The Atlanta Falcons ended the season with a 10-6 record in the regular season and with a 15-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in an NFC divisional playoff game Saturday. Here’s a recap of the season and what’s next:
Season grade: Average. That’s the best way to sum up the Falcons’ up-and-down follow-up to their Super Bowl run in 2016, despite a winning record and postseason appearance. The offense, under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, didn’t live up to the high expectations that followed their league-leading 33.8 points per game in 2016. They had a dip of more than 10 point in 2017. The defense showed remarkable improvement in all areas under new coordinator Marquand Manuel but still had issues with tackling and sustaining consistent pressure. And special teams failed at times with coverage issues and costly penalties, although kicker Matt Bryant was a stud.
Season in review: All the talk of the Super Bowl hangover died down when the Falcons started on a three-game winning streak, although narrow victories over the Bears and Lions easily could have gone the other way. Then a three-game losing streak in October against AFC East, including a season-low 7 points scored in the Super Bowl rematch against the Patriots, exposed some offensive issues. Then another three-game winning streak over the Cowboys, Seahawks and Buccaneers showed just how potent the offense could be when clicking. But losses to the Vikings and Saints, as the Falcons failed to reach 14 points, humbled the offense once again. Winning three out of four to end the season, all in division play, at least gave the Falcons a chance to make a return trip to the Super Bowl, although they fell short.
Biggest play of season: Deion Jones’ leaping interception of a Drew Brees pass in the end zone secured the Falcons’ 20-17 win over the rival Saints in Week 14. Without that play and without the win, the Falcons might not have been in playoff contention at the end of the season. Jones, a New Orleans native, has three interceptions in three career games against Brees.
He said it: “I think when you look at some of our struggles on the offensive side of the ball, it comes down to us players making plays. You can be in good positions, and when you don’t make the throw or whatever you need to do on those situations, it’s not about the scheme. It’s about the play.” — Matt Ryan
Key offseason questions
Biggest draft need: Addressing the offensive line is a must, particularly on the interior at both guard spots. Center Alex Mack is a Pro Bowler, but he needs an upgrade on each side of him. And Ryan needs guys who will protect him better. The question is how highly do you invest in guard help? Forrest Lamp, a guy the Falcons worked out, was the first guard off the board last year as the sixth pick in the second round to the Chargers. The last time the Falcons drafted a guard in the first three rounds was 2010, when their third-round pick was Mike Johnson.
Free-agency targets: Besides the offensive line market, the Falcons also have to look into possible options at running back and receiver. It’s doubtful they’ll be able to keep backup running back Tevin Coleman for long. He signed through 2018 but it’s highly unlikely the Falcons will be able to keep him long-term after already rewarding Devonta Freeman with $8.25 million per year. There has to be a team out there willing to trade for a running back as talented as Coleman. The Falcons also need a taller, speedy receiver to complement Julio Jones. Yes, they have Mohamed Sanu, but Sanu is more of the intermediate guy. Although Taylor Gabriel has had great flashes, he might not be the ideal guy to fill that role. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Falcons look in the draft for that receiver, either. Pass-rushers and defensive backs are always something the Falcons will investigate in free agency.
Paying Matty Ice: Ryan will enter the final year of his contract next season and is due to make $19.25 million in 2018. Owner Arthur Blank said after Ryan’s MVP season in 2016 that Ryan needed to be “compensated well” for his showing. Although Ryan didn’t follow up with the same type of season, the Falcons know how valuable it is to have a franchise quarterback. The Lions rewarded Matthew Stafford with a contract that averages a league-best $27 million per year and $92 million guaranteed. Ryan and Stafford have the same agent, Tom Condon.
Rewarding their own: The Falcons often talk about focusing on re-signing their own players. Aside from Ryan, some of the guys who performed well in 2017 who deserve to be re-signed are Bryant, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who led the team in sacks, and free safety Ricardo Allen. Clayborn is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Allen, one of the team leaders, is a restricted free agent. Agents Drew Rosenhaus and Blake Baratz will fight hard to get Allen and Clayborn longer-term deals, respectively, after both played on one-year contracts this season. The 42-year-old Bryant, who made 34 of 39 field goals, continues to be reliable and continues to have success from long distance.
What about Sark? There will be questions about the future of Sarkisian as the offensive coordinator, but Quinn and the players seem to be firmly behind him. Of course, Sarkisian made some costly mistakes. Such should have been expected for a guy who wasn’t used to seeing all the personnel changes that come from an NFL defensive coordinator. But Sarkisian could make a big step next season, so don’t expect Quinn to give up on him just yet. Plus, do the Falcons want Ryan working with yet another offensive coordinator? Probably not.