2020 NFL Team Previews: Atlanta Falcons

2020 NFL Team Previews

By Professor MJ

Atlanta Falcons



1. Introduction

After a horrible 1-7 start, the Falcons finished strong with a 6-2 record. Can they carry that momentum into the 2020 season?

2. Offensive Position-by-Position Breakdown

2.1 Quarterbacks (QBs)

Matt Ryan had a subpar year, albeit not a bad one. His 75.8 grade per PFF was his lowest mark over the past 10 seasons. He still finished 15th out of 37 quarterbacks.

He will be 35 years old when the season begins, so he’s not getting any younger. He took many sacks, which won’t help his health status.

He threw 14 picks last year, which was his largest number of interceptions since 2015.

Matt Schaub is still there in case Ryan gets hurt. At 39 years old, his best days are clearly behind him, but he could be a serviceable backup.

2.2 Running Backs (RBs)

The Falcons made a big change at this position. They decided to move on from Devonta Freeman by cutting ties with him, while signing Todd Gurley, formerly of the Rams. The 25-year old back is probably thrilled to return in Georgia, where he played for the Bulldogs in college.

Gurley will be an interesting player to watch. Will he return to his 2017 and 2018 form? Or will he look like a washed up guy as was the case in 2019?

Gurley is clearly the #1 back for Atlanta, as their depth isn’t too great. Brian Hill carried the ball 78 times last year, but you don’t want him as your #2 guy, let alone #1. Ito Smith isn’t the answer either.

Did the Falcons improve at RB? It’s hard to tell right now, as both Freeman and Gurley had an off year in 2019. Still, I tend to lean on the improvement side but Gurley’s chronic knee issues worry me.

2.3 Wide Receivers (WRs)

Atlanta has one of the best tandems at WR in the league with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.

Jones isn’t getting any younger at 31 years old, but he still has many good years left. He has been one of the most consistent receivers in the NFL. He has caught at least 83 balls in each of its past six seasons, while racking up a minimum of 1,394 during that time frame!

Entering his third season, Calvin Ridley is ready to embrace a bigger role. The former Crimson Tide has had two very good seasons thus far and has scored 17 TDs in 29 games. He ranked as the #29 wideout out of 122 last year.

Russell Gage did a decent job as the number three guy, but the former 6th round pick is not a game-breaker. The Falcons added Laquon Treadwell, who was selected 23rd overall in the 2016 draft by the Vikings. He’s been a huge disappointed in Minnesota. Will he revive his career in Atlanta? I doubt it, but he could provide a couple of big plays.

2.4 Tight Ends (TEs)

More big changes here. Austin Hooper, who ranked 8th according to PFF among 66 tight ends, left for Cleveland. The Falcons replaced him with Hayden Hurst, formerly of the Ravens. He finished 14th based on PFF rankings.

Hooper caught 75 passes for 787 yards, while Hurst hauled in 30 passes for 349 yards. However, don’t be misled by those numbers too much. Keep in mind that Hurst often worked behind Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle in Baltimore.

Also, here is a key stat: Atlanta attempted the most passes in the league with 684, while the Ravens finished last in that category with just 440 attempts. Hurst will certainly see a big increase in the number of targets going his way!

2.5 Offensive Line (OL)

As a whole, the offensive line disappointed a little bit by allowing the 5th highest number of sacks in the league. However, as mentioned earlier, the Falcons attempted the most passes in the NFL. And they had a QB who wasn’t very mobile.

LT Jake Matthews and C Alex Mack received very nice grades from PFF. The same cannot be said about RT Kaleb McGary (72nd out of 81 tackles), Wes Schweitzer (56th out of 81 guards), James Carpenter (75th out of 81 guards) and Jamon Brown (62nd out of 81 guards).

Schweitzer is gone to Washington. The team acquired Justin McCray who received poor marks as well. The only glimmer of hope might come from the return of Chris Lindstrom. He played just 5 games in his rookie campaign, after being selected as the #14 overall pick in the 2019 draft. During his limited time on the field, he did a fine job.

2020 VS 2019 OFFENSE

The Falcons finished 13th in terms of points scored per game last season. I expect them to be in the middle of the pack once again in 2020.

Matt Ryan’s age concerns me a little bit. His lack of mobility also increases the chances of him getting injured.

Adding Gurley and Hurst, while losing Freeman and Hooper isn’t a clear gain, nor a clear loss.

Slight improvement could be seen at wide receiver with Ridley getting more experience and on the offensive line with Lindstrom’s return to the lineup.

Final call (2020 vs 2019):

Big downgrade-Moderate downgrade-Small downgrade-Stable-Small upgrade-Moderate upgrade-Big upgrade

3. Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown

3.1 Defensive Linemen (DLs)

Grady Jarrett is one of the top defensive linemen in the league. He doesn’t get a huge amount of sacks, but he still got 7.5 last season, while also being very stout against the run. He obtained a 90.1 grade from PFF, which gave him the #3 rank out of 114 DLs.

