Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Next up: The Falcons, who started the year 5–0 and ended it with plenty of questions about where to go next. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
DE Kroy Biermann, G Chris Chester, DE Adrian Clayborn, K Shayne Graham, OLB O’Brien Schofield, OT Ryan Schraeder (RFA), LB Nate Stupar (RFA), LB Phillip Wheeler, LB Paul Worrilow (RFA)
Player(s) that must be re-signed
Clayborn, Schraeder, Stupar, Worrilow. Not much in the way of unrestricted guys Atlanta has to have back. Clayborn is pushing it as it is—the former Tampa Bay bust played a versatile role up front for the Falcons, but he’s hardly irreplaceable. On a contract at or around the $3 million cap number he carried last season (with $1 million in base salary), Clayborn would give the Falcons a player they’re comfortable with on the depth chart and who played well in his first year in Atlanta.
The three other names here are all restricted free agents: Schraeder, Stupar and Worrilow.
Schraeder is the one to watch. An undrafted free agent in 2013, the 27-year-old has locked down Atlanta’s starting right tackle job. The Falcons would hate to lose him, but are they worried enough to slap a first-round tender on him if the two sides cannot reach a new contract? No team went higher than a second-round tender last off-season, with valuable players like Damon Harrison and Tashaun Gipson receiving that designation.
It’s hard to imagine another franchise risking a first-round selection for Schraeder, but a second-rounder might be doable given his recent play. The first-round tender came with a $3.35 million price tag a year ago, and it probably will rise for 2016.
Worrilow and Schofield made up two-thirds of Atlanta’s starting linebacker corps in Week 17, while Wheeler picked up a couple starts himself after signing mid-season. The consideration given all three starts in the same place: the Falcons’ obvious lack of talent at the linebacker positions.
Worrilow has averaged 76.7 tackles over his three NFL seasons. He should have value for Atlanta moving forward, at least as a two-down linebacker. That’s less true of Schofield and Wheeler, both veterans who can pitch in but shouldn’t be counted on to start. Either very well could be back anyway.
A quick vote for Stupar, too. Atlanta is his fifth team since the Raiders selected him in the 2012 draft, but the journeyman appears to have found a home. Given the chance last season, he was a solid contributor on defense and is an active special teams player. An original-round tender, with a contract shy of $1.5 million, should be in the Falcons’ plans.
Most important position to improve
Linebacker. The Falcons used two draft picks to address their D-line last year, selecting Vic Beasley as the “Leo”—a hybrid DE/LB—for Dan Quinn’s scheme and then swiping Grady Jarrett in Round 5. Now, it’s time to focus on the next line of defense.
Even if we count Beasley among the linebackers (and we probably shouldn’t, given his overall role), there’s still a striking lack of playmakers available. Atlanta already cut Durant, a 12-game starter, despite Wheeler, Schofield, Worrilow and Stupar all approaching free agency in one form or another. Perhaps Quinn can piece together a serviceable group if GM Thomas Dimitroff keeps those players together, but the status quo should be the baseline, not the goal.
Opposing running backs caught a whopping 112 passes against Atlanta this season, easily the highest total in the league. Tight ends added another 92 grabs. The Falcons ranked 14th against the run—a respectable effort, no doubt—but they were extremely vulnerable against the pass on the second level. Their LBs produced just 4.0 sacks and two Worrilow interceptions.
The front is starting to take shape behind Beasley; the secondary boasts Desmond Trufant plus four other contributors drafted within the past three years. The linebackers are in dire need of a talent infusion, sooner rather than later.
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Other positions to improve
Backup quarterback, defensive end, guard, safety, wide receiver, O-line depth. The Falcons generated a league-low 19 sacks last season, paced by Beasley’s four. The criticism for such a paltry total could be leveled, in part, against the uninspiring linebackers, but the line did little overall. Beasley (4.0) and Clayborn (3.0) combined for nearly 40% of the team’s sacks a year ago, with little support from anyone else. Starter Tyson Jackson was an utter ghost against the pass, going all season without a sack.
Atlanta could have its starting safeties in Ricardo Allen and Kemal Ishmael, the latter of whom stepped in for an injured William Moore to make five starts. Moore’s recent release bumps Ishmael to the top of the depth chart. Bringing in new blood to compete for the job wouldn’t hurt.
The Falcons‘ tasks this off-season are not limited to the defense. The interior offensive line of guards Andy Levitre and Chris Chester and center Mike Person leaves a lot to be desired—there should be limited motivation to re-sign Chester.
Wide receiver could be a focus of both free agency and the draft. Julio Jones caught 136 passes on 203 targets in 2015, but no other WR topped the 43 receptions made by a fading Roddy White. The Falcons legitimately missed Harry Douglas’s production ... and that sums up the situation.
Sean Renfree is under contract to return as Matt Ryan’s backup. But he’s not the 30-year-old Ryan’s heir apparent, so that search should begin. Ryan was mediocre throughout much of last season.
Overall priority this off-season
Get Matt Ryan back on track. Ryan’s problems can be blamed on personnel. They can be blamed on the growing pains of transitioning to Kyle Shanahan’s offense prior to the 2015 season. And they absolutely can be blamed on Ryan, who remains firmly planted in the NFL’s second tier of starting quarterbacks—alongside the likes of Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford—but has never been able to climb farther up the rankings and stay there.
The weaknesses at wide receiver and along the interior of the O-line mentioned above helped sabotage the offense. Ryan took 30 sacks and was hit nearly 90 times, with pressure disrupting countless plays on top of those totals. Whether or not Ryan ever found a comfort zone within Shanahan’s unique scheme (and it didn’t look like he did), the blocking issues made for a lingering headache.
He also didn’t have anyone outside of Jones, running back Devonta Freeman and tight end Jacob Tamme to lean on through the air. White’s longest catch all season went for just 25 yards, and no one else emerged at the receiver spots.
The Falcons have to believe that with another off-season under his belt, Quinn can continue to bolster the defense. That unit climbed to 14th in points allowed last season, up from 27th in 2014 with Mike Smith at the helm. For now, though, this is still a team reliant on its offense to be potent. It wasn’t last year, mainly because Ryan struggled.