Cover 9@9: No. 1 offseason priority is to protect Matt Ryan

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) is sacked by Saints outside linebacker Demario Davis (56) in the second half Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in New Orleans. (Brett Duke/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) is sacked by Saints outside linebacker Demario Davis (56) in the second half Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in New Orleans. (Brett Duke/AP)

1. The No Spin Zone. Some things are starting to leak out about the new Falcons staff’s video review of the roster.

The new staff was appalled at the pass protection, and their No. 1 priority is to protect quarterback Matt Ryan.

Publicly, the new regime has been polite, and coach Arthur Smith has gone out of his way not to say anything that would be deemed even remotely disrespectful to the former Falcons coaching staff.

Hey, it’s a close-knit coaching fraternity.

But after going 18-30 since the Falcons were Super Bowl contenders, some cultural things must change along with the football play improving.

The new staff arrived at the conclusion that if given the time, Ryan will deliver his passes with the accuracy of 2016.

When under siege, the offense tends to sputter. Ryan had to rush too many throws, or receivers didn’t have enough time to get open over the past three seasons.

For review, Ryan has been sacked 42, 48 and 41 times over the past three seasons. Let’s take a deeper dive into the Falcons’ pressure numbers over that time.

In 2018, in addition to the 42 sacks, Ryan was hit 48 times and hurried 53 times for a pressure number (sacks plus hurries and hits) of 143, which ranked 13th in the NFL.

The Falcons drafted right tackle Kaleb McGary and guard Chris Lindstrom in 2019. They also signed guards Jamon Brown and James Carpenter during that offseason. Lindstrom was injured in the opener that year, and McGary, Brown and Carpenter struggled.

In 2019, in addition to Ryan’s 48 sacks, Matt Schaub was sacked twice to make it 50 overall. So, with 68 hits and 56 hurries, the team’s pressure number was 174, which ranked 28th in the league.

Last season, Lindstrom was back at right guard, but there was still a hole at left guard, and McGary continued to struggle against speed rushers.

In addition to Ryan’s 41 sacks, he was hurried 55 times and was hit 71 times for a pressure number of 167, which ranked 24th in the league.

The overall numbers are staggering: Ryan has been sacked 131 times, hit 167 times and hurried 164 times. That’s a pressure number of 462.

Establishing the rushing attack will be key to any offensive revival. Smith has a run-first reputation from his days in Tennessee with running back Derrick Henry as the No. 1 weapon.

Mike Davis is currently the RB1 on the roster after the team elected not to select a running back in the draft.

The Falcons will run outside-zone and inside-zone to power the rushing attack.

The Falcons added two offensive linemen in the draft. In the third round they picked Jalen Mayfield and in the fourth round center Drew Dalman. Also, over the offseason they signed Josh Andrews and gave Matt Gono a second-round tender. Center Willie Wright (6-3, 300) and Willie Beavers (6-5, 324) were also added from last season’s practice squad.

For right now on the unofficial depth chart, we have McGary at right tackle, Lindstrom at right guard, Matt Hennessy at center, Gono at left guard and Jake Matthews at left tackle.

Pretty sure that won’t be the starting lineup for the season opener, as only Lindstrom and Matthews are safe.

“We feel like we’ve got good young players who are here and have been on our roster and can help us now,” Smith said. “Obviously, we’re going to go as the line goes.”

Smith and rookie NFL offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford (they call him D. Led!) will have to fix this unit.

“We’re excited to work with those (offensive line players), and we’ll see what other pieces we can add throughout the (draft) and throughout this offseason,” Smith said before the draft.

2. Brotherhood signs. “The Brotherhood” was the theme of former coach Dan Quinn’s program. They were draped all around the facilities and in the meeting rooms.

They have all reportedly been removed.

End of an era.

3. Over 30-Club: Also, one of the things the new coaches were flummoxed about was Julio Jones’ practice schedule.

He didn’t show up often on the practice tape as he was battling a hamstring injury in 2020.

The Falcons “Over-30 Club” under former coach Mike Smith might have gone too far in 2013 when he coaxed Tony Gonzalez out of retirement to make another run at the Super Bowl.

Gonzalez missed most of training camp and didn’t practice much that season.

Roddy White, after battling through a high ankle sprain, received rest days late in his career.

Center Alex Mack took some rest days last season.

