After coming as close as you can possibly come to winning a Super Bowl without actually winning it, the Atlanta Falcons are going to have to pick themselves up off the deck and trudge forward.
Blowing a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl was an unprecedented collapse of epic proportions that is unlikely to ever be equaled again, but the Falcons still figure to be prime contenders for a Lombardi Trophy in the coming seasons.
It’s clear the Falcons are close, but what do they need to do this offseason to take the next step?
The greatest season in Falcons history did not get off to such a hot start. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers came to the Georgia Dome in week one and took out the Falcons 31-24. The defense was atrocious, Jameis Winston outplayed Matt Ryan, and it looked like another long season in Atlanta.
But Atlanta bounced back to win their next four games, the highlight win being the third of those four against the Carolina Panthers. Matt Ryan had a career best 534 passing yards, and Julio Jones had 300 receiving yards, and the Falcons won a shootout 48-33.
The dirty birds cooled off a little bit though as they dropped three of their next five games, putting them at 6-4 entering their bye week.
Atlanta came out of the bye a different team though. Matt Ryan started to show his MVP form, and the defense drastically improved from the early stages of the season. The Falcons won five of their last six games to finish 11-5, good enough to win the NFC South and earn a first-round bye in the playoffs.
The Falcons finished with the seventh best offense in NFL history by points scored, and they didn’t slow down in January. Atlanta put a blitzkrieg Seattle’s legion of boom 36-20 to reach the NFC Championship Game, and in the NFC title game the offense ran all over the Packers 44-21.
It looked really good in Super Bowl LI through three quarters, but it just wasn’t meant to be as Tom Brady claimed his fifth Super Bowl ring for the Patriots in a heartbreaking 34-28 overtime win over the Falcons.
Off-season Moves Already Made
Even though their offseason started a month after the rest of the league’s, the Falcons have already made some critical moves for their future.
Two days after the Super Bowl, Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was hired to replace Kyle Shannahan, who took the job as head coach the San Francisco 49ers. His coordinator counterpart Richard Smith was also fired as defensive coordinator after the Super Bowl debacle, and replaced by secondary coach Marquand Manuel.
Personnel wise, Atlanta locked up two impending free agents to future deals. Number two cornerback Robert Alford will be staying in Atlanta for the next four seasons, and starting right tackle Ryan Schraeder is going to be a Falcon for the next five seasons. Both players played huge roles on their respective side of the ball in the Super Bowl run, and Thomas Dimitroff has done very well to re-sign them before they hit the open market.
Experienced pass rusher Dwight Freeney also signed a one-year extension for the team, meaning the future Hall of Famer will play his 16th season of his career with the Falcons.
Notable Free Agents
The free agency list looks a lot better with the moves general manager Thomas Dimitroff has already made. Chris Chester has started all 16 games in each of his last six seasons in the league, including the last two with the Falcons at right guard. Atlanta was the only team in the NFL to have the same five offensive linemen start all 16 games together, and Chester was a piece of that puzzle.
Fullback Patrick DiMarco was a jack-of-all-trades last year out of the backfield. Reports are that the Falcons are trying to re-sign him for the right price, but a deal has not been reached yet. There is some speculation that he could join Kyle Shannahan out in San Francisco.
A Tight ends,Jacob Tamme and Levine Toilolo will both be free agents on March 9th. Both were role players in the offense last season. Toilolo is six years younger and was on a cheaper contract than Tamme, and with rookie Austin Hooper emerging last season; it is unlikely the Falcons will re-sign both players.
The longest tenured Atlanta Falcon will hit also free agency. Jonathan Babineaux’s production has declined in recent seasons, but he has been with the team since he was drafted in 2005. Sean Weatherspoon has made his sentiments clear that he wants to stay in Atlanta, but with the front office trying to get younger on defense to go with their already young core, it seems likely he and Paul Worrilow will be moved away.
Top Three Needs
1. Defensive End: Atlanta’s pass rush was one of the most improved units for any team in the NFL in 2016, but it still needs work. Vic Beasley won the NFL sack title with 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles, but the rest of the pass rush was just as bad as it was in 2015. The Falcons are in desperate need of a defensive end to go on the opposite side of Beasley.
Calais Campbell is ranked number five on our free agency big board, and would fill the void well. Atlanta’s salary cap situation is not great due to big contracts for Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, but if the organization believes he is the final piece of the puzzle, they could shell out for him.
The draft is probably a more realistic way of getting a pass rusher. This class is historically deep on defense, and some really good talent will still be there even at the bottom of the first round. DeMarcus Walker of Florida State and Taco Charlton from Michigan are two fierce pass rushers who could be available.
2. Defensive Tackle: The defensive line did grow last year, but it’s still bleak outside of Beasley. This team is in dire need of someone in the middle of the defensive line who will be able to help stop the run and free up space for the playmakers on the outside.
There are free agents out there who could instantly upgrade, but I think the Falcons should look to draft for this position. Dan Quinn has already shown he can hit on late round draft picks with fifth rounder Grady Jarrett playing a huge role in the Super Bowl. Quinn is still trying to build this team the way the Seattle team was built. By hitting on draft picks, especially late round ones.
If they were going to take one in the first round, Florida Gator Caleb Brantley would represent good value at the 31st pick.
3. Guard: It’s hard to imagine that one of the best offenses the NFL has ever seen needs to be improved, but I think there is one area the Falcons could use some help in. Andy Levitre and Chris Chester were both very solid last year for the Falcons, but both are also on the wrong side of 30 years old. Chester is a free agent this year and Levitre will be 36 when his contract runs out in two years.
The Falcons look set at center with Alex Mack under contract through 2020, and have arguably the best tackle combination in the league in Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder. Drafting another guard for depth behind Chester and Levitre would be a good idea.