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2021 Team Report: Atlanta Falcons

Last updated: Thu, Sep 2

Offensive Philosophy

A year after leading the league in pass attempts in 2019, the Atlanta Falcons ranked 4th in 2020. They bring in new offensive coordinator Dave Ragone, whose last stint with the offensively-challenged Bears might not seem like much of an endorsement, but really the Falcons' philosophy is driven by personnel. With a former MVP at quarterback and a wealth of quality receivers (including incoming rookie tight end Kyle Pitts) but a bargain-basement running back corps, Atlanta is one of the best bets to lead the NFL in passes once again.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Matt Ryan
Backup(s): AJ McCarron (inj), Feleipe Franks [R], Josh Rosen

Starting QB: Matt Ryan enters his 14th season as the starting quarterback for the Falcons having missed only three games in his career due to injury. Ryan has shown minimal decline in play in his mid-30s, throwing more than 600 passes each of the past three seasons with a strong completion rate, avoiding interceptions at an above-average NFL rate, and keeping Atlanta competitive with an uninspiring defense. Ryan offers little on the ground outside of the possibility of a rushing touchdown or two from short range. The weapons for Atlanta are solid but Julio Jones being traded to Tennessee is a significant loss. That leaves Calvin Ridley, Hayden Hurst, and an underrated Russell Gage, plus the addition of Kyle Pitts, who will be leaned on more than if Jones remained with the team in 2021. Mike Davis offers a passing game upgrade over the Todd Gurley-led group where no back had more than 34 targets.

Backup QB: Feleipe Franks is the incumbent backup despite being an incoming rookie with the injury to A.J. McCarron. Franks has a lauded size and movement combination, but is a raw-at-best passer on the developmental curve. Josh Rosen was added in late August to continue his reclamation tour after being replaced after a single season in Arizona for Kyler Murray. Rosen lacks the mobility of Franks and has exhibited a slow processor at the NFL level to-date in his career.

Running Backs

Starter: Mike Davis Mike Davis
Backup(s): Wayne Gallman, Cordarrelle Patterson
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: After nearly washing out of the NFL after his opening seasons in San Francisco, Mike Davis took full advantage of an extended playing time stint with Carolina in 2020. Christian McCaffrey missed most of the season, resulting in Davis collecting 224 touches and parlaying his career year into a starting opportunity for the Falcons. Davis has a sturdy built with after-contact ability and quality feel as a receiver. The Falcons deployed a committee approach for their running backs in the passing game with not even starter Todd Gurley seeing more than 34 targets. Davis offers strong goal line and passing game market share on one of the better passing games in the NFL.

Backup RBs: Wayne Gallman signs with Atlanta in early September as the team shed Qadree Ollison to clear the RB2 spot. Gallman has starting experience in his career and has a dual-threat skillset, albeit with an average-at-best physical attributes profile. Gallman can push starter Mike Davis for touches in a best case and should be the clear injury-away option as a worst-case scenario. Cordarrelle Patterson has transitioned from wide receiver to running back in his career, still offering his greatest impact in the dwindling NFL artform of kickoff returns. Patterson found his stride as a running back in New England three seasons ago and with the Falcons not adding to the depth chart in the NFL draft, Patterson projects as the secondary option to starter Mike Davis.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage
Backups: Olamide Zaccheaus, Christian Blake, Frank Darby [R],

Starting WRs: Calvin Ridley continued his rise in his third season, aided by Julio Jones missing near half of the season and now Jones is gone with a trade to Tennessee. Ridley has been productive even with Jones the clear-cut No.1 option for the Falcons, but the missing piece was strong volume. The perfect storm happened for Ridley in 2020 with 143 targets and easily a career-high 1,374 yards. Ridley has posted at least a 10% touchdown rate each of his three seasons, a rare feat for any NFL wide receiver with meaningful usage. Ridley's development mirrors the progression Julio Jones showed behind (and beside) Roddy White in his early years. Ridley as the clear WR1 for Atlanta could challenge for WR1 overall in fantasy terms. Russell Gage was a significant benefactor with Julio Jones missing seven games in 2020. Gage collected 110 targets, easily second on the team, including 33 over the final month of the season. Gage has rarely exhibited big-play potential and projects only as well as his volume will allow, which was optimized last season. Gage elevates his projection with Julio Jones gone to Tennessee and a threat for 100+ targets again this season.

