Atlanta Falcons 2020 Season Preview
Another year, another underwhelming product. The Atlanta Falcons hit the ground face first in 2019, and struggled to even stand up until their Week 9 bye week. After a 1-1 start, they rattled off seven straight losses. That run included a blow out loss away to the Houston Texans, despite putting up 36 points. A restructuring of coaching personnel, however, provided enough of an injection to keep things somewhat respectable. Defeats were handed to the playoff bound New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers, even after trading Mohamed Sanu Sr. In any case, another second straight 7-9 season wasn’t enough for Arthur Blank to put an end to the Thomas Dimitroff/Dan Quinn era, and the pair retained their positions.
Atlanta had heavily invested in the Offensive Line heading into 2019, with no less than four acquisitions across free agency and the Draft. The unit saw Matt Ryan sacked a career high 48 times. And that’s despite missing a game and a half through injury. Julio Jones missed out on hitting the 1400 yard mark for the first time in six seasons, and the defense as a whole laboured to a total of 28 sacks; a figure better than only the Miami Dolphins. Fair to say things could have gone better.
An offseason of big name turnovers saw recent heroes such as Devonta Freeman, Desmond Trufant, and Austin Hooper were all moved on. Free Agency brought a number of established names into the fold. Where Vic Beasley Jr walked, Dante Fowler Jr stepped in. In place of Devonta Freeman, Todd Gurley II. The pick gained in the Sanu trade made its way over to Baltimore in exchange for the services of former first round pick Hayden Hurst. At the very least, Atlanta have added proven talent to their roster.
That second season resurgence ended the Falcons dreams of a top 10 draft pick, and put them well out of the chase for Chase. A bevvy of smoke and mirrors appeared in the build up to the 2020 Draft, with the Falcons linked to a trade with just about everyone sitting in picks 2-10, but to no avail. With pick 16, Atlanta selected A.J. Terrell to step into the role left by the aforementioned Desmond Trufant. Marlon Davidson, Matt Hennessey, and Mykal Walker were all added in rounds 2-4, with a view to contribute immediately.
The 2020 Atlanta Falcons will live and die by the mind of Dirk Koetter. Heading into his second second season as Falcons Offensive Coordinator, the 13 year NFL veteran surely hasn’t seen this level of talent at his disposal since 2012. How he gets the most out of the players available to him remains to be seen. Koetter was a questionable re-hire heading into 2019, and his output over the course of the season hardly inspires confidence heading into 2020.
Koetter and his team need to improve the running game, and the offensive line’s overall performance. Having passed his physical, Todd Gurley should provide an immediate upgrade to that first area. The Georgia native ended 2019 with less rushing attempts, and less rushing yards, than any season in his career to date. Still, Gurley still managed over 1000 all-purpose yards, and 14 all-purpose touchdowns. If Gurley is anything close to who we’ve become accustomed to seeing over the past 5 years, Koetter should have access to the best running back he’s ever had. If he can only operate in small doses, Ito Smith should offer enough in reserve to provide something resembling competence.
Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary endured up and down rookie seasons, both suffering injuries and health concerns that left them missing time. They impressed in spells, with Lindstrom singled out by league veteran Alex Mack as being capable of becoming “as good as he wants to be”. Lindstrom ended the season having given up 0 sacks, while McGary gave up 13, having played the 5th most downs in the league. Matt Hennessey is touted to take over the role of starting Center once Alex Mack retires. We’ll see if he is given the role of start Guard on the left hand side of the line as the season draws closer.
The passing game speaks for itself. Matt Ryan is as reliable as he’s ever been, Julio Jones is still Julio Jones, and Calvin Ridley should benefit from an increased target share in the absence of Mohamed Sanu Sr and Austin Hooper. Whether Hayden Hurst is capable of living up to the enormous promise he commanded heading into the 2018 draft remains to be seen. In any case, Ryan’s love for a pass catching Tight End should offer him the best opportunity to realise that potential.
2019 was another down year for the Falcons defense. The Dirty Birds ended the season 22nd in total points conceded, 22nd in total yards allowed, and allowed their opponent to convert on third down 39.9% of the time. In order for Atlanta to be competitive in 2020, they have to be better, flat out.
A large portion of the blame can be assigned to the team’s anemic pass rush. As mentioned, only Miami registered fewer sacks than Atlanta in 2019. Dante Fowler Jr managed to secure a double digit sack total for the first time in his career in 2019 (11.5), earning himself a nice pay day in Atlanta. They will hope that having him line up at EDGE will provide some extra juice to the teams pass rush efforts. On the other end, Takk McKinley enters the final season on his rookie contract, having seen his fifth year option declined. McKinley has played pretty well in his time in Atlanta so far, yet his numbers don’t necessarily reflect that. Raheem Morris will hope his pressures convert to sacks sooner rather than later. Failing that, Marlon Robinson slotting in as Grady Jarret’s de facto partner on the interior should give the Falcons a little more bite up front.
There is no bigger question mark hanging over this defense than in the secondary. A spate of injuries and departures since 2017 has seen the overall talent levels across the unit decline sharply. Atlanta enter 2020 with a starting Cornerback pairing of A.J. Terrell and Isaiah Oliver, with Kendall Sheffield rounding out the top 3 spots on the depth chart. Oliver represents the most senior player of those 3, and his second season struggles cannot be understated. Oliver allowed the 7th most receptions of any Cornerback in 2019. Atlanta will need him to clean his game up considerably to stand a chance of defensive success.
No such experience issues plague Atlanta’s Safety corps, however. Team captain Ricardo Allen enters his 7th season in the NFL as a solid player, lauded for his leadership skills. Another season under the belt of the ball-hawk that is Damontae Kazee should serve him in good stead. The question here, however, is whether former 1st round pick Keanu Neal can stay healthy. Neal has suffered season ending injuries early on in both the 2018 and 2019 seasons, albeit with separate issues. Playing out the final season on his rookie contract, both Atlanta and Neal need 2020 to stay off the injury report and on the field should they have any hope of mutual success going forward.
The 2020 Falcons are a tough one to nail down. The on-paper talent certainly suggests the ability to pull together a successful regular season, and deep postseason run. That talent needs to be met by a competent or better coaching output, and, unfortunately, there’s no real guarantee of that. 6-2 finish aside, starting last season 1-7 was utterly inexcusable. They cannot allow that again in 2020.
Their uncomfortable start to the schedule could well see a repeat performance. Seahawks, Cowboys, Bears, Packers, and Vikings, all of whom have enjoyed trips to the playoffs in the past 2 seasons, make up 5 of Atlanta’s first 6 fixtures. If they can come through those games at .500 or better, they might stand a chance. Personnel improvements to the Buccaneers, and the lack of major losses to the Saints, however, could leave them wanting in a tough division.
2020 ATLANTA FALCONS SEASON PREDICTION
7-9 (3rd in the NFC South)