ESPN poll confirms what we see: Falcons short on elite players

Julio Jones is the NFL's best wide receiver, according to ESPN's poll of executives, scouts, coaches and players. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

If we define “elite” to mean top 10 at a position, then the 2020 Falcons have only three players on their roster who fit the bill. Only one of them plays a position considered to be among the more important. And the Falcons are scheduled to face several opponents loaded with talent at those crucial spots, including NFC South nemesis New Orleans.

That’s the takeaway from ESPN’s series that ranked the top 10 NFL players at 11 position groups. Jeremy Fowler writes that ESPN polled more than 50 football people who work or play for the league’s teams in an effort to “identify the best players right now for 2020.” The Falcons have three of them: Julio Jones (No. 1 wide receiver), Grady Jarrett (No. 9 interior defensive lineman) and Deion Jones (No. 6 off-ball linebacker).

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan didn’t make the cut. Six quarterbacks the Falcons will face are among the top 10. The Falcons will see Drew Brees and Tom Brady twice. That means that half their schedule includes games against elite players at the game’s most important position. Four of those games are on the road.

The ESPN poll represents opinions, which can be wrong. A survey that includes more than 50 NFL people is robust. It’s not a consensus view in a league that includes thousands of football people working for its 32 teams. However, there is value in ESPN’s poll because it reflects the views of many people whose jobs are to build rosters, scout, coach and play in the NFL.

There’s not much to quibble with how the Falcons players fared in the rankings. Ryan, an honorable mention, has a decent case to crack the top 10. I think his off year in 2019 mostly was related to poor offensive line play, but Ryan also made some inexplicable decisions.

The reality is that ESPN’s poll reflects the Falcons’ declining level of elite player talent.

The Falcons placed four players on one of the two AP All-Pro teams in 2016, including first-team selections Ryan, Jones and Vic Beasley. They were NFC champs that season and would have won the Super Bowl if not for coaching errors.

In 2017 the Falcons had two second-team All-Pros: Jones and center Alex Mack. That team won a wild-card game at the Rams before falling on four cracks with goal-to-go at Philadelphia. Jones was the lone Falcons All-Pro in the past two seasons, and the Falcons were 7-9 in both.

The decline in elite talent might not matter much if the Falcons had enough not-quite-elite players to go along with Jones, Jarrett, Jones and Ryan. Even better if those very good players were at the most valuable positions. The pecking order may vary depending on formula but, generally, quarterback is at the top with a second tier that includes edge pass rusher, left tackle, No. 1 cornerback and interior defensive lineman.

The Falcons don’t have enough of those type of players. In the ESPN poll, no other Falcons were even honorable mentions at seven position groups. I’m surprised left tackle Jake Matthews didn’t get a sniff. That’s it for possible snubs.

The Falcons had a net loss of veteran talent following last season. Five starters left in free agency, and three projected starters were signed. Edge rusher Dante Fowler is a good bet to make more plays than Beasley. That’s it for clear upgrades.

The Falcons released their best cornerback, Desmond Trufant. He didn’t get a vote in ESPN’s poll, but the Falcons didn’t sign a replacement. They spent much of their tight salary-cap space on Fowler and running back Todd Gurley, then selected cornerback A.J. Terrell with their top draft pick.

Tight end Austin Hooper left the Falcons to sign with the Browns. He’s No. 9 at his position in ESPN’s rankings. The Falcons traded for tight end Hayden Hurst. I like his potential, but Hurst cost the depth-needy Falcons a second-round pick.

Gurley was first-team All-Pro in 2017 and 2018. He was hampered by a bad knee in 2019. The Falcons signed him for $5.5 million, the third-most money for free agent running backs this year. The Falcons and Gurley say he still has plenty left.

The Falcons don’t have as many good players as they did while posting consecutive losing seasons. That’s likely the main reason the betting markets have the Falcons as 9-to-1 underdogs to win the NFC South. They are 2-1 to make the playoffs despite the addition of a second wild card for 2020.

The Saints are getting less-than-even odds to win the South. ESPN’s poll indicates they are worthy favorites. Eight Saints players were voted top 10 at their position groups. The list includes quarterback Brees, edge rusher Cam Jordan, cornerback Marshon Lattimore and offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk.

The Buccaneers also are heavy betting favorites to make the playoffs. They had four players in ESPN’s positional top 10, including quarterback Brady. NFL talent evaluators, coaches and Brady’s peers apparently don’t believe he’s washed up. Bucs wide receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans also were voted top 10 at their positions.

The Falcons have had a steady drain of player talent since they were Super Bowl contenders. That’s not the only factor for winning in the NFL, which engineers parity to the point that luck (injury or otherwise) plays a big role. Coaching makes a difference although, outside of maybe New England, I think good players make good coaches more than the other way around.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank retained coach Dan Quinn after last season on the belief that his staff shakeup contributed to the 6-2 record over the second half. If ESPN’s poll is accurate, for the Falcons to make the playoffs this season Quinn will have to do more with relatively few elite players. I’ll side with the betting public and call that a long shot.

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