the league-lead with 10 during those final eight games. Totaling a league-worst seven sacks during the first eight games, Atlanta ranked tied for 10th during the final eight-game stretch with 21 sacks. There was a lot to like about the secondary’s dramatic improvement, although it came without a chance at a berth to the postseason. While coaches and players often say that seasons are independent of one another, Atlanta certainly will hope certain aspects of how the secondary finished will carry over into the 2020 season. Here’s an early offseason look at where Atlanta stands with its secondary: Cornerback Under contract: Desmond Trufant, Kendall Sheffield, Isaiah Oliver, Jordan Miller. Free agents: Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Jamar Taylor. The starters: The big question at cornerback is whether Trufant will be back next season. The Falcons could free $4.95 million with his release. While that’s the case, the Falcons certainly will wait for the new collective bargaining agreement to be reached before deciding what decision works in their best interest. If Trufant stays in Atlanta, there should be a good competition for the other starting spot between Sheffield and Oliver. Oliver opened the 2019 season as a starter but Sheffield took that role in Atlanta’s base package by the end of this past season. With Morris moving to defensive coordinator and Joe Whitt Jr. coaching the secondary, the Falcons should be much more fundamentally sound at the start of this coming season. Therefore, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Oliver position himself back into a starter’s role. And if that’s the case, Sheffield could once again be the team’s top nickel back — unless safety Damontae Kazee gets another look at the spot. Of course, if Trufant is a cap casualty, that opens up many different avenues the Falcons could take. Backing up: As of now, it’s fairly thin at cornerback. Behind the top three corners, Miller is the only other under contract. And Miller is suspended for the first three games of the 2020 season due to violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy. If Trufant is released or traded, the Falcons likely will add quite a few players to the group. Offseason outlook: Wreh-Wilson has been a solid contributor when called upon the past four years. Bringing him back to the fold shouldn’t cost too much against the salary cap, and the Falcons would love to have his experience on the roster once again. With how the position group improved during the second half of the season, there’s enough optimism to think that this could be a solid group if everyone returns. At the same time, adding a proven player or someone in the early rounds of the draft to bolster the unit even further could be something worth considering. And if Trufant is gone, the Falcons may want to heavily consider drafting a cornerback in the early rounds. Safety Under contract: Kazee, Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal, Jamal Carter, Chris Cooper, CJ Reavis, Ahmad Thomas. Free agents: J.J. Wilcox, Kemal Ishmael, Sharrod Neasman, Johnathan Cyprien. The starters: While Allen, who suffered a season-ending injury in 2018, was able to start every game this past season, Neal went down with a serious injury for the second consecutive season. After tearing his ACL in Week 1 of the 2018 season, Neal tore his Achilles in Week 3 of 2019. Rehabbing since, Neal certainly will hope the 2020 season has a much better outcome than the previous two seasons. If Allen and Neal man the starter positions for an entire season, the Falcons will need to figure out a plan for Kazee. Some three-safety sets could be in store to ensure Kazee, arguably Atlanta’s best ball hawk, isn’t on the sideline for long periods of time. Backing up: Cooper is an interesting name to monitor throughout the offseason. He had a good offseason and preseason in 2019 but didn’t make the 53-man roster out of training camp due to the players ahead of him on the depth chart. Atlanta was fortunate to keep him on the practice squad for the majority of the season until calling him up for the final game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But with Allen, Neal and Kazee at the position, there might only be one or two other spots available for the 53-man roster. The Falcons likely will want any additional safeties to contribute on special teams, which would be reasons to bring back players like Ishmael or Neasman to short-term deals. Offseason outlook: The Falcons must start thinking about the future at safety. Allen, Neal and Kazee are all set to be free agents after the 2020 season. It seems tough to assume Atlanta will be able to keep all three safeties and, therefore, may consider drafting a safety in the early rounds. The Falcons will have four picks in the top 100 and could snag a safety with one of those selections.
  14. https://theathletic.com/1613982/2020/02/17/early-offseason-position-breakdown-falcons-are-still-seeking-difference-maker-on-the-edge-of-defensive-line/ The last Falcons defender to record 10 or more sacks in a season will not be on the roster in 2020. Two weeks ago, the Falcons announced they would not pursue a second contract with defensive end Vic Beasley before the new league year begins on March 18. Beasley totaled 15.5 sacks during his second season in 2016, which led many to believe he was on pace for a great career with the franchise. It wasn’t meant to be as Beasley tallied 18 sacks during the subsequent three seasons. Beasley did flirt with double digits this past season by getting 6.5 of his eight sacks during the final eight games. It proved to not be enough, however, as the Falcons elected to go in a different direction. Under head coach Dan Quinn, getting after the quarterback has been problematic for Atlanta, despite Beasley’s big year in 2016. Not once in Quinn’s five seasons have the Falcons cracked the top 10 in sack totals or totaled 40 sacks in a single season. 2019: 28 sacks, 29th in the NFL 2018: 37 sacks, 22nd in the NFL 2017: 39 sacks, (tie) 13th in the NFL 2016: 34 sacks, 16th in the NFL 2015: 19 sacks, 32nd in the NFL Last year, Quinn tweaked the defensive line’s front to apply better pressure but to no avail. This year, he and the front office must add a difference-maker to the roster if the results are to improve up front. One thing that should help the defensive line will be if the secondary continues to perform well. During the second half of the 2019 season, the defensive backs covered better, which allowed the defensive line to have more time to get after opposing quarterbacks. If the secondary continues to improve, that should further help the defensive line’s ability to apply pressure. But it has been quite some time since the Falcons had a dependable edge rusher who could be counted on week after week. Before Beasley, John Abraham was the last defender to reach double digits in sacks with 10 in 2012. During his seven seasons with the Falcons, Abraham accomplished this feat four times. Salary-cap issues aside, the Falcons need to figure out how they can find a player of that caliber for the upcoming 2020 season. Here’s an early offseason look at where Atlanta stands with its defensive line: Defensive end Under contract: Takk McKinley, Allen Bailey, John Cominsky, Austin Larkin. Free agents: Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, Steven Means. The starters: With the Falcons electing to move on from Beasley, the only true returning starter is McKinley, who is entering the fourth year of his rookie contract. Selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, McKinley has totaled 16.5 sacks in three seasons. Statistically, he’s coming off his worst season in 2019, which saw him total 3.5 sacks before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. The Falcons publicly haven’t declared whether they are picking up McKinley’s fifth-year option yet. Even if they do pick up the option, they still could terminate the agreement before the 2021 league year begins. Therefore, McKinley needs to produce like he was expected this season if he’s to earn a sizable second contract with the team that drafted him. Backing up: As of now, the depth, in terms of experience, is fairly thin. Bailey is set to enter the second season of a two-year deal after playing primarily as a run defender last season. With Beasley gone, perhaps Bailey will get some additional chances to rush the passer. In his final season with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018, Bailey sacked the quarterback six times. With the Falcons in 2019, he recorded only one sack. Cominsky and Larkin are intriguing players for varying reasons. Cominsky is a defensive end for now, although the Falcons previously stated they see him as a pass-rushing defensive tackle in the future. Larkin turned some heads last preseason and ended up seeing action in two games. His development will be something to watch through the offseason. Offseason outlook: When it comes to the draft, signs seemingly would point to the Falcons taking an edge rusher early. While Atlanta would love to get a defensive end who can hit double digits in sacks through free agency, its salary-cap situation might prevent itself from doing so. Therefore, the draft might be the best avenue for an edge rusher, even if that comes with the risk of the player not panning out (see: Beasley). Needing depth, the Falcons also could look to re-signing Clayborn and Means, who are two dependable defenders on run downs. Defensive tackle Under contract: Grady Jarrett, Deadrin Senat, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner. Free agents: Tyeler Davison, Jack Crawford, Michael Bennett. The starters: As the Falcons continue to figure out what to do on the edge, they can at least be reassured that their best defensive tackle, and overall defender, will be back. After signing his four-year, $68 million contract, Jarrett put forth his best season to date, which culminated in a Pro Bowl berth. This past season, he worked alongside Davison and Crawford, with both of those players slated to be free agents. Davison proved valuable on run downs and could be someone the Falcons try to sign to a multi-year extension. Backing up: Tuioti-Mariner got some run late in the year and showed his versatility by playing on the edge and inside. That experience could bode well as he enters his third season with the franchise after spending the bulk of his first two seasons on the practice squad before being called up late in 2019. Senat might be in a prove-it year with the Falcons. As a former third-round selection, Senat was only active in two games last season, which could put him in on the bubble for a roster spot in 2020. Offseason outlook: It seems like the Falcons at least will make an attempt to re-sign Davison. It remains to be seen whether Atlanta wants to bring back Crawford. The Falcons will need to ensure they have depth while possibly adding another defensive tackle in the draft. An early projection by analysts had South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw going to Atlanta at No. 16, only to see Kinlaw’s stock rise considerably during Senior Bowl week. With Jarrett, the Falcons have an elite-level defensive tackle on the roster. But adding a bigger body with athleticism, perhaps in the second or third round, might help Jarrett even more in passing situations.
  15. https://theathletic.com/1605721/2020/02/13/early-offseason-position-breakdown-offensive-line-returns-four-starters-but-will-that-actually-matter/ The last time the Falcons returned at least four starters on the offensive line came in 2018 when they brought back everyone up front and added Brandon Fusco to start at right guard. Unfortunately for the Falcons, that season didn’t go too well from a protection standpoint as quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked 42 times. That stated, much of the line’s unraveling in 2018 had to do with injuries to Fusco and Andy Levitre, as well as a sudden drop in play from right tackle Ryan Schraeder. As a result, the 2019 offensive line was practically a new-look unit, with only left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack holding down their respective positions. And the results were worse. Ryan was sacked a career-worst 48 times — although that number isn’t as ****ing as it appeared since the Falcons threw a league-most 684 times this past season. Even with such a staggering number, Football Outsiders ranked the Falcons’ pass protection 13th in the NFL with a 6.6 percent adjusted sack rate. Still, the Falcons are well aware they need to do better in pass protection. And they do return four starters from the 2019 team, which adds confidence inside the team facility, even if that didn’t work so well in 2018. Here’s an early offseason look at where Atlanta stands with its offensive line: Tackle Under contract: Matthews, Kaleb McGary, Ty Sambrailo, Lukayus McNeil. The starters: Both of Atlanta’s starting tackles will return, with the veteran Matthews entering his seventh season and the young McGary set to play his second season. Matthews put forth another solid campaign and was able to once again play in all 16 games. McGary had his share of ups and downs as a rookie but showed improvement as the season progressed. As a run blocker, McGary had his best moments, especially when he was able to show his strength and tenacity on zone plays. As a pass protector, the goal will be for a full offseason to help get him further up to speed with the NFL game, which features tough edge rushers every week. Backing up: With Matthews and McGary appearing in each game, the only backup at tackle in 2019 was Ty Sambrailo, who rotated with McGary in the season opener against the Minnesota Vikings and subbed in when the rookie had to leave Week 2’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles momentarily with a knee injury. McNeil joined the Falcons’ practice squad in early October and then signed a futures deal shortly after the season ended. Offseason outlook: Sambrailo’s status is one to monitor since the Falcons could save $3.75 million with his release. But by doing so, they would be parting ways with a swing tackle who can back up both Matthews and McGary while filling a jumbo package role. Sambrailo has plenty of experience, and it’s hard to make up for that when it comes to filling depth on the offensive line. If the Falcons were to part ways with him due to financial reasons, his replacement could come either via the middle-to-later rounds of the draft or through free agency. Guard Under contract: Chris Lindstrom, James Carpenter, Jamon Brown, Matt Gono, Sean Harlow. Free agent: John Wetzel. The starters: Heading into the offseason, Lindstrom is the only confirmed starter as the Falcons’ brass has stated that there is a hole at left guard to fill. And that was said knowing that Carpenter, the starter until concussions knocked him out for the season, is still under contract. Unfortunately for the Falcons, Lindstrom missed 11 games due to a broken foot that was suffered in the season opener against the Vikings. But Lindstrom showed signs of why he was the 14th overall pick in the final four games. Backing up: Carpenter and Brown were signed to compete for the starting left guard spot and to provide adequate depth. After 16 games, that position once again will be up for grabs based on results. The wild card here is Gono, who moved to guard late during the 2019 season. While Gono cross-trained at guard late in 2018, he ultimately was moved back to tackle for most of the 2019 season. If Sambrailo sticks with the Falcons in 2020, it’s possible Gono will continue to rep at guard this offseason. Offseason outlook: All signs point to the Falcons adding a left guard, whether it’s through free agency or the draft. And depending on who that player ends up being, that could mean either Carpenter or Brown, or both, could lose a roster spot. It also seems like now should be the time to ramp up Gono’s development at guard, considering the undrafted lineman out of Division III Wesley College has been on the 53-man roster for consecutive seasons. Center Under contract: Mack. Free agent: Wes Schweitzer. The starter: Mack played through an injured elbow for a good portion of the season, which only further defines how tough he has been during his 11-year NFL career. While Mack has been exceptional from a physical standpoint, his mental acumen separates him from many of the other centers in the NFL. He makes certain checks to his fellow linemen, which takes away from Ryan’s responsibilities at the line of scrimmage. While the Falcons could save $8 million with his release, the line — on a team with a coach and general manager needing a big season to continue their tenures — most certainly would suffer in the short term. Backing up: As of now, there isn’t a player slated to be on the roster in 2020 who has center experience. While Mack has been durable and has shown the propensity to play through injury, the Falcons obviously would want a backup center they can depend on in the event something happens to Mack in the middle of the game. When it comes to an interior lineman acquisition this offseason, whether through free agency or the draft, versatility will be key. Offseason outlook: Although it would be a surprise to not see Mack on the roster in 2020, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Atlanta address the need for a center for the foreseeable future. It could be with a draft pick or free-agent acquisition, perhaps in the form of someone who has played both guard and center snaps in the NFL. That also could mean Schweitzer is brought back due to the coaches’ comfort of knowing he can both back up Mack and step in as a guard if needed.
