The Saints are getting less-than-even odds to win the NFC South. No argument there. The Falcons are the second choice at 3-to-1. That’s a big gap between them and the Saints. There’s a case to be made that it should be smaller. It relies on some reasonable assumptions.
One is a sure thing: Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones will be marquee players. Pro Football Focus rates them as, respectively, the MVP and most valuable non-QB in the division over the past three seasons. They still are the best throw-and-catch combo in the NFC.
The Falcons had one of the NFL’s worst defenses in 2018. Improvement isn’t a given, but it’s probable. Linebacker Deion Jones and Keanu Neal, two of their three best defenders, didn’t play most of last season. Ricardo Allen will organize a secondary that needed it when he was on the shelf for 13 games in 2018.
Ryan, Jones and a better defense are legitimate reasons for optimism with the Falcons. Yet I’m skeptical they will do much better than last season’s 7-9 flop. There are no other areas in which improvement seems at least probable, and it’s not as if the list of concerns is short.
There still are big questions about the offensive line. We don’t know if running back Devonta Freeman can stay healthy, or if reserve Ito Smith has lead-back ability. The pass rush must be better with the same leading players. And the Falcons added another complication by botching things with their kicker.
The Falcons had a losing record with Ryan and Jones starting every game. That shouldn’t happen but did because they couldn’t run the ball or protect Ryan. The midseason offensive slump sank the season.
The Falcons tried fixing their offensive line. One new signee, James Carpenter, is the projected starter at left guard. Another, Jamon Brown, is a backup. The Falcons paid $21.3 million guaranteed between the two of them, so at least one of them better be an effective starter.
But the other starting guard is rookie Chris Lindstrom, the No. 14 overall pick. Rookie Kaleb McGary was supposed to be the starter at right tackle. Then a heart condition forced him to miss nearly all of training camp and limited him to one exhibition game. Now Ty Sambrailo is expected to start at right tackle in the opener.
Coach Dan Quinn said right tackle “may not get settled for a few weeks.” Quinn said that’s OK. Maybe, but it sure doesn’t sound like an endorsement of Sambrailo. He’s a career backup who washed out in Denver. Sambrailo started four games last season for the Falcons, who gave him a contract in February that indicated they expect more.
If the Falcons are wrong about Sambrailo, then it might be a while before McGary is ready to spell him. After the Falcons selected McGary with the No. 31 pick they said his heart condition wasn’t an issue. It didn’t take long for it to become one.
All teams take risks on players with injury histories. The Falcons did so with a rookie they were counting on to start as soon as possible at a position of need. Even before his health complications, McGary was behind the curve because he had to adjust to playing a different style.
The O-line has to be a worry for the Falcons. They knew it might take time, though, and they have some pieces to work with. The problems with the kicker weren’t anticipated. That’s an unforced error by the Falcons.
They ended up circling back and re-signing Matt Bryant. The decision to cut Bryant in February was defensible. But the Falcons had to be right about Giorgio Tavecchio, who had a shaky NFL track record before filling in effectively for Bryant in 2018. They were wrong.
It wasn’t a fatal mistake. Bryant will be ready. Things aren’t so simple with the offensive line. It won’t matter if Ryan and Jones have another great year if the Falcons can’t block. That’s the principal reason I’m skeptical they’ll be back in the playoffs. It’s not the only one.
Jones, Neal and Allen can help with running, tackling and covering, but the Falcons need to get to the quarterback. A better pass rush essentially comes down to a big season from Beasley, who remains a mystery after four seasons. Freeman is the perfect back for the outside zone scheme, but only if he’s available.
The Falcons just have too many big questions with no good answers to think they’ll be much better in 2019.
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