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Twenty for 2020, Ranking Falcons Most Impactful Players Part 2


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https://theathletic.com/1991649/2020/08/12/twenty-for-2020-ranking-falcons-most-important-impactful-players-part-ii/

Twenty for 2020: Ranking Falcons’ most important, impactful players, Part II

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By Tori McElhaney Aug 12, 2020comment-icon.png 2 save-icon.png

Editor’s note: Part I of this ranking includes pick Nos. 20-11 and was published on Tuesday.

The Falcons are entering a season in which the team expects to do more, be more. And the Falcons will need to, as questions remain after a lackluster 2019, especially after a 1-7 start. With training camp well on its way, let’s take a look at 20 players whose increased impact from 2019 to 2020 could be the difference-maker for Atlanta as it heads into a year that has many must-wins on the docket.

Without further ado, let’s dive into the top 10. Truth be told, there probably are not very many surprises here.

10. Jake Matthews

Notable point of 2019: Week 4’s turnaround.

Matthews comes in higher on the list than Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary because of the consistency Matthews brings to the offensive line. With two new guys playing on the right side, the left side has been Matthews’ spot since he was selected in the first round in 2014. He’s Matt Ryan’s blindside protector, and Matthews has done a fairly consistent job during his six-year career being just that.

Looking back at the 2019 season, Matthews’ first three games of the season were three of his lowest-graded games of the year. It’s interesting just how slow of a start virtually the entire Falcons roster had in 2019. Matthews’ start was no different. But like many others on this list (and the list from Tuesday), the longer the season went on, the better he got. After Week 4 of the season, the Matthews Falcons fans have come to know, and rely on, was back in full swing. He settled back into his normal patterns and ended up grading out to a 79.1 Pro Football Focus grade (for reference, he usually stays around that 80 mark for the previous four seasons, so he’s nothing if not consistent).

Matthews has been a key cog in the Falcons’ offense, and that won’t change in 2020. The question will be who will be playing alongside Matthews protecting that blindside: an up-and-coming Matt Hennessy or a revamped Jamon Brown?

9. Deion Jones

Notable point of 2019: The way Jones’ versatility continuously was reinforced last season but missing the “playmaking” ability you’re so used to seeing.

When it comes to the “new age” of linebackers, there are very few who fit the mold better than Jones. The versatility, the athleticism, the compact build, the quickness, all of the things that make up this modern linebacker look, Jones has. The scores of ways the Falcons used Jones last year only support this argument.

Looking back at last year compared to his first two, is it possible even with 111 total tackles and eight tackles for loss and one interception in 2019 that it’s fair to expect even more from Jones? Probably, and that speaks to how highly regarded Jones is as a disruptive player.

In his rookie season, he had three interceptions that he returned for 165 total yards (two of which were touchdowns). In 2017, he also had three interceptions, one sack and 10 tackles for loss with a career-high 138 total tackles. His 2018 season was cut short due to injury as he only played six games, and, of course, his presence and production were missed even though he stole two interceptions during that short run. With all of that in mind, it’s safe to say the expectation is for Jones to be the disruptor of the defense.

 
 
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17983.png
ATL - ILB
Deion
 
Jones
2019 STATS
TKLS
111.0
19th
TFL
9
27th
QB HITS
4
70th
FR
1
21st
INTS
1
16th
INT RET TDS
1
1st

8. Alex Mack

Notable point of 2019: That the Falcons know their time with Mack is likely limited.

The center position was a shaky one for the Falcons before Mack joined the team in 2016, and even with the struggles the offensive line had in 2019, and even on days when he wasn’t at his best, Mack has been pretty good. While he received his lowest PFF grade last season with an overall grade of 72.1, it’s hard to say whether that was an issue with the veteran center or the offensive line as a whole. If you’re making a bet, I’d probably go with the latter.

When you’re in this field as long as Mack is, there are going to be rebuilding years and years that don’t really mesh for a core group of linemen, and that was 2019 for the Falcons. This coming year should be different with Lindstrom and McGary better equipped to handle the right side of the line. All of this is to say that Mack is Mack; he’ll be OK, and he’ll continue to be a staple of the offensive line in 2020.

The notes for Mack this year may be less on him individually and more pointedly on the notes that he can pass on as he enters the season on the last leg of his contract. With Hennessy added in the draft and no talk of an extension for the Mack, signs point to a possible retirement. So, with that in mind, the storyline falls to Mack and the year he can have in 2020 and who can come up behind him, who can be as reliable as Mack and how Mack can prepare the player who finds himself next in line.