  16. https://theathletic.com/1602723/2020/02/12/early-offseason-position-breakdown-falcons-remain-rich-at-receiver-but-uncertain-at-tight-end/ The Falcons’ stated priority entering the offseason was to sign tight end Austin Hooper to a second contract. As Hooper’s career has unfolded during the past four years, he steadily improved to where he just put forth the best season of his young career in 2019. He concluded the season with 75 catches, 787 yards and six touchdowns, all of which were career bests. Hooper would be the first to admit he has benefited from the attention receiver Julio Jones has drawn in Atlanta’s offense. Even so, Hooper has been ever-reliable and precise with his route running and his penchant for coming down with tough catches when single-covered. As the season continued, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said he was drawing up plays where Hooper was the primary option based on how well he was playing. Hooper should be in line for a contract well above $10 million per season on average annual value. With the Falcons facing some important salary cap decisions, figuring out whether Hooper can still fit into their plans will be important. At least publicly, the Falcons have stated they would like to have Hooper back. Whether Atlanta can make it happen remains to be seen. While Jones has made life easier on Hooper, the same can be said about Hooper to the other receivers. It would be a tremendous loss if Atlanta is unable to keep Hooper. At receiver, Jones once again will lead a group that possesses a ton of talent. After posting 1,394 yards in 2019, which ranked second behind New Orleans Saints wideout Michael Thomas’ 1,725 yards, Jones has finished in the top three in the NFL in receiving the past six seasons. Here’s an early offseason look at where Atlanta stands at wide receiver and tight end. Wide receiver Under contract: Jones, Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, Christian Blake, Olamide Zaccheaus, Brandon Powell, Devin Gray. Free agents: Justin Hardy. The starters: The two former first-round picks, Jones and Ridley, will enter this offseason as the top two receivers on the roster. For Jones, that’s nothing new. For Ridley, it’s a slightly new role since the past two years he had Mohamed Sanu as a teammate. Once Sanu was traded to the New England Patriots during the season, Ridley saw more targets before a season-ending abdominal injury late in the season. Gage will be a player to watch this offseason as he has a chance to solidify himself as the team’s top slot receiver. He was one of the most improved players from 2018 to 2019 and made the most of his opportunities late in the season. With another offseason, Gage could see his production rise even further. Backing up: If the Falcons decide not to bring back Hardy, there will be a sizable spot to fill, considering he can back up all three receiver spots while contributing on special teams. While the Falcons do cross-train their receivers, it’s tough to find someone who can mimic what each of the top outside and slot receivers can do. Blake is set to be Jones’ backup, and Zaccheaus will work behind Ridley. When Ridley was injured against the Carolina Panthers, Zaccheaus stepped in and caught a 93-yard touchdown, showing off his speed and why the Falcons kept the undrafted wideout on the 53-man roster from Day 1. Offseason outlook: Even if the Falcons re-sign Hardy, they still could find themselves looking for another receiver this offseason, particularly in the middle rounds of the draft. From a talent perspective, this year’s receiver class is a deep group. In particular, Atlanta could use another receiver to contribute on special teams since Gage’s offensive reps have gone up. But considering the salary cap situation and the fact that Atlanta has the luxury of employing Jones and Ridley, spending a lot of money on an established upper-tier receiver in free agency is unlikely. Tight end Under contract: Luke Stocker, Jaeden Graham, Carson Meier. Free agents: Hooper. The starters: The two dates to keep in mind for this position are Feb. 25 and March 18. If the Falcons apply the franchise tag at the Feb. 25 deadline, Hooper will be Atlanta’s starter once again. But at what is estimated to be $10.7 million per year, that could be too hefty of a price tag for a team that must get “creative,” as general manager Thomas Dimitroff often says, to ensure it can put together the most complete team while remaining under the salary cap. If Hooper does not receive the tag, the Falcons probably will need to do everything they can to re-sign him before the new league year begins at 4 p.m. on March 18. If Hooper hits free agency, a big-time market that should be out of Atlanta’s price range will await him. If Atlanta enters the 2020 season without Hooper, Graham would have a chance to step into Hooper’s role. Of course, the Falcons also more than likely would be forced to use a draft pick on a tight end in this scenario. As for Atlanta’s top blocking tight end, Stocker figures to hold onto that spot unless he becomes a cap casualty. The Falcons could save $2.6 million with his release. Backing up: Although there is a lot of unknown at tight end at the moment, it’s clear the Falcons like Graham. If Hooper leaves and the Falcons draft a tight end in the first three rounds and he becomes the starter, Graham still will have a role as a backup and on special teams. Meier is also someone the Falcons liked enough to keep him on the practice squad for most of the year while promoting him briefly when Hooper was injured. Offseason outlook: It all comes down to what happens with Hooper. If the Falcons are able to re-sign him, there probably won’t be a whole lot of change taking place at the position. The Falcons will then have Jones, Ridley and Hooper as a spectacular receiving trio while ensuring the appropriate depth is in place. Without Hooper, the Falcons will need to figure out who replaces his production — 5.8 catches and 60.5 yards per game in 2019 — as a No. 1 tight end. To have a chance of finding someone to match Hooper, the Falcons would need to focus on the draft as opposed to free agency. It would then be a matter of how early the Falcons wish to take a tight end. They do have three picks in the top 55 and four in the top 100.
  17. https://theathletic.com/1591858/2020/02/07/a-re-evaluation-of-the-falcons-2016-draft-class-four-years-later/ Analysts weren’t too kind to the Falcons once the 2016 NFL Draft concluded. In the moment, the Falcons received some paltry grades for whom they selected, with many thinking their early picks were reaches. Part of the fun that comes with the NFL draft is trying to figure out who did well in the immediate aftermath of the three-day extravaganza. But the best way to figure out whether a draft class is successful is to exercise patience and evaluate it four years later when each player’s rookie contract — outside of the first-rounder if his fifth-year option is picked up — has expired. Looking back, the Falcons picked up four key contributors and one pivotal role player in the 2016 draft. By no means was the Falcons’ 2016 class as bad as folks made it seem at the time. Round 1, 17th overall: S Keanu Neal Most draft experts thought taking Neal this high in the first round was a reach, despite the fact the Florida product possessed an ideal blend of playing the run as a box safety and dropping into coverage. During his first two seasons, Neal proved a lot of those analysts wrong. Neal totaled 106 tackles as a rookie, with the Falcons ultimately reaching the Super Bowl. He followed up his 2016 season with 116 tackles and an invitation to the Pro Bowl in 2017. Neal appeared well on his way to further greatness until back-to-back season-ending injuries occurred early during the following two seasons. In the 2018 season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, Neal tore his ACL. In Week 3 against the Indianapolis Colts in 2019, Neal tore his Achilles. The Falcons picked up Neal’s fifth-year option and will be in the team’s plans for the 2020 season. Neal will continue to rehab all offseason with hopes of being on the football field for the 2020 season’s opening game. Verdict: It has been unfortunate for Neal and the Falcons that he suffered serious injuries in consecutive seasons. Obviously, that isn’t something you can plan for when selecting a player who doesn’t have a major injury history. But considering what Neal brought to the team in his first two seasons from a production and leadership standpoint, the Falcons did well with this pick. Oftentimes, draft experts’ evaluations don’t align with how NFL teams perceive certain players. This proved true with Neal in 2016. Round 2, 52nd overall: LB Deion Jones Like Neal, many analysts thought selecting Jones, who wasn’t a full-time starter until his senior season at LSU, was also a reach. Jones posted some impressive numbers at the NFL scouting combine, which included a 4.38-second 40-yard dash, and that clearly wowed the Atlanta front office and coaching staff. While the Falcons were criticized for the pick in the moment, NFL.com did give Jones a second- or third-round draft grade. While Jones wasn’t even a two-year starter at LSU, he has been a four-year starter when healthy with the Falcons. He led the team in tackles during his first two years but suffered a broken foot in the season opener against Philadelphia in 2018. He was able to return at the end of the 2018 season and played every game in 2019. Verdict: Like Neal, Jones proved his doubters wrong early into his career as a standout linebacker on Atlanta’s Super Bowl runner-up squad. Jones followed up his rookie campaign with a Pro Bowl appearance in 2017. The speed he showcased at the combine has translated into being one of the best cover linebackers in the NFL. With his rookie contract set to expire at the end of the 2019 season, the Falcons negotiated a new deal with Jones’ representation before the start of the season. Jones is now under contract for the next four years, valued at $57 million. Round 3, 81st overall pick: TE Austin Hooper Whereas Neal and Jones were considered reaches at the time, Hooper was considered a good pick considering where he landed. Hooper was regarded as the second-ranked tight end coming out of college behind Hunter Henry. Henry went in the second round with the 35th overall pick, with no team selecting a tight end until the Falcons’ third pick. With tight end being an obvious position of need, Atlanta selected Hooper. Hooper received only 19 touches as a rookie but did catch a touchdown in Atlanta’s Super Bowl loss to New England. During the past four years, Hooper steadily improved into the player he is today. He was named a Pro Bowl alternate the past two years and was able to participate in the All-Star game both times. He posted career bests of 75 catches for 787 yards and six touches in 2019. Verdict: While Henry has produced with the Los Angeles Chargers when healthy, Hooper has had the better four-year start in their respective NFL careers. Therefore, the Falcons ended up drafting the best tight end in the 2016 class in the third round. That’s obviously a great return on investment for the franchise. The only problem the Falcons have now is that Hooper outperformed his rookie contract to the point that they might not be able to afford him if he hits free agency. But those are the problems you want to have as a team four years following a draft class. Round 4, 115th overall pick: LB De’Vondre Campbell Growing up, Campbell was the quintessential overlooked player. From Fort Myers, Fla., he didn’t get recruited out of high school and ended up at Hutchinson Community College. After impressing on the junior college level, Campbell ended up on scholarship at Minnesota. The Falcons liked what they saw in Campbell’s fast, physical and versatile skill set, which led to his selection in the fourth round. At the time, the Falcons needed to significantly upgrade their linebackers, which meant Campbell was going to have every shot to play immediately. Verdict: Campbell has been a mainstay with the Falcons defense the past four years. He led the team in tackles in each of the past two seasons. He also posted two sacks and two interceptions in 2019. Like Hooper, Campbell has played his way into a sizable contract, which is what you want when you draft someone. But also like Hooper, the only issue now is whether the Falcons will be able to afford that sizable contract for Campbell. Round 6, 196th overall: OL Wes Schweitzer Schweitzer hasn’t turned into a four-year starter for the Falcons, but he has provided depth on the offensive line. In 2017, he started every game, and in 2018, he stepped back into the starting lineup after Andy Levitre tore his triceps early in the season. This past year, Schweitzer finished as a starter due to injuries. While Alex Mack never missed a game, Schweitzer repped as the backup center, which could work to his benefit when the Falcons decide whether to re-sign him this offseason. Verdict: As a sixth-rounder in 2016, the Falcons got 36 starts from Schweitzer for four years. A tackle in college, the Falcons groomed him to be an interior offensive lineman at this level, and he was able to contribute when called upon. Lauded during the 2019 season by head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter for how much he has improved, Schweitzer has a chance to be re-signed this offseason to compete for the open left guard position and as Mack’s backup. Round 7, 238th overall: WR Devin Fuller Fuller turned out to be the only player from the 2016 draft class who didn’t spend four years with the Falcons. That’s actually an amazing revelation. If a team gets quality production from 30 percent of its draft picks, it’s considered a great class. The Falcons selected four starters and a key backup before missing on Fuller in the seventh round — with this stage of the draft being nothing short of a crapshoot. Fuller, however, never got the opportunity to produce. He suffered season-ending shoulder and ACL injuries in consecutive preseasons and was waived during the summer of 2018. Verdict: Injuries derailed Fuller’s career, although it’s tough to say whether he would have had one if they had never occurred. By the seventh round, you truly don’t know what kind of player you’re getting. Key undrafted free-agent signing: DB Brian Poole Although Poole went undrafted, it didn’t take long before the Falcons realized they had a quality player. He became the team’s starting nickelback and started 21 games in three years. He had a career-best three interceptions in 2018. A restricted free agent entering the 2019 season, the Falcons decided not to tender Poole, who ended up with the New York Jets. Verdict: Perhaps the Falcons would like a redo on letting Poole go. With the Jets this past season, Poole finished as the highest-ranked slot defender and the eighth-best cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus. The Falcons got three solid seasons out of Poole but elected to move on after deciding that Damontae Kazee would move to nickel during the 2019 offseason. In retrospect Many analysts issued the Falcons grades of C or worse for their 2016 draft class. But the true evaluation comes from how those players produced four years after the fact. To date, this was easily Quinn’s best draft class in the five-plus years he has been with the Falcons. While Atlanta had some clear misses in the 2015 and 2017 classes, there were none in 2016. Looking back, the Falcons turned out to have one of the most impressive draft classes of that year. If anything, that makes what transpired in 2018 and 2019 that much more baffling.
