The Falcons were unlucky with injuries and close games in 2020. Maybe they’ll be luckier in 2021.
The Falcons were a good passing team last season despite a leaky offensive line and Julio Jones not feeling right. Jones is gone, but the wide receiver corps remains a strength.
The Falcons have a better play-caller, coach Arthur Smith, and the schedule that doesn’t look so tough. Surely they will score more points this season if they finally get improved play from their offensive line.
Those are my reasons for being optimistic about the Falcons in 2021. I see no possible scenario in which they’ll be great. It’s plausible they will be average, or even slightly above. That can be good enough to make the playoffs in the NFL, where parity is engineered by the rules.
It’s possible that I’m being too positive about the Falcons. Now is the time when I can buy the best-case scenarios. My preseason optimism about the local teams is how I guard against corrosive cynicism, but I don’t want to take it too far. I check what I want to believe against the evidence to make sure I’m not delusional.
That process took me to ESPN’s survey of 50-plus team executives, scouts, coaches and players. Each was asked for a list of their top 10-15 players at 11 position groups. Not all opinions are correct, of course. Those offered anonymously can’t be scrutinized for partiality and don’t come with accountability for being wrong.
Still, at least the views of ESPN voters are informed. These are the people who draft and sign NFL players, coach them, scheme against them and play against them on the field. And the collective view of those talent evaluators, coaches and players is that the 2021 Falcons lack elite talent.
Grady Jarrett placed 10th among interior defensive lineman. Three Falcons were in the also-received-votes category: quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Calvin Ridley and linebacker Deion Jones. That’s it for Falcons among the top tier of NFL players or close to it, according to ESPN’s voters.
Can’t argue against that assessment. Ryan has plenty left. Jarrett commands double teams. Ridley is a true No. 1 target and Jones is a sideline-to-sideline stalker. Other than those guys, which Falcons players will worry opponents after they traded their most talented player, Jones, to the Titans? (ESPN’s voters still put him No. 3 among wide receivers after his injury-plagued season.).
Elite talent is only one aspect of the player-personnel formula, though. It’s possible for teams to win if they field enough average players, especially at the most important positions, and deploy them properly. Maybe Smith and defensive coordinator Dean Pees can find enough solid guys to put in position to make plays.
For an outside view on that, I turned to the analysts at Pro Football Focus. They don’t always get it right — nobody does — but the PFF people use their methodology to evaluate every player on every play. PFF graded every projected NFL starter for 2021 based on their play last season and over their career.
No Falcons player is rated as elite by PFF. Three grade out as good starters: Ryan, Ridley and Jarrett. Four Falcons are rated average starters: running back Mike Davis, wide receiver Russell Gage and offensive linemen Jake Matthews and Chris Lindstrom.
The other 14 projected veteran starters for the Falcons are below average, in PFF’s estimation, and three are rookies. (There are 12 starters listed on offense and defense, which makes sense because the personal grouping depends on the alignment.) Jarrett is the only defensive starter PFF rates as average or better.
The Falcons are in trouble if PFF is right that two-thirds of their starters are subpar. Carolina, the only NFC South team with longer odds to win the division, has 12 below-average starters per PFF. The problem for the Panthers is that one of them is quarterback Sam Darnold.
The assessment of Falcons player talent by ESPN’s voters and PFF’s analysts track with expectations. Oddsmakers put their over/under win total at 7.5, same as the Panthers. The Falcons are 9-to-1 to win the South. Betting against the Falcons to make the playoffs pays $10 for every $24 wagered, while a winning $10 bet for them to make the postseason pays out about $20.
A lack of player talent is tough to overcome. Avoiding injuries would help. Smith’s influence on the offense should be a plus. But, more than anything, the Falcons need a bunch of players to perform better than expected. If that happens, the Falcons can beat the less-talented foes on their schedule and hold their own against all others.
The Falcons are set to play six games against teams that PFF places below them in its roster rankings. Four of those games are at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, including three within the first eight weeks: Eagles (29th-ranked roster), Jets (30th), and Panthers (27th). The Falcons have a bye in Week 6.
The Falcons will be heavy underdogs at Tampa Bay (No. 1 roster) in Week 2. A Week 4 home game against Washington (12th) will be a challenge. Games at the Giants (19th) in Week 4 and Dolphins (22nd) in Week 7 won’t be easy.
Overall, the first eight weeks of the season offers Smith’s team a chance to start fast and build momentum. That’s important because the schedule toughens from there. There are the home-and-home games against the Saints (17th in PFF roster ranking). The Buccaneers come to town in Week 13. Over the final nine weeks the Falcons play road games against the Cowboys (8th), 49ers (11th) and Bills (4th).
By then, we should know if Smith’s Falcons are any good. His success running Tennessee’s offense with a lesser QB than Ryan is one reason to believe they’ll be better. Another is the corps of pass catchers, led by Ridley and fortified by special rookie Kyle Pitts. The schedule is manageable, and luck in close games and with injuries tend to be cyclical.
Just be sure to temper visions of a good season for Falcons with the reality that, according to NFL talent evaluators, they just don’t have many good players.
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