Tyeler Davison is an adequate, albeit not spectacular, run stuffer. He just signed a three-year deal, which shows the GM’s confidence in his abilities. He and Allen Bailey both played about 50% of the snaps and ranked in the middle of the pack.

The team lost Jack Crawford to the Titans, but he wasn’t very good anyway.

3.2 Defensive Ends (DEs) / Edge Rushers (ED)

The Falcons lost Vic Beasley and Adrian Clayborn, who recorded 8 and 4 sacks, respectively. I feel like Beasley is an overrated guy. He does get some sacks, but he struggles against the run. As a matter of fact, PFF ranked him 88th out of 107 edge defenders in 2019.

In order to offset those two losses, the team acquired Dante Fowler from the Rams. He is an upgrade over Beasley and he’s probably happy to reunite with Dan Quinn since they shared time with the Florida Gators. Fowler finished 35th among edge defenders (out of 107).

Takkarist McKinley is returning for his fourth year as a pro. He has received average PFF grades throughout his career, which is a bit disappointing considering his first-round status. He sacked opposing quarterbacks just 3.5 times last year, after posting 6.0 and 7.0 in his first two years in the NFL.

Atlanta’s biggest need, a pass rusher, was also addressed via the draft. The team took Marlon Davidson in the mid-second round. He was an underappreciated guy from playing in the shadow of Derrick Brown with Auburn. He was a four-year starter for the Tigers; he provided consistent and reliable play, but he did not necessarily stand out.

3.3 Linebackers (LBs)

Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell both played close to 90% of the snaps. Even though Campbell got more tackles, sacks and interceptions than his colleague did, Jones received much higher marks from PFF. Indeed, Jones got the #10 spot, while Campbell finished 70th. The latter is clearly a liability in coverage.

That being said, Campbell left for Arizona. Who will replace him? Will it be Foyesade Oluokun who did a decent job as a backup last year? He was selected in the 6th round of the 2018 draft. He has good athleticism, but may be undersized.

3.4 Cornerbacks (CBs)

The team is in trouble here. Their most talented CB, Desmond Trufant, was released for cap reasons and was signed by the Lions a couple of days later.

The three other guys who got the most playing time last year were Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield and Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Their PFF rankings were 78th, 107th and 56th, respectively (out of 112 cornerbacks). That’s not reassuring.

Sheffield is likely to become the starting slot corner. He must improve upon his disappointing rookie season after being selected in the 4th round out of Ohio State. As for 2018 second-rounder Isaiah Oliver, he is projected to start as an outside CB.

Thank God the Falcons took a cornerback with their first-round pick this year: A.J. Terrell from the Clemson Tigers. He is a tough guy who hasn’t missed a single game in three years.

Terrell has intercepted six passes across 30 starts, including a pick six in the title game against Alabama. He does have a blemish in his resume: he played poorly when covering Ja’Marr Chase in the National Championship Game earlier this year. Indeed, Chase caught 9 passes for 221 yards and 2 TDs. Ouch.

3.5 Safeties (S)

The safety position wasn’t good either last year, but at least there is hope.

Atlanta’s starting SS Keanu Neal may finally get back on the field. He only played 3 games last year and just one contest the year before! He apparently has a chance to be ready for Week #1. In his first two seasons in the league (after getting drafted #17 overall in 2016), he was an above-average safety.

Ricardo Allen and Damontae Kazee did their best, but they didn’t fare very well in any aspect of the game (coverage, run defense, pass rush). They finished among the worst safeties in the NFL.

2020 VS 2019 DEFENSE

The Falcons allowed the 10th highest number of points per game last year. I’m afraid it might get worse in 2020.

Signing Dante Fowler was a smart move for sure. I love the addition. The return of Keanu Neal at SS should help, but after missing almost two full years, it might take time to get back to his old self.

On the other side, losing Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, De’Vondre Campbell and Desmund Trufant really adds up. They were NFL-caliber players who will need to be replaced. I’m not convinced that rookies A.J. Terrell and Marlon Davidson can provide enough of a spark to avoid this unit to regress as a whole.

Final call (2020 vs 2019):

Big downgrade-Moderate downgrade-Small downgrade-Stable-Small upgrade-Moderate upgrade-Big upgrade

4. Regular Season Wins

According to sportsbooks, the Falcons are expected to win 7.5 games this season. Should we bet the “over” or the “under”?

Here is the methodology I used in order to answer this vital question:

  • Use BetOnline.ag’s point spreads on all 256 regular season games.
  • Convert those point spreads into win probabilities.
  • Simulate each of the 256 games, according to those win probabilities, via the R statistical software.
  • Repeat the previous step one million times (you get 1M simulated seasons).
  • Count the proportion of seasons where the Falcons won more or less than 7.5 games.

The results of this thorough statistical investigation generate the 9th-highest ROI (Return On Investment) among the league's 32 teams.

As you can see on my website, the Over/Under pick is provided for free for the NFL teams producing the ROIs ranked 11-32.

The top 10 picks, which includes the Falcons, all have a ROI above 24% and they are available in my special NFL Gold Package. This is the best product I have ever sold. Take advantage of it!

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