The Falcons have some major weaknesses, but so does nearly every other NFL team. It’s impossible to have it all when the salary cap and free agency bleed the 53-man roster. The teams that win big fill holes by developing their younger (and cheaper) players, steal wins by outflanking opposing coaching staffs and get lucky with injuries and turnovers.
I’ve expressed skepticism about the 2019 Falcons, but admittedly, I’ve been hyper-focused on their roster. As mentioned, every team has holes. Some experts with broader perspectives say the Falcons will be a better team after they were 7-9 in 2018, perhaps good enough to earn a wild-card playoff berth.
Numerous post-draft power rankings have the Saints as the clear favorites to win the NFC South, and the Rams might be the only NFC team on their level. In a parity-obsessed league, the Falcons stand out with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. It’s plausible they could lose both games to the Saints and their meeting with the Rams and still find a path to the playoffs.
NFL.com puts the Falcons at No. 17 in the NFL, behind the Saints (No. 1) in the South and eighth in the NFC. That would mean the Falcons are a fringe wild-card team, but well ahead of the Panthers (No. 26 overall) and the Bucs (No. 29) in the division.
ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks the Falcons No. 9 in the NFL, fourth-best in the NFC, and gives them a 41.8 percent chance of making the playoffs. The Saints are No. 2 in FPI, the Panthers are No. 20 and the Bucs are No. 25.
USA Today’s power rankings also are bullish on a Falcons bounce-back. They have the Falcons ranked No. 10 overall, second in the NFC South behind the Saints (No. 3 overall) and fifth among NFC teams. That would make the Falcons a top wild-card contender.
Says USA Today: “With healthy defense, familiar play-caller (Dirk Koetter) and five first-rounders blocking in front of QB Matt Ryan, they're lying in (the) weeds.”
The Falcons made some bold moves along the offensive line, so there’s a chance of improvement. Perhaps Dan Quinn’s purge of his staff also will make a difference. It’s possible the defense, among the worst in the league in 2018, will improve dramatically with the return of three key starters who missed a combined 38 games because of injury: linebacker Deion Jones and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen.
The Falcons spent most of their resources trying to fix the offensive line. They signed free-agent guards Jamon Brown ($12.5 million guaranteed) and James Carpenter ($7 million). They drafted Boston College guard Chris Lindstrom (No. 14 overall) and Washington tackle Kaleb McGary (No. 31).
Defensive line was another area of weakness in 2018. The moves the Falcons made there mostly maintained the status quo. They had to keep Grady Jarrett and did so by signing him to a $15.2 million franchise tag. They should have cut their losses with Vic Beasley but didn’t, a move that ate up $12.8 million of their cap.
I still think my doubts about the Falcons are warranted. Maybe the offensive line is fixed, but the defensive line still looks problematic. The Falcons are shaky at cornerback: Desmond Trufant no longer is elite, and Isaiah Oliver needs to make a second-year leap.
These are not small concerns but — back to my theme — pretty much every team has at least a couple of major issues. Few teams have a quarterback-wide receiver combo better than Ryan and Jones. Only the Saints compare in the division. I don’t see another team in the NFC on that level.
If you go by 2018 results, the Falcons have a tough schedule in 2019. Last season’s results are not always a good thing to go by. Remember what I said about roster turnover and parity?
The Falcons plausibly could fatten up on the Panthers, Bucs and Cardinals. They should have a decent shot to win at Indianapolis in Week 3, before the Colts’ revamped defense is established. The Falcons can hold their own against opponents that look to be roughly on their level: Texans, Vikings, Eagles, Seahawks, Titans.
November and December look manageable for the Falcons because the schedule is backloaded with NFC South games. That means two games against the Saints, but also two against the Panthers and Bucs. The other two games during that stretch are nothing heavy: at the 49ers and against the Jaguars here.
We’ll see if the Falcons improved their roster enough. We’ll find out if the defensive problems were mostly about the injuries. We’ll learn if Quinn can re-establish the spirited play that was so evident during the Super Bowl run but has diminished since.
The Falcons have major issues. They aren’t the only team, though.
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