In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the NFC South, finishing with the Atlanta Falcons today.
Recap of 2015: The Falcons actually started Dan Quinn’s inaugural season as head coach strong, ripping off five straight wins en route to a 6-2 record halfway through 2015. The team then seemingly flipped the script in the back half of the season and ended up 8-8, finishing second in the division behind the dominant Carolina Panthers. Looking at the big picture, Atlanta managed to finish seventh overall in a largely weak NFC, but outside of a win against the Texans and a loss to the Panthers, finished every game within two scores. They were, on the whole, a mediocre club with a -6 point differential and, troublingly, QB Matt Ryan failed to display much beyond mediocrity as well. The biggest take-aways for the Falcons was the discovery of the talented RB Devonta Freeman and that WR Julio Jones can continue to dominate with over 1,800 yards receiving. For a team that ranked 7th overall in total yards per game, they had trouble scoring, finishing 21st in the league.
Significant Additions: C Alex Mack, DE Derrick Shelby, WR Mohamed Sanu
Significant Subtractions: WR Roddy White, WR Devin Hester, LB Justin Durant
Potential Impact Rookies: S Keanu Neal, LB Deion Jones, TE Austin Hooper
Team Strengths: Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan gets to enjoy a second year tweaking his system with plenty of weapons and the Falcons’ offense ought to be extremely balanced between their running and passing. Both should be equally potent options so long as Jones stays healthy and Freeman continues to produce at a high level. The addition of Mack at center will also help to cement the offensive line and give Ryan time to find other receivers in his progression. The Atlanta offense will be fun to watch so long as they can find more ways to finish drives.
Team Weaknesses: The team’s middle of the road syndrome was true for the defense, which managed to rank 14th in points allowed, but according to Football Outsiders, were 21st in Defensive DVOA. Although the Falcons tried to address those concerns in free agency and the draft, they are slated to play the toughest schedule in 2016. Unless the defense improves by leaps and bounds, the team may have to lean on Ryan and the offense to outscore opponents in order to win games.
Fantasy Players to Watch: If you weren’t already trying to draft Julio Jones, you probably shouldn’t bother playing fantasy football. Jones is a stud who not only averaged more than 116 yards per game in 2015, but also finds the end zone. If the Falcons offense can continue to improve (especially in the red zone), Jones will be a key beneficiary. Devonta Freeman is also a safe bet to be in the top 10 for running backs in 2016, but it may be wise to grab Tevin Coleman since Freeman missed time with injury and Coleman capably filled in for him. I recommend not going high on Matty Ice, who for two straight years has managed to put up decent yardage, but lacks the scoring to make him a legitimate early choice, if at all in a standard league. Lastly, take a runner on WR Justin Hardy, who is slated to be third in line at the depth chart and could benefit from facing the defense’s worst corner.
2016 Outlook: Atlanta’s tough schedule includes not only two games against the Panthers, the potentially rejuvenated Saints, and the feisty Bucs, but they also host Green Bay while playing back-to-back away games at the Seahawks and Broncos. By the time Week 11 rolls around and the Falcons bye hits, the season may well be unsalvageable. If, on the other hand, the Falcons can split their road trip and take home a win over the practically QB-less Broncos, they could conceivably go 7-3 into their bye week and be right in the mix for a wild card spot. With Atlanta’s likely reliance on rookies, particularly on defense, it would be too much to expect them to topple the Panthers for the division but getting back to the playoffs is a conceivable goal.
Record Prediction: To get one of the two wild card spots, the Falcons would have to go at least 10-6 and that ought to be attainable. The key will be taking care of business against the Saints and Bucs, while handling the less fearsome teams in the schedule like the Eagles, 49ers, and Chargers. Not a single opponent this season will be a pushover, but if Atlanta’s offense shows up they can compete with just about anybody. Look for the Falcons to grab the 6 seed, before losing in the first round of the playoffs. Hey, that would be progress!
Photo Credit: FOX Sports