Backup WRs: Olamide Zaccheaus has a sturdy build and was thrust into extended action in his second season with Julio Jones missing significant time. Zaccheaus was the preferred option over Christian Blake among ancillary options last season, but projects clearly behind the rest of Atlanta's strong collection of passing game talent. Frank Darby is an incoming Day 3 rookie with a thick build and good enough athleticism to stick in the NFL. His production was at or slightly above the age-adjusted market share thresholds and he posted big plays regularly. Darby projects as more of an upside play than Zaccheaus or Blake if a pronounced WR3 develops for the Falcons in 2021.

Tight Ends

Starters: Kyle Pitts [R]
Backups: Hayden Hurst, Lee Smith, Jaeden Graham (inj)

Kyle Pitts was the splash draft pick at fourth overall for the Falcons in the NFL Draft this offseason. Pitts is an acceptable blocker, but his value and impact comes as a split-out receiving weapon and one of the most fluid tight end athletes in recent memory. As a result, Pitts' pedigree surpassed even Vernon Davis as the high-end outlier since 2000. Pitts offers mismatch potential regardless of defenses aligning linebackers, cornerbacks, or safeties in coverage. Julio Jones' departure with a June trade to Tennessee frees up targets for Pitts to be more involved in the offense in Year 1. Rookie tight ends are historically slow starters, but Pitts breaks the mold as a route runner and super-sized fluid athlete to expect a prolonged ramp-up period in the passing game. Hayden Hurst was acquired by Atlanta in 2019 offseason trade, pulling Hurst from Mark Andrews' shadow in Baltimore for a starting opportunity. Hurst had a career year as expected after the Falcons let Austin Hooper go in free agency. The addition of Kyle Pitts in the draft plus Atlanta not picking up Hurst's fifth-year option for 2022 points to this being the final season with the Falcons. Hurst was already facing strong competition for targets in the passing game as a whole, but now has Kyle Pitts added for a further reason for skepticism, outside of a Pitts injury, for consistent offensive involvement.

Place Kicker

Younghoe Koo: Koo was one of the best kickers in the league last year and he will cost a top 3-4 kicker pick in most leagues because of it. He led the league in made field goals and also made all eight of his attempts from 50+ to boost his value in leagues that have distance bonuses. He only missed two field goals all season and should continue to be one of the most trusted kickers in the league. The Falcons win-loss prospects can't get any worse this year, so game script was obviously not a problem for Koo in fantasy leagues. Koo decisively outscored all of the kickers going ahead of him in fantasy drafts, so he can still be a value as the third kicker off of the board.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Cordarrelle Patterson

The Falcons enter 2021 without their top kickoff returner from last year. In his place, they have signed Cordarrelle Patterson, arguably the best kickoff returner in history. Patterson has finished in the Top 3 in kickoff return average in six of his eight seasons, and doesn't show any signs of slowing.

Punt Returners: Avery Williams, Chris Rowland

The Falcons don't have an experienced punt returner on their roster right now, but rookie Avery Williams and sophomore Chris Rowland could make a push to fill the role to try to stick on the 53-man roster.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Jake Matthews, LG Matt Gono/Jake Andrews, C Matt Hennessey, RG Chris Lindstrom, RT Kaleb McGary
Key Backups: OT Jalen Mayfield [R], OL Matt Gono (inj), OL Jake Andrews, C/G Drew Dalman [R]

After losing Alex Mack, this line grades out as ordinary. Left tackle Jake Matthews has been steady over the years, but right tackle Kaleb McGary has often looked upgradable. Left guard Matt Gono and center Matt Hennessey are new starters. Coaches are high on Gono and put a second-round RFA tender on him during the offseason, but he'll miss part of the season after having offseason surgery on an undisclosed injury. With two new starters, this line grades around average.

