Dale Money | January 4th, 2020
It was a season of two tales for the Atlanta Falcons after the first eight games in which would result in a 1-7 record, things looked to be in complete shambles. However, it was week nine when their fortunes would begin to pick up. They would knock off the division-leading New Orleans Saints by a commanding 26-9 result, in what must have felt like a real shot in the arm. After getting that surprising win against the Saints under their belt, the Falcons would continue to play a much more steady blend of Football and finish the year out 6-2.
However, the first half of the season virtually knocked them out of the playoff running, as the Falcons were the third team in the league to be eliminated from postseason contention. They would manage to salvage some of their pride for a season that looked completely hopeless. In the final two months of the regular season, Atlanta would gradually move their way up from dead last in the NFC South up to a second-place finish.
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What Went Right
It was after the bye week that the Falcons made the rather bold decision of letting go of franchise leading scorer Matt Bryant, and brought onboard former Georgia Southern alum Younghoe Koo. A bit of a head-scratcher given Koo’s limited experience in the NFL, being four games in 2017 as the starting placekicker with the Los Angeles Chargers.
After he was released by the Chargers, he would get a chance in the now-defunct AAF, along with unsuccessful attempts at joining on with both the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots.
Looking back on the move now, it was one of the few bright spots, improving a kicking game that was seriously lagging. In Koo’s eight games with the Falcons, he would convert on 23 of his 26 kicks and closed out the final week of the season against the Buccaneers 5-for-5 on his field-goal attempts he would also be successful on two onside kicks. Koo was signed to a one year deal at a base salary of $341,471 and has stated he would like to return as the Falcons starting kicker.
Matt Ryan continues to perform well at the age of 34, regardless of the problems on the line Ryan can still put up numbers that rival the top quarterbacks in the league. Ryan was fifth in passing yards, eighth in touchdowns, and seventh in completion percentage.
His partner in crime Julio Jones was second in the league in receiving yards, just six yards short of a 1,400-yard effort. Second-year receiver Calvin Ridley has continued to advance his growth with the team, Ridley would better his yards receiving from a year ago in three fewer games played.
What Went Wrong
As we look upon what went wrong for the Falcons, one of the glaring weaknesses obviously continues to be the offensive line. They allowed 50 sacks on the season which was tied for fifth-most. During the offseason, the team had invested a lot of resources both in free agency and the draft in attempts to fix the problems using both of their first-round selections on the team’s O-line.
They would use their first pick in the draft on 6-foot-4 307-pound offensive guard Chris Lindstrom out of Boston College. Lindstrom would earn the starting right guard role before the start of the season, unfortunately for Atlanta though he would not survive his first regular-season game after suffering a foot injury in the Week one loss against Minnesota.
After being placed on the IR it wouldn’t be until week 14 that he would get an opportunity to return. Upon his return to action, he would make a noticeable impact in his first three weeks back, as they only gave up four sacks the fewest in any 3-week span all season.
Certainly, a lot to look forward to with the young prospects development moving into next year. The Falcons will need to continue investing more resources in the offensive line during the offseason, having given up six sacks in the finale against Tampa Bay. Lindstrom makes for a great building piece to be sure, but there is still a lot more work to be done.
Devonta Freeman led the team with 656 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns on 148 attempts. In what will be looked at as down year Freeman would post his poorest average yards per carry, after coming off a miserable 2018 in which he only played two games. Freeman still has three years left on the current contract, he’s projected to make $6.5 million in base salary in 2020.
With the team in a bit of a cap squeeze, there is the possibility of a salary restructuring. Third-year pro Brian Hill finished his second full season with the Falcons but still has not been able to show enough, as the next man in line when afforded the opportunity. In Hill’s two games started in place of Freeman, he would manage to rack up 91 yards rushing on 35 attempts.
Outlook for the Offseason
The Falcons head into their offseason $2.9 million over the cap this according to Spotrac, and with certain players, they are going to want to re-sign it’s going to take a lot of number crunching in order to get this all figured out.
You can expect a lot of cuts, contract restructuring, and player trades before it’s all said and done. Notable players like Vic Beasley, Desmond Trufant, and Freeman could all be moved in order to free up salary along with giving them much needed draft picks. Trufant alone is set to make $10.75 million next season.
