Five questions for Falcons in advance of training camp

Dan Quinn is entering his sixth season as the Falcons' head coach.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The biggest question for the 2020 Falcons is the same as for all NFL teams: Can they really play football during a pandemic? Baseball just got started, and already it’s showing how hard it can be to keep players free of the novel coronavirus without a so-called bubble. That’s with no blocking and tackling.

All Falcons players are scheduled to report by Thursday. In between lots of testing for COVID-19, they’ll get ready for a season that the NFL still insists will start on time and include 16 games. There even are plans for fans in the stands for some teams, including the Falcons.

Sounds wishful, but that’s the plan. At least we can safely assume training camp will begin. Here are five questions for the Falcons as they prepare to take the field as a team for the first time since the end of the 2019 season:

Is Matt Ryan really in decline?

I noticed a theme in offseason rankings of the league’s quarterbacks. Ryan, Tom Brady and Drew Brees all showed signs of slippage in their play in 2019. Ryan, 35, is the youngest of the three. But Tampa Bay’s Brady (42) and Saints QB Brees (41) are included on multiple lists of the NFL’s best, while Ryan is not.

Maybe Ryan’s standing has been downgraded because of relative team success. Brees led the Saints to a third consecutive NFC South title in 2019. Brady took the Patriots back to the playoffs a year after winning another Super Bowl. The Falcons were 7-9 again.

Yet team context also mitigate’s Ryan’s role in losing. Bad offensive line play made it difficult for the offense to function. Meanwhile, Brees had a strong line and multiple star skill players. Brady’s cast of playmakers was lackluster, but New England’s offensive line was effective, and Bill Belichick was the coach.

I think Ryan still can be great if the offensive line is better. Which brings me to ...

Can the Falcons’ line improve with mostly the same players?

The starting group may not be the same. Chris Lindstrom, a first-round draft pick in 2019, is set to start at right guard after missing 11 games as a rookie. Matt Hennessy, a third-round pick this year, could supplant 2019 free-agent busts James Carpenter or Jamon Brown at the other guard position.

The good news for the Falcons is the best player among the group is at the most important position. Left tackle Jake Matthews is good. Center Alex Mack, 34, still is a solid player. His heath is important because he’s key to forming a cohesive group, which can be more important than overall talent on the line.

But the Falcons will be trying to find the right combination from among a lot of inexperienced options. Right tackle Kaleb McGary struggled in his first season, and the tackle depth is shaky. Another option at guard, Matt Gono, has played 40 offensive snaps in two NFL seasons.

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter returned to the Falcons last season. He discovered what his predecessor, Steve Sarkisian, already knew. Schemes and play calls can’t overcome poor offensive line play even when Ryan is the QB and Julio Jones is the league’s best wide receiver.

Do the Falcons have a true No. 1 cornerback?

This one could be the annual question about the Falcons’ pass rush. It kind of is. Studies by Pro Football Focus have concluded that for pass defense, coverage may be undervalued relative to rush. Teams throw more often and quicker on early downs than ever, which can mitigate even great pass rushes, and good coverage makes QBs hold the ball longer.

The Falcons were bad in coverage in 2019, especially early. After the season they cut their best cornerback, Desmond Trufant. Isaiah Oliver took his lumps in his first season as a starter. The Falcons are selling Kendall Sheffield as a potential top CB, which would require a big jump in his second season.

The Falcons selected A.J. Terrell with the No. 16 pick in the last draft. There’s a strong probability that he’ll be effective as a rookie. Football Outsiders reviewed the 18 cornerbacks drafted in the first round from 2015-19 and concluded: “By and large, first-round cornerbacks produce league-average or better, assuming they are healthy enough to see the field.”

Is Todd Gurley still healthy enough to be a top running back?

This question comes with a COVID-19 qualifier. Gurley went on the “Tiki and Tierney” show Thursday and said he wasn’t satisfied with the safety protocols offered by the NFL. And if the players and team owners don’t reach an agreement that satisfies Gurley?

“I feel like as a player you have to be prepared to not play or to be prepared to have half a season,” Gurley said.

Gurley shouldn’t play if he doesn’t feel safe. But assuming he eventually is satisfied with the COVID-19 plan, Gurley will enter Falcons camp as by far the most accomplished running back on the roster. He’s a two-time All-Pro and the 2017 Offensive Player of the Year.

His left knee has given him trouble since the 2018 season. Gurley’s counter to questions about his health: “You tell me how many players played 15 out of 16 games in the NFL and start every single one?”

According to Pro Football Reference, last season 312 players played at least 15 games with 15 starts. But only 13 of those players were running backs. Ten of them had more touches (carries plus receptions) than Gurley. His 4.12 yards gained per touch was fourth-best among that group and he tied for fifth with 14 touchdowns.

Gurley’s numbers are encouraging within the context of the Rams’ lackluster run blocking. The problem with that is the Falcons also weren’t good at that, and their offensive line made no major additions. Gurley is an upgrade over Devonta Freeman, but if the blocking doesn’t improve, then Gurley’s knee can be OK and the Falcons still will be a bottom-tier rushing team.

Can Dan Quinn recapture his magic?

When Quinn’s Falcons were good, his “Brotherhood” seemed real even if it sounded corny. Quinn got his players and staff to buy into a collective spirit that carried them to the Super Bowl. Those who want to give former offensive Kyle Shanahan the bulk of the credit forget how Quinn’s players seemed to genuinely want to go all out for their personable head coach.

That seems long ago now. In each of the past two seasons Quinn’s Falcons had long stretches of listless and disorganized play. Quinn convinced team owner Arthur Blank that the midseason staff shakeup in 2019 fixed things. I’m skeptical of that, and even if the coaching is better, the player talent has diminished since 2016.

Interpersonal relationships with players is one of Quinn’s strengths. COVID-19 probably made it tougher for him to leverage that. When Quinn finally gathers his players together again, he won’t have long to build up the Brotherhood before it’s time to play ball.

About the Author

In Other News