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State Of The Franchise

State of the 2021 Atlanta Falcons: Julio Jones' future weighs heavy as Falcons usher in new era

 

Adam Rank

NFL.com Writer

 

FALCONS

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

 

Members of the Falcons organization, Falcons fans around the world and those who still think it's hilarious to do "The Dirty Bird" at wedding receptions when MC Hammer comes on:

 

It's an interesting time for the Atlanta Falcons as they usher in a new head coach. There are so many possibilities for this team right now. Despite finishing tied for the fourth-worst record in the league last season, there is a lot of talent for them to be competitive in the NFC South in 2021. But there is also a school of thought that maybe the Falcons should start planning more for the future.

 

How the Falcons got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

 

 

The highs:

Younghoe Koo. He became an international sensation as one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL. And I also have to mention he's made me rethink my anti-kickers stance in fantasy football.

Beating the Raiders, 43-6, in Week 12. This might have been a low moment for anybody expecting huge fantasy production from a Raiders offensive player. Contrarian plays in DFS were huge. And if you don't know what DFS is, don't worry, I won't keep doing that.

The lows

The rest of the season. That win over the Raiders was the Falcons' third in four games. Atlanta was 4-7 at that point. And maybe, just maybe, there was an outside chance they could go on a run and sneak into the playoffs. I mean, the Bears clinched seventh seed at 8-8. The Falcons were competitive in most of their games down the stretch but lost five in a row to close out the season. Only the loss to Tampa Bay in Week 17 was by double digits. The rest were by fewer than five points.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Arthur Smith. I'll be honest, I wasn't completely sold on Smith when he was elevated to offensive coordinator in Tennessee a few years ago. But he quickly put me in my place as he basically salvaged Ryan Tannehill's career and cracked the cheat code for the Titans' offense. The code was giving the ball to Derrick Henry. I'm not saying it was a difficult cipher to unravel, but it suggests he has the know-how to get the ball into the hands of his most talented playmakers. And the Falcons are loaded in that area. Well, at least for now. I'll get to the Julio Jones situation in a moment. But of all the first-year coaches, Smith might have the best chance for an immediate turnaround.

 

 

'Huddle & Flow': How Arthur Blank's book changed Terry Fontenot's mind about Falcons interview

Quarterback: Matt Ryan. Ryan has been one of the most overlooked elite quarterbacks in the NFL. I always kind of equate his standing to the Top Gun room. You have Maverick. You have Ice Man. But you also have a lot of other talented pilots in there. And if I'm being honest, Matty Ice (despite the nickname) is one of those other pilots. Sure, he's good enough to be in that room. But he's not good enough to be considered one of the top two. Or to get a speaking role. Maybe we get a cutaway reaction shot when Tom Brady says something funny.

 

 

That all said, it's interesting to me the Falcons are all-in on the 36-year-old Ryan. Not that he's not a capable quarterback. He is. But to pass up on Justin Fields or Mac Jones with the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft indicates to me that they see the veteran as a viable option under center for the next few years. Not unheard of, given how old quarterbacks are nowadays. But it just shows you that Smith is going to be linked with Ryan to start his coaching tenure. Unless the team craters again this season, and then who knows.

 

Projected 2021 MVP: Matt Ryan. I know it's kind of a copout to just say the quarterback, but his entire Falcons career really rests on this season. At No. 4 overall, Smith had a chance to put his stamp on this team and move on with his hand-picked quarterback. Going with Ryan is kind of a risk. Again, think of the veteran as Hollywood or Chipper in that Top Gun room. But not investing a top-four pick in a quarterback leads me to believe the Falcons (and Smith) believe they are going to be competitive this season. Which I'm here for. It's hard to find good quarterbacks. Ryan just turned 36 in May. And in quarterback years, that's like 29. But either Ryan is good, the team is close or near .500 and you're committed. OR the team struggles and maybe you have a top-10 pick (again next year) that will allow you to take a quarterback.

 

And if it's not Ryan, then it's my dude Younghoe.

 

2021 breakout star: John Cominsky, defensive end. I wrote about John in my players to root for piece here on NFL.com. And the Falcons fans cheered the selection. Certainly makes you feel good when that happens. Cominsky was an option-quarterback at Charleston who switched to defensive end and wound up being a fourth-round pick of the Falcons. He's continued to improve in each season, and Year 3 seems like a perfect time for him to break out for the Falcons' defense. He also recorded his first sack of his career last season when he got Derek Carr in the Falcons' blowout win over Las Vegas.