  18. https://theathletic.com/1586260/2020/02/05/will-continuity-in-2020-be-enough-to-get-the-falcons-back-in-the-playoffs/ When deciding to keep Dan Quinn for the 2020 season, Falcons owner Arthur Blank cited the desire to keep “continuity” within his organization. Through the years, there have been clear examples when keeping a coaching staff and/or roster together has worked. There also have been times when it hasn’t. After starting 1-7 but finishing 7-9, Blank decided the results during the latter half of the year could, and should, prove doable at the start of the 2020 season. And to achieve that, he figured it was in the team’s best interest to keep Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, and subsequently many other assistant coaches, on board for another season. As for Quinn’s coaching staff, not much has changed to date. A year after parting ways with all three of Quinn’s top assistants, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, defensive coordinator Raheem Morris (who went from receivers coach to defensive backs coach before this promotion) and special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica will all return. In addition, linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich, who now has an assistant head coach title, will also return. “Having guys that are in leadership spaces — Dirk and Raheem and Ulbrich and Ben Kotwica — in their space, that’s a big deal for us to make sure that continuity of how we want to teach and where we want to go moves forward,” Quinn said. Falcons president Rich McKay played a role in Blank’s final decision. When deciding it to be important to keep the Falcons’ staff in place, McKay said he looked back on instances when keeping coaches worked and when that didn’t. The idea was to place Atlanta’s needs in the proper context of the history of the NFL. One team cited, per Blank, was rival New Orleans, which endured three consecutive 7-9 seasons under head coach Sean Payton from 2014-16. Of course, Payton won Super Bowl XLIV after the 2009 regular season and proceeded to reach the playoffs after posting four consecutive double-digit winning seasons from 2010-13. Therefore, he had plenty of goodwill to withstand such a stretch. “As we looked at it, we did a lot of research,” McKay said. “I have a lot of research on staffs, what’s gone on in the league, on the history of continuity, when has it worked, when has it not worked, tried to put all of that into context and looked at it from what gives us the best opportunity to win in 2020 and beyond.” Blank said that deciding to keep most everyone in place had to do with ensuring this gave the Falcons the best possible chance to win in the near future. “The word ‘continuity’ I think is often used and is very important in the NFL,” Blank said. “It’s very important in any business or any situation, a dynamic situation like this, but I think you have to separate and splice up the word.” Blank’s point is that basing a decision solely on continuity isn’t prudent. Other variables and factors, such as the strong finish during the final eight games, must be applied. In addition to Quinn, Koetter, Morris, Kotwica and Ulbrich sticking around, the following coaches remain on the payroll: quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp, running backs coach Bernie Parmalee, wide receivers coach Dave Brock, offensive line coach Chris Morgan, defensive backs coach Doug Mallory, defensive tackles coach Jess Simpson, tight ends coach Ben Steele, offensive assistant Will Harriger, defensive assistant Chad Walker, defensive assistant Aden Durde, special teams assistant Mayur Chaudhari, offensive line assistant Bob Kronenberg and senior assistant Bob Sutton. The only two assistants who aren’t returning are defensive passing game coordinator Jerome Henderson, who is now the New York Giants’ defensive backs coach, and assistant defensive line coach Travis Jones. Replacing them are defensive ends coach/defensive run game coordinator Tosh Lupoi and secondary coach/defensive pass game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. This means the 20-coach staff will feature 18 from last season’s group. The Falcons’ roster also should feature many starters from the 2019 squad. On offense, Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley will return, which seemingly would bode well for the passing game. On the offensive line, four of five starters are slated to return in Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary. From 2018 to 2019, only two offensive line starters returned. It remains to be seen what happens with running back Devonta Freeman, a potential salary-cap casualty, and tight end Austin Hooper, who might cost too much for the Falcons. On defense, Grady Jarrett, Takk McKinley, Deion Jones, Foye Oluokun, Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield, Damontae Kazee, Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal all will return in 2020. That means 16 key contributors on offense and defense will begin next season with Atlanta. Continuity alone won’t win games. And taking a look at a few of the best teams from the 2019 season, it appears some benefited from keeping coaches and players intact, while some were able to win at a high level while undergoing some change. Benefiting with continuity across the board San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers made it to the Super Bowl by beginning the season with the same starting offensive line they had in 2018. While they dealt with some injuries up front, only center Weston Richburg ended his season prematurely. Elsewhere on offense, Jimmy Garoppolo (who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in 2018), George Kittle, Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida, Kyle Juszczyk and Kendrick Bourne returned and played vital roles on offense throughout the season. Much of the defensive core returned, too, with the unit ranking second in total defense by allowing an average of 281.8 yards per game. The 49ers brought back 17 coaches, including head coach Kyle Shanahan, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, special teams coordinator Richard Hightower, passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur, run game coordinator Mike McDaniel and running backs coach Bobby Turner. New England Patriots: It has become common for the Patriots to lose an assistant to a head coaching opportunity. Last year, Brian Flores took over the Miami Dolphins. This year, Joe Judge is taking over the Giants. But from 2018 to 2019, New England kept nine of its 17 coaches, which included head coach Bill Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Judge, formerly the Patriots’ special teams coordinator. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who recently announced his retirement, and running backs coach Ivan Fears have been with Belichick since the Patriots hired him in 2000. The Patriots were expected to benefit from an experienced offensive line, even with Trent Brown leaving in free agency. But losing David Andrews, who was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs before the season started, turned out to be a huge blow to this team. Still, the Patriots went 12-4, mostly thanks to a defense that returned 11 key contributors — most notably cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Coaching continuity amid some player turnover Baltimore Ravens: It helps to have a special talent like Lamar Jackson. But entering the 2019 season, Jackson was still an unknown, since he only stepped in as a starter midway through the previous season as a rookie. The only returning contributor at receiver was Willie Snead. While Matt Judon, Brandon Williams and Marlon Humphrey returned on defense, Baltimore signed Earl Thomas and traded for Marcus Peters during the season. All five of Baltimore’s starting offensive linemen were on the roster in 2018. While the Ravens did deal with some roster turnover, they did a good job, per usual, of filling holes with difference-makers on offense and defense. A pivotal factor was probably the fact that Baltimore returned 15 of its 20 coaches. While longtime special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg retired, head coach John Harbaugh brought back defensive coordinator Wink Martindale and promoted Greg Roman from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator. Player continuity amid coaching turnover Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs’ defense actually dealt with some player turnover but still returned standouts Chris Jones, Derrick Nnadi, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson and Charvarius Ward. But like the Ravens, the Chiefs addressed their defensive losses wisely by bringing in Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark. Meanwhile, on offense, the Chiefs returned the five offensive linemen who ended up starting the majority of the 2018 season, quarterback Patrick Mahomes, running back Damien Williams, receiver Tyreek Hill, receiver Sammy Watkins and tight end Travis Kelce. An already explosive offense proved tough to slow down, even after three teams got out to double-digit leads against Kansas City in the postseason. The offensive star power was evident, which was aided with all nine offensive assistants from 2018 returning. On defense, however, head coach Andy Reid fired Sutton, the Chiefs’ former defensive coordinator who is now the Falcons’ senior assistant. Reid hired Steve Spagnuolo to replace Sutton, with only three Kansas City defensive assistants keeping their jobs. Despite the defensive coaching turnover, the Chiefs put in a special 2019 season en route to a Super Bowl title. Winning without a lot of continuity Green Bay Packers: While it needed to add players on defense, Green Bay did return its core offensive contributors from the 2018 season. Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones, Davante Adams, Jimmy Graham and three starting offensive linemen all came back to keep the offense moving in the right direction. The defense, however, dealt with plenty of change. The Packers signed Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Adrian Amos in free agency and drafted Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage to round out a new-look unit. After firing Mike McCarthy, the Packers hired Matt LaFleur, who brought in an entirely different offensive coaching staff. LaFleur retained defensive coordinator Mike Pettine but only three other defensive assistants remained with the organization. With many new coaches and players, the Packers still were able to go 13-3 and advance to the NFC Championship. Continuity in the long term These examples show that it’s possible to win in the short term by staying patient with everyone in place (49ers) or by cleaning house and starting fresh (Packers). The same can be applied when looking at it from the long view, too. In recent history, Belichick, Payton, Harbaugh and Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin are great examples of coaches who have won consistently, even when facing some minor hiccups. Payton had the three-year stretch without a playoff berth. Belichick began his New England tenure with a 5-11 season and then missed the playoffs in his third year, which came a season after the first of his six Super Bowl titles. After five consecutive trips to the postseason, which included a championship in Super Bowl XLVII, Harbaugh’s Ravens proceeded to miss the playoffs in four of the next five seasons. Baltimore kept Harbaugh, who then led the Ravens to their most exciting season since that Super Bowl championship run in 2019. Tomlin led the Steelers to a playoff berth in eight of his first 11 seasons, which included a win in Super Bowl XLIII. While Tomlin’s Steelers have failed to make the playoffs in the past two seasons, his prior track record has kept him safe. But then there are the obvious examples of coaches staying in their position too long. Former Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis held his job from 2003-18. In 16 seasons, Lewis reached the playoffs seven times and recorded a 0-7 postseason record. He was fired after the 2018 season. Jason Garrett was the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys from 2011-19 and reached the playoffs three times in nine seasons. He went 2-3 in five postseason games. He was fired after the 2019 season. Continuity by itself won’t get the job done. But it certainly can help as long as the talent, from a player and coaching perspective, shows up each week. The Falcons underwent a lot of change with their coaching staff from 2018 to 2019. They’re not changing much this time around. It’s clear Blank and McKay are buying the notion that the talent expected to be present on the 2020 roster will be good enough to win many games next season. “One thing we did do this year at the start of it is we took on a lot of change, and the idea was we could take that change on because we had continuity at the head coach,” McKay said. “That was a lot of change, and you felt the effects of it having a new defense, basically with Dan coming in (as defensive coordinator) and the changes we made, having a new special teams (coordinator) and having a new offense. I think the continuity will definitely serve its purpose for us.”
