I mentioned earlier this offseason that it was important for the Atlanta Falcons to establish an identity, and this week’s 2016 NFL Draft will be one of their last prime opportunities to help do so.
Right now the one thing that this team is known for is Julio Jones. That is going to have to change if head coach Dan Quinn is to have greater success than the 8-8 record during his first season.
The Falcons have been far too reliant on Jones the past few years and they won’t grow substantially as a team until that changes.
Jones is of course a major asset and one of the best players in the NFL. But while Jones provides a spectacular boost to the Falcons when healthy, it’s clear that this team takes a significant step back when he’s not, creating a bit of a “Catch-22” for the team.
Over the past four seasons the Falcons sport a 27-24 in games in which Jones plays at least 50 percent of the offensive snaps. In the games where he has not, their record is 4-9 for an overall win percentage of just 31 percent, which is basically the equivalent of being a five-win team over the course of a 16-game season. With a healthy Jones, the Falcons win 53 percent of their games, which is the rough equivalent of an 8.5-win team.
Over that same span of time, the Falcons are 15-6 in games (71 percent) in which Jones scores a touchdown. In games where he does not score, the Falcons are 16-27 (37 percent). Clearly the Falcons need to find better ways to get the ball to Jones in the end zone, which was a major problem for much of last year.
But the reality is that the Falcons cannot continue to rely on Jones to carry their offense if they intend at any point in the near future to be competing for the rights to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Top-level teams cannot be as one-dimensional as the Falcons have been the past few seasons. Thus why it’s important for them to establish an alternate identity, both on offense and defense.
The obvious choice on offense is to find another receiving target that can make everything click. Yet that probably isn’t going to occur this year.
Mohamed Sanu was signed to complement Jones, and could ultimately prove effective in that role. But he’s never been a “go-to” option for an offense during his four years in the NFL, and it’s unlikely that’s going to change now in Altanta.
And it’s not a particularly strong tight end class to think that the Falcons will be able to get an immediate difference-maker there in this year’s draft.
Thus the Falcons’ best option on offense should be to become a more balanced attack, featuring the rushing of running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
One-Dimensional Falcons Offense Needs Improved Ground Attack
Freeman played very well last year, yet the Falcons are going to need a lot more rushing output in the future if they intend to be able to ride their running game to much of the same success they have had when they feature Jones.
The Falcons were 3-2 in games when they had a 100-yard rusher last season. They were 5-6 in their other dozen games in which they did not.
In fact, over the past four years the Falcons are 6-2 in games featuring a 100-yard rusher. From 2008 to 2011 during the heyday of Michael Turner, they were 24-3 in such games.
Thus over Matt Ryan’s career, the Falcons have won 88 percent of their games when he’s been supported by a 100-yard rusher and just 47 percent of the games when he’s not.
This is why at least on paper, the introduction of Kyle Shanahan last year as the team’s offensive coordinator made sense. If Shanahan could bring a successful ground attack centered on the zone-blocking scheme, it should lead to a lot more success for Ryan and the Falcons moving forward.
However what made sense on paper didn’t come across quite as well in the execution last season. Despite Freeman’s success as a rusher, it wasn’t enough to support what could become a top notch ground game.
The Falcons finished 16th and 19th respectively in rushing attempts and rushing yards a year ago, making them essentially an average rushing team.
The Falcons did show improvement last year, with Freeman’s four 100-yard rushing games exceeding the totals (three) of the previous three seasons, but average isn’t going to cut it.
That still pales in comparison to the success the Falcons had during Turner’s heyday, when the veteran running back had 25 100-yard rushing games over his first four seasons in Atlanta.
That’s why it’s important for the Falcons offense to get much more out of both Freeman and Coleman this year and beyond. If Freeman isn’t capable of getting 100 yards on his own, then the hope is that the combined might of him and Coleman could ultimately work in their favor.
Yet if the Falcons already have their two running backs on the roster, how can they get more output out of their running game? The answer is simple, by investing more in the offensive line moving forward.
Investing In Line Could Establish Physical Offensive Attack
The Falcons already did so by paying center Alex Mack $45 million to lure him away from Cleveland in free agency. The team has also re-signed right guard Chris Chester to a one-year deal this past week, meaning that four of last year’s five starters will return in 2016. The one replaced player, Mike Person, will now serve as a valuable utility backup at all three interior positions.
