This article is part of our Team Previews series.
Since coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff joined forces in 2015, only four teams have more regular-season and playoff victories than the Falcons, who have racked up 32. Atlanta hopes the continued development of homegrown talent will culminate in its first Super Bowl title.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
THE POTENTIAL FOR A MATTY ICE RESURGENCE
Matt Ryan saw a substantial drop-off in production from his MVP campaign of 2016, falling back to a quarterback rating (91.4) in the range of his first eight pro seasons, while dipping to his lowest output of passing yards since his third year in the NFL. Exchanging Kyle Shanahan for Steve Sarkisian at offensive coordinator seemed to be the inciting event, which hurt Ryan's ability to burn defenses with the deep ball. In particular, Ryan regressed from 69 completions of 20-plus yards during the Falcons' Super Bowl run to 54 in 2017. Ryan and Sarkisian now have a second offseason together to tailor the playbook toward the quarterback's tendencies. Helping Ryan's cause is the selection of the most polished receiver in the draft in Calvin Ridley, whom Sarkisian coached at Alabama. Ridley will join lethal perimeter weapon Julio Jones, reliable possession receiver Mohamed Sanu and a stable one-two punch at running back in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Ryan is also protected by an offensive line that gave up the third fewest sacks before bringing in free-agent guard Brandon Fusco. In his 11th year as a Falcon, Ryan can further cement himself as the most prolific passer in franchise history, driven by a hunger to return to the promised land and lock down the Lombardi Trophy for his city.
FREEMAN AIMS TO RETURN TO FORM
Devonta Freeman was a revelation in 2015, tallying 1,634 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns. He followed up his finish as the No. 1 fantasy running back with a second straight campaign of at least 1,500 scrimmage yards and 13 TDs for an offense that churned out 416 yards per game and appeared in the Super Bowl. The two-time Pro Bowler got off to another good start last year, averaging 4.5 yards per carry through Week 9, but his production eroded down the stretch after a stint in concussion protocol. During Freeman's two-plus contests on the pine, change-of-pace back Tevin Coleman took on lead duties and managed 223 yards and four TDs on the ground. Upon his return in Week 13, Freeman retained a greater share of the running back workload, but his per-carry clip slipped to 3.9 yards from that point through the team's demise in the playoffs. The nadir was a seven-carry, 10-yard showing in a divisional-round loss to the Eagles, after which he revealed MCL and PCL sprains that he suffered Week 17. There's no telling if the series of injuries are a sign of things to come, but they come on the heels of playing 50 of 51 possible games between 2014 and 2016. Any more time missed by Freeman would place Coleman in a key position to produce, while potentially allowing fourth-rounder Ito Smith to sniff the field.
DEVELOPING A NUCLEUS OF DEFENSIVE STARS
With a young core of talent including Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal, 2016 sack leader Vic Beasley and premier run stopper Grady Jarrett, Atlanta has the pieces in place to field a championship-caliber defense. Lacking a glaring weakness, the Falcons joined the Vikings, Bears and Cowboys as the only squads to land in the top 10 in points allowed, rush defense and pass yards surrendered per attempt during the 2017 season. If there's one aspect that needs improvement, it's the capacity of the defense to force turnovers on the heels of finishing with the fifth-fewest takeaways in the league. This offseason, the line was depleted in free agency after Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn moved on, but the front office didn't address that need in the first round with Florida lineman Taven Bryan still on the board. Defenders were tapped in the ensuing two rounds, though. The secondary was addressed first with the addition of second-round cornerback Isaiah Oliver, who allowed a passer rating of just 23.8 in 2017 when targeted on go routes, per Pro Football Focus. Later in Day 2, Atlanta accounted for the above free-agent losses, taking Deadrin Senat at No. 90 overall. A fierce run defender, Senat also provides notable pass-rush ability after posting 10.5 tackles for loss and six sacks as a senior.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Julio Jones
Despite Jones and Matt Ryan being out of sync for much of the season, the star receiver surpassed 1,400 yards for the fifth time in six years. Only two of the top 50 wideouts in standard scoring had fewer touchdowns than Jones' three in 2017, yet he finished among the top eight at the position for the fourth consecutive campaign.
RISING: Matt Ryan
Improved familiarity with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and more consistent play from his receivers – the Falcons were seventh in drops in 2017, per Pro Football Focus – should push Ryan into QB1 territory again.