  19. https://theathletic.com/1552295/2020/01/21/thomas-dimitroff-falcons-are-trudging-along-with-austin-hooper-negotiations/ MOBILE, Ala. — Thomas Dimitroff knew the question was coming and decided to pre-emptively answer it. It long has been common knowledge that the Falcons’ offseason priority is to re-sign tight end Austin Hooper. Hooper, who is replacing San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle in this year’s Pro Bowl, put forth his best season as a professional in 2019. He hauled in 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns, all of which were career bests. He posted these numbers in 13 games, having missed three games due to a knee injury. Offensively, the Falcons proved to be a better team with Hooper in the lineup. Hooper, having developed a strong rapport with quarterback Matt Ryan, became an advantageous target for Atlanta’s offense. With Julio Jones often drawing double teams, Hooper was often left in single coverage, with Hooper winning many of his one-on-one battles. His production the past two seasons has led the Falcons’ front office to want Hooper back in the fold for seasons to come. As it stands, Dimitroff revealed that he has at least spoken with Hooper’s representation. At the present time, however, not much progress has been reached on a new deal. “Of course, I’m sure you guys are waiting to ask about Mr. Hooper,” Dimitroff said following Tuesday’s second team practice at the Senior Bowl. “The reality is we’re trudging along. Once we get back from after the Super Bowl week, we’ll continue to look and see with how we’re moving forward. But as of now, there are no updates on Austin.” Dimitroff said the franchise tag remains a possibility but that no decision has been made. Last year, the Falcons placed the franchise tag on defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, with the hope that they would finalize a deal before the negotiating deadline for tagged players. The Falcons and Jarrett’s representation were able to work out a four-year, $68 million deal roughly 10 minutes before the deadline. If the Falcons decide not to tag Hooper and are unable to sign him before the new league year begins, he stands to hit the open market as a highly sought-after player. He also figures to be in line for a contract that should exceed $10 million per year. If Hooper hits the open market, there is a good chance he will wind up with another team. If that’s the case, the Falcons will have only two tight ends under contract in Luke Stocker and Jaeden Graham. And then they likely would need to turn their attention to the draft to find a potential replacement. When it comes to this year’s group of tight ends in the draft, Dimitroff believes it is a group with little depth, which could further signal how important Hooper’s return is to the team. At the Senior Bowl, the tight end position has been represented by Florida Atlantic’s Harrison Bryant, Cincinnati’s Josiah Deguara, Vanderbilt’s Jared Pinkney, LSU’s Stephen Sullivan, Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins, Michigan’s Sean McKeon, Portland State’s Charlie Taumoepeau and Dayton’s Adam Trautman. “The tight end group is not a big group as far as numbers,” Dimitroff said. “There are some football players there, but it’s not a big group. We’ll have to really hone in on that, as well.” ‘Pass rush, pass rush, pass rush’ Considering the Falcons finished 29th in sacks with only 28 this season, bolstering the pass rush should be a focal point this offseason. With Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn and Steven Means all slated to be free agents, it’s unclear at this time who will be in the fold with this group for the 2020 season. Asked about the defensive ends, Dimitroff said that the team will start closing in on who will return in roughly two weeks. “After Super Bowl Sunday, we’ll start looking at where we’re going in that direction,” Dimitroff said. “Yes, there will be some people who will be coming available, and we’ll have to make some tough decisions on that. (Clayborn) did a great job for us this year. We’re really happy with how he stepped up and led. … Getting Takk (McKinley) healthy, of course, that’s going to be important to work with some of the younger guys. And, of course, pass rush, pass rush, pass rush. I know that’s what (head coach) Dan (Quinn) wants.” While the Falcons need to improve the pass rush, it remains to be seen what direction they will take in doing so. The obvious route would be to draft an edge defender in the first round, whether it’s through trading up into the top 10 or staying at No. 16. But they also could opt for an interior defensive lineman to work in tandem with Jarrett. One player draft analysts have mocked to the Falcons in recent weeks has been South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, who put forth a spectacular senior season. Kinlaw is regarded as one of the Senior Bowl’s highest-ranked participants. And at practice, Dimitroff liked what he saw from the young defender. “Had a heck of a day, I know that,” Dimitroff said. “I’m sure you guys saw that. It’s fun watching him. That’s about all I can say right now. He’s going to do really well. … It’s just going to be really interesting watching how he evolves. He’s obviously a player.” The other way to improve a pass rush While the Falcons need a better pass rush, the first step to its improved defensive play during the second half of the season came with fixing a broken secondary. Once Raheem Morris moved from coaching receivers to defensive backs, the big pass plays that were common in the first eight games didn’t occur nearly as often. According to Dimitroff, that was perhaps a big takeaway from this season based on recent conversations. “Dan and I were talking the other day, and he was talking to me about corners,” Dimitroff said. “I couldn’t believe it. We stopped, and he said, ‘I can’t believe I’m talking so much about corners these days.’ I said (jokingly), ‘No, you lost your way. It’s all about the secondary.’” The Falcons have a big decision to make with Desmond Trufant this offseason. While Trufant is coming off a season that saw him post a career-best four interceptions, Atlanta can save $4.95 million by releasing him. The team also could try to explore a restructured deal to help alleviate the cap concern for the 2020 season. If Atlanta parts ways with Trufant, however, that would open a hole in the secondary. And with the pass-happy nature of today’s NFL, finding a quality corner would become important to ensure the defensive line has enough time to get after the quarterback. “We have some aggressive guys we like,” Dimitroff said. “We like where we’re at with some of our young corners (Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield), as well. We’ll continue to grow there and hold them on the line a little bit longer so we can make sure the pass rush can get there. They work together for sure. We do think in this year’s draft there is a way to bolster the secondary. We’ll keep an eye on that.” The strongest position group at the Senior Bowl While Atlanta doesn’t have an early-round need for one, Dimitroff believes the strongest position group at this year’s Senior Bowl is at wide receiver. “I think the receivers are a really strong group here this year,” he said. “There’s a good wave of them, not only the big guys but the fast guys. There’s some versatile guys in that group. Again, I think the offensive line is going to have an interesting group as well.” Dimitroff mentioned how impressed he is with the size of some of the players on the North team, which includes Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool (6-foot-4, 229 pounds), Texas A&M’s Quartney Davis (6-2, 200 pounds), Liberty’s Antonio Gandy-Golden (6-4, 220 pounds), Baylor’s Denzel Mims (6-3, 215 pounds) and USC’s Michael Pittman Jr. (6-4, 220 pounds). The depth at the position in this all-star game, as well as the entire draft, could benefit the Falcons on the third day of the draft. While the top three receivers seem set with Jones, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage, Dimitroff mentioned that there have been internal discussions about the fourth and fifth receivers on the roster. With Gage playing a bigger role on offense and being pulled off special teams, it appears a need for another receiver to perform his previous task has developed. “We talked a lot about No. 4 and No. 5 and where we are with special teams because on our team, those guys have to step up and be legit special teams contributors,” Dimitroff said. “Of course, that’s another position you can look at. I think where we are with our receiver group, they help the young guys grow, as well. Julio is such a good element to that, as well. I think adding another guy, whether that’s a fast guy or a big guy, just depends on what we’re looking for. “We have a lot to discuss in that way. You can break down that receiver group and decide, with (Mohamed) Sanu leaving, do we need another big guy? And you could also argue on the other hand that we might need someone who tears the top off. I love that idea that we can look at it two different ways because it gives us more players to look at.” What round for a running back? Dimitroff didn’t completely rule out the idea of taking a running back in the first two rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft. But it doesn’t sound like he is ready to change his philosophy on the topic just yet. “I think there are some really good backs in those middle rounds. I’ve always been strong on that idea,” Dimitroff said when asked if he would consider taking a running back early. “I think it’s important to make sure you look and find the best value at all the positions. I’m never completely opposed to it. If you have a legit stud as a running back, and you think it’s worth it for your organization, then I can see someone making a move on that.” Since becoming Atlanta’s general manager in 2008, Dimitroff has drafted seven running backs — eight if you count fullback Bradie Ewing in 2012. The earliest Dimitroff has ever taken a running back was in 2016 when Atlanta selected Tevin Coleman in the third round. The Falcons do have a decision to make with Devonta Freeman since $3.5 million can be freed up with his trade or release. A restructured deal is certainly possible, although Atlanta still has Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison under contract, with Brian Hill being a restricted free agent. Before any decisions are reached on when to target a running back, some of these other factors need to be worked out first. “We like where we are with our group of running backs,” Dimitroff said. “We’ll see how it all plays out. But versatility with running backs, and toughness and durability, that’s going to be important for us as we move forward with that group.”
  20. https://theathletic.com/1539835/2020/01/16/schultz-biggest-differences-between-falcons-and-playoff-teams-should-be-obvious/ The Falcons announced this week that they soon will unveil new uniforms, a merchandising decision that will have zero impact in any areas that actually count if one can’t see the new jerseys because they’re somewhere under a pile of opposing players. Which leads me to this week. Atlanta was not one of the 12 teams that made the NFL playoffs, and it follows that it isn’t one of the four playing in the two conference championship games this week. Non-playoff teams this week all are attempting to answer the same question: “What makes them different from us?” It’s a painfully obvious answer for the Falcons: One, their pass rush stinks. Two, their running game stinks. There’s enough blame to go around in those areas, from head coach Dan Quinn and his poor staffing decisions, to the coordinators and their lack of creativity and objectivity, to the front office and some poor personnel moves, to perhaps, most of all the players, many of whom underachieved. But before jumping into the primary differences between the Falcons and the four conference finalists, here are the areas to note: Sacks: The Falcons’ defense finished with 28 sacks, which ranked 30th. The last time they had a double-digit sack guy (Vic Beasley, 2016), they made it to the Super Bowl. The previous time they had a double-digit sack guy (John Abraham, 2012), they made it to the NFC title game. Of the top 15 sack teams, nine made the playoffs (New Orleans, San Francisco, Minnesota, New England, Kansas City, Buffalo, Tennessee, Philadelphia, Green Bay). Of the bottom 17, only three made the playoffs (Baltimore, Houston, Seattle). The four teams left in the playoffs (49ers, Chiefs, Titans, Packers) each finished with 40-plus sacks. See, you really don’t have to go too deep into analytics. Running game: The Falcons finished 30th in rushing at 85.1 yards per game. That’s not just about poor offensive line play or Devonta Freeman — it’s about the scheme and predictable play calling. Of the nine worst rushing teams, zero made the playoffs. Zero. Of the 14 worst, only one made the playoffs: Kansas City, who was 23rd. But the Chiefs have made up for it with a great season from quarterback Patrick Mahomes and superior play calling of Eric Bieniemy, who probably should have landed one of the head-coaching openings. Quinn and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter often said they were striving for balance in the attack. Epic fail there. They ranked 32nd, as in last, in running game percentage (22.4). Here’s the playoff field and each team’s respective ranking in rushing yardage percentage: Baltimore (1), Buffalo (3), Tennessee (4), San Francisco (5), Minnesota (6), Seattle (7), Houston (11), Philadelphia (13), Green Bay (17), New England (22), New Orleans (25), Kansas City (27). The three outliers all have extraordinary quarterbacks: the Patriots (Tom Brady), Saints (Drew Brees) and Chiefs. They were the only three in the bottom 15 to make the playoffs. Now, to the four NFC and AFC finalists. Tennessee I’m starting with the Titans because if ever there was a blueprint for how a team can win without shiny pieces and a video game offense, it’s them. Tennessee has won consecutive playoff games at New England (20-13) and at Baltimore (28-12), limiting offenses led by Brady and Lamar Jackson, respectively, to a total of one touchdown with five turnovers, including three interceptions. The Titans have a smart and tough head coach, Mike Vrabel, who’s one of the few Bill Belichick disciples to prove himself capable for the top job. Like Belichick, Vrabel doesn’t focus on being the players’ buddy. He doesn’t need to because he has their respect. There’s a message there. In Week 4, when Tennessee was only 1-2 and had consecutive losses to Indianapolis and Jacksonville, it traveled to Atlanta and dumped the Falcons 24-10. Marcus Mariota threw three touchdown passes. How bad was the Falcons’ defense? In Mariota’s next two starts, both losses, he threw for zero touchdowns and two interceptions and was sacked eight times. Vrabel benched him for Ryan Tannehill. The Falcons’ loss to the Titans also might’ve been the greatest indictment of Koetter, who couldn’t find a solution for the Tennessee defense. The Titans limited the Falcons to 58 rushing yards and sacked Matt Ryan five times. Outside of great coaching, Tennessee has two things: One, a great running back, Derrick Henry, who has rushed for 588 yards in the past three weeks, more than the 548 yards the Falcons accumulated in the first eight games, when they went 1-7; and two, a great defensive front. The pass rush produced 43 sacks (15 more than the Falcons). Tennessee twice stopped Baltimore on fourth-and-1, forced Jackson to move to outside the hash marks, where he’s less effective as a runner and passer, and stuffed the Patriots at the goal line. San Francisco The 49ers are next because they’re the team most Falcons fans appear to be watching. Coach Kyle Shanahan, running backs assistant Bobby Turner and running game coordinator Mike McDaniel all were on Quinn’s Super Bowl staff in 2016. (Also on the 49ers from that staff: Mike LaFleur, the passing game coordinator.) Atlanta couldn’t stop Shanahan from taking a head coaching job, but letting Turner go was a huge loss. Word is the Falcons didn’t care for McDaniel. San Francisco finished the regular season with the No. 2 rushing attack, 144.1 yards per game and a league-high 23 touchdowns, far ahead of the Falcons’ 85.1 and 10. The 49ers are getting it done with a rotation of three running backs that includes Tevin Coleman, who also was part of the Falcons’ Super Bowl team. Credit to San Francisco’s front office for prioritizing building the defensive front. Nick Bosa, a first-round pick, has had a monster season with nine sacks, 25 quarterback hits and 16 tackles for loss. DeForest Buckner, a first-round pick in 2016, has 19.5 sacks in the past two seasons. Dee Ford was acquired from Kansas City for a second-round pick after a Pro Bowl season. Arik Armstead, a first-round pick in 2015, has had 10 sacks in a breakout season and likely will hit it big in free agency. Those four combined for 33 sacks this season, 63 QB hits and 42 tackles for loss. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh almost certainly will be on the short list for head coaching jobs after next season. Green Bay Another Falcons coaching tie: Head coach Matt LaFleur, Mike’s brother, was the Falcons’ quarterbacks coach in 2016. A number of people wondered why the Falcons never seriously considered him to replace Shanahan as the offensive coordinator. Good question. The answer is that neither Quinn nor Thomas Dimitroff believed he was ready. It’s possible they were right. LaFleur had been with Shanahan with three teams (Houston, Washington, Atlanta), but he never had called plays. In 2017, LaFleur became the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive coordinator, but Sean McVay called plays. In 2018, LaFleur took the Tennessee OC job under Vrabel, but the Titans, partly because of injuries, had a miserable year offensively, finishing 25th in yardage and 27th in scoring. When Green Bay hired LaFleur to be its head coach, many were stunned. It helps to have Aaron Rodgers. But the Packers’ running game also has improved slightly, going from 104 to 112 yards per game, and it’s noteworthy that they scored ran for two touchdowns in the playoff win over Seattle. Green Bay’s rushing-yards percentage also was significantly higher than the Falcons. Defensively, the Packers’ 19.6 points allowed during the season ranks second to only the 49ers’ 19.4 among the remaining playoff teams. The key? The Packers have two-digit sack guys, Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, and a strong defensive coordinator, Mike Pettine. Bingo. Pressure and coaching combined to help Green Bay allow the sixth-lowest quarterback efficiency rating at 81.1. The Falcons, even with second-half improvement, finished with an opponents’ QB rating of 96.9 to rank 24th. Kansas City The Chiefs have the most elite talent of the remaining four teams with six Pro Bowlers this season, including three great offensive weapons (Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce) and former Georgia wide receiver/returner Mecole Hardman. In that sense, they’re not unlike the Falcons. Where things change: The Chiefs have two great defensive linemen in Frank Clark and Chris Jones, who combined for 17 sacks and 34 QB hits during the season. They also have 15 players who had at least one sack. The Falcons had seven, plus two players who shared one sack. Kansas City’s defense ranked fifth in passer rating, 11th in sacks and seventh in scoring, a category in which the Falcons ranked 23rd. In addition to a strong coaching staff, led by Andy Reid and Bieniemy, the Chiefs have been built well with strong veteran leadership, an area where the Falcons have lacked in the past three seasons. One final statistic: Three of the four playoff teams — Green Bay (four), Kansas City (five) and Tennessee (eight) — ranked among the top five in throwing the fewest interceptions. The Falcons finished with 15 (14 by Ryan), which ranked 21st. The last time Ryan threw that many interceptions was in 2015, when the Falcons lost six straight at one point, finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs.
