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“The Amateur Ward:” NFC South Preview State of the Atlanta Falcons

What is the state of the Atlanta Falcons franchise? It is not where it should be. Matt Ryan is starting to show signs of aging as an NFL QB after all the hits he has taken behind some porous offensive lines in the past. 2012 was their pinnacle season, where the Falcons sadly lost to the 49ers in the NFC Championship game. Since then, Atlanta has had no winning seasons, with their  best finish at 8-8 last season.

Jake Matthews was highly drafted out of Texas A&M in 2014, and moved to tackle from center. He has definitely been of help keep Ryan upright, but the addition of Alex Mack at center during free agency in 2016 should help shore up what had been arguably Atlanta’s weakest offensive line spot. Matthews, Schraeder and Mack should form a formidable trio for the Atlanta and hopefully assist in helping the Falcons to a winning record and playoff berth in 2016.

2015 was a bad season for Matt Ryan, but it was not terrible, considering the stats of the offensive line from last season. Yes, Ryan threw 16 interceptions, but he also made the most out of his other-worldy receiver Julio Jones and had to put up with almost zero production from other  wideouts. Roddy White (cut) had a mere 43 receptions and a single score the entire season. Outside of Julio, the total number of receptions last season by Falcon receivers was 82. Fortunately for the Falcons, Devonta Freeman helped out and contributed 73 receptions and three scores. It may be  true, in the NFC South, that the two best receivers are Julio Jones’ right hand and Julio Jones’ left hand. There is almost no ball he cannot go and get, and could be argued he is the best receiver in the NFL. What the Falcons need in 2016 at receiver, is someone to step up opposite Jones, as we all are aware he has had injury issues in the past with his feet.

Matt Ryan’s decline in 2015 shouldn’t be put squarely on his shoulders because he had to adapt to Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. Hopefully, with another preseason under his belt with Shanahan, Ryan will bounce right back and be the borderline elite we all had grown accustomed to seeing. Matt Ryan is a field general, he makes all the proper plays and calls, and has shown the ability to react to defensive schemes when he is thrown different looks. He has a good arm and puts the ball where receivers have to do minimal work to gain yards as evidenced by his 43.6% deep ball completion percentage and his 2665 yards gained by receivers and tight ends based on how far the ball traveled (he finished second in the league last season in this metric). He needs to adapt to Shanahan’s scheme and get better production out of his ‘other’ receivers than he did in 2015. He is still a good NFL QB.  2015 just seemed worse than it was mainly because of a lack of production from receivers not named Julio Jones. Expect him to be a top ten to twelve QB this season and put 2015 in the rearview mirror.

Devonta Freeman is the best player on the Falcons not named Julio, and he gives defenses cause for pause when they prepare for the Falcons as he can run crisp routes, break tackles and run through receivers. The Falcons can line him up out of the backfield and let him make things happen. The problem is he touched the ball 337 times last season and ran out of gas towards the end of the year. The plan in 2016 is to reduce Freeman’s touches and get Tevin Coleman more, as he was one of the better change of pace runningbacks last season, and is more than capable of spelling Freeman when he needs a breather.  For now, fewer touches for Freeman should be good for more than one reason, but most importantly, it will keep him healthy all season and allow him to finish the season and not fade. This could also lead to a higher yards per carry, albeit fewer rush attempts with a healthy Coleman. The point is that Freeman will be a better runningback in 2015, although his rush yards and receiving yards will almost assuredly be down. Tevin Coleman is not just your typical backup RB. Coleman has rare speed, which changes the game when defenses have to worry about the playmaking ability of Freeman with his field awareness and the blazing speed of Coleman. The downside to Coleman is he needs to hold onto the ball and hopefully improve in pass protection. He has upside, but Freeman is the best back on the team and will continue to be until Coleman proves his worth in the blocking game and being useful in the pass game.

Discussing Julio Jones is almost pointless because he made the Falcons offense go  But whenever a receiver leads the league in receiving yards, he’s gonna get some attention. Looking back at 2015, what did everyone constantly see? Julio play after Julio after Julio. He finished with an astounding 1871 yards on 136 receptions last season, and if the Falcons take more deep shots as expected this season, 2000 yards and the league record could be within reach. MegaTron holds the record with 1964 yards (2012), but records are meant to be shattered. Defenses can’t cover him one on one. The Panthers’ only loss last season came at the hands of the Falcons, thanks in part to Jones’ score over Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman.  So  you get the point. The Falcons need someone else to step up at receiver though. This is the make/break factor in 2016. Hopefully free agent Mohamed Sanu can step in and be the answer opposite Jones as not only a deep threat, but also as a possession receiver. He was overlooked in Cincinnati opposite AJ Green, but Sanu is a fine receiver who stretches the field with ease with his speed, but needs to improve upon his drop percentage and could use some refinement in route running. If he could give the Falcons 800 or more yards, that would be more than expected from him as he has never really been more than a WR3 in his career. However, it will take more than two receivers for the Falcons pass game to return to its potency in 2016.