7. Grady Jarrett

Notable point of 2019: Jarrett garnered more respect and attention with his play in 2019. How will that impact opponents as they size him up in 2020?

Jarrett was one of the first people to speak to the media at the onset of this year’s training camp, and it felt fitting that he should be asked about how he views his individual success following a career year in 2019. He recalled that he always has been the underdog. It’s a label he carries with pride.

“Being a quote-unquote undersized guy, I always kept a chip on my shoulder and as I got better and better as a player and started having success, (the chip) never left,” Jarrett said. “So, I never got complacent and always wanted to be better and perform better. So, I think that’s kind of where my motor and tenacity comes from, just being an underdog.”

Every year in the league has seen Jarrett take a step toward more success. If Jarrett were a video game character, every year he would level up, gaining more skills and power as he passes test after test. It will be interesting to see what the 2020 level brings for Jarrett’s play.

 
 
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17059.png
ATL - DT
Grady
 
Jarrett
2019 STATS
TKLS
70.0
3rd
TFL
15
10th
SACKS
7.5
23rd
QB HITS
17
21st
QB HITS/G
1.1
24th
FF
2
13th

6. Hayden Hurst

Notable point of 2019: Hurst’s 2019 ceiling does not match his ceiling for 2020. It’s like comparing a house’s ceiling to the top of a five-story apartment building.

In Hurst’s second year with Baltimore, he played in all 16 games and made four starts. He was targeted 39 times and had 30 receptions for 349 yards, averaging 11.6 yards per catch. It was a modest year for the tight end. I recite all of this to say this: Those numbers will double with Atlanta. Ryan and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter thrive and rely on tight end play because that is an intricate piece of the offense.

Just take a look at Austin Hooper’s numbers last year with Atlanta and compare them to Hurst’s numbers with Baltimore. Hooper was targeted 97 times. He had 75 receptions for 787 yards. He averaged 10.5 yards per catch and had six touchdowns. This is the line to expect from Hurst with Atlanta in 2020. And according to Ryan, Hurst’s excitement to be joining this offense is palpable. Maybe seeing those numbers from the player before him is a reason to believe in that excitement if you’re Hurst. But Ryan also said Hurst’s skill set is different from Hooper’s and of Tony Gonzalez’s if we go back further. Ryan said that could prove to be an important new layer that the offense can reach.

“I’m probably most excited about his athleticism,” Ryan said. “He’s extremely fast, has very good change of direction, he’s big and strong. He’s everything you would want in a tight end. I think he’s going to be a nice piece of the puzzle for us. He’s a different guy from a tight end standpoint than I’ve played with. He’s got a different skill set than Austin Hooper or Tony Gonzalez. He’s unique in that way and I’m excited to kind of utilize some of the things that he does and add them into our scheme.”

 
 
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19843.png
ATL - TE
Hayden
 
Hurst
2019 STATS
REC
30
35th
YDS
349
28th
TDS
2
33rd
YPR
11.6
13th
YDS/G
21.8
34th
LONG REC
61
4th

5. Matt Ryan

Notable point of 2019: Even with Koetter in his first year as offensive coordinator, Ryan’s numbers never strayed too far from what they’ve been his entire career.

Even in a year that started out the way it did, Ryan still had a 66.2 completion rate. He still had 4,466 passing yards. The year for the veteran quarterback wasn’t as bad as some would believe. Where the issues were in 2019 fall more to the faults of his protection more than anything else. He was sacked 48 times, the most sacks he has suffered in a single season throughout his career. He threw 14 interceptions, one of the highest marks of his career. Those numbers perhaps speak more to how little time he had in the pocket. With growth along the offensive line from 2019 to 2020 and getting Lindstrom healthy again, it’s possible those numbers could look a bit more normal for the 12-year vet.

It also helps that Koetter is in his second year back with the offense. Ryan spoke on his evolved relationship with Koetter just last week, saying the two have become clearer with one another about what they want individually and what they expect for the offense collectively. Ryan feels confident this could mean more production from the offense in 2020, particularly in the run game.

“(Koetter) being in this scheme in Year 2 and really understanding the differences in terms of our run game,” Ryan said. “In terms of how it matches up to what we do in protections and play-action pass, I think that part of it excites me the most for this coming year of us being very much on the same page and him having a really good pulse for the guys that we have in the scheme that we have set up.”

 
 
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732.png
ATL - QB
Matt
 
Ryan
2019 STATS
COMP
408
1st
ATT
616
3rd
CMP%
66.2%
7th
YDS
4466
5th
TDS
26
8th
INTS
14
26th
YDS/G
297.7
4th
YPC
10.9
22nd

4. Dante Fowler Jr.

Notable point of 2019: Those 11.5 sacks.

