1. The Falcons’ defense took a huge step up last season, all the way into the top 10 of scoring defense. What allowed that to happen and is it sustainable going forward?
In essence, it was just the defense finally getting to the talent level Dan Quinn has wanted since he arrived in Atlanta in 2015. There’s no question in my mind that it’s sustainable, so long as they can retain the talent.
The biggest shifts have been up front, where Grady Jarrett, Takk McKinley and Vic Beasley are formidable players who can make quarterbacks miserable; at linebacker, where Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell add speedy, athleticism, and aggresive play to a position that was utterly rudderless back in 2014-2015; and in the secondary, where they have one of the five or so best groupings of cornerback and safety talent in the league. You’ll forgive me if I savor that, because it’s been a long time since the Falcons had a genuinely talented defense.
Really, the only thing that’s going to impact this defense this year are injuries and maybe the minor question mark next to Jarrett along the defensive line, where the team has a rotation but no clear-cut starter. I’m very bullish on this being a top ten and maybe even top five unit again.
2. Conversely, the Falcons took a step back in scoring, falling from the perch in 2016 to a middle-of-the-pack scoring unit last year. What caused the free fall?
A combination of Steve Sarkisian’s steep learning curve, awful luck, and some uncharacteristically poor execution in the red zone. Sark definitely struggled to come up with workable red zone plays last season, most famously when he and the Falcons pooped the bed against the Eagles or tried a 4th and 2 jet sweep to Taylor Gabriel against the Patriots. The team also had some weird, unlucky drops and missed connections inside the 20 that don’t happen most years, and even the great Julio Jones missed a wide open touchdown grab against the Panthers.
The biggest question this year is whether Sark is ready for primetime, because the Falcons managed to upgrade their talent on offense again and are unlikely to see so many fluky interceptions and drops this year. If Sarkisian’s not up to snuff, this offense will fall shy of elite again.
3. Who can we expect at quarterback? How often will Matt Ryan play, and what is the backup competition looking like?
Matt Ryan’s due for a bounceback season, but the Falcons will only let him play a series, I suspect. From there, you’ll get into Matt Schaub for a plucky interception or two, and then into undrafted free agent Kurt Benkert and former third round pick Garrett Grayson for the bulk of the game.
Schaub is more or less locked into the backup role for one more year, for better or for worse, and that means Grayson and Benkert are fighting for a practice squad spot. Right now neither has an obvious leg up, but I’m hoping Benkert wins because his arm talent is so intriguing.
4. How has the rookie class fared so far? Who has generated the most buzz, and who could make the most impact this year?
I’ll be honest and homerish: I’m in love with this rookie class. Calvin Ridley out of Alabama looks like one of the most refined route runners and speedsters you could expect out of college, and the only question is whether he’ll have a large enough role in this offense to really do some damage. He’s the #2 here for years to come so long as his strong summer performance carries over into the season.
Isaiah Oliver at cornerback is my pick for the most impactful player in year one. He’s got length, ball skills and athleticism that Quinn and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel love, and he’ll step right into an outside corner spot in nickel sets for Atlanta. Given how often the Falcons line up in nickel, I expect to him have a major role, and hopefully he can add some interceptions for a team that has struggled to get many of them in recent years.
Rookie defensive tackle Deadrin Senat is coming along and figures to have a major role in the team’s rotation, fourth rounder Ito Smith is the presumptive third back and a promising kickoff returner candidate, and sixth rounder Russell Gage has gotten time at both receiver and cornerback, where his speed plays well. He’ll also be one of Atlanta’s special teams gunners this year.
Finally, there’s Foye Oluokun. The Yale linebacker is a Falcons linebacker to the T, athletically, and he’s already shining in camp to the extent that I expect him to find his way onto the field in 2018. If even half these guys work out in 2018, the Falcons will be in great shape.
5. How does this Falcons team compare to the previous two? Is this team still poised for a championship run?
Honestly, this is the most talented Falcons team I’ve seen since the 1998 Super Bowl team. They’re better on defense than they were during the 2016 run, and their offensive supporting cast is arguably even better. They have legitimate championship aspirations this year, and only equally great NFC teams or injury should derail them this year.
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