But that doesn’t mean that the Falcons should stand pat up front this offseason, especially if they can find another supplemental piece in the draft.
Chester turned 33 in January and left guard Andy Levitre turns 30 next month. The Falcons need to add some younger pieces up front given that neither Chester nor Levitre are guaranteed to return in 2017.
Chester will be a free agent and Levitre’s cap hit rises from its current rate of $5.375 million to $6.625 million. That gives him a cap hit approaching what other veterans like defensive tackle Paul Soliai ($6.8375 million), offensive tackle Sam Baker ($7.3 million) and guard Justin Blalock ($7.91 million) had before they were released by this coaching staff. Unless Levitre plays at an extremely high level in 2016, it’s doubtful that he’ll avoid the same fate.
It would be smart for the Falcons to try and add his eventual replacement in this year’s draft. Having a player get the opportunity to sit a year before being thrust into the starting lineup is a good method of development. The Falcons attempted this once before when they used a third-round pick in 2010 on Alabama guard Mike Johnson.
Falcons Could Secure Problematic Guard Spot in 2016 Draft
Unfortunately injuries really sidetracked Johnson’s career. He was added as insurance in the event that the Falcons lost either Blalock or Harvey Dahl back in 2011. They eventually lost Dahl and Johnson should have been the player to slide into his vacated spot at right guard. Unfortunately Johnson’s injuries and subpar play allowed Garrett Reynolds to win the job outright in the summer before the 2011 season and the rest is history.
The Falcons had a revolving door of subpar players at right guard beginning in 2011 and continuing through the next three seasons until the team signed Jon Asamoah in 2014. Asamoah played well that season, looking like the player to finally solidify what had been a multi-year problem at right guard. However he was brushed aside by Shanahan and Quinn’s coaching staff last summer, ultimately spending the year on injured reserve before his release in December.
Now the Falcons are once again without a long-term solution at right guard. Perhaps that player can be Person, but the team would be smart to find an additional option in case that doesn’t work out. It didn’t work out in the past with the selection of Johnson, but one key that hopefully this coaching staff will have over the previous one is their ability to find and develop better offensive lineman than the previous regime.
Without it, it’s impossible to imagine that they will be able to reproduce the rushing success necessary to get the Falcons competing at the highest levels.
Any additional investments along the offensive line in this week’s draft could potentially go a long way to solidifying the interior of the offensive line for many years, assuming they are able to select the right player.
The same can be said about the investments needed on the defensive side of the ball where the Falcons are also looking to establish a new identity.
Falcons To Ape Seahawks’ Defensive Identity Under Quinn
Under former head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons never truly had a strong defensive identity. At their best they could be described as a competent all-around defense, but never excelling in any one particular area. They were essentially the jack of all trades, master of none.
If there was one phase of defensive play where they consistently were able to shine in, it would probably be in generating turnovers. At their best, they were a team that would reliably generate turnovers and win the turnover differential. From 2009 to 2012, the Falcons finished among the top 13 teams in terms of takeaways each season. Collectively over that four-year span, the team had a positive turnover ratio of plus-38. In the three years since, their turnover margin is minus-nine.
Under Quinn the Falcons likely hope to build an identity comparable to that which the Seattle Seahawks featured during his time as defensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014.
Then, the Seahawks were known primarily for their outstanding secondary play and stellar pass rush. Therefore it makes sense for the Falcons to continue invest in these two areas of their roster in this week’s draft.
Interestingly enough though the Falcons’ biggest need is probably at the linebacker position where the Falcons could use permanent upgrades at both middle and weak-side linebacker.
Yet every investment made at linebacker is potentially one that cannot be made along the defensive line and secondary, given their finite number of picks.
Falcons Should Look to Bolster Pass Rush in 2016 Draft
Adding another edge-rusher to team with Vic Beasley at defensive end would be a smart move. The Falcons got decent production from Adrian Clayborn last year but still should wonder if he is enough to establish what could be a top pass rush. An addition at defensive end could be very beneficial since after all, Clayborn has the unfortunate habit of getting hurt every other year he’s been in the league.
But the Falcons don’t necessarily have to add a defensive end to upgrade their pass rush, as they could also seek help at defensive tackle. Interior pass rush is an important component of becoming a team that can generate plenty of pressure. So the Falcons cannot turn their back on a good pass-rushing defensive tackle if one is available, even when it’s not the most pressing need.