 

BTW, he's 6-foot-5 and 286 pounds. That's a heck of an option quarterback. (Scared emoji.)

 

New face to know: Kyle Pitts, tight end. I wrote this back in my mock draft (with a twist!) that the Falcons would be best served to trade out of No. 4 because a quarterback-starved team might be willing to jump up. But if they stayed, the best option might be Pitts. He is one of the best tight end prospects to come into the league in quite some time. He's a legitimate downfield threat. This pick does make a lot of sense. The Falcons had Tony Gonzalez at the end of his career. And it was fine. Kind of like if you went to a Metallica show this year. I'm telling you, the show will be really good. But it is not Cliff Burton-era Metallica. The Falcons will now be able to ride the lightning with Pitts. I hope fans don't get whiplash watching him play. And if he's a bust, well, it could be a fade to black for Ryan. Fine, I'll stop right there. I love what Pitts is going to be able to do for this offense. Smith had Jonnu Smith during his time in Tennessee, and the former Titan TE was pretty good. But this isn't comparable at all. It's like comparing Metallica with a toaster. It's not even the same thing.

 

The 2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: MEDIUM. We don't expect a first-year coach to waltz in here and make this team competitive. But there is a lot of offensive talent. You have a veteran quarterback, a former MVP who was on the cusp of winning the Super Bowl. Falcons fans should feel like their team can win every game. Even Arthur Smith told Peter King that he expects this team to be competitive.

 

 

 

Grading Falcons' 2021 draft class | 'Draft Today'

Three key dates:

Week 1 vs. Philadelphia Eagles. It's fair to say these two bird teams felt last season was a little bit of a disappointment. I had the Eagles picked to win the NFC East in 2020, and I had the Falcons being very competitive. (I'm an idiot.) Thankfully, one of these teams is likely to open with a dub. Though now that I've written that, there will be a tie for sure.

 

Week 7 at Miami Dolphins. I know it might seem weird to pick a game that doesn't include a division rival. But I feel like the Dolphins could be a very good measuring stick as a young team with a solid defense. If the Falcons pull off a road win here, they could be on to something.

 

Week 18 vs. New Orleans Saints. This could be a game where both teams are fighting for the playoffs -- or for a top-five draft pick. Although I'm not sure "fighting" would be the right way word choice in that case. But we need more Week 18 games between blood rivals.

 

Will the Falcons be able to …

Replace Alex Mack at center? The Falcons are likely looking at Matt Hennessy as the starting center, which shouldn't be a huge drop-off. The Falcons have low-key done a nice job on the offensive line for the past couple of years. One of the biggest pieces is Chris Lindstrom, who made a huge leap during his sophomore season, becoming an exceptional run blocker for the Falcons. He is starting to get recognized as one of the best at his position and might be the most important player from Boston College on this team. (Oh, I'm just kidding, Matt Ryan.) This will be a critical ingredient because we know the head coach likes to run the football. Not that he's going to ignore the passing attack (not with this team), but the run game is going to be a huge focus.

 

Get the most of Mike Davis? The former Carolina Panthers running back earned a legion of fans last year, as fantasy enthusiasts scooped him off the waiver wire after Christian McCaffrey went down with an injury. And I'm not sure if the Falcons were influenced by the fact that Davis had his best games against them last year (who didn't?), but this is a pretty suitable replacement for Todd Gurley. Davis produced more than 1,000 scrimmage yards. He scored eight touchdowns. I would imagine a team that features Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and rookie Kyle Pitts is going to throw. The good news is, Davis can catch, too. He had 59 receptions last year. Matt Ryan has a history of throwing to his backs, and if Davis can match the 70 targets he had last year in 12 starts for the Panthers, his numbers are going to be as good as Chick-fil-A waffle fries. Davis might not lead the NFL in rushing like Derrick Henry, but he will be effective. Although, Davis did look jacked at the Falcons' offseason program back in May. Maybe he is the next Derrick Henry. But the key point, Davis can catch.

