Dirk Koetter ready to unleash revamped Falcons offense

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has 8 of 11 starters returning and he’s confident that the offensive line has improved.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will send an arguably upgraded unit on the field when the Falcons open the season against the Seahawks at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Falcons return eight of 11 starters and will have a new running back, tight end and left guard.

“We certainly are confident in the way we approached it,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said Monday. “We certainly are confident in the way that we are prepared heading into it, making sure that our identity, not just offensively but as a team, totally comes through.”

Running back Todd Gurley is set to take over for Devonta Freeman, who was released.

The Falcons didn’t have enough money to re-sign tight end Austin Hooper, who was allowed to leave in free agency. The Falcons traded for unproven tight end Hayden Hurst, a former first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens.

At left guard, Wes Schweitzer, who closed out the season as the starter, was not re-signed.

The Falcons drafted rookie Matt Hennessy to compete at left guard, but he was injured late in training camp. Veteran James Carpenter was listed as the starter on the team’s first official depth chart of the season.

The Falcons have spent a lot of time over the offseason, first virtually and then in person, trying to improve the rushing attack. The Falcons averaged 85.1 yards rushing, which ranked 30 of 32 in the NFL last season.

Since Freeman was released and the offensive line was retained, it’s reasonable to conclude that Freeman was the issue.

Gurley, who has chronic left knee issues, was released by the Rams after five mostly dynamic seasons. Gurley, who was taken with the 10th overall pick in the 2015 draft, was rolling right along as he helped to turn the Rams into Super Bowl contenders.

But on their way to Super Bowl LIII, Gurley was slowed. Last season, he averaged 17 touches per game and played in all 15 games.

“Our run game and play-action pass is a big part of what we want (to do),” Quinn said. “We definitely worked a lot over the last five weeks into that space. We like the group and where we are headed.”

Gurley will be on a touch count by the Falcons.

“That will play itself out as we get going,” Koetter said. “I think you’d like to. ... Todd is definitely a proven player in the NFL, who’s had all of the accolades a running back can have.”

The committee of Brian Hill, Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison will back him up.

“Brian Hill is an emerging player that continues to get better,” Koetter said. “He has a very hard, aggressive running style and is faster than you think. Ito is a little more of the scatback, cut-back type runner.

“How we choose to use them somewhat depends on how successful we are running it. How tired Todd gets to start off. How many carries he gets early. I think how they complement each other will sort of play out as the season unwinds.”

Hooper signed a four-year contract worth $44 million, with $23 million guaranteed, with the Cleveland Browns. To replace Hooper, whom the Falcons could not afford, they shipped second- and fifth-round picks to the Ravens to get the Hurst and a fourth-round pick. Hurst, a first-round pick in 2018, will have a salary-cap number of $1.4 million.

Hurst’s career has gotten off to a slow start. He played in 28 games and made only four starts for the Ravens. He caught 43 of 62 passes targeted for 512 yards and three touchdowns.

“I’ve been real impressed with Hayden’s ability to catch the ball in traffic and (with) just how hard he plays down after down,” Koetter said.

The Falcons liked Hurst in the 2018 draft, but the Ravens selected him with the 25th overall pick. The Falcons selected wide receiver Calvin Ridley with the 26th pick.

Hurst is a bigger and faster version of Hooper. He is nine pounds heavier than Hooper’s listed weight. He also runs the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds, while Hooper runs it in 4.72 seconds.

Hurst has flashed some big-play ability. In a playoff-clinching win over Buffalo last season, Hurst broke loose for a 61-yard touchdown catch and reached 20.5 mph on the play.

“We’ve been fortunate, both times that I’ve been here, we’ve had really good tight ends,” Koetter said. “Tony Gonzalez and Austin Hooper, and I think Hayden is just going to be the next in a long line of good tight ends for the Falcons.”

Carpenter was signed as a free agent last season after playing eight seasons with Seattle (2011-14) and the New York Jets (2015-18). He started 11 games for the Falcons last season.

Koetter is confident that the offensive line will perform much better in 2020 after giving up 50 sacks and 135 quarterback hits last season.

“It’s a team game. It takes all 11 guys,” Koetter said when asked specifically about the offensive line. “I’m very confident in the guys that we are going to be putting out there. They’ve put the work in, and now it’s time to go out there and compete against somebody else.”

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