ATLANTA (CBS46) – As the full team reports to Atlanta Falcons training camp Tuesday, there are plenty of questions surrounding some key positions and which team from 2019 will show up when and if the regular season starts in several weeks.
Last season, the Falcons started out 1-7 and calls for head coach Dan Quinn to be fired were rampant across the fan base. Then after a bye week, the team went 6-2 and looked like a completely different team across the board. After making some changes to his coaching staff, Quinn is hoping to replicate the finish to last season, because if he struggles out of the gate again; he may be looking for a new job very quickly this year.
At the quarterback position, veteran Pro Bowler Matt Ryan will start under center again this year. He played in 15 games last season and threw for 4,466 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions to finish with a solid quarterback rating of 92.1. But, he was also sacked 48 times last season which has to improve if the Falcons are to get above .500 and make a run at the playoffs.
Behind Ryan in the backfield are more question marks than answers as camp opens. Last season’s leading rusher, Devonta Freeman, is gone, but he only produced 656 rushing yards last season. The top two returning runners this season are Brian Hill and Matt Ryan who combined for less than 500 yards rushing last season.
The team made a splashy signing bringing running back Todd Gurley into the fold hoping he can rejuvenate his career as he comes back home. The five-year veteran and two-time All Pro has battled injuries the last few years, but was still able to put up more than 2,000 rushing yards over that time and 29 touchdowns. Still, his yards per game dropped from 89.4 in 2018 to just 57.1 in 2019, his lowest total in his five-year NFL career. Still, if Gurley still has some pop left in his legs, he could give the Falcons’ a running element that has been missing over the last two seasons.
The wide receiving corps remains loaded with three former first-round picks on the outside. Led by future Hall of Fame wide receiver Julio Jones, the wide receiving corps also features one of the most dynamic second options on the outside, Calvin Ridley. The two former Alabama Crimson Tide players combined for more than 2,000 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns last season. The other first-round pick hanging around the wide receiving corps hasn’t done much in the NFL and was signed as a free agent, LaQuon Treadwell.
One element that will be missing from the Falcons offense this year is tight end Austin Hooper. He left in free agency when the team decided not to resign him. In his place will be former Baltimore Raven Hayden Hurst. The former South Carolina Gamecock had 30 catches for 349 yards and two touchdowns last season, but can also be a solid blocker when in tight with the offensive line. If Hurst, who is only in his second season, can produce just a little more receiving, the Falcons will have to be happy with the move to let Hooper go. If he struggles, fans will be asking what-if all season long.
The offensive line will have multiple first round picks on it including veteran All Pro center Alex Mack, guard Chris Lindstrom, and tackles Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary. The question again this year will be can the Falcons keep the line healthy. Lindstrom missed 11 games in his rookie season, but if he can McGary stay healthy and make a good jump in skill level from last season, the offensive line should be in good shape heading into the regular season.
On defense fans will see some changes as the Falcons do anything they can to get more pressure on the quarterback in 2020. The Falcons produced just 28 sacks during the 2019 season. The team’s leading sack man from last season, Vic Beasley, is now with the Titans and Adrian Clayborn is also gone. In their place, comes two former first round picks looking to rejuvenate their careers in Charles Harris and Dante Fowler, Jr.
Harris came into the league after a stellar career at Missouri where he went from an unranked prospect to a first-round pick. But in his seasons in Miami, he couldn’t translate the college production into the NFL. He’ll be joined by Fowler who produced 11.5 sacks last season for the Los Angeles Rams. Fowler has 27.5 sacks over his four-year career, and he played well when alongside solid defensive tackles which he will have in Atlanta in the form of Grady Jarrett and possibly a rookie out of Auburn.
Jarrett is the quintessential star defensive tackle who played every game last season. He produced 7.5 sacks from the defensive tackle position along with 12 tackles for loss and 16 quarterback hits. He’s been a rock for the Falcons on the inside and may get some help if rookie Marlon Davidson can make an impact this season. Davidson played four years at Auburn and produced 90 solo tackles, 84 assisted tackles, and 14.5 sacks, including 6.5 last season.
At the linebacker position, it starts with star Deion Jones. He’s an undersized linebacker at 6’1”, 227 pounds, but has continually produced solid numbers every season. Last season, Jones played in all 16 games, had 101 total tackles, five passes defensed, one interception, and one defensive touchdown. He’ll need to produce good numbers again this season if the Falcons want to get to the next level.
Finally, the defensive backfield for the Falcons will be a completely new look at the cornerback position. Gone is Desmond Trufant and in his place steps first-round pick out of Clemson A.J. Terrell. The Falcons surprised most draft observers with the selection of Terrell, but he’s a tall corner not afraid to make tackles and played 44 games with 30 starts for the Tigers. He was also an All-ACC selection in his final season. He’ll be joined on the outside by Isaiah Oliver a veteran out of Colorado.
At the safety position, the Falcons have plenty of potential…if the injury bug can finally stay away from the players. The Falcons got Ricardo Allen back on the field last year after he missed 13 games in 2018 due to injury and he produced 81 tackles, eight passes defensed, and two interceptions on the year. Beside him is the question mark, Keanu Neal.
When healthy, Keanu Neal is one of the top safeties in the National Football League. But he’s only played in four games over the last two seasons due to injuries, including just three last season. If he can regain his health, the Falcons should be set at safety and be ready to do some dynamic things in the defensive backfield.
Which brings us to perhaps the biggest change on the defensive side of the ball, defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. The defensive coach had been coaching the team’s wide receivers until the team needed the season saved and he helped rejuvenate the defense. After taking over, Morris cut the points allowed by 16, forced 13 turnovers in the last seven games, and his defense tallied 20 sacks in the last seven games.
Of course, hanging over all of this is COVID-19. The virus has canceled offseason training and all preseason games. If it starts to spread in training camp or during the regular season, it could throw the entire league into chaos this season.
The Falcons will be in one of the toughest divisions in football with a pair of future Hall of Famers leading the New Orleans Saints (Drew Brees) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Tom Brady). If things come together for the Falcons, they can make a playoff run this year.