Former linebacker Mike Peterson said Smith’s rest days extended his career by two years.

So, were the Falcons expecting Jones to be at practice stretching or working out his hamstring?

Not sure, but Jones not appearing much on practice tape was peculiar to them.

4. Time to open practice back up. The Falcons, after having open practices from 1966-2013, have joined those repressive teams that allow the media to watch only the first 10 to 12 minutes of warmups and special teams to minimally meet their media requirements.

Hopefully, that’s going to change, at least for minicamps and the early part of training camp.

5. Ridley’s option picked up: Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley, the team’s top draft pick in 2018, had his fifth-year, $11.116 million option picked up by the team Monday.

It was previously reported that team was set to make this move, but general manager Terry Fontenot would not confirm it Wednesday during the pre-draft press conference.

“Yeah, those are things we discussed, but we need to discuss that with those players and those agents and make sure we have those communications with them as opposed to doing it in this forum,” Fontenot said to the local media when asked about Ridley and Hayden Hurst’s fifth-year options.

Ridley signed a four-year deal with a team option for a fifth season after being drafted 26th overall in 2018. In three seasons with the Falcons, Ridley has 217 receptions for 3,061 yards and 26 touchdowns - including 90 catches for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns in 2020.

Ridley has been working with Atlanta Public Schools as he recently visited both Michael R. Hollis Innovation Academy and Lenora P. Miles Elementary school, where workers from Mercedes-Benz USA distributed ice cream to students to celebrate persevering after a challenging pandemic year.

6. Hurst’s option not picked up: Hurst’s option — worth $5.4 million — was not picked up. The Falcons drafted former Florida tight end Kyle Pitts with the No. 4 overall pick Thursday.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, recently had his $18.8 million fifth-year option picked up.

Last season, the Falcons declined to pick up the $10.3 million fifth-year option for defensive end Takk McKinley. He was released in the middle of the season after requesting a trade on social media.

7. Drafted rookie jersey numbers: Tight end Kyle Pitts No. 8, free safety Richie Grant No. 27, offensive tackle/guard Jalen Mayfield No. 77, cornerback Darren Hall No. 34, center Drew Dalman No. 67, defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham No. 95, defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji No. 92, returner/cornerback Avery Williams No. 35 and wide receiver Frank Darby No. 88.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

The Falcons picked Arizona State receiver Frank Darby in the NFL Draft.

8. Draft Bios: Here are the draft bios of the nine players the Falcons selected in the draft:

First round (4th overall ) -- Kyle Pitts, Florida

Height: 6-foot-5 Weight: 245 pounds Arms: 33-½ Hands: 10-5/8 Overview: Forty-nine years have passed since a tight end was taken in the top five of the NFL draft. Pitts became the first tight end to be taken this high since the Denver Broncos selected former Houston tight end Riley Odoms fifth overall in 1972. For his size, Pitts has speed like a receiver and can line up all over the offensive formation. Needs work as a blocker. He has been compared with Oakland tight end Darren Waller, a former Georgia Tech and North Cobb High player. Pitts creates mismatches similarly and has the rare size and speed numbers. Most linebackers are not fast enough to cover him, and most cornerbacks are too small to win a physical matchup. Behind quarterback Trevor Lawrence, he’s considered the second best player in the draft.

Second round (40th overall) – Richie Grant, S, Central Florida

Height: 6-foot Weight: 194 Arms: 32-5/8 Hands: 9-3/8 Bench Press: 225 pounds 12 times Vertical: 34-½ 40-yard dash: 4.49 seconds 20-shuttle: 4.27. 3-cone drill: 6.78

Overview: He tied for third in the FBS with six interceptions as a sophomore. He was first-team All-American Athletic Conference after making 109 tackles over 13 starts. He continued to develop over his career. He also was named a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award which goes to the nation’s top defensive back. He was a two-time All-Florida pick from Choctawhatchee High School. He redshirted as a freshman at UCF in 2017. Grant played free safety, strong safety and sometimes in the slot. He’s better against the run than the pass. Lack of speed hurts him in coverage, but he has a noise for the ball. According to Pro Football Focus, Grant was the highest-graded safety in run-defense in the NCAA in 2020 season. Grant is the second player the Falcons have selected from UCF in history, joining safety/linebacker Kemal Ishmael who was selected in the seventh round of the 2013 draft.