The Falcons need a star pass rusher after a rather weak performance in that area last year. They weren’t able to find that in Vic Beasley. They’re hoping the narrative changes with Fowler. Simultaneously, Fowler is looking to prove his narrative has changed. He joked that last year should have been his rookie year, saying that’s what he is calling the 2019 season because it was the first year he was a full-time starter. It was the first year he truly felt like he was playing the way he was supposed to, achieving the numbers and statistics he was drafted to reach.

“Honestly, if I would have had three more sacks we would have been talking about (last season) different: a pro-bowl season, all-pro type of year,” Fowler said. “But it didn’t happen like that, so I’ve still got some more work to do so I am just going to keep carving my tools and sharpening my knife every day.”

This move will work out for both Fowler and the Falcons if he does: Fowler continues on a hot streak, and the Falcons find their pass rusher. It’s a win-win.

 
 
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16764.png
ATL - OLB
Dante
 
Fowler Jr.
2019 STATS
TKLS
56.0
74th
ASST
16
87th
SOLO
40
70th
TFL
19
3rd
SACKS
11.5
6th
QB HITS
16
11th

3. Todd Gurley

Notable point of 2019: Even in a “down” year, Gurley scored 12 touchdowns for the Los Angeles Rams.

There’s a reason Gurley ranks just ahead of his former Rams teammate on this list. It’s because they both provide something the Falcons desperately need. Just how the defense needs sacks from Fowler, the offense needs rushing yards from Gurley. But what differs between the two is that Fowler is coming off a standout year while Gurley is coming off a year in which he registered his lowest total of rushing yards since he joined the league. They both have something to prove, but the motivation is different: Fowler needs to show 2019 wasn’t a fluke, and Gurley needs to show that, now healthy, his 2019 season was and that a 1,000-rushing season is his norm.

Last week, Ryan spoke about just how quickly he feels Gurley has acclimated to the playbook. While Quinn noted just how physically capable Gurley seems, Quinn did explain that the Falcons will be feeling out just how much to put on Gurley’s shoulders this training camp in order to keep him healthy for the start of the season.

All in all, the Falcons need to establish a more consistent run game in Year 2 of Koetter as offensive coordinator, as Ryan alluded to last week. If Gurley can go at the 2020 season without being tied down to that knee issues that everyone seems to have an opinion on, things could look promising for the offense after signing Gurley to a one-year deal.

 
 
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16771.png
ATL - RB
Todd
 
Gurley II
2019 STATS
ATT
223
17th
YDS
857
19th
TDS
12
5th
ATT/G
14.9
16th
YDS/G
57.1
20th
YPC
3.8
35th

2. Julio Jones

Notable point of 2019: Julio was Julio … again.

I know what your first question will be: “How could you put Jones, one of the most prolific receivers to play the game, at the No. 2 spot?” My answer to that would be simply that there is no mystery with Jones. With a player as talented as he is, with the reputation that he has, you know what to expect from him, and that expectation is nothing short of greatness. Jones is going to get his yards, he’s going to get his receptions, he’s going to get his touchdown catches. Jones is going to be exactly what he has been for years: arguably the best wide receiver in the game.

 
 
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13291.png
ATL - WR
Julio
 
Jones
2019 STATS
REC
99
5th
YDS
1394
2nd
TDS
6
20th
YDS/G
92.9
3rd
YPR
14.1
24th
LONG REC
54
46th

1. Calvin Ridley

Notable point of 2019: Ridley missed a few games, and he didn’t surpass the 1,000-yard receiving mark.

Ask the players and coaches with the team what they think of Ridley entering this season, and they all say the exact same thing: He’s hungry.

Looking back on the 2019 season, maybe there is a silver lining in the fact that Ridley didn’t get to that 1,000-yard mark like he wanted to. From the outside looking in, it made him find a certain spark that maybe wasn’t there before. Ridley spoke to the media during the first week of training camp, and he seemed revved up and rejuvenated in a way that not many people are heading into an uncertain training camp period. That’s because Ridley’s goals in his mind are certain: Year 3 will be different.

Ridley is the No. 2 receiver, without question, as he enters the season, a promotion of sorts for a job well done in his first two years in the league. But on most teams, Ridley would be the best receiver on the team. Safety Ricardo Allen laughed, saying Ridley is absolutely a No. 1 receiver … he just so happens to play with one of the best to ever play the game.

Ryan relayed similar sentiments about Ridley.

