Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the Atlanta Falcons.
Whoever loses the Super Bowl usually suffers from lethargy during the following season. While that hit the Falcons early on this year, they recovered nicely down the stretch, moving ahead in a jumbled NFC playoff race to get into the postseason.
However, there was something missing this season, and that was Kyle Shanahan. The Falcons had the second-best offense in the league last season with Shanahan as offensive coordinator before he left to take a head coaching job with the Atlanta Falcons. That was no more evident in their playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles where they blanked in the second half, losing as a result.
While they only dropped to eighth under Steve Sarkisian, the playcalling lacked the same effectiveness that it did under Shanahan. Matt Ryan also posted his lowing passing yardage total since 2010, though he still threw for over 4,000 yards. In spite of the downturn, Sarkisian was retained by head coach Dan Quinn.
At the very least, the defense took a huge jump, going from 25th in total defense to ninth. Having elite players like Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman around on offense can easily offset any scheme issues the team runs into.
The Falcons will also be able to keep most of their core group in place, which should help them continue to stay competitive in a crowded NFC. Maybe another offseason will help Sarkisian get acclimated to the team better. The NFC South has gotten a lot better though, so they’ll have to be smart with their roster moves.
Current number of draft picks: 8 (#26 in the first round)
Cap space: $12 million
Notable free agents
Dontari Poe, DT: Poe was expected to be a highly targeted player in free agency last offseason but ended taking a one-year deal with the Falcons. Part of that could be his limitations on defense. While he’s great against the run, he’s never been a consistent pass rusher, only picking up 2.5 sacks this year. Poe is a worthy starter on most teams, but he needs to try expanding his game more if he wants to make a larger impact in the league.
Adrian Clayborn, DE: Clayborn’s sack numbers are eye-popping, but that’s a huge mirage. He had a team 9.5 sacks this season, but 6 of those came against the Dallas Cowboys, where he embarrassed Chaz Green into nothingness. Even still, he had a very strong season overall, adding 8 QB hits and 37 hurries. He’ll turn 30 before next year, but Clayborn can easily find a niche as a versatile pass rusher with any team.
Taylor Gabriel, WR: 2016 was a strange year for Gabriel. After getting cut at the end of the season by the Cleveland Browns, the Falcons scooped him up and turned into a fairly dynamic weapon, scoring a career-high 6 touchdowns that season.
Alas, Gabriel took a slight step back in 2017, though that may have been due to Shanahan’s departure. He caught 33 passes for 378 yards and just a single TD. He just turned 27, so there’s enough time for him to catch on somewhere as a dependable intermediate option.
DT/DE: The interior defensive line could be changing big time for the Falcons next season. In addition to Poe and Clayborn, Courtney Upshaw and Ahtyba Rubin are free agents. Clayborn and Upshaw played some snaps at defensive end as well, so their potential departure could leave the depth thin at that position.
G/C: The Falcons have a fairly strong offensive line, but the one weakness was at right guard with Wes Schweitzer. He could be pushed. Ben Garland had to play a ton of snaps at guard as well this season in place of Andy Levitre and didn’t do particularly great. He’s a free agent anyway, though his departure would leave no backup at center behind Alex Mack.
WR: With Gabriel on the market, the Falcons don’t have much in the way of depth behind Jones and Mohamed Sanu. A solid slot receiver would be a boon of their offense.
LB: The defensive starters are set with Vic Beasley and De’Vondre Campbell on the outside and Deion Jones in the middle, but all three backups, Sean Weatherspoon, LaRoy Reynolds and safety hybrid Kemal Ishmael, are free agents.
CB: More for depth than anything else. The top three corners on the roster, Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford and Brian Poole, are productive players, but there isn’t much behind them on the depth chart.
K: Matt Bryant will be 43 before next season, yet he’s still kicking field goals at a high level, missing just five tries in 2017. He’s a free agent, however.
Best player/building block
Julio Jones, WR: Of course. Jones actually struggled to find the end zone this year, only scoring 3 touchdowns. But he was a force otherwise, finishing second in the league for receiving yards behind Antonio Brown with 1,444 yards while also placing in the top 10 for catches with 88. Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of 91.4, third best for all wideouts. What can defenses do to stop him?
Grady Jarrett, DT: Don’t look now, but Jarrett could be in for a huge jump in the next few seasons. He was a force against the run, picking up 45 total tackles. While his sack numbers (just 4) weren’t as strong, he did score an 87.1 grade from PFF, 14th among all interior defenders. Next year is his contract season, so maybe Jarrett will continue to improve dramatically.