Third round (68th overall) – Jalen Mayfield, G, Michigan

Height: 6-foot-5 Weight: 328 Arms: 32-5/8 Hands: 9-3/4 40-yard dash: 5.31 seconds

Overview: He was an an honorable-mention All-Big Ten pick after starting 13 games at right tackle in 2019. He opted out of the 2020 season , but later changed his mind. He played in two games at right tackle before he suffered a high ankle sprain. He played just over 1,000 snaps in the Big Ten. He anchored an offensive line that paved the way for a running game that gained over 2,200 yards with 26 rushing touchdowns in the 2019 season. In 18 games, the Michigan-native only allowed two sacks. Mayfield is the fifth player the franchise has drafted from the University of Michigan and first since 1978. He joins T James Coode, T Mike Kenn, LB Cart Russ and RB Bill Taylor. The Falcons have picked an offensive lineman in back-to-back drafts in the third round, drafting Matt Hennessy last year with the 78th overall pick. Mayfield is experienced in all run schemes, but needs to improve his drive blocking by getting lower. “He has starting potential, but it might take some time,” according to Lance Zierlein.

Fourth round (108th overall) – Darrren Hall, CB, San Diego State

Height: 5-foot-11 Weight: 188 Arms: 30-5/8 Hands: 8-7/8 40-yard dash: 4.41

Overview: He was considered one of the top cornerbacks in the Mountain West Conference. Is from the same school that produce former Falcons safety Damontae Kazee. He got on the field early and played two games as a freshman, but was injured. He started three games and played in 12 the following season. In 2019, he was named honorable mention. Hall was a first-team All-MWC pick as a junior as he had three interceptions and six pass breakups. He participated in the Senior Bowl.

Fourth round (114th overall) – Drew Dalman, C, Stanford

Height: 6-3 Weight: 299 Arms: 32 Hands: 10-½ Bench Press: 225 pounds 33 times Vertical: 33 40-yard dash: 5.00 seconds 20-shuttle: 2.89. 3-cone drill: 7.33

Overview: The son of former Stanford and San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Chris Dalman, Drew Dalman, as expected with this kind of pedigree, possesses good fundamentals at center. At Stanford, Dalman was a three-year starter who showcased solid consistency and intelligence up front. Dalman, however, does have an undersized frame compared with centers around the NFL, with his 32-inch arms lacking the ideal length at the position. Still, he developed a reputation as someone who finishes blocks in the run game. Dalman projects well to a zone blocking scheme and could compete with Matt Hennessy for the starting center position with the Falcons.

Fifth round (182nd overall) – Adetokunbo Ogundeji, DE, Notre Dame

Height: 6-foot-4 Weight: 260 Arms: 35-½ Hands: 9-½ Bench Press: 225 pounds 22 times Vertical: 32 40-yard dash: 4.78 seconds 20-shuttle: 2.76 3-cone drill: 7.19

Overview: Ogundeji has exceptional length as an edge rusher, evidenced by his 84-inch wingspan. At his size, Ogundeji is a fit for both the 4-3 and 3-4 schemes, which should fit well with the Falcons’ multiple defense that will incorporate both of the base units’ principles. As a fifth-year senior in 2020, Ogundeji became a starter and recorded seven sacks in a season that saw the Fighting Irish reach the College Football Playoff. He also was named a team captain in his final season. Ogundeji does have some fundamental issues to work on, which is why he was projected to be a Day 3 selection from before the draft.

Fifth round (183th overall) – Avery Williams, CB, Boise State

Height: 5-foot-9 Weight: 195 40-yard dash: 4.46 seconds

Overview: A very aggressive and physical cornerback for his size. Plays well in zone coverages and displayed good knowledge of route combinations. He returned a kick 99 yards for a touchdown, averaged 24.0 yards over three punt returns, with a long of 36, at Hawaii in 2020. He was voted the Mountain West special-teams player of the year in 2019.

