With a new head coach and new general manager, the Falcons are in operation re-build mode. And because of this, Atlanta could take a season or two to get back into playoff contention, but maybe not.
It’s not an easy thing to do to jump from the bottom to the top of the league in one season, but it has happened before. Looking back at this past 2020 season, the Washington Football Team won the NFC East following a disappointing 3-13 record in 2019. And both the Chicago Bears and Houston Texans ended the season atop their divisions in 2018 after finishing fourth the year before.
The Falcons are not like any of the three teams listed above. Some might even look at them for their NFL futures. They have an MVP quarterback surrounded by quality weapons that just haven’t been able to produce as well as they should for many reasons. And they have a defense that has shown some splashes of optimism, but nothing consistent. That’s all about to change for the start of 2021. So, what will change for Atlanta to make to the top of the NFC South again?
In order to keep the franchise afloat and give Matt Ryan another chance to lead this team to another Super Bowl before it’s too late, letting Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff go was the smartest decision Falcons owner Arthur Blank made this past season. Ryan will turn 36 this season and the Falcons will likely draft his replacement in the 2021 draft. It could very well be Ryan’s last season as a Falcon or, at least, as a starter.
But under a new coach, who is also a quarterback whisperer, Ryan’s career might not end so suddenly after all. Arthur Smith is coming off two incredible seasons as the Titans offensive coordinator where he was credited for turning quarterback Ryan Tannehill around.
Under Smith, Tannehill won the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award and made the Pro Bowl in 2019. Tannehill’s success continued this past season, posting a passer rating of 106.5 while leading the Titans to an 11-5 finish and playoff appearance. Smith plans to bring the same approach he took in Tennessee to Atlanta and build around Ryan’s strengths just as he did Tannehill’s.
Ryan will still have Julio Jones to throw to, along with Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst, which should still make them somewhat popular among NFL picks. What they lack though is Derrick Henry in their run game but that will change, starting this offseason. Add in 71-year-old Dean Pees on the defensive side of the ball, who played DC at the Titans in 2018-2019 and won a Super Bowl with Ravens and Patriots prior to that, and you’re in more than good shape.
Drafting Game Changers
The Falcons have the No. 4 overall pick this season, which is interesting since they already plan to have Ryan as starting quarterback. So, with that being said, a quarterback isn’t their first priority and they could look to draft a top lineman to protect Ryan or an edge to better their non-existent pass rush.
Whatever they do, they will need to draft a game-changer, unlike the Falcons did last year. Good news for Atlanta fans though, Falcons GM Terry Fontenot has preached drafting the best on the board at the time and not necessarily what they need.
“In the draft, you’re going to take the best player,” Fontenot said via the Falcons’ website. “You can’t be afraid to continue (to add) at every position. There’s not a position that you’re going to say, ‘Oh, we’re good there, we’re not going to draft there this year.’ That’s just what I believe. … We’re never going to be afraid to take a player at any position and build strength.”
Fontenot also made it clear Atlanta won’t be “reaching for needs”. So while the Falcons will need a quarterback down the road, they might not waste someone sitting on the bench behind Ryan at the No. 4 pick, unless he’s the best athlete on the board at the time.
Drew Brees is Retiring
The New Orleans Saints, who finished second this past season with a 12-4 record, likely won’t be the same team they’ve been with Drew Brees set to retire along with a very limited salary cap entering the 2021 season.
This will be huge for a Falcons team who actually finished 18th on in Pro Football Focus’s ELO Ratings, despite finishing last and sealing a top 5 NFL draft pick. And we can’t ignore the fact that the Falcons lost a total of 10 games by just one score or less in 2020 ( though, one of those losses was by eight points not seven).
And while the Falcons will still have to battle their way past the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, it might not be as difficult as it seems. Tom Brady continues to age and the Bucs had not won a Super Bowl in over a decade, so it’ll be interesting to see how these young guys handle their success. On top of that, the Bucs will be the team to beat next season as the Chiefs were in 2020.
Everyone is going to play their hearts out even harder when they step on that field against Brady and we have seen what he does when he gets flustered––such as when the Saints gave him a 38-3 whooping in November. If you really believe the Bucs are going to enter 2021 for a back-to-back Super Bowl appearance, well you must be a biased fan.
The Falcons have themselves set up for newfound success this upcoming season and get themselves to number one, but it’ll all come down to their game-changing picks in the draft and free agency… stay tuned.