With an eye toward improving over the offseason, the Falcons went against the grain in the copycat NFL.
Instead of turning to a young offensive mind, they ditched their young offensive coordinator and hired a veteran to replace him and added a three-time former head coach to its offensive staff.
In free agency, they didn’t have a lot of cash, but made some shrewd money moves to add two potential starters along the offensive line.
In the draft, the Falcons used their two first-round picks on offensive linemen as they drafted a guard 14th overall and a right tackle with the 29th overall pick.
The Falcons will open training camp July 22 with the hopes of returning to contender status in the NFC after missing the playoffs with an injury-plagued 7-9 season in 2018.
With the offseason program completed, Falcons coach Dan Quinn was pleased.
“When you are adding pieces to the puzzle, that’s through free agency and the draft, you really want to see how these pieces fit together,” Quinn said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That’s the thing I’ve probably been most pleased about heading into (the break).”
After last season, Quinn immediately started to reshape his staff. He fired offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong.
He hired Dirk Koetter to replace Sarkisian and Ben Kotwica to replace Armstrong. Quinn will call the defensive signals, and he hired veteran coach Bob Sutton to help with in-game management issues and Mike Mularkey to coach the tight ends.
Koetter was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator from 2012-14. Mularkey, who’s been a head coach with Buffalo, Jacksonville and Tennessee, was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator from 2008-11.
“Not just from the player side, but from the coaching side as well,” Quinn said. “To get the cohesiveness that you want, you’re going to need a lot of time to connect with one another.”
That process started during the offseason conditioning program in April and went through the veteran minicamp, which concluded Thursday.
“These players have spent a lot of time together to fast-track these relationships,” Quinn said. “I think it’s probably caught some of these new coaches off guard (with) how much time we do spend with one another. It’s all to put this cohesiveness together. So that part, I’m pleased with.”
The major project was the revamping of the offensive line. The Falcons committed $80.3 million to offensive linemen, with $51.7 million of that guaranteed.
“As you are going through an offseason, you’re able to see how are the meeting rooms, the locker room and what that feels like,” Quinn said. “You’re able to see what the practices are like. Now, the next piece is how will some of that look in some of the games.”
Quinn believes that things went well.
“Where are we at?” Quinn said. “I think it’s awesome where we are at because we are starting to claim an identity of who we want to be. But you don’t really get to do that until the games.”
The Falcons open their exhibition season Aug. 1 in the Pro Football Hall of Fame game against Denver.
Most seasons, teams bemoan that extra game, but the Falcons believe this is a good year to have a fifth exhibition game.
“Not only do we have these 23 rookies and some other guys who have not played a lot, think of guys from the practice squad from last year, so they are getting extra quarters of playing time in the best environment,” Quinn said. “We try to push the practice to limit that we can, but it’s not the same as a game.”
The extra game will allow for the first-round picks, guard Chris Lindstrom (14th overall) and tackle Kaleb McGary (29th), to get more snaps.
“There are just all of these different spaces that we can’t wait to see them in those environments because they are going to get a lot of playing time,” Quinn said.
Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf had some advice for Quinn on how many quarters he needed to determine if a player could play in the NFL.
“It depended on the player, he said in that deep voice,” Quinn said. “‘Sometimes, Dan (it takes) seven or eight quarters.’ It depended on the player. But now that we have the extra game, we’ll get the full, the most allotment that we could get.”
If the Falcons can get the line together, quarterback Matt Ryan’s reunion with Koetter has a chance to thrive. Koetter helped Ryan and the Falcons reach the NFC Championship game in the 2012 season.
“It’s great,” Ryan said of his reunion with Koetter. “It’s better than going against him, that’s for sure. He’s tough to go against. I really enjoyed my first three years working with him in Atlanta.”
Ryan and Koetter have updated things a bit.
“It’s been a good working relationship in terms of coming together on what we’ve seen the last couple of years and trying to put that together with who we are as a football team here,” Ryan said.
On defense, the Falcons are banking on the return of linebacker Deion Jones (broken foot), strong safety Keanu Neal (left ACL) and free safety Ricardo Allen (left Achilles).
“We are starting off with a clean slate,” Jones said. “Trying to forget it pretty much and build on what we have now. Get back out there and be ready to go.”
Before the injuries, the Falcons appeared on the verge to establishing themselves as one of the elite defensive units in the league.
“We have a lot to prove coming back off injury,” Jones said. “I would say there is a chip on our shoulder and we can’t wait to get back into it.”
Quinn is expecting all of the players to be healthy by the start of training camp.
“We have to reassure ourselves that we are still that top defense,” Jones said. “We have to (move) forward.”
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution