The architect of Atlanta's lethal offense left for the top job in San Francisco, but the Falcons are hoping their on-the-rise defense can help counteract the question marks surrounding Steve Sarkisian.
2016: 11-5, 1st in NFC South. Lost in Super Bowl.
Significant Additions: Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, DT Dontari Poe (FA), DE Jack Crawford (FA), DE Takkarist McKinley (R1), LB Duke Riley (R3)
Significant Losses: Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, DE Dwight Freeney, FB Patrick DiMarco
Let’s not harp on the blown Super Bowl lead, and instead remember that the Falcons were an exceptionally good football team in 2016, especially on offense. Atlanta scored 540 points in the regular season—seventh most in league history—as Matt Ryan found his stride, and Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman emerged as the NFL’s fiercest running back tandem. The good news: Atlanta brings back almost nearly every major player from that offense. (While fullback Patrick DiMarco, who signed a four-year, $8.5 million deal in Buffalo, was popular among fans, the truth is he only played in 31 percent of Atlanta’s snaps last season.) This offseason, it’s clear GM Thomas Dimitroff didn’t want to tinker too much with a good thing; he even re-upped backup QB Matt Schaub for two more years. An extension for Freeman, who is in the final year of his rookie deal, could be on the way.
However the Falcons do lose the man most credit with orchestrating the offense: coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who became the 49ers head coach. How much of the success can be attributed to the play-caller and how much in the talent he’s surrounded by? That’s not so easy to parse. Atlanta does have an intriguing replacement in Steve Sarkisian, the former Washington and USC coach who spent last year on Alabama’s staff. Sarkisian is known in college football circles as an innovative mind, and already Falcons players have noted the coach has added a few new wrinkles to Atlanta’s playbook. For now, more details are scarce.
The Falcons did get some help on defense. Atlanta actually ranked 27th in the league in points allowed (25.4 per game). The Falcons should immediately improve with the return of top cornerback Desmond Trufant, who suffered a season-ending pectoral injury in Week 9. Dimitroff has a ton of faith in Trufant and showed it with a five-year contract extension this spring—his $41.5 million guaranteed trails only Joe Haden, Josh Norman and Patrick Peterson.
But more pressing for the Falcons is the front seven. Gone is 37-year-old Dwight Freeney, who had an important role and played very well in the Super Bowl. Dontari Poe, signed on a one-year deal, feels like a quick fix for that. But Atlanta really needs a long-term solution alongside Vic Beasley, so it was important for the Falcons to draft an edge rusher. Quinn is going to take a larger role on defense, and his preference has always been in subbing many players through the front seven. That’s why Atlanta traded up to snag UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley in the first round. McKinley is a highly emotional player (look no further than draft night) who melds perfectly into Quinn’s “brotherhood.” But just as important: McKinley is an ascending talent with tremendous upside as a pass-rusher. In the fall, a scout told me he thought McKinley could be the next DeMarcus Ware.
Overall, it seemed Dimitroff didn’t push the panic button after the Super Bowl collapse. He barely touched the offense and made enough tweaks on defense to hope his players can repeat what they did in 2016, with a better finish.