One could argue that all things being equal, a high-level player at defensive tackle would help the Falcons defense more than a high-level player at linebacker because the former helps establish the stronger identity of a team that can generate effective pressure with just four defenders. That’s exactly what the Seahawks did under Quinn on their way to two consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
Adding an interior defensive lineman makes even more sense when one considers that much like Levitre and Chester, defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux might be playing his final year with the Falcons. Babineaux turns 35 in October and is entering the final year of his contract. Last season he started only four games but his 548 defensive snaps were the most among all defensive linemen on the roster.
Babineaux might opt to retire after this season since 36-year old starting defensive tackles are relatively rare in the NFL. There’s only been five defensive tackles over the past decade that started at least four games in a season in which they were age 36 or older. And none have done so since 2010.
Replacing Babineaux won’t be an easy task given that the Falcons have essentially been trying to do so since 2009. That’s when they used a first-round pick on Peria Jerry and a seventh on fellow defensive tackle Vance Walker. The following spring, a third-rounder was used on Corey Peters. None of those players remain with the Falcons, yet Babineaux endures.
Jarrett’s Status As Babineaux Replacement Remains Unresolved
The Falcons could have hope that Grady Jarrett finally becomes that heir apparent for Babineaux in the years to come, but the team might also be trusting Jarrett to replace Soliai as the nose tackle in the base defense this season.
Jarrett platooned at that spot with Joey Mbu late last season when Soliai was out with a calf injury. Jarrett didn’t excel there, but did adequate enough that the team might believe he could improve with increased reps this season.
But if Jarrett is penciled in to be the team’s primary option at nose tackle moving forward, then that would limit his usage as Babineaux’s replacement at defensive tackle in the nickel sub-package next year.
That’s why it makes sense for the Falcons to draft another defensive tackle this year. That player could fill the void left by Soliai, potentially freeing up Jarrett to replace Babineaux, or could be penciled in as the latter’s heir apparent instead. Either way, the Falcons should at least get a good interior pass-rusher out of it.
Falcons Need to Improve Secondary Play Starting at Safety
Ricardo Allen and Kemal Ishmael are penciled in as their two starters at free and strong safety, respectively. But it remains to be seen if either are up to the task of helping give the Falcons one of the league’s premier secondaries like that featured by the Seahawks under Quinn.
There they had Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, both of whom earned trips to the Pro Bowl both in 2013 and 2014 when Quinn was coordinating the Seahawks’ defense.
Are Allen and Ishmael Pro-Bowl caliber safeties? Perhaps with continued development, but that is doubtful. Allen was solid at times in his first season at safety, leading the team with three interceptions. But whether he’s capable of more becomes an elusive answer. Especially given the expectation that the Falcons see Allen competing with second-year player Robenson Therezie for his starting spot this summer.
If the Falcons were 100 percent sold on Allen’s potential, would there be a competition at that spot? Earl Thomas never was competing with his backup Jeron Johnson during their shared days in Seattle.
Ishmael had his moments late in the season as a replacement for an injured William Moore, but in 2014 when compelled into the starting lineup for an extended period of time, his limitations in coverage were prevalent. Given that Moore’s biggest weakness was also his inability to effectively cover man-to-man, it’s unlikely that the Falcons will see Ishmael as an upgrade.
Thus they will likely explore their options at upgrading the strong safety in the draft. But if they can find upgrades at both spots it will go a long way to solidifying a secondary that could take that next step into becoming one of the league’s best.
They already have strong cornerback play with Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in the starting lineup. Any major upgrade they make at safety this year could also go a long way to lessening any drop-off they might suffer next year at cornerback should Alford depart in free agency.
The Seahawks never had much of an issue with having a revolving door at right cornerback thanks to the stable presences of Richard Sherman at left cornerback and Thomas and Chancellor at safety.
Solidifying at least one of the safety spots today via this year’s draft will go along way to lessen any potential headaches elsewhere in the secondary tomorrow.
This draft will be an important way for the Falcons under Quinn to establish exactly what sort of team they want to be known as in the future.
Will this team go from an offense led by one receiver to one that can feature multiple playmakers and be known for a physical ground attack? Will this defense become known for having a great pass rush or secondary, or something else?
The answers to these questions should come from decisions that the Falcons make in this week’s draft