The tight end position should scare the Falcons because Jacob Tamme is not the future at the position and while Austin Hooper is a better pass catcher, he is a rookie. Tamme can do it all–catch, block and contribute on special teams.  The problem is he cannot stretch the field. He had only one score last season and figures to block more for the rookie Hooper, who the Falcons are high on. What Tamme offers the Falcons is a safety blanket for Matt Ryan and someone who understands the game. He will mentor Hooper while he learns the system and adapts to Ryan tossing to him in the red zone. He has the mold to be both a pass catcher and run blocker, and one who could open up the offensive game  while being a factor when blocking. He was a very solid pick for Atlanta in the 2016 Draft, but will need some seasoning behind Tamme to reach his potential.

Defensively, the key will be the maturation of sophomore lineman  Vic Beasley Jr..   He needs to develop into a perennial 8+ sack DE/OLB.  He has the potential to be a force in the backfield versus runners, if he would use his spin move more and improve his ability to beat blocks and power through. He is what the Falcons need for a pass rusher, it is just a matter of time before he puts it together. Derrick Shelby is underrated because he crashes the pocket and disrupts the run game. Of the free agent signings by the Falcons, Shelby is among the least talked about, but he will help the defense with his skills. If he can tap into his pass rushing ability, he could form a lethal duo, along with Beasley out wide. The secondary got a nice boost with Keanu Neal. He is the prototypical strong safety and can fleece any receiver with ease, but he misses a good number of tackles due to his smash mouth technique. He has good coverage skills and meets the receiver as soon as he catches the ball, but has a tendency to play a bit wild and miss plays. The king of the secondary is Desmond Trufant and he is rapidly developing into a shutdown corner after his performance in 2015 in which he earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. Despite only one pick, he had two fumble recoveries and was the least targeted corner in the league. The key for the Falcons will be who plays opposite him. Robert Alford took a ton of targets in 2015 and Ricardo Allen showed flashes of potential at safety last season with three interceptions. He will battle Kemal Ishmael for starter reps in 2016 in the Falcons press/cover 3 system, but Allen could be the better playmaker.

The Falcons linebacker corps is very weak.  Paul Worrilow is a tackle machine, but useless in coverage and does not contribute in pass rush. Courtney Upshaw is limited in pass rush ability, but should be very effective versus the run. The Falcons pray Sean Weatherspoon can return to his old dominating self after battling a slew of leg injuries that have derailed his career to this point after a promising 2011 with the club (torn Achilles 2014). Perhaps the answer at middle linebacker could be rookie Deion Jones who is fast, can handle tackles solo and is quick to react. He has shown flashes of pass rushing ability.  But the Falcons will be banking on his fast reads and reactions to use his speed to make plays. He is a dark horse to take home Defensive Rookie of the Year Award and is more versatile than he played at LSU. He is simply a do-it-all Mike linebacker with pop.

The Falcons have definitely improved on both sides of the ball. The defense will determine how far the team goes in 2016 since the offense will remain potent.The defense needs an identity in the pass rush game. Hopefully this will be led by Shelby and Beasley and cleaned up by another year under Dan Quinn. No, it is not too early to talk about the playoffs as this could be the NFC South team with the greatest chance to dethrone the Carolina Panthers as NFC South Champs, who will be broken down next week.


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Major League Fantasy Football Radio: Join Ej GarrCorey D Roberts, and Coach Jeff Nelson live Saturday July 16th from 1-2:30pm EST for episode #64 of Major League Fantasy Football Radio. This is a live broadcast and we take callers at 323-870-4395 press 1 to speak with the hosts. This week we will break down the NFC North from an NFL and fantasy perspective.

You can find our shows on I-Tunes. Just search for Major League Fantasy Sports in the podcasts section. For Android users go to “Podcast Republic,” then download that app, and search for “Major League Fantasy Sports Show”


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Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio: Join Corey D RobertsKyle Amore, and Coach Andy Macuga live on Sunday July 17th, 2016 from 8-10pm EST for episode #73 of Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio. We are a live broadcast that will take callers at 323-870-4395. Press 1 to speak with the host.

Kyle is a writer with Andy is the Head Baseball Coach for Borrego Springs H.S. in Southern California as well as a 4 year veteran in MLFB leagues.

You can find our shows on I-Tunes. Just search for Major League Fantasy Sports in the podcasts section. For Android users go to “Podcast Republic,” then download that app, and search for “Major League Fantasy Sports Show”

I am a recent college graduate from a small liberal arts school in Atlanta, GA. I'm a sports junkie and a diehard Atlanta sports fan.

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