  21. https://theathletic.com/1536886/2020/01/15/what-new-assistants-joe-whitt-jr-tosh-lupoi-bring-to-the-falcons-staff/ The word continuity was mentioned often in the immediate aftermath of the Falcons’ 7-9 season that ended without a playoff berth for the second consecutive season. After electing to fire every coordinator from the 2018 staff and take on additional responsibilities himself, head coach Dan Quinn decided that a 2020 turnaround would have greater odds if most of the coaches he had in place — who helped the team finish with a 6-2 record after a disastrous 1-7 start — returned for another year. While Quinn wants to keep the vast majority of assistants by his side, he did part ways with defensive passing game coordinator Jerome Henderson and assistant defensive line coach Travis Jones. To replace Henderson, Quinn hired Joe Whitt Jr. to serve the exact same job. Replacing Jones on staff is Tosh Lupoi, who will coach defensive ends while holding a defensive run game coordinator title. Whitt has vast NFL coaching experience that dates to 2007 when he first entered the league as an assistant with the Falcons under former head coach Bobby Petrino. Lupoi’s experience mostly has been in the college ranks, with 2019 being his first in the NFL. Whitt and Lupoi were on the same staff in Cleveland this season. While there is a vacancy at tight ends coach following Mike Mularkey’s decision to retire — with offensive assistant and former Tampa Bay tight ends coach Ben Steele being a prime candidate for that position — it would seem any new openings would arise from an assistant on staff leaving for another job. For now, here’s a look at how Whitt and Lupoi’s additions should affect the coaching staff for the 2020 season. Whitt’s role with the secondary The bulk of Whitt’s career in the NFL has been as a cornerbacks coach. While he holds a defensive passing game coordinator title, it’s easy to assume the bulk of his responsibilities will be with the corners on Atlanta’s defense. But nothing has been revealed publicly just about the coaching setup in the back end. What is known is that Raheem Morris, who went from receivers coach to defensive backs coach (with an emphasis on cornerbacks) will be the defensive coordinator. This should imply that Morris, while he probably will remain involved with the cornerbacks to a degree, will spread his time to all positions. When Morris started spending more time with the cornerbacks, Doug Mallory moved from cornerbacks to safeties. Therefore, an educated guess would be that Mallory will remain coaching the safeties while Whitt coaches the cornerbacks. While the secondary wasn’t getting the appropriate coaching through the first half of the 2019 season, hence Morris’ move from offense to defense, the coaching staff probably will feel comfortable with Whitt based on his expertise. After Petrino’s failure in 2007, Whitt took a quality control job with the Green Bay Packers in 2008. When head coach Mike McCarthy was hired by the Packers a year later, he retained Whitt and made him the cornerbacks coach. Whitt stayed with McCarthy during his entire tenure in Green Bay. In four of 10 seasons under McCarthy, the Packers finished in the top 10 in passing yards allowed. 2009: fifth, 201.1 passing yards per game 2010: fifth, 194.2 passing yards per game 2011: 32nd, 299.8 passing yards per game 2012: 11th, 218.2 passing yards per game 2013: 24th, 247.2 passing yards per game 2014: 10th, 226.4 passing yards per game 2015: sixth, 227.6 passing yards per game 2016: 31st, 269.2 passing yards per game 2017: 23rd, 236.8 passing yards per game 2018: 12th, 234.5 passing yards per game With the Browns in 2019, Whitt’s secondary finished seventh in the NFL by allowing 216.9 passing yards per game. That gives him five top-10 showings in the past 11 seasons. The area where Atlanta hopes Whitt’s addition helps the most is with takeaways. While the Falcons tied for 17th with 12 interceptions during the 2019 regular season, that number was backlogged during the final eight games. In the first eight, Desmond Trufant totaled two picks, and that was it for the entire team. With Green Bay, Whitt’s secondaries were known for picking off passes. In seven of his 10 seasons with McCarthy, the Packers finished in the top 10 in interceptions. 2009: first, 30 interceptions 2010: second, 24 interceptions 2011: first, 31 interceptions 2012: eighth (tie), 18 interceptions 2013: 26th (tie), 11 interceptions 2014: seventh (tie), 18 interceptions 2015: ninth, 16 interceptions 2016: fourth (tie), 17 interceptions 2017: 20th (tie), 11 interceptions 2018: 29th (tie), seven interceptions This season, the Browns, with Whitt having the defensive passing game coordinator title, tied for eighth with 14 interceptions. With the Packers, Whitt coached Charles Woodson, Al Harris, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, which certainly would aid any position coach. And with Cleveland, he worked with Denzel Ward. The Falcons definitely will have young cornerbacks Kendall Sheffield and Isaiah Oliver in the fold for the 2020 season. Desmond Trufant’s future isn’t as clear, as he could be a salary-cap casualty. But regardless of who is in the defensive backs’ room, Whitt should be a positive presence for a team looking to create more turnovers. Lupoi’s role with the defensive line While the secondary coaches aren’t as defined just yet, Lupoi’s role is clear. He did receive a fancy title — defensive run game coordinator — but his primary focus will be to coach the defensive ends. This season’s defensive line coach, Jess Simpson, now will focus on coaching the defensive tackles. While Lupoi did receive a defensive run game title, it seems fairly evident that a big part of his responsibilities will be to improve his group’s pass rush. In 2019, the Falcons finished 29th with only 28 sacks, and 21 of those sacks came during the final eight games. But even if that number could have been extrapolated for the entire year, the Falcons would have finished 15th with 42 sacks. So there is still plenty of improvement to take place for the Falcons to get where they want to be in this department. Lupoi’s next-level coaching career began in 2008, when he became California’s defensive line coach. During his four years with the program, he coached future pros Cameron Jordan and Tyson Alualu. At Cal, 15.5 of Jordan’s 16.5 sacks came with Lupoi leading his position group. Alualu recorded 7.5 sacks during his final season at Cal in 2009. From Cal, Lupoi went to Washington to work for then-head coach Steve Sarkisian as the defensive run game coordinator/defensive line coach. Two standout players Lupoi coached were Hau’oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton. In 2013, Kikaha, an edge rusher, recorded 12.5 sacks and Shelton, a defensive tackle, totaled 50 tackles and a sack. After 2013, Lupoi left Washington with a settlement after he was investigated for paying for a player’s tutoring and online classes. An NCAA investigation, however, cleared Lupoi, who then took a defensive analyst role at Alabama during the early 2014 offseason. A year later in 2015, Lupoi was elevated to outside linebackers coach, with 22.5 of the Crimson Tide’s 53 sacks that season coming from his position group. Lupoi was subsequently elevated to co-defensive coordinator. In 2018, he became the team’s primary defensive coordinator. At a place like Alabama, rushing the passer with the talent available was relatively easy. Even so, during his time with the Crimson Tide, outside linebackers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson saw significant jumps once Lupoi took over the position group. Williams went from 1.5 sacks in 2013 and 2014 to 18.5 sacks during his final two years. Anderson went from 4.5 sacks in 2013 and 2014 to 14.5 sacks in 2015 and 2016. After the 2018 season, Lupoi left Alabama to be the Browns’ defensive line coach. While Myles Garrett totaled 10 sacks in 10 games, the team totaled 30, which ranked 20th in the NFL. In his new job, the Falcons will hope that Lupoi putting his sole focus on the defensive ends will lead to greater production in the sack department. Having two experienced assistants on the defensive line, in theory, should further free up Quinn to focus on the bigger picture as the head coach. Now, considering Lupoi was given a defensive run game coordinator title, here’s a look at how Lupoi’s fronts have fared against the run in the college ranks. 2008 at California as defensive line coach: 25th nationally, 122.2 rushing yards per game 2009 at California as defensive line coach: 23rd nationally, 112.0 rushing yards per game 2010 at California as defensive line coach: 35th nationally, 132.1 rushing yards per game 2011 at California as defensive line coach: 34th nationally, 128.7 rushing yards per game 2012 at Washington as defensive run game coordinator: 62nd nationally, 160.1 rushing yards per game 2013 at Washington as defensive run game coordinator: 61st, 161.3 rushing yards per game 2014 at Alabama as defensive analyst:fourth nationally, 102.4 rushing yards per game 2015 at Alabama as outside linebackers coach: first nationally, 75.7 rushing yards per game 2016 at Alabama as co-defensive coordinator: first nationally, 63.9 rushing yards per game 2017 at Alabama as co-defensive coordinator: second nationally, 95.7 rushing yards per game 2018 at Alabama as defensive coordinator: 19th nationally, 122.0 rushing yards per game In his first NFL stop as a defensive line coach, the Browns ranked 30th by allowing 144.7 yards per game. In the college ranks, Lupoi held a reputation for being an elite recruiter. While that skill doesn’t directly translate to the NFL ranks, he should provide a relatable personality to the players he will be coaching. While Lupoi has shown the ability to coach up quality talent as a college assistant, Atlanta will hope he can help elevate the team’s defensive ends heading into the 2020 season.
