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How Falcons can build off of breakthrough 2016 season

The Falcons reclaimed the NFC South title and became NFC champions for the second time in franchise history last season.

The Falcons, calling themselves a Brotherhood, had a major breakthrough in coach Dan Quinn’s second season as head coach before collapsing in the Super Bowl in grand fashion against New England, blowing a 25-point lead.

The offense soared to new heights, and the young and marauding defense made great strides over the course of the season.

Here’s our a unit-by-unit review of the 2016 team:

QUARTERBACKS

Who: Matt Ryan. Backup — Matt Schaub. Practice squad — Matt Simms.

Contract/free-agent situation: Ryan is set to make $15.75 million in 2017 and $19.25 million in 2018. He’s up for an extension before the contract runs out after the 2018 season. Schaub, who made $2.75 million last season, can became a unrestricted free agent and may be set to join former offensive coordinator Kyle Shananan in San Francisco.

What they did in season: Ryan is coming off his most spectacular season. The key was the re-established front interior of the passing pocket that allowed him to step into his passes. He threw touchdown passes to 13 different receivers, which was a NFL record. He continued to thrive throwing to Julio Jones and by sprinkling the ball to his other receivers, tight ends and running backs. With Ryan leading the way, the Falcons went 11-5, won the NFC South, seized the No. 2 seed for the NFC playoffs and stormed to the Super Bowl. With some pinpoint accuracy, Ryan led the league’s top-scoring offense, setting franchise records in passing yards (4,944) and touchdowns (38).

What they did in postseason: Ryan was spectacular in the playoffs as he completed 70 of 98 passes for 1,014 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions. He finished with a passer rating of 135.3. He couldn’t have done more to lift the team. His one turnover was caused by running back Devonta Freeman missing a blitz pickup with the Super Bowl on the line.

Comment: Ryan clearly fit better in the team’s offense and was not afraid to improvise when things broke down. Schaub is a quality veteran backup and should be re-signed. Ryan must now connect with new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.

RUNNING BACKS

Who: Devonta Freeman. Backups — Tevin Coleman and Terron Ward. Fullback — Patrick DiMarco.

Contract/free-agent situation: Freeman is set to make $1.838 million in 2017, but would like a contract extension. Coleman is set to make $680,000 in 2017. Ward is set to make $615,000 in 2017. DiMarco, a two-time Pro Bowler, is set to become an unrestricted free agent.

What they did in season: Freeman (227 carries for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns) and Coleman (118 for 520 and eight touchdowns) combined to rush for 1,619 yards and 19 touchdowns. They also caught 85 passes for 883 yards and five touchdowns. In all, they combined to amass 2,502 yards from scrimmage. Both have the speed and vision to thrive in the offense.

What they did in postseason: Freeman averaged 4.2 yards per carry and Coleman averaged 4.0 yards per carry. Coleman went down with a key ankle injury in the Super Bowl, and Freeman missed a key blitz pickup.

Comment: The Falcons also lost legendary running backs coach Bobby Turner, who went to San Francisco with Shanahan. Keith Carter, the former assistant offensive line coach for the past two seasons, will take over as the running backs coach.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Who: Starters — Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Backups — Taylor Gabriel, Justin Hardy, Aldrick Robinson, Nick Williams, Devin Fuller and Eric Weems.

Contract/free-agent situation: Gabriel is a restricted free agent. Williams is an exclusive-rights free agent. Weems is set to become an unrestricted free agent.

What they did in season: The dynamic Jones turned in another spectacular season with 83 catches for 1,409 yards and six touchdown catches. He was slowed throughout the season by a turf-toe injury and foot and shoulder ailments. He missed only two games while fighting through the injuries. He was fine with being a decoy when teams attempted to take him out of plays. Sanu was a strong free-agent pickup. He had a career-high 59 catches for 653 yards and four touchdowns. Claiming Gabriel off of waivers was a strong personnel move.

What they did in postseason: Jones has 19 catches for 334 yards and three touchdowns. He made a spectacular catch in the Super Bowl to move the Falcons to the 22-yard line with 4:40 to play. Sanu added three touchdowns in the playoffs. Gabriel averaged 19 yards per catch on nine catches.

Comment: Assistant head coach/wide receivers Raheem Morris was in his first season on offense. His players were productive and helped to carry the offense.

TIGHT ENDS

Who: Starter — Jacob Tamme. Backups — Austin Hooper, Levin Toilolo, Joshua Perkins and D.J. Tialavea.

Contract/free-agent situation: Tamme and Toilolo are set to become unrestricted free agents.

What they did in season: The group was important to the red-zone offense as they caught 10 touchdowns passes: Tamme (three), Hooper (three), Toilolo (two), Perkins one) and Tialavea (one). Toilolo was also key in the run game in setting the edge for the outside zone runs.

What they did in postseason: Hooper caught six passes for 65 yards and one touchdown. Toilolo caught three passes for 31 passes.