FALLING: Austin Hooper
Be wary of Hooper's TD dependence. Excluding a monstrous Week 1 performance in which he put up 128 receiving yards – 88 of which came on a busted play – Hooper failed to exceed 50 yards on a single occasion last year.
SLEEPER: Justin Hardy
With a set of hands fellow wide receiver Mohamed Sanu described as the best on the team, Hardy has amassed seven touchdowns in the past two seasons, despite earning less than 33 percent of the offensive snaps.
KEY JOB BATTLE – STARTING DEFENSIVE TACKLE
There are a number of highly-contested position battles that will be decided throughout Falcons training camp and the preseason – i.e. offensive guard and third-down snaps at running back – but perhaps the most undecided spot on the depth chart is at defensive tackle. Grady Jarrett is locked into one of the starting spots on the interior line, with the other to be determined following Dontari Poe's departure. The leading candidates for the job are veteran Terrell McClain and 2018 third-rounder Deadrin Senat. McClain, a seven-year journeyman, has produced modest stat lines the last two years, combining for 60 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 27 games between the Cowboys and Redskins. Meanwhile, Senat brings more upside to the table. During his four-year run at South Florida, he was a formidable run stopper, picking up 23.5 tackles for loss, but also displayed pass-rushing chops with six sacks during his senior campaign.
Ito Smith – RB (Rd. 4, No. 126 – Southern Mississippi)
Shifty running back could be the dark horse of the 2018 draft class.
Justin Bethel – CB (from Cardinals)
Special teams ace enlists with birds of a different flock.
Adrian Clayborn – DE (to Patriots)
Atlanta's sack leader from 2017 heads to New England on two-year deal.
Taylor Gabriel – WR (to Bears)
Deep threat departs for Windy City to join ascending Bears roster.
Dontari Poe – DT (to Panthers)
Veteran run stuffer collected 39 tackles in one season with Falcons.
Levine Toilolo – TE (to Lions)
The 6-8 blocking tight end accepts pay cut, goes to Motown.
THE INJURY FRONT
Devonta Freeman, RB – Through the first half of 2017, Freeman appeared to be well on his way to a third consecutive 1,000-yard, double-digit touchdown season. But as the injuries began to mount (concussion, knee), the dynamic back seemed a step slow compared to the form that he had established in earning back-to-back Pro Bowl nods the two prior campaigns. Perhaps the root cause to stifled postseason production can be attributed to playing superior defenses, but Freeman averaged just 2.6 yards per carry in Atlanta's two playoff games against the Rams and Eagles, a sharp decline from the 4.5 yards per rush clip that he posted during the team's first eight outings of the year. Even for a Falcons offense that is brimming with talent, the potential detriment of having a game-breaking running back out of the lineup cannot be understated. Thankfully for Atlanta, Freeman has been making substantial progress in his recovery from a sprained MCL and PCL and is probable to be a full-go for the dawn of training camp in late July.
Andy Levitre, LG – Initially a second-round draft choice of the Bills in 2009, Levitre started 140 consecutive games across his first nine pro seasons with Buffalo, Tennessee and Atlanta. During an early-December tilt with Minnesota last season, the veteran offensive guard was forced to exit the game in the first quarter due to a left triceps injury, resulting in him being ruled inactive for the next three weeks. In Week 17, Levitre tried to get back on the field against Carolina, but further aggravated the injury and was pulled after just five snaps, leading to a stay on injured reserve. Coach Dan Quinn exuded positive expectations during OTAs that Levitre was steadily progressing in his rehab and would be ready to participate at the start of training camp. The 32-year-old's return to the lineup would be beneficial to the offense as a whole – among Atlanta's starting offensive line, only Alex Mack allowed fewer sacks per game, while Freeman fell to a clip of 3.8 yards per rush with Levitre inactive, compared to a per-carry average of 4.4 yards during Levitre's starts.
Takkarist McKinley, DE – McKinley has undergone shoulder surgery twice over the past 16 months – once shortly preceding the 2017 NFL Draft, and again this past February following the Falcons' elimination from the playoffs. The 22-year-old pass rusher coped with the torn labrum injury last year, playing in all 16 regular-season games for Atlanta while finishing behind only Carl Lawson, T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett for the most sacks among rookies with six. A limited participant during minicamp in June, McKinley wasn't placed on the PUP list at the starting of camp and likely will be fully recuperated for the team's season opener against the Eagles.