  22. https://theathletic.com/1523180/2020/01/09/breaking-down-the-falcons-offseason-free-agent-shopping-list/ At the present time, the Falcons don’t have too much money at their disposal. They didn’t seem to have much last year either. Sure, there are ways to move numbers around to create space. Cap casualties are all but likely to occur. Still, it seems like the organization will be hard-pressed to land big-name players on the open market in free agency. That’s the reality of what happens when teams sign players like Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones to large contracts. Within the structure of a league-wide salary cap, teams can’t keep everybody while trying their best to ensure they keep their best players for the long haul. It’s a fine line to walk. It’s also something the Falcons have felt a tremendous amount of heat about after missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons. Even so, the Falcons’ front office doesn’t seem concerned about the salary cap situation. Like last year, Atlanta believes it has a strong core in place and simply needs to add pieces to the bigger puzzle. Once again, the Falcons probably won’t make too big of a splash in free agency when it pertains to bringing in outside players on the market. But they likely will find ways to maneuver their cap to bring in some rotational pieces. Here’s a look at a few position groups Atlanta could address in free agency. Interior offensive line Going into the 2020 season, the Falcons seem set with four starters on the offensive line. Left tackle Jake Matthews, center Alex Mack, right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary all figure to be back unless the Falcons decide Mack’s salary cap hit is too much to take. It would be seen as a surprise at this point for Mack not to be in a Falcons uniform next season. One spot that is open is left guard. And it would seem prudent for the Falcons to address this position in the short term via free agency. As it stands, Matt Gono, James Carpenter and Jamon Brown are under contract. The Falcons like what they have in Gono, a former undrafted player who mostly has been a developmental player while on the 53-man roster. Wes Schweitzer, who ended the season starting at left guard, is a free agent, although the Falcons could bring him back on a short-term contract. Carpenter and Brown, the two free-agent acquisitions last year, were unable to get the job done to the team’s liking, which was backed up when with general manager Thomas Dimitroff stated that left guard will be a “competitive spot” this offseason. One player of note to keep an eye on could be Detroit Lions interior offensive lineman Graham Glasgow, who just finished his rookie contract. Glasgow started his NFL career at left guard before moving to center. This year, however, he worked in a rotation at right guard, which apparently didn’t make much sense to those following the Lions. If the way he was used in 2019 is indicative of anything, it could mean the Lions are ready to let Glasgow walk. Glasgow potentially could be Mack’s replacement at center in the long term if he were to end up with the Falcons. The Athletic’s Chris Burke wrote that Glasgow could command a market value at an estimated $18 million for three years. If so, that could be a figure that works out in Atlanta’s plans, especially if the Falcons can ensure the year-one cap figure is low enough. From there, Atlanta — as well as other teams in similar salary cap situations — will hope the salary cap rises considerably once the 2021 collective bargaining agreement is finalized. The Falcons won’t be able to splurge on a big-name guard, such as Washington’s Brandon Scherff, who could earn an average annual value of more than $12 million per year. And it will be interesting to see what New England guard Joe Thuney will command on the open market after his second-team All-Pro nod this year. But there should be plenty of options the Falcons can turn their attention to in free agency this offseason. Tight end When it comes to tight end, the Falcons won’t be looking at who is available just yet. The priority remains to re-sign Austin Hooper, who should command a salary of more than $10 million per year on average annual value. Salary-cap worriers must take note that there are numerous ways to lower the first-year hit so that it can work for the 2020 season. And the 2021 collective bargaining agreement could assist teams like Atlanta for future years. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Falcons place the franchise tag on Hooper with the idea that a long-term agreement could be reached before the tag would go into effect. For a while now, Atlanta’s philosophy has been to draft and develop. Hooper fits the bill as a former third-round pick who has improved every year he has been with the franchise. If not for an MCL sprain during the season, Hooper’s numbers might have ended the year in the top four in receiving among tight ends. As it stands, his 787 yards ranked sixth at the position in 2019. Kansas City’s Travis Kelce (1,229 receiving yards), Oakland’s Darren Waller (1,145), San Francisco’s George Kittle (1,053), Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz (916) and Baltimore’s Mark Andrews (852) ranked ahead of him. Hooper is quite valuable for the Falcons, evidenced by the rapport he and Ryan have been able to establish. While he has benefited from Jones’ drawing extra coverage his way, Hooper has been able to take advantage of his single-coverage opportunities. Finding a tight end who can win his one-on-one battles more often than not isn’t as easy as it may seem. And if the Falcons decide not to tag Hooper, and he leaves through the open market, the position will have to produce by committee in 2020. In this scenario, Jaeden Graham would step into a larger role with the Falcons possibly looking to add a budget-friendly tight end via free agency. Among the upcoming veteran free agents who could be of interest if Hooper heads elsewhere are Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert and Arizona’s Charles Clay. Defensive line Atlanta’s defensive line numbers are thin. Quite a few players from the 2019 roster are hitting free agency, and the Falcons must decide which ones to keep. Defensive tackle Tyeler Davison would appear to be one who has a good shot at sticking around on another short-term contract. Defensive end Steven Means, who tore his Achilles last offseason, also has a great chance of being with the team in 2020. From there, it’s somewhat dicey. Additional upcoming free agents from this past season’s team are defensive end Vic Beasley, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, defensive tackle Jack Crawford, defensive tackle Michael Bennett and defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman. Of this group, Atlanta is likely to pick a couple to stay and then add others via the draft and free agency. With free agency beginning before the draft, the Falcons must figure out which players they can bring in at the price that works. From there, they can address whether rounding out the unit via a first-round pick is a necessity. But with the salary cap situation being what it is, it doesn’t seem like Atlanta will be able to bring in a big-name defensive end. If Buffalo defensive end Shaq Lawson hits the open market, he could be a name to watch. But even Lawson, whose fifth-year option wasn’t picked up, could wind up commanding a sizable contract after totaling 6.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hits. Punter and place-kicker Atlanta’s situation at punter is much more unknown than at place-kicker. While Younghoe Koo is an exclusive rights free agent, it’s expected that he will receive an offer, and if he wants to play in 2020, he must accept that offer. In addition, it’s expected that the Falcons will bring in competition at place-kicker. At punter, however, the Falcons must decide if it’s time to move on from Matt Bosher. Bosher has been with Atlanta since the franchise selected him in the sixth round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Given the need to make certain decisions to remain under the salary cap, which is expected to be in the $200 million range, the Falcons’ front office may decide it is time to get cheaper at the position. This season, Bosher earned more than $2.5 million but ended 2019 on injured reserve due to a persistent groin injury. Atlanta underwent a game of musical chairs at the position before settling on Ryan Allen. It’s possible that the Falcons either bring Allen back and add some competition or simply look for two different punters to compete throughout the offseason. A local fan favorite to bring in would be Cameron Nizialek, who finished his college career at Georgia during its run to the national championship game in 2017. He averaged 45 yards per punt and helped Georgia rank eighth nationally in net punting with an average of 41.7 yards. Nizialek most recently spent time with the Baltimore Ravens last preseason and was Koo’s teammate when they were with the AAF’s Atlanta Legends. In addition, the Falcons likely would look at some undrafted free agents to bring in for competitive purposes. Not often do teams draft these positions — two place-kickers and two punters were drafted in 2019. If the Falcons wanted to go this route after the fourth round, Georgia place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship would be someone to consider.
  23. https://theathletic.com/1516057/2020/01/07/five-steps-the-falcons-can-take-to-improve-the-offensive-line-in-2020/ Giving up 50 total sacks in a season is generally a recipe for missing the playoffs. This season, six of the seven teams that surrendered 50 or more sacks failed to reach the postseason. The Falcons were among that group with a round number of 50. More concerning, however, is the fact the rushing attack averaged 85.1 yards per game — 30th in the NFL — and 3.8 yards per carry — tied for 25th. The Falcons tied for 29th in total carries with only 362 in 16 games. This offseason, the Falcons must figure out how to improve up front. While much of it will be player-driven, the coaches must adjust accordingly to ensure everyone is in the best possible position to succeed. With that in mind, here are five steps the Falcons need to take this offseason to improve the offensive line’s performance in 2020. Step 1: Do what’s necessary to keep Alex Mack While the Falcons have some tough internal decisions to make regarding the salary cap, letting Mack go to save $8 million against the salary cap would be a bad idea. If the $8 million is a problem when it comes to roster construction, perhaps the Falcons should spread the $8 million owed to him for 2020 — $2.55 million is already on the books in dead money, hence a savings of $8 million if released — to 2021 in a restructured deal. Ideally, the Falcons wouldn’t want to restructure Mack since he will be 35 next season. At the same time, Mack is still playing at a high level. His intellect allows him to make certain checks to his fellow linemen before plays, which speeds up the pre-snap process for quarterback Matt Ryan. While a simple clearing of the books would aid the salary cap, the Falcons would then have to figure out who Mack’s replacement would be. As it stands, there isn’t another lineman under contract who can play center. Wes Schweitzer, Mack’s backup in 2019, just finished his rookie contract and is set to be a free agent. By letting Mack go, the Falcons would need to have a replacement ready to take over. As of now, that’s not the case. If the $10.55 million cap figure is too high for 2020, adding a year to Mack’s existing contract in a restructure is an easy way to alleviate this problem. The Falcons can convert the $8 million salary into a bonus to be prorated into the 2021 season. That would reduce his 2020 cap figure to $6.55 million, saving $4 million. Mack is too valuable at his position to let go. The first order of business to improve the Falcons’ offensive line is to make sure Mack is with the team and good to go for the 2020 season. Step 2: Sign a left guard for competitive purposes in free agency While the Falcons struggled up front, the good news is that four players — assuming Mack is back — are returning to the unit. Joining Mack are left tackle Jake Matthews, right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary. Entering the 2019 season, only Matthews and Mack were returning starters. Having four linemen in place instead of two, with a full offseason to work alongside each other, should pay off once the 2020 season starts. That stated, the Falcons do need to find a left guard, perhaps in free agency, to plug into the spot. Regardless of who Atlanta brings in, it would be advisable to create a competition among more than two players. Head coach Dan Quinn preaches the value of competition throughout each work day. So why not make it a battle between more than just two players? Under contract, the Falcons still have Matt Gono, James Carpenter and Jamon Brown. Brown became a healthy scratch near the end of the season so his chances for the job seem slim. Gono is someone the Falcons have been working on developing the past two seasons. Perhaps it’s time to primarily place him as an interior lineman since the two tackles are set for the foreseeable future. Atlanta could also bring back Schweitzer on a short-term deal, considering his knowledge of the system. While the Falcons probably won’t be able to make a major splash in free agency, an interior lineman of note could be Graham Glasgow, who just finished up his rookie contract with the Detroit Lions. Glasgow played left guard and center before moving to right guard in 2019. With that kind of experience, Glasgow could add to the competition at left guard and then also be a potential backup at center. His market value, according to The Athletic’s Chris Burke, could be an estimated $18 million for three years. There are ways to sign him to such a deal while keeping the first-year cap hit low. And as Burke explained, Glasgow may want out of Detroit due to how he was used during the 2019 season. Step 3: Draft an interior lineman no later than the second day Like last year, adding another interior lineman is a must to this year’s draft class. But given the team’s needs elsewhere, finding one in the first round probably isn’t in the cards. Plus, it also doesn’t seem like any of the available linemen — at least this early in the process — have first-round grades. So that may make Atlanta’s decision easy from that perspective. As it turned out, Atlanta won its trade with the New England Patriots, which returned a second-round pick for Mohamed Sanu. The Falcons will now have two second-rounders and a third-rounder, all within the first 100 picks. With those three selections, there should be a sound interior offensive lineman available to take. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler ranked the top five interior offensive linemen for this year’s draft class in this order: Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey, LSU’s Lloyd Cushenberry, Tennessee’s Trey Smith, Wisconsin’s Tyler Biadasz and Temple’s Matt Hennesy. One of those players figures to be there during Atlanta’s three picks on the second day, especially if this draft class ends up seeing interior linemen fall out of the first round. If one of these potential draft picks hits, then you have Mack’s long-term replacement at center. If not, you at least have a depth addition who surely can’t be any worse than Peter Konz turned out to be after his selection in 2012. “It’s an interesting draft, as well,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “We have some young guys there that are, of course, of interest to us. We’d like nothing better than to continue to, again, build both sides of our lines, and back to what Dan said about the toughness and setting the tone, we know where that’s going to start.” Step 4: Marry the offensive line’s scheme with Dirk Koetter’s preferred play calls Once the player personnel is set for the season, fixing the production is where the focus then turns. Giving up 50 sacks in 16 games is unacceptable. A quarterback like Ryan should never take 48 of those sacks in a single year. Sure, in some instances the game flow produced more passing situations, which led to more sacks. Football Outsiders actually ranked the Atlanta pass protection 13th in the NFL, with an adjusted sack rate of 6.6 percent for the season. The NFL average was 7 percent. This obviously has to do with the fact that Atlanta led the NFL in passing attempts with 684, which was 51 more than the team that finished second — Carolina. At the same time, there were instances of linemen missing their one-on-one blocks too often. Combine that with a rushing attack that didn’t execute well — with the argument that the coaches didn’t commit to it often enough — and it’s understandable why Ryan was under duress so often during the 2019 season. Judging Koetter’s career, it’s evident he wants to put the offense in the quarterback’s hands more often than not. After Koetter was hired a year ago, Quinn said Koetter would adjust to the Falcons’ style of offense, which has an end goal of being a balanced attack. This was also meant to mean the wide zone runs would still be the focal point of the offense, with the inside zone used as a counter. It’s unknown whether this coaching adjustment period played into the up-and-down nature of the offense. Regardless, offering the threat of running the ball successfully must be an offseason priority. “We want to make sure that we have the same type of efficiency in the running game,” Quinn said. “It doesn’t have to be X number of plays, it doesn’t have to be 30 runs per game, but it does have to be efficient, and we do have to stay committed to it. That is one of the things that we’re going to work really hard at to make sure that part comes together.” Going into 2020, all of the moving parts on offense must be on board for how Koetter envisions the offense to look. If the game-planner and play-caller is forced to adjust to something he’s not as familiar or comfortable with, chances are the results won’t come in a favorable manner. Looking around the league, it’s hard to argue that Atlanta doesn’t have enough talented players along the offensive line. Therefore, coaching must also improve across the board to ensure the line’s scheme and the in-game calls are married together. Step 5: Further develop the 2019 first-round picks This offseason should be a big one for Lindstrom and McGary. Lindstrom looked the part of a first-round offensive lineman during the final four games of the season following his return from a broken foot. While McGary had his share of growing pains as a rookie, he still had a solid first season. If the Falcons can continue to work with McGary’s technique in pass protection, the belief inside team headquarters is that he will be fine for the long haul. Plus, once Lindstrom returned to the starting lineup, the right side of the line seemed much more in sync. While the Falcons’ line gave up six sacks in the finale against Tampa Bay — four in the first half and two in the second — the previous three weeks saw four combined sacks allowed. Assuming the Falcons won’t be forced to play catch-up as much as they did in 2019, the hope will be that the passing attempts can decrease, which will in turn keep Ryan off the turf. “I love where we are with our developing young guys, and those guys got some serious reps right away,” Dimitroff said. “They’re tough dudes who work hard, who are really driven. ”
