Looking back: They finished third in the NFC South at 10-6 last season and were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs at Philadelphia, a step back from going 11-5 with a division title and making it to the Super Bowl in 2016.
Analysis: The Falcons had a choice between Florida defensive lineman Taven Bryan and Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley in the first round of the draft. They chose Ridley. I still question why.
It's clear coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff think Ridley can be a special player, so much so that they considered trading up to get him. In that sense, Ridley could provide some small measure of insurance if the Julio Jones negotiations blow up. But after losing Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn in free agency, improvement on the defensive line and pass rush should have been the priority.
Vic Beasley played out of position for part of last season, but that doesn’t explain all of his struggles. Deadrin Senat, a 314-pound tackle taken in the third round, could be a nice space-eater. Jack Crawford will try to come back from a torn bicep. If the Falcons get the benefit of the doubt, it’s only because their personnel decisions over the past three years have mostly worked out and Quinn is a former line coach.
Talent-wise, the Falcons stack up with anybody. But offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has much to prove after last season’s struggles in the red zone, and the offensive line needs significant improvement. Then there’s the Jones situation. I lean toward the belief that his contract will be tweaked and he will be in camp on time, but neither he nor the Falcons are happy with training camp four weeks away. There’s enough uncertainty to leave an uncomfortable feeling.
Confidence factor: 7.5.
Looking back: After three consecutive 90-loss seasons, they entered this weekend far ahead of expectations with a record of 45-34, third-best in the National League and a full-season pace of 92-70.
Analysis: Coming into the season, I didn't believe the starting pitching or bullpen could supply sufficient support for a lineup that, even if improved, ranked only 21st in the majors in runs scored and OPS last season. But the Braves have managed to grind out victories, even if they have a narrow margin for error.
Ten of their 45 wins came in their final at-bat, and there are two sides to that metric. Good: it illustrates player character and team chemistry. Bad: It's generally not a sustainable trend. As Dansby Swanson said the other night, "It would be nice to not wait until the last inning."
There was a slight wobbly heading into weekend, with five losses in seven games, and starting pitchers Mike Soroka and Brandon McCarthy and reliever Arodys Vizcaino all going on the disabled list. But the concern remains the bullpen. Braves relievers rank 28th in walks (139) and 27th in hit batters (16), as well 19th in bullpen ERA (4.10).
Color me skeptical for a playoff bid. General manager Alex Anthopoulos could make a low-budget move to help the bullpen, but the bigger changes will come after the season. The plan has been to not take on a lot of salary this season. The Braves also have to hope the Washington Nationals continue to forget they’re supposed to be good. If the Braves fall out of first, they’ll likely be among six or seven teams fighting for a wild card.
But because of the performances of Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz, Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna and others, and the way young players are responding in clutch situations, there’s more certainty about the future than there was a few months ago.
Confidence factor: 7.
Looking back: Deep in the muck of a rebuild, the Hawks finished 24-58, missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and saw their formerly committed coach, Mike Budenholzer, bolt for another job.
Analysis: General manager Travis Schenk had a good first draft (John Collins) and his coaching hire (former Philadelphia assistant Lloyd Pierce) had universal approval. But he left himself open to second-guessing on draft night when he traded the third pick (Luka Doncic) to Dallas for Trae Young, who may prove to be the better shooter but not necessarily the better player. Young's slight stature (6-2) makes him a physical risk, as well as a defensive liability.
Schlenk said the Hawks’ staff was “split” on Doncic and Young, a claim I find dubious. But this is all about player evaluation, so if Young proves to be as good as Doncic and the Hawks were able to pick up an extra asset (Mavericks’ first-round pick) in the process, it was a huge move.
Collins, Young and Taurean Prince give the Hawks three pieces. But they’re going to have to deal Dennis Schroder at a deep discount -- I’m not buying into the talk that he’ll be kept as a “mentor” to Young -- and this has the look of another high-lottery team.
It’s way too early to project direction.
Confidence factor: 3.
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