Comment: Tight end coach Wade Harman sang the praises of Hooper. “I’m really impressed with his work ethic,” Harman said.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Who: Starters – LT Jake Matthews, LG Andy Levitre, C Alex Mack, RG Chris Chester, RT Ryan Schraeder. Backups – T Tom Compton, C/G – Ben Garland. G – Wes Schweitzer.

Contract/free-agent situation: Chester is set to become an unrestricted free agent. The team tried to upgrade the position last season, but were outbid by Tampa Bay for the services of J.R. Sweezy. Backup tackle Tom Compton also is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Schraeder was rewarded with a five-year, $32 million contract extension during the season.

What they did in season: The starters answered the call for all 16 regular-season games. Mack was the key addition in free agency. With Mack anchoring the middle of the line, young tackles Matthews and Schraeder continued to develop.

What they did in postseason: Mack played in the Super Bowl with a fracture fibula and was a ghost of the regular-season player. His weakness was exploited, as the Patriots had five sacks and 12 quarterback hits. Matthews had two key holding penalties in the Super Bowl.

Comment: Look for the Falcons to try to upgrade the right guard position again, either through the draft or free agency. They will also try to find better depth behind the tackles.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Who: Starters — LE – Tyson Jackson. LT – Grady Jarrett. NT – Jonathan Babineaux. RE – Brooks Reed. Backups – DE Dwight Freeney, Adrian Clayborn, Courtney Upshaw. DT – Ra’Shede Hageman, Derrick Shelby and Chris Mayes.

Contract/free-agent situation: Babineaux (425 snaps) and Freeney (415 snaps) are set to become unrestricted free agents. Babineaux said he wants to continue playing. Freeney, 35, wants to think about things before he makes a decision. Upshaw (310 snaps) is set to become an unrestricted free agent, too.

What they did in season: Clayborn (583 snaps) was the team’s second-most effective pass rusher, but his season was cut short by injury. Jarrett (630 snaps) held up just fine. Upshaw, a former linebacker, was converted to a valuable defensive end/tackle and earned more playing time over the course of the season. Reed (425 snaps) played well down the stretch against the run.

What they did in postseason: Jarrett had an explosive three-sack performance in the Super Bowl. Hageman, Upshaw, Tyson Jackson, Babineaux, Freeney and Ben Garland all had sacks in the playoffs.

Comment: Look for the Falcons to try to upgrade the defensive end position in the draft. They also will try to find better depth behind the tackles.

LINEBACKERS

Who: Starters – SLB – Vic Beasley. MLB – Deion Jones. WLB – Devondre Campbell. Backups – Inside – LaRoy Reynolds and Paul Worrilow. Outside – Sean Weatherspoon, Tyler Starr, Josh Keyes and Philip Wheeler.

Contract/free-agent situation: Reynolds, Weatherspoon, Worrilow and Wheeler are set to become unrestricted free agents.

What they did in season: Beasley emerged as an elite passer as he led the league in sacks with 15.5 sacks. Some of them did come in bunches against backup tackles, but he must be given credit for taking advantage of the situation. He listened to the lessons Freeney tried to share. Jones, who had three interceptions, and led the team in tackles with 106 tackles.

What they did in postseason: With extra attention, Beasley did not record a sack in the playoffs. He nearly had a game-saving interception in the Super Bowl.

Comment: Look for the Falcons to try to upgrade the depth behind Beasley, Jones and Campbell.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Who: Starters – LCB Desmond Trufant, RCB Robert Alford. FS Ricardo Allen. SS – Keanu Neal. Backups – CBs Jalen Collins, Brian Poole, Deji Olatoye, C.J. Goodwin and Blidi Wreh-Wilson. S – Dashon Goldson, Kemal Ishmael and Sharrod Neasman.

Contract/free-agent situation: The Falcons’ No. 1 offseason priority is to negotiate a contract extension with Trufant. Allen and Olatoye are exclusive-rights free agents. Wilson, Goldson and Ishmael are set to become unrestricted free agents.

What they did in season: Collins stepped up after Trufant went down with a torn pectoral injury. Alford moved over the left cornerback, and Collins took over the right side. The hard-hitting Neal provided the defense with a physical presence.

What they did in postseason: Alford returned a Tom Brady pass 82 yards for a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Poole had two sacks against Green Bay, but was victimized in man-to-man coverage in the Super Bowl. Collins had a big forced fumble against the Packers.

Comment: The Falcons really like their top four cornerbacks in Trufant, Alford, Collins and Poole. Neal is a winner at strong safety, and they may try to upgrade at free safety with a faster player.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Who: K – Matt Bryant. P – Matt Bosher. KOR/PR – Eric Weems and LS – Josh Harris.

Contract/free-agent situation: Weems is set to become an unrestricted free agent.

What they did in season: At 41, Bryant continued to kick well. Bosher battled through a hamstring injury, but was steady again with his directional punting. Weems was steady.

What they did in postseason: The units were steady in the postseason.

Comment: The biggest decision will be about Weems and whether Devin Fuller is ready to challenge for the return job.

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