Team Defense

Outside of a blowout win over the Raiders, the Falcons D/ST was basically worthless in fantasy leagues last year and there's no sign that that will change in a rebuilding year. New defensive coordinator Dean Pees will be changing the scheme so there will be growing pains, and the team only has a few playmakers - Grady Jarrett on the defensive line and Deion Jones at linebacker. The hope is that Dante Fowler has a better season after only recording three last year, but even in a best case scenario, the Falcons D/ST will only be a desperation play this year.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Grady Jarrett, DT Tyeler Davison, DE Dante Fowler, DE Jacob Tuioti-Mariner
Backups: DE Steven Means, DE Brandon Copeland, DE Kobe Jones, DE Jonathan Bullard, DT Marlon Davidson, DT Deadrin Senat, DT John Cominsky, DT Chris Slayton, DE Ade Ogundeji, DT Ta'Quon Graham

Starting DL: The Falcons shook up their front office this offseason, bidding farewell to Dan Quinn and his staff, including defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. Dean Pees, whose last assignment was coaching the Titans defense in 2019, will take charge of a much-changed unit. Along the defensive line, Allen Bailey has left the building, with new face Jacob Tuioti-Mariner coming to make up his snaps. The front under Pees will primarily be a 4-3, though in the past the veteran coordinator has shown versatility. Grady Jarrett will continue to act as the anchor of the unit entering his seventh season, flanked on the edges by veteran Dante Fowler and Tuioti-Mariner. Tyeler Davison will continue to complement Jarrett in the middle, though this is a unit that could see some further changes as the season approaches.

Backup DL: Atlanta has plenty of depth among their defensive linemen, giving them flexibility depending on whether Pees utilises a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment. Steven Means, a veteran who contributed last season, returns to the fold, while last year's second round pick Marlon Davidson will be expected to progress further. John Cominsky and Deadrin Senat will provide solid depth, while Jonathan Bullard was signed to provide extra competition. Draft pick Ta'Quon Graham has the ability to contribute in a rotational role in year one.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Deion Jones, WLB Mykal Walker, SLB Foye Oluokun
Backups: LB Erroll Thompson, LB Alani Pututau, LB Tuzar Skipper

Starting LBs: The Falcons will have continuity among their linebacker corps entering this season, with dependable veteran Deion Jones manning the middle. Jones had a solid campaign in 2020, logging 72 tackles and a handful of big plays. Mykal Walker enters his second season and will face competition from new arrivals like Brandon Copeland. In just 895 snaps in 2020, Foye Oluokun established himself as an every-down presence and should carry on in that role this year.

Backup LBs: The Falcons bolstered their backup linebacker corps with two undrafted free agents in Erroll Thompson and Alani Pututau. Brandon Copeland, listed as a defensive end on some depth charts, will fill in here as well.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB A.J. Terrell, CB Kendall Sheffield, FS Erik Harris, S Duron Harmon, S Richie Grant [R]
Backups: CB Isaiah Oliver, CB Tyler Hall, CB Fabian Moreau, CB Delrick Abrams, CB Chris Williamson, S T.J. Green, S Jaylinn Hawkins, S Marcus Murphy

Starting DBs: A.J. Terrell produced a solid rookie campaign, picking up his standard of play as the season progressed. With a valuable year of experience under his belt, his tackle numbers should take a dip from the 61 solos he accumulated last season. Opposite him will be Kendall Sheffield, who missed a good deal of time in 2020. Fabian Moreau, signed by the new regime this offseason, should provide a live competition for that spot. Richie Grant, the rookie safety out of UCF, will be in the frame for the free safety role.

Backup DBs: Isaiah Oliver has totaled 50 solo tackles in back-to-back seasons and should remain a central part of the defense entering 2021. Dean Pees will likely deploy him as the primary nickel option. Alongside him will be Tyler Hall, re-signed this offseason for depth, Fabian Moreau, Delrick Adams and Chris Williamson. T.J. Green has bounced around the league from New Orleans to Carolina to his current home and will be a valuable depth option. As will Duron Harmon, formerly of the Patriots and Lions, who could snatch a starting role if either safety fails to perform. Second round pick Richie Grant fits best as a single-high free safety type but can drop down in man coverage and provides a much-needed injection of talent to the secondary.