 

 

 

Go on without Julio Jones? Because it seems inevitable that Julio is going to be gone at some point this summer. Maybe by the time you are reading this, Julio will be with another team. Well, not the Dallas Cowboys. Julio was very upfront about that during a recent appearance on Undisputed when Shannon Sharpe kind of put him on the spot when asking about his situation. Now, it might have been a cold move by Sharpe to not let Julio know that he was on live television. But Sharpe seemed about as remorseful as Brooks Koepka when he was caught talking about one of his colleagues. Funny thing is, Dallas would be (or would have been) a perfect trading partner considering it could have sent Michael Gallup (and some picks) in return. And I for one would have kept Julio happy because fortunes change quickly in the NFL. A team with Julio, Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts would be tough to defend. And for you fantasy dorks, you should know Ridley actually performed better without Julio in the lineup. The touchdowns decreased, but he had more receptions and yardage, so keep that in mind this summer.

 

One storyline …

... people are overlooking: The Falcons' secondary could be better. Not that it could be much worse. All of us fantasy dorks knew to start our quarterbacks and receivers against the Falcons. What that means in practical terms for those of you who don't play fantasy is that Atlanta allowed an NFL-worst 293.6 passing yards per game. Opposing quarterbacks had a 112.4 passer rating against them. And their 34 touchdown passes allowed were tied for third-worst.

 

The Falcons had a lot of turnover in the secondary. Which always sounds bad, but if they weren't playing well, isn't that for the better? One player who they will miss is Keanu Neal. That guy was a stud back there. Like when you go see a band play and most of them are garbage, but the bass player really kicks ***. That's Neal in this situation. But he's gone. The team will be counting on second-round pick Richie Grant, a UCF product who could be an absolute baller for the Falcons. And if A.J. Terrell can continue to produce, suddenly the Falcons could be better in 2021. I'm not saying they could be "Legion of Boom" good. But just work on not being the worst defense in the league.

 

… people are overthinking: The salary cap struggles are real. I've always felt that salary cap struggles were some mythical creature. An excuse for teams that don't want to spend money. Like the way I use my children. Like if somebody needs me to help them move, I can't. Kids. But if somebody has a tee time at Arroyo Trabuco, then those kids will be at their grandparents'. The Falcons can find a way to keep everyone happy. They just need to be creative.

 

For the 2021 season to be a success, the Falcons MUST:

Win (I keep saying this). It's not going to cost coach Smith his gig if this team is not successful. But there is way too much talent for this squad to end up with a top-five pick again. Even with a secondary that has a lot of hope and question marks. The Falcons should be in every game. Even Smith said, "They hired the wrong guys if they thought we were going to lower expectations, take our time, and rebuild."

 

Let's see it.

 

In closing

I'm very interested to see where this Falcons team ends up. I mean, it's cool to take over a job and talk about competing right away. But stuff changes. Like the first time you try a Peloton. You think you're going to crush it on the first day. So you pick the intermediate level and even think that's going to be too easy. But then you try it and you're barely able to make it through. You can't walk for a week. And feel like you need to dial it back a notch. So it could be a lot like that. But good luck, Falcons.

 

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

 

 

https://www.nfl.com/news/state-of-the-2021-atlanta-falcons-julio-jones-future-weighs-heavy-as-falcons-ush

 

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12 minutes ago, BroadwayBlueBleeder said:

I think a lot of "fans" are in for a rude awakening the day he decides to hang them up

they are going to miss matt when hes gone and people just dont know it..dude has been THE best qb we have had in this franchise history..never hurt consistent on the field is a winner and a class act off the field.people that let some bad games and a super bowl that he didnt lose and more than likely would have been mvp define his career and thats insane to me.but folks are going to learn just how good we have it now and have had it over these years.we could have done a **** of a lot worse than matt ryan but thank god we didnt.

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16 minutes ago, RoddyWhite84 said:

they are going to miss matt when hes gone and people just dont know it..dude has been THE best qb we have had in this franchise history..never hurt consistent on the field is a winner and a class act off the field.people that let some bad games and a super bowl that he didnt lose and more than likely would have been mvp define his career and thats insane to me.but folks are going to learn just how good we have it now and have had it over these years.we could have done a **** of a lot worse than matt ryan but thank god we didnt.

Not only that, but he actually CARES about this team and the city. He has done everything he can to make this team relevant. Maybe he is too "mellow" and doesnt have that "killer instinct" but he has brought this Franchise more success than it has ever had. Hes a dang good QB. 