It’s already been decided both head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff will be returning for 2020. The bye week changes by Quinn that included moving Raheem Morris from wide receivers coach, over to the secondary may have indeed saved the head coaches job. It was announced Morris would take over as defensive coordinator at the conclusion of the 2019 season.
The Team’s Free Agents
There are three key players that will be looking for new contracts in 2020, and with Atlanta, in a bind with the salary cap the likelihood that all three return is slim to none.
Beasley came into 2019 realizing he needed to improve greatly on his previous two seasons, in which he had back to back five sack seasons. In his 15 games played, he would contribute eight sacks which is a slight improvement, given he only played nine games in 2018. I’m of the opinion Beasley did not do quite enough, to convince the Falcons he’s worth another large investment. I don’t expect him back next season.
Austin Hooper has just gotten better and better, in each of his four seasons in Atlanta. In 2019, Hooper would greatly exceed his touchdowns and receiving yards from the year previous and did so with three fewer games played. An MCL sprain would befall him in week 10, but he was still able to put up good numbers upon his return.
Still, a very young player at just 25, Hooper has stated publicly he would like to return next year but has not gotten an offer. In order for the Falcons to get him locked up, it’s going to take some serious cost-cutting measures. and given the other holes, they need to fill elsewhere it won’t be an easy decision.
Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell is the one player out of the big three, I expect Atlanta to put the most due diligence into retaining. Campbell was the clubs leader in tackles, and forced fumbles last season. In his last three seasons, he has not missed one single game.
Open Market Free Agents
Atlanta is not expected to be one of the major buyers in free agency, but they are still in need of quality guard help, Brandon Scherff could be a prime free agency candidate. There has been plenty of speculation as to whether Scherff played his last game with the Redskins following a season-ending injury in mid-December. Washington has the option to place the franchise tag onto him should they feel he is too valuable to let get away.
With Alex Mack know nearing the tail-end of his storied career, Atlanta is going to need to start looking for their next center. Theirs a number of players that will be available in free agency including Spencer Long, Joey Hunt, and Stefen Wisniewski.
Projecting the NFL Draft
With the final completion of the regular season last week, the Atlanta Falcons were awarded the 16th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. The second time in the clubs history they’ve been given that draft slot, the other time in 1983. Let’s take a look at some of the Falcons needs heading into April, and project what the Falcons might decide to do with their selections.
Round 1, Pick 16: Yetur Gross-Matos, Edge, Penn St.
It’s not looking very likely that the Falcons will choose to cough up the money to resign Beasley. They are going to need to look for a quality replacement in the draft. Gross-Matos could fit the bill, a player with game-changing ability, he knows how to get to the opposing quarterback. His 19.5 career sacks rank thirteenth in school history.
Round 2, Pick 47: Paulson Adebo, CB, Stanford
The Falcons need to focus on filling some of those holes on the secondary, as they ranked 22th in passing yards given up per game. Adebo was one of the few bright spots on a 4-8 Cardinal team, that didn’t have a lot to get excited about. The junior corner contributed four interceptions and 10 defended passes. A former wide receiver, Adebo is very adept at knocking air balls out of the hands of opposing wideouts. It’s still not fully confirmed whether or not he’ll enter the 2020 draft.
Round 2, Pick 59: Shane Lemieux, G, Oregon
Still needing to shore up that interior and give Ryan more much-needed help, picking Lemieux at this spot would certainly be a very nice value. An ultra-consistent player, in the four years he played at Oregon, Lemieux started 49 straight games.
This could be the last chance for Quinn, to get this Falcons team back to the playoffs before Blank finally decides to cut the cord. With both Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary returning as sophomores and rejoining Mack and Jake Matthews, look for a much-improved unit especially if they can pick up another guard through either free agency and or draft.
This is a team that still has an above-average passing game, with Ryan, Jones, and Ridley producing at a competitive level. If Ryan is afforded a little bit more time in which to work, it is really going to do wonders for that offense. I look for the Falcons to finish 9-7 with an opportunity at challenging for a wild card.
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