“There’s only so many plays in a game, and we have so many talented guys, but I think the people who know, the people who have to play against Calvin or try to guard him in man-to-man coverage know he is elite. He’s exceptional. He’s really, really good,” Ryan said. “I think there’s some messaging about having this as a breakout year, and I hope it is. I hope he’s improved from what he’s been even the last two years, but he’s been really good the last two years and extremely productive for us so I’m fired up that he’s hungry and ready to go.”

The pros of playing alongside Jones greatly outweigh the cons if you are Ridley. And this year, maybe more than even the previous two years, has the making of the Falcons having the best tandem of wide receivers in the league. They’re counting on that.

 
 
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19802.png
ATL - WR
Calvin
 
Ridley
2019 STATS
REC
63
30th
YDS
866
30th
TDS
7
13th
REC/G
4.8
21st
YDS/G
66.6
24th
YPR
13.7
36th
Edited by DirtyBird2
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3 minutes ago, Smiler11 said:

These lists make no sense. Matt Ryan #5, Deion Jones #9.

It makes sense to a degree, I think more of the defense should have been top 10 because without the defense improving we are in the same boat, but at the same time...Ryan and Julio are another year older and need to have more of an impact than normal. Ridley being 1 doesnt make sense as it should be Gurley.

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18 minutes ago, DirtyBird2 said:

It makes sense to a degree, I think more of the defense should have been top 10 because without the defense improving we are in the same boat, but at the same time...Ryan and Julio are another year older and need to have more of an impact than normal. Ridley being 1 doesnt make sense as it should be Gurley.

Ryan playing better than he did in 2019 is most certainly going to be the biggest factor in how far we go in 2020. 

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1 minute ago, Smiler11 said:

Ryan playing better than he did in 2019 is most certainly going to be the biggest factor in how far we go in 2020. 

I think Gurley is way more important than Ryan, if Ryan cuts down on bonehead throws (like he did towards the end of the season and always seems to do) we are in a better position, but there NEEDS to be  a run game this year so defenses cant tee off on him.

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2 hours ago, DirtyBird2 said:

I think Gurley is way more important than Ryan, if Ryan cuts down on bonehead throws (like he did towards the end of the season and always seems to do) we are in a better position, but there NEEDS to be  a run game this year so defenses cant tee off on him.

Agree on run game and disagree on it being Gurley. 
 

It all about the O Line play. They so often get a pass on here but when you look at film of last year, they were missing basic assignments. Its not rocket science. 
If they can improve to be an above average unit, we have the weapons in place at QB and Skill positions for this offense to take off.

If they cant run block or keep Ryan clean, we will continue to be inconsistent on offense 

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3 minutes ago, LightningDawg58 said:

Agree on run game and disagree on it being Gurley. 
 

It all about the O Line play. They so often get a pass on here but when you look at film of last year, they were missing basic assignments. Its not rocket science. 
If they can improve to be an above average unit, we have the weapons in place at QB and Skill positions for this offense to take off.

If they cant run block or keep Ryan clean, we will continue to be inconsistent on offense 

Truth. Worst offensive line play I’ve seen since the bad old days of Lamar Holmes, Jeremy Trueblood, and Peter Konz.

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46 minutes ago, LightningDawg58 said:

Agree on run game and disagree on it being Gurley. 
 

It all about the O Line play. They so often get a pass on here but when you look at film of last year, they were missing basic assignments. Its not rocket science. 
If they can improve to be an above average unit, we have the weapons in place at QB and Skill positions for this offense to take off.

If they cant run block or keep Ryan clean, we will continue to be inconsistent on offense 

Its definitely on the o-line, but if Gurley can be the Gurley of past and we dont have to hope that Hill/Smith/Quad are as good as they have shown we would be in much better shape.

obviously if the o-line falters the season is down the tubes but I still think Gurleys impact will be telling for this team (run and pass game)

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It also helps that Koetter is in his second year back with the offense. Ryan spoke on his evolved relationship with Koetter just last week, saying the two have become clearer with one another about what they want individually and what they expect for the offense collectively. Ryan feels confident this could mean more production from the offense in 2020, particularly in the run game.

“(Koetter) being in this scheme in Year 2 and really understanding the differences in terms of our run game,” Ryan said. “In terms of how it matches up to what we do in protections and play-action pass, I think that part of it excites me the most for this coming year of us being very much on the same page and him having a really good pulse for the guys that we have in the scheme that we have set up.”

 

Umm...what.

Yeah, ok. 100% sounds like it's Koetter being asked to adjust to what the Falcons ran before he came back last year. If we go off this year, just give Ryan another MVP because he coached up Dirk to copy Kyle. :lol:

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