15 minutes ago, direwolf said:

You could be right. I'm (probably naively) hoping for a situation where we go straight from great QB to great QB.

I'm also hoping to win the lottery.

I hope we go from great QB to great QB and you split the lottery with me lol

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43 minutes ago, RoddyWhite84 said:

they are going to miss matt when hes gone and people just dont know it..dude has been THE best qb we have had in this franchise history..never hurt consistent on the field is a winner and a class act off the field.people that let some bad games and a super bowl that he didnt lose and more than likely would have been mvp define his career and thats insane to me.but folks are going to learn just how good we have it now and have had it over these years.we could have done a **** of a lot worse than matt ryan but thank god we didnt.

 Sure we will, but why talk about that when we are set up so perfectly to have an awesome season. Matts still playing. Let's just look forward to this season that IMO will shock the NFL.  Will I miss JJ? you better believe it.. But will I enjoy watching our first round pick ,, TE Kyle Pitts play this year and take JJ's place? you better believe I will.

 Here's the good news.  All these changes needed to take place.. Well, everything but Julio's departure. I don't like that one thing.. But!! We have IMO the best team and most talented Falcon team in the History of this Franchise. And adding the New Coaches that I also believe will be at least 10 times better than the Coaches running this team the last many years. Too many.. 

  On the positive.. This team I think will make the playoffs , and by that time we'll be at least 50% better than the start of this coming season. Sooooo..... I truly believe we will shook the NFL by how much better we will be in the playoffs. I really do believe we will make it there. Only because of the best Off season we've ever had by 50% better than any other.. 1. New Coaches,, 2. Best draft in History of this team. 3. And Matt Ryan... 4. Best FAs picked up . 5. Nuff said.  6. Signed ,Draftnut57

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45 minutes ago, BroadwayBlueBleeder said:

Not only that, but he actually CARES about this team and the city. He has done everything he can to make this team relevant. Maybe he is too "mellow" and doesnt have that "killer instinct" but he has brought this Franchise more success than it has ever had. Hes a dang good QB. 

I hope we go from great QB to great QB and you split the lottery with me lol

I think he does have that killer instinct.  Football is, as ever, a team sport.

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31 minutes ago, JDaveG said:

I think he does have that killer instinct.  Football is, as ever, a team sport.

No denying that, I've seen the fire he has. Just because he's not a rah rah guy people feel he doesn't have it. They want him to have that "Mamba Mentality" when there aren't that many people in the history of sports who had it. 

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1 minute ago, PriMeTiiMe said:

I have heard this every offseason on these boards since I joined over a decade ago.

You may have .. The good news is .. This year we really do have the most talent I've ever witnessed ,, But that is just half the answer.. The other half is we also now have the Coaches who know how to use all this talent.!  ;)

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2 minutes ago, Draftnut57 said:

You may have .. The good news is .. This year we really do have the most talent I've ever witnessed ,, But that is just half the answer.. The other half is we also now have the Coaches who know how to use all this talent.!  ;)

We will see. It's that time of the year on here where everyone claims this team is a 10+ win team, SB contender, etc and then a few months later are wondering what went wrong.

I will reserve judgment until I see the product on the field. New coaches does not always = great results. We will be relying on a ton of young players. That could go well or it could horribly wrong.

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2 minutes ago, PriMeTiiMe said:

We will see. It's that time of the year on here where everyone claims this team is a 10+ win team, SB contender, etc and then a few months later are wondering what went wrong.

I will reserve judgment until I see the product on the field. New coaches does not always = great results. We will be relying on a ton of young players. That could go well or it could horribly wrong.

I agree and know why you say this.. But what AB has done by getting these Coaches is the best thing he could have ever done.. And if Matt Ryan stays healthy.. You will see a team that is now loaded with talent.. Like I've never witnessed in my Falcon Fan life.. I don't say this lightly.. I don't sling words around.. I've never witnessed a draft this great , and then they turned around and picked up a load of FAs , some of which I was hoping we would draft. I think the only way we don't make this playoffs this year would be if we lost Ryan with an injury , or if our Rookies just needs more time to get the NFL game down.. But here's the great thing.. This is the most talented Falcon team I've ever witnessed. Even without JJ.  

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