  24. https://theathletic.com/1513601/2020/01/06/who-stays-who-goes-an-early-offseason-look-at-the-falcons-2020-roster-including-free-agents/ The Falcons’ difficult decisions will soon begin. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said part of the reason he isn’t worried about the salary cap is due to the tough calls he will have to make regarding certain key contributors. That can be taken to mean some players who have been integral in the past could be forced to find a new team for 2020. Updating a previous story on Atlanta’s roster, here is a look at each player’s current standing. As opposed to position, the players have been broken down into the categories they fit into once the new league year begins — unrestricted free agents, restricted free agents, exclusive-rights free agents and under contract. Unrestricted free agents TE Austin Hooper: Once again, Dimitroff expressed that re-signing Hooper will be the priority this offseason. At the same time, considering the salary-cap ramifications, can the Falcons secure a long-term deal with Hooper? If they do, it likely will come at the expense of another position that needs to be addressed. But Hooper is especially valuable to Atlanta’s offense. The franchise tag is an option if the Falcons are set on Hooper’s return but are unable to reach a long-term agreement. LB De’Vondre Campbell: For the second consecutive season, Campbell led the Falcons in tackles, this time with 129. He has yet to hear anything of substance from Atlanta on the contract front and said he understands the business aspect of the league. Despite Campbell’s production during the past four years, the Falcons may be forced to part ways for money reasons. DE Vic Beasley: During the final eight games, Beasley totaled 6.5 of his eight sacks for the 2019 season. That could be enough to earn him a short-term deal worth a decent amount of money with another team. While Atlanta picked up Beasley’s fifth-year option worth $12.8 million for the 2019 season, it may not be willing to spend much to bring him back. Beasley was placed on the trading block, with no takers, at the midpoint of the season. DL Michael Bennett: Bennett broke his ankle on the first training camp practice and subsequently went on injured reserve. He could be considered for a depth position. DT Tyeler Davison: Davison proved to be valuable against the run on early downs. Working alongside Grady Jarrett, Davison helped shore up a weak spot from the 2018 season. It seems feasible the Falcons would be able to bring back Davison on a team-friendly short-term contract. DE Adrian Clayborn: The Falcons have only three defensive ends under contract. If Clayborn is open to a return, you’d have to assume the Falcons will at least look into bringing back the veteran for another season. DT Jack Crawford: A rotational player this season, Crawford recorded half a sack after posting six sacks in 2018. Like Clayborn, he would be an easy-to-retain depth player. DE Steven Means: One of the most underrated losses for the season was not having Means available on the defensive line. Means was developing into a solid contributor near the end of the 2018 season. The coaches were fond of his ability to control the edge against the run. There’s a solid chance Means returns. DL Ra’Shede Hageman: The Falcons wanted another look at their former draft pick, who is hoping to make an NFL comeback after two seasons out of the league. But while Hageman was suspended for the first two games of 2019, and ultimately ended up on injured reserve, it didn’t appear he was knocking on the door for rotational time. P Matt Bosher: It all depends on how much the Falcons want to spend on a punter. If they are OK with $2 million to $3 million toward the 2020 salary cap going to a punter, Bosher should continue his career in Atlanta. If they want to save $1.5 million or more, going the young-and-cheaper route would be an option. RB Kenjon Barner: With the Falcons, Barner recorded his first-ever return touchdown, which coincidentally came against his former team, Carolina. Last year, the Falcons tried to find their next returner through the draft, and it didn’t work. Barner stepped in and performed admirably. He said he hopes to return. CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson: Wreh-Wilson has offered depth and experience the past two seasons. Asked to step up in a bigger role twice this season, Wreh-Wilson performed well enough to earn the opportunity to come back. FB Keith Smith: Smith did a good job as the team’s fullback and even capitalized on some short-yardage carries. If Atlanta wants to bring back Smith, he shouldn’t cost too much. G/C Wes Schweitzer: Schweitzer has earned a reputation for being one of the hardest-working players on the team. With a second contract coming up, the Falcons have a decision to make: bring back a key depth component who serves as the backup center or try their luck on another player. S J.J. Wilcox: Wilcox was the backup strong safety who was going to see time in certain defensive packages. On the first day of training camp, however, Wilcox tore his ACL. His status for the 2020 season on the Falcons roster remains uncertain. WR Justin Hardy: Hardy came back on a one-year deal in 2019. This coaching staff obviously trusts him. While he isn’t flashy, Hardy is a reliable pass-catcher. S Kemal Ishmael: Ishmael, like Sharrod Neasman, has been a valuable special-teamer. He finished yet another one-year deal, however, so there is no guarantee he’s back in 2020. S Sharrod Neasman: Neasman primarily has been a special-teamer and backup free safety. Considering the Falcons’ awful injury luck at safety in recent seasons, Neasman could receive a close look to come back. S Johnathan Cyprien: The Falcons traded Duke Riley for Cyprien, only for him to go on injured reserve after one game. OL John Wetzel: Wetzel was on and off the 53-man roster all season. He finished on the active roster. Without a new contract, he could soon be off of it again. P Ryan Allen: Allen ended the season as Bosher’s replacement. If the Falcons elect not to keep Bosher, perhaps Allen gets a closer look. Regardless, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a competition take place for the punter job. CB Jamar Taylor: Signed in December, Taylor appeared in the final three games of the season. Restricted free agents QB Matt Simms: Simms joined the Falcons during the preseason but was never going to make the 53-man roster. He ended up going on injured reserve before the regular season. RB Brian Hill: Hill was impressive down the stretch and should be back, perhaps in an even larger role. Exclusive-rights free agents PK Younghoe Koo: Brought on after the bye week, Koo went 23-of-26 kicking with a long of 50 yards. Koo is likely to be re-signed but is also likely to face competition this offseason — something Atlanta didn’t do after initially handing Giorgio Tavecchio the place-kicking job a year ago. As an exclusive-rights free agent, if the Falcons offer him a contract, Koo must accept if he’s to play in 2020. Under contract QB Matt Ryan: Ryan agreed to a contract adjustment to help free up some cap space in 2020. He is set to lead the Falcons once again, having only missed three total games in his distinguished career. QB Matt Schaub: At 38, Schaub proved against the Seattle Seahawks that he’s still worthy of being an NFL backup. His $2.375 million cap hit is probably worth it since a cheap backup would save the team only an estimated $1.5 million to $1.75 million. But that could be a decision the team decides to weigh this offseason. QB Kurt Benkert: Benkert went on injured reserve due to a toe injury after impressing early in the preseason. He will be an option for the Falcons if they decide to go younger and cheaper at backup quarterback. QB Danny Etling: The other younger-and-cheaper option at backup quarterback is Etling, who joined the team after the New England Patriots let him go. The Falcons thought enough of Etling to place a waiver claim to get him. On the practice squad for most of the season, Etling recently signed a reserve/future deal with Atlanta. RB Devonta Freeman: Under contract, Freeman has a chance to be a cap casualty because the Falcons would save $3.5 million by releasing or trading him. But perhaps the Falcons decide to keep him and try to restructure the remaining years on his contract. Time will soon tell whether Freeman remains in Atlanta’s plans. RB Ito Smith: Smith’s season came to an end after a second neck injury landed him on injured reserve. Smith will enter his third season with the Falcons and has produced in spot duty when called upon. Smith offers good balance and vision and can also be used as a receiving threat. RB Qadree Ollison: The Falcons carved out a short-yardage/goal-line role for Ollison late in the season. This offseason figures to be a big one for the soon-to-be second-year back if he’s going to earn additional playing time. RB Craig Reynolds: Reynolds finished the season on the practice squad and signed a reserve/future contract last week. WR Julio Jones: Jones will account for $20.4 million against the salary cap in 2020. That’s the price to pay if you have one of the league’s elite receivers. WR Calvin Ridley: After Mohamed Sanu was traded, Ridley became even more involved, which furthered his confidence. Ridley suffered a painful abdomen injury late in the year, which placed him on injured reserve. Ridley figures to be poised for a big season. WR Russell Gage: Entering the season, Gage was one of the team’s most improved players. Once Sanu was traded, Gage earned more playing time and became someone Ryan could rely on. Gage should enter 2020 as Atlanta’s third wide receiver. WR Christian Blake: Blake will continue backing up Jones at practice. If Jones follows last year’s plan and rests during most of the offseason workouts, Blake could be in for a big developmental offseason. WR Olamide Zaccheaus: Zaccheaus showed how explosive he can be on his 93-yard touchdown against the Carolina Panthers. He also became a contributor on special teams as the year continued. Although undrafted, Atlanta thought enough of Zaccheaus to sign him to the 53-man roster out of training camp. WR Devin Gray: Gray was on the bubble for a 53-man roster spot last preseason but spent the season on the practice squad. He signed a reserve/future deal late last week. WR Brandon Powell: Powell was promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster during the season but never appeared in a game. TE Luke Stocker: While Stocker is slated to return in 2020, releasing him would net a cap savings of $2.6 million. Stocker served as Atlanta’s primary blocking tight end. TE Jaeden Graham: Graham is a young up-and-comer who got some good experience when Hooper missed three games with a knee injury. Graham was able to catch his first career touchdown, too. If Hooper doesn’t return, Graham could be a big beneficiary of playing time and targets. TE Carson Meier: The Falcons signed Meier to a reserve/future deal, so he looks to be in the team’s plans for the time being. T Jake Matthews: Matthews had many more positive moments than negative ones in 2019. Matthews has a reputation as a tactician at left tackle and will remain the starter. G James Carpenter: The Falcons won’t save much money by releasing Carpenter, who ended the season on injured reserve due to concussions. But if the Falcons think there’s a better option at a value in free agency, they could go in that direction. C Alex Mack: Of the difficult decisions Dimitroff alluded to, Mack just might be one of the toughest. From a football perspective, it would make little sense to part ways, considering the value he brings on the field. While the Falcons could save $8 million against the salary cap, the drop-off in production and communication might not be worth it. G Chris Lindstrom: Lindstrom was able to return for the final five games of the season and looked impressive. He has the makings of being a successful right guard for years to come. T Kaleb McGary: The Falcons traded into the first round to take McGary. Playing alongside Lindstrom during the final five weeks, McGary appeared much more comfortable. A full offseason of working together could prove tremendous for the duo on the right side of the offensive line. T Ty Sambrailo: Sambrailo’s operating under a three-year contract, although the Falcons have the financial flexibility to get out of it with little penalty. Will they do that? It depends on how they decide to address the offensive line as a whole. G Jamon Brown: There isn’t much financial flexibility to get out of Brown’s contract if the Falcons feel inclined to do so. If they want to go that route, trading Brown would be the solution. OL Matt Gono: Gono finally was able to get some playing time during the final five games of the season. Perhaps his NFL future is at guard. He cross-trained at guard late in 2018 only to revert to tackle for the 2019 regular season. He saw time at right guard and left guard once Atlanta moved him inside. OL Sean Harlow: Harlow bounced back and forth from the practice squad to the 53-man roster. He was a fourth-round draft pick in 2017. OL Lukayus McNeil: McNeil ended the season on the practice squad and signed a reserve/future contract last week. DE Takk McKinley: McKinley will enter the fourth year of his rookie deal, with Atlanta soon deciding whether it will pick up his fifth-year option. McKinley’s season ended on injured reserve due to a shoulder injury. He totaled 3.5 sacks. DE Allen Bailey: Bailey upgraded the Falcons defense against the run. But Atlanta could save $4.5 million with his release. Bailey could wind up being one of those difficult decisions the team has to make based on the value of his contract. Another consideration: The numbers at defensive end already appear thin. DE: Austin Larkin: Larkin was a preseason standout who began the season on the practice squad. He finished on the 53-man roster. DT Grady Jarrett: Even when Atlanta’s defense was struggling, Jarrett’s individual play was impeccable. Jarrett finished the season with 7.5 sacks and a Pro Bowl berth. He easily lived up to the money earned with his second contract. DT Deadrin Senat: Senat was a third-round selection in 2018 but was a healthy scratch for 14 of 16 games. This offseason will be big for Senat if he’s to remain with the franchise. DL John Cominsky: An ankle injury limited Cominsky during the middle of the season. Still, the Falcons believe Cominsky will provide good value over the next couple of seasons. Cominsky projects to being an interior pass-rusher who can also play the edge. DL Jacob Tuioti-Mariner: Tuioti-Mariner is a developmental player the front office has thought highly of for some time. He was able to get some valuable experience on the 53-man roster over the latter half of the season. LB Deion Jones: Atlanta signed Jones to a lucrative contract this past offseason, putting him in the team’s plans for the foreseeable future. Jones was able to conclude the 2019 season with a fumble recovery and a walk-off pick-six against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. LB Foye Oluokun: Oluokun saw an increase in snaps over the second half of the season and at multiple linebacker spots. He also proved to be a valuable special-teams contributor by totaling six tackles in that phase. He also showed a knack for being around the football on each of Atlanta’s onside-kick attempts. CB Desmond Trufant: The decision on Trufant is among the toughest Atlanta will have to make. In a league where quarterbacks are throwing the ball more than ever, combined with officiating that makes matters increasingly difficult on opposing defenses, quality cornerbacks are coveted. Trufant offers stability at the position but also brings a $10.2 million cap hit. Releasing him would free up $4.95 million. At the same time, perhaps Trufant and his representation would be open to a restructured deal. CB Kendall Sheffield: After Trufant suffered a season-ending broken forearm, Sheffield became the top corner in Atlanta’s base package. He was impressive during his rise up the depth chart as a rookie. Sheffield’s elevated play could also be a factor in the team’s decision about Trufant. CB Isaiah Oliver: While Oliver had a bumpy first half of the season, he settled into his role during the final eight games. Getting an upcoming offseason to work more with Raheem Morris should continue to help the rising third-year corner. CB Jordan Miller: While this season was essentially a redshirt year for Miller, he will open the 2020 season suspended for the first three games. He tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug and was also suspended for the season finale against the Buccaneers. DB CJ Reavis: Reavis finished the 2019 season on the practice squad and signed a reserve/future deal last week. S Ricardo Allen: Allen is entering the final season of his three-year contract. Allen’s intelligence and leadership should greatly offset the $3.125 million Atlanta could save by releasing him. Allen is too valuable on the field and in the locker room. S Keanu Neal: More than likely, the Falcons will execute Neal’s fifth-year option, considering how well he performed his first two seasons. For Neal, it obviously has been disappointing to suffer ACL and Achilles injuries in consecutive years. S Damontae Kazee: Considering how Kazee performed in 2018, it’s understandable why the coaches wanted to keep him on the field by starting him at nickel. But it’s also clear now that Kazee’s future is at free safety. Perhaps the coaching staff comes up with a way to get all three of Atlanta’s top safeties on the field at the same time. S Jamal Carter: After his promotion to the 53-man roster, Carter worked primarily as a box safety and on special teams. If the Falcons decide not to bring Ishmael back, Carter would slide into that role. S Chris Cooper: Cooper was impressive during the preseason but was unable to make the team out of training camp due to the numbers game at safety. On the practice squad for most of the season, Cooper did end the year on the 53-man roster. S Ahmad Thomas: Thomas joined the Falcons practice squad in October but was signed to the 53-man roster in December. He’s under contract for 2020. LS Josh Harris: Harris, a Pro Bowl alternate, signed a three-year extension last offseason and is the lone lock on special teams for 2020.
