Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons’ 2016 offense ranked as one of the best in the history of the NFL, averaging 33.8 points per game while leading the team to the Super Bowl. With most of the key components returning, and another year under center Alex Mack’s belt, the offense should be just fine.
But what about that Defense?… The Falcons’ defense was an entirely different story ranking in the bottom half of all 2016 NFL team overall defense statistics, including team rushing yardage, team passing yardage and total team yardage (allowed). Head coach Dan Quinn took over the defensive play-calling duties before the 12th game of the season, and the difference was notable, standing up to a stout playoff run until ultimately falling short and collapsing in the second half of the Super Bowl.
So, it was no surprise that improving the defense was the Falcons’ highest priority this offseason. Dan Quinn has set out to build one of the fastest defenses in the league as one NFL executive put it, “”You’ll be hard-pressed to find a defense with that many fast people.” But another key component to a championship defense is depth. While many of the key pieces return, there were also some significant changes the Falcons made so far in the offseason to address this.
Most notably, those changes can be seen on the defensive line. They have parted ways with former defensive line coach Bryan Cox and have replaced him with Bryant Young. Through free agency, they signed defensive tackle Dontari Poe to a one-year, $8 million deal (parting ways with 12 year veteran Jonathon Babineaux), and signed defensive end Jack Crawford at three years, $10.3 million. Looking to add another physical dynamic pass rusher, the Falcons then drafted defensive end Takkarist McKinley in the first-round of the NFL draft. Derrick Shelby will also be returning after tearing his Achilles in Seattle last season. With the return of Shelby and addition of Crawford among the defensive ends, the Falcons will have some depth when you count Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, Brooks Reed and McKinley.
After a strong showing in their rookie seasons, linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich is convinced Deion Jones and DeVondre Campell are set to make major improvements. Campbell, who worked mostly at weakside linebacker last season will be moving over to strongside linebacker. Along with Kemal Ishmael rookie linebacker Duke Riley looks to fill the hole on the weakside. Quinn said Riley “will likely start off” as a weakside linebacker, although the inside linebacker spots in the Falcons’ defense are interchangeable. Riley was drafted in the second round out of LSU where he played with Deion Jones two seasons ago. The Falcons’ primary pass-coverage linebacker last season, Philip Wheeler, was not resigned and Paul Worrilow left via free agency. Returning for now are reserves LaRoy Reynolds, who played in 16 games, and Josh Keyes, who joined the team from Tampa Bay. They are joined by undrafted rookie free agents Jermaine Grace of Miami, Jack Lynn of Minnesota and J’Terious Jones of Miami of Ohio. Ulbrich is excited about the potential “and all those other guys: LeRoy and Jermaine and Josh Keyes, they all bring something really special to the group.”
This offseason Falcons general manger Thomas Dimitroff made it clear that the team’s No. 1 priority was re-signing Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant. Trufant has signed a six-year, $68.75 million contract extension in April, and is set to return to his starting role after tearing his pectoral in 2016. While no team ever wants a player to get injured, the loss of Trufant allowed for a lot of development and growth at the cornerback position that might not have otherwise happened. “That’s been the most exciting thing,” new CB coach Marquand Manuel said. “I was explaining that to them. We know what we are going to get. By Tru going out, we’ve taken our game to another level.” With Trufant, Robert Alford, Brian Poole and Jalen Collins all seasoned now, the Falcons have a lot options to mix up their coverages better. “All four can play the slot if necessary, in the nickel. All can play outside, too.” says Manuel. The Falcons also drafted Damontee Kazee in the fifth round and C.J. Goodwin and Deji Olatoye return.
That brings us to the safeties. After drafting Keanu Neal with the No. 17 overall pick in last year’s draft, the strong safety position looks to be in great hands. Neal proved last season that he is the type of SS that gives opposing ball carriers nightmares. And while free safety isn’t necessarily a pressing need for the Atlanta Falcons, there has been talk of Brian Poole getting a shot at the position in camp. However, Ricardo Allen is likely to retain the starting role while Poole will back him up and provide depth at CB. Not having drafted a possible replacement for Ricardo Allen (he is up for a new contract this year) the Falcons will work with what they already had at the safety position.
On paper the Atlanta Falcon’s defense looks to have improved from last season as Dan Quinn continues to add to his defense through the draft and free agency. With the addition of Poe, the return of Trufant, and a year of NFL experience under the belt for our young studs, the Atlanta Falcon’s defense has the skill and depth necessary to make major improvements this upcoming season.