Sixth round (187th overall) – Frank Darby, WR, Arizona State

Height: 6-foot Weight: 201 Arms: 31-¾ Hands: 9 ⅜ Bench Press: 225 pounds 19 times Vertical: 34-½ 40-yard dash: 4.59 seconds 20-shuttle: 2.61 3-cone drill: 7.15

Overview: Playing behind N’Keal Harry (2018) and Brandon Aiyuk (2019) in back-to-back seasons, Darby was set to become Arizona State’s top receiving option in 2020. However, a rib injury combined with a shortened season because of the COVID-19 pandemic caused Darby to appear in only three games. He finished the season with six catches for 46 yards and a touchdown. In 2019, playing opposite of Aiyuk, Darby totaled 616 receiving yards and eight scores. Darby, a 24-year-old rookie, showed great separation and ball-tracking during his time with the Sun Devils. He likely will be an outside receiver who contributes early on special teams with the Falcons.

9. Depth chart: The Falcons spent four of the nine picks on players in the trenches and signed 20 undrafted free agents after the draft.

Here’s how the depth chart looks heading into next week’s rookie minicamp:


WR 11 Julio Jones, 13 Christian Blake, 86 Antonio Nunn

LT 70 Jake Matthews, 74 Jake Batho, 75 Kion Smith

LG 73 Matt Gono, 66 Willie Wright, 64 Ryan Neuzil

C 61 Matt Hennessy, 68 Josh Andrews, 67 Drew Dalman

RG 63 Chris Lindstrom, 62 Bryce Hargrove, 65 Joe Sculthorpe

RT 76 Kaleb McGary, 77 Jalen Mayfield, 71 Willie Beavers

TE 81 Hayden Hurst, 8 Kyle Pitts, 85 Lee Smith, 87 Jaeden Graham, 80 Ryan Becker, 89 John Raine

WR 83 Russell Gage, 16 Greg Dortch, 82 Austin Trammel

WR 18 Calvin Ridley, 88 Frank Darby

QB 2 Matt Ryan, 5 A.J. McCarron, 15 Feleipe Franks

HB 28 Mike Davis, 84 Cordarrelle Patterson, 30 Qadree Ollison, 36 Tony Brooks-James, 25 Javian Hawkins, 42 Caleb Huntley

FB 40 Keith Smith


DE 55 Steven Means, 91 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 95 Ta’Quon Graham

DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 90 Marlon Davidson, 94 Deadrin Senat, 93 Zac Dawe

DT 96 Tyeler Davison, 99 Jonathan Bullard, 50 John Cominsky, 79 Chris Slayton

DE 56 Dante Fowler, 92 Adetokunbo Ogundeji, 59 Alani Pututau

OLB 51 Brandon Copeland, 46 Eli Howard

LB 45 Deion Jones, 53 Erroll Thompson

LB 54 Foyesade Oluokun, 43 Mykal Walker, 48 Dorian Etheridge

OLB 52 Barkevious Mingo, 49 Kobe Jones

RCB 20 Kendall Sheffield, 22 Fabian Moreau, 29 Chris Williamson

LCB 24 A.J. Terrell, 33 Tyler Hall, 34 Darren Hall, 38 Marcus Murphy, 41 J.R. Pace

NCB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 25 Delrick Abrams, 35 Avery Williams

FS 23 Erik Harris, 27 Richie Grant, 39 T.J. Green, 37 Dwayne Johnson

SS 32 Jaylinn Hawkins


K 7 Younghoe Koo, 1 Elliott Fry

P 4 Sterling Hofrichter, 9 Dom Maggio

LS 47 Josh Harris

KO 7 Younghoe Koo, 1 Elliott Fry

KR 84 Cordarrelle Patterson, 14 Chris Rowland, 35 Avery Williams

PR 14 Chris Rowland, 35 Avery Williams


QUARTERBACKS: How far will Justin Fields drop in draft? | Top 10 QBs

RUNNING BACKS: Plenty of prospects to pick from | Top 10 RBs

WIDE RECEIVERS: Draft deep with talent | Top 10 WRs

TIGHT ENDS: Ability to create mismatches is key | Top 10 TEs

OFFENSIVE TACKLES: A ‘nasty’ bunch | Top 10 OTs

OFFENSIVE GUARDS/CENTERS: The men in the middle | Top 10 C/OGs

END RUSHERS: Pass on this draft stock | Top 10 DEs

DEFENSIVE TACKLES: One star among lackluster block | Top 10 DTs

LINEBACKERS: Deep class for position | Top 10 LBs

CORNERBACKS: Plethora of options for first two rounds | Top 10 CBs

SAFETIES: Falcons likely will add position player | Top 10 Safeties

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