  25. https://theathletic.com/1507707/2020/01/03/year-in-review-falcons-plan-to-learn-from-early-mistakes-that-cost-them-2019-season/ It was quite the risk to make wholesale changes. When the 2018 season wrapped up with a disappointing 7-9 record, there were things the coaching staff could point to — specifically injuries — as to why a potential Super Bowl contender failed to live up to expectations. Early in the season, the Falcons dealt with serious injuries to Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and Deion Jones. Grady Jarrett and Takk McKinley were forced to miss games. The defense, as a result, took a ton of time to find cohesion with so much star power out of the lineup. That led to a 1-4 start. While the Falcons climbed back to 4-4, a five-game losing streak ended any hope of a postseason appearance. Three wins to close the season made everyone feel a bit better. Well, almost everyone. A day after the regular season ended, head coach Dan Quinn made the call to fire all three of his top assistants — offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong. In making those decisions, Quinn came to the conclusion that the Falcons weren’t physical enough in any phase. Before filling the offensive coordinator and special teams coordinator positions, Quinn decided it was time to take over defensive play calling himself. In essence, he was betting on himself. Throughout his career, Quinn’s previous two bets on himself worked out. He took a chance right out of college to take a volunteer position with William & Mary instead of taking a paid graduate assistant role at Kutztown. The second bet was when he left his position as the defensive line coach for the Seattle Seahawks to be the Florida Gators’ defensive coordinator. Going from the NFL to college was a risk but one he felt the need to take to further his career. It worked out both times, with the latter resulting in Quinn returning to Seattle two years later as its defensive coordinator. This time, however, much more was at stake. While Quinn did not enter the 2019 season on the proverbial hot seat, it was clear that if the Falcons took a turn for the worse, he could end up there. The 2019 offseason When reviewing the 2018 season, there were two obvious areas of need for 2019: offensive line and defensive line. On the offensive line, the Falcons felt like they needed to improve at guard, specifically when it came to the position’s depth. In addition, there was suddenly a need at right tackle. After hiring offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, the Falcons wanted to add size up front, as well. The first move to aid this area was to re-sign tackle Ty Sambrailo to a three-year deal. The next was to sign guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown in free agency. Keeping one offensive lineman and signing two others were signals the Falcons could be looking to bolster the defensive line in the draft. Instead, the approach, by the time the draft rolled around, was to continue adding to the offensive line. But that came with a slight caveat. According to league sources, the Falcons had three players at the top of their draft board, and two of them happened to be defensive tackles. Ed Oliver was the player Atlanta coveted the most. In order to draft Oliver, however, the Falcons would need to trade up. But that wasn’t something Atlanta seemed inclined to do. If Oliver fell to No. 14, he would have been the pick. Oliver ended up sliding further than expected but was taken No. 9 by the Buffalo Bills. The next two on the Falcons’ board were guard Chris Lindstrom and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. Internally, the two players were ranked almost evenly. But after much discussion, it was decided that Lindstrom would be the preferred pick if both were available. Wilkins ended up selected one spot ahead at No. 13. The Falcons did a great job of disguising who they wanted to take at No. 14 during the pre-draft process. While information leaked that Atlanta wanted to upgrade the lines of scrimmage, Lindstrom wasn’t on the media’s radar when it came to the 14th pick. He initially was seen as a late first-rounder or early second-rounder. But based on league information, the Falcons didn’t want to risk trading back for Lindstrom due to the fact that the Minnesota Vikings, selecting 18th overall, also were interested in the Boston College guard. Therefore, when the Falcons were on the clock, there wasn’t any debate as to who would be picked. It was an easy choice at that point. But Atlanta wasn’t done. Feeling like it needed to add another top-quality player, Atlanta traded its second- and third-round picks to the Los Angeles Rams to move up to No. 31 while also acquiring a late-round selection. With that pick, the Falcons took right tackle Kaleb McGary. For the rest of the draft, Atlanta punted on taking an edge rusher. The Falcons rounded out the draft with cornerback Kendall Sheffield, defensive lineman John Cominsky, running back Qadree Ollison, cornerback Jordan Miller and wide receiver Marcus Green. Of that group, only Green didn’t make the 53-man roster. Dealing with some salary-cap concerns, the Falcons weren’t able to make much of a splash when it came to big-name players in free agency. They were able to sign Tyeler Davison, Adrian Clayborn and Allen Bailey to assist the defensive line. It was clear in April that the goal would be for Lindstrom and McGary to start on the right side of the offensive line. But oftentimes in the NFL, goals never turn out according to plan. First eight games By the time training camp opened, which was earlier than normal due to the Falcons playing in the Hall of Fame Game, there was a ton of optimism. The defensive players loved the fact that Quinn took over as the unit’s play caller. Quinn also was spending more time with the defensive line, which was seen as a way to get more production out of edge rushers McKinley and Vic Beasley. The Falcons also were getting Allen and Neal back from injuries. They were finally healthy and poised to get back to the playoff level of 2016 and 2017. When the Falcons were set to take on the Minneapolis Vikings, it was seen as a tough challenge to open the season. Win or lose, the game was expected to be competitive. At least that’s what just about everyone thought. No one could have imagined the first four plays from scrimmage setting the tone for what would be a disastrous eight-game stretch. After a touchback, quarterback Matt Ryan took a quick sack from Anthony Barr. On second down, Devonta Freeman ran for 4 yards. On third down, Ryan was forced to scramble and was 2 yards short of the first down. The subsequent punt was blocked, setting Minnesota up for a touchdown three plays later. The Vikings won the game decisively 28-12. A week later, and needing to feel better about themselves, the Falcons were in a tough game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Trailing by three and facing a fourth-and-2 late in the fourth quarter, the Falcons dialed up a screen to Julio Jones. Perfectly executed, Jones took the play 54 yards to the end zone for the winning touchdown. From there, the first half of the season unraveled. Atlanta trailed by 17 against the Indianapolis Colts before making it at least interesting in a 27-24 loss. The Falcons lost 24-10 to the Tennessee Titans, who were quarterbacked by Marcus Mariota at the time. The 14-point differential didn’t speak to how soundly the Titans controlled the game. The Houston Texans obliterated the Falcons 53-32, with Deshaun Watson carving up the secondary en route to a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating. Facing rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, the Falcons were unable to record any sacks or quarterback hits as the Arizona Cardinals won 34-33. Matt Bryant missed an extra point that would have sent the game to overtime. The Los Angeles Rams visited Mercedes-Benz Stadium and blew out the Falcons 37-10. The Seattle Seahawks held on to defeat the Falcons 27-20 after holding a 24-0 halftime advantage. The second half was when many players and coaches said a change for the better began to occur. During that stretch, Quinn tinkered with various tweaks. He ceded play calling to linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich. It became apparent that Quinn put too much responsibility on himself as a head coach, defensive coordinator and extra defensive line coach. Entering the bye week at 1-7, he decided to make a more drastic shake-up on the coaching staff. Quinn turned to Raheem Morris, an assistant head coach leading the wide receivers, and asked him to coach defensive backs. Morris agreed and returned to defense, where he spent the majority of his career. Almost simultaneously, Falcons players held some meetings of their own without coaches to stress better accountability. The objective, even if the playoffs were essentially out of reach, was to play like the team the Falcons knew they had the potential to be. “Any time there’s change that goes for the better, yeah, why didn’t we do it earlier? I think it’s a fair question,” Quinn said. “I think it’s pretty unusual to make the type of moves we made in that space not just defensively but position and player personnel to go through it. (Morris) had been helping some prior to that, and we had put some changes in order probably two or three games prior to that. I felt like when some of the problems came up, we addressed it.” The next eight games Before Atlanta’s loss to Seattle, The Athletic reported that Quinn would remain with the team through the bye week. After the game, owner Arthur Blank held a news conference to address his embattled coach’s job performance. “We’ll take the next couple of weeks during this bye period and evaluate where we are, and whatever decision we make, it will be for the right reasons and long term,” Blank said. That put the focus on the Falcons’ upcoming Week 10 game against the New Orleans Saints. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if an embarrassing loss to the Saints ended the Quinn era midseason. Instead, the Falcons came out like a transformed team. While Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas finished with 152 receiving yards, no one else was able to make a play in the passing game. Alvin Kamara was held to 12 touches for 74 total yards. The Falcons sacked Drew Brees six times. With the defense holding the Saints to three field goals in three quarters, the offense finally was able to open the game up in the final quarter. Leading by four, Ryan threw a touchdown pass to Brian Hill. Younghoe Koo, signed to replace Bryant, made his third and fourth field goals to give Atlanta a decisive 26-9 win. If anything, that was the initial pause Blank had in any decision on Quinn’s fate. A week later, the Falcons blew out the Carolina Panthers. Although the Falcons lost their next two games, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Saints, they were much improved from where they were during the first eight games. The Falcons were able to end the season on a four-game winning streak with wins over the Panthers, San Francisco 49ers, Jacksonville Jaguars and Buccaneers. The win over the 49ers likely cemented Quinn’s standing for 2020. With Atlanta trailing by nine in the fourth quarter, the Falcons drove down the field and got a 1-yard touchdown run from Qadree Ollison. On the ensuing drive, San Francisco remained aggressive but was held to a field goal and only a five-point lead. With 1:48 to go, Atlanta drove to San Francisco’s 5-yard line and appeared to score a touchdown with four seconds left to play on a pass from Ryan to Austin Hooper. That play was overturned by the officiating crew, and one second was added to the clock. On the next play, Ryan hit Jones, who contorted his body to get the football to cross the plane of the goal line. Originally, the play was ruled short. Replay overturned the call and gave the Falcons the lead. With two seconds to go, Atlanta got an extra touchdown in its 29-22 win after the ensuing kickoff resulted in a fumbled lateral that Olamide Zaccheaus was able to take into the end zone. After starting 1-7, the Falcons finished 7-9 for the second consecutive season. And somehow, that record was good enough for second place in the NFC South. While the second half of the season was promising, the first half’s sting still lingered — especially considering the improved play during the final eight games. “There’s no trophy for playing well in the second half,” Quinn said. Looking ahead to 2020 Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were given the chance to fix the problems that plagued the 2019 season. But unlike the response following the 2018 season, it doesn’t appear Quinn is going to do anything too drastic from a staffing perspective. Morris was promoted to defensive coordinator, and Ulbrich added a title as assistant head coach. Koetter will return to be the offensive coordinator and Ben Kotwica will once again be Atlanta’s special teams coordinator. Defensive passing game coordinator Jerome Henderson and assistant defensive line coach Travis Jones won’t be back with the Falcons next season. “I learned it’s hard to change three big leadership positions in the same year — offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, and special teams coordinator,” Quinn said. “To have the leadership positions in place heading into the offseason, that’s a big part for me. I certainly have learned that and know that’s not easy to do, and maybe I overlooked that in some spots because I think it’s important to make sure that you have the time and attention to spend with everybody that you need to.” The offseason presents a great deal of unknown. Will the Falcons be able to bring back Hooper, whether it’s with a franchise tag or a new deal? Will there be enough money to bring back De’Vondre Campbell? Speaking of money, how much will be available to bring in key free agents? Picking 16th overall, is there a player at a position of need who will be game-ready as a rookie? Who might wind up as cap casualties? The 2020 season figures to be a make-or-break one for Quinn and Dimitroff. The pressure certainly will be felt throughout the offseason to ensure nothing goes awry once it’s time to kick off again. “I think Dan is the kind of person that he reads a lot, he studies a lot, he’s very self-aware,” Blank said. “I don’t think he’s the kind of coach that will make the same mistake again in that regard.”
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