The Falcons had another tough year in 2014, finishing 6-10 and never mounting a real challenge for the playoffs. One bright spot: they went 5-1 against the NFC South. Lots of changes mark their offseason, beginning with an overhaul of the coaching staff.
New head coach Dan Quinn is the former defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks – expectations are high that he can turn around a defense that was worst in the NFL for yards against. Open questions include whether his success can be replicated absent Richard Sherman and the Legion of Boom, and if he can add a measure of balance to the offense, so opposing defenses aren’t simply sitting back waiting for Matt Ryan to launch the ball.
New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan comes over from Cleveland after a tumultuous 2014. Shanahan has the pedigree, but he’s yet to find consistent success running an offense in the NFL: if he can’t do it with the Falcons, he might be out of places to go. New defensive coordinator Richard Smith has a long coaching history and mixed prior success as a DC in stops at Miami and Houston.
New Faces – Free Agency & Trades
The free agent market in 2015 was not especially kind to the Falcons, but they managed to add a handful of serviceable bodies. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn missed almost all of last year with the Bucs after suffering a biceps injury, but he’s proven an above-average pass rusher when on the field (13 sacks in two healthy seasons). Linebacker Justin Durant can play outside or the middle and is able to rack up tackles… again, when he’s healthy. The 8-year pro also brings veteran leadership to a squad sorely in need.
Linebacker Brooks Reed has also played both inside and out – he notched 6 sacks in his 2011 rookie campaign, but has been frustratingly quiet since (8.5 sacks in 3 seasons since). Quinn brings outside linebacker O’Brien Schofield with him from Seattle: Schofield was a solid depth player on the Seahawks, but with the talent-thin Falcons he might get a chance to start. Phillip Adams comes over from the Jets as a likely nickel cornerback, if he’s asked to play a more extensive role the secondary is in real trouble.
On the offensive side of the ball, Leonard Hankerson will likely be the No. 3 wide receiver and he worked with Shanahan in Washington. Guard Mike Person adds depth to the offensive line, but not much else.
The front office was disappointingly quiet on the trade front.
New Faces – 2015 Draft
The Falcons selected Clemson’s Vic Beasley #8 overall and hope the outside linebacker will be the pass rush specialist they’ve lacked. Cornerback Jalen Collins (LSU) and nose tackle Grady Jarrett (also Clemson) will have to contribute immediately if this squad hopes to compete. 3rd round pick Tevin Coleman from Indiana might not begin the season as the starting running back, but he could push vet Devonta Freeman into a supporting role. Wide receiver Justin Hardy may challenge Hankerson for No. 3 WR duties.
Graphic via tommeltonscouting
We might not learn a lot in Week 1 of preseason, when the Tennessee Titans visit the Georgia Dome. Ryan, Jones, and White will only log a handful of snaps, and even Freeman and Coleman likely will be limited to no more than the first half.
Week 2 of preseason, when the Falcons visit the New York Jets, might provide our first real look at what the team has to offer. The starters will get more snaps and the offense will have several series to demonstrate that hoped-for balanced attack. If the Jets’ mediocre offense can move the ball in the first half, it might indicate that Atlanta’s defense is still a work in progress, signaling another long, punishing year lies ahead for the Dirty Birds.
The NFC South remains a mess and the Falcons have proven they can win within the division even in a down year. If Dan Quinn can coach up a few extra wins outside the South, the Falcons should challenge for the division title (and an early playoff exit) in 2015.
Graphic via bleacherreport.com