NFL News & Analysis

Atlanta Falcons 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Dec 20, 2020; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) before the NFL game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and the opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

The Atlanta Falcons underwhelmed in 2020 despite Matt Ryan grading out as a top-12 quarterback and Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage and Julio Jones (when healthy) all grading out as top-30 receivers across the NFL. A defense that struggled to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks and hold up on the back end in coverage was once again the biggest thorn in Atlanta’s side.

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With an entirely new coaching staff in place for 2021, the Falcons will face an important decision regarding the quarterback position at fourth overall in the draft. However, they’ll also be looking to rebound and push for a playoff berth next season with a roster that isn’t devoid of talent. 

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): –$19,561,587 (fifth-lowest in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 4, 35, 68, 108, 149, 181, 182, 189, 218, 230

Projected 2021 offense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Matt Ryan 11 / 32 $40.9 million
RB ?
WR Julio Jones 8 / 127 $23.1 million
WR Calvin Ridley 11 / 127 $3.5 million
WR Russell Gage 29 / 127 $2.2 million
TE Hayden Hurst 55 / 71 $2.0 million
LT Jake Matthews 14 / 38 $20.2 million
LG ?
C Matt Hennessy N/A $1.1 million
RG Chris Lindstrom 5 / 40 $4.0 million
RT Kaleb McGary 26 / 38 $2.8 million

Even if the Falcons select a quarterback early in the 2021 NFL Draft, Ryan isn’t going anywhere. A pre-June 1 trade would incur a $44 million dead-money cap hit, and it’s difficult to see teams wanting to wait until June to bring in their starting quarterback for the 2021 season. That means it will likely be Ryan at the helm once again next year. His play in 2020 gives no reason to believe he can’t lead an efficient offense. 

Running back is the only real hole in Atlanta’s starting lineup on offense. Both Todd Gurley and Brian Hill are free agents this offseason, leaving Ito Smith, Qadree Ollison and Tony Brooks-James as the only running backs on the Falcons’ roster as things stand right now. I would expect that to change in the coming months.

The assumption at the center position is that 2020 draft selection Matt Hennessy will step in for the 35-year-old Alex Mack, who is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. 

Left guard is the remaining weak spot in the group. James Carpenter — the starter there for much of the last two seasons — could return to man the spot again, but he has picked up PFF grades of just 45.3 and 56.1 in those two years. The Falcons could consider a player like Oregon’s Penei Sewell at the top of the first round if they don’t go quarterback, opening the possibility to kick one of their tackles inside to that left guard spot.  

How viable is it to draft a quarterback with the fourth overall pick and sit him behind Matt Ryan for 1-2 years?

The consensus is that Atlanta will be targeting a quarterback with the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft to serve as the heir apparent to the Falcons' longtime starting quarterback. It’s not difficult to see why that move makes sense — this is an extremely strong quarterback class, with several talented options at the top. Quarterback classes this strong don’t come around every year, and it’s hard for the Falcons to expect that they’ll have another top-five pick to target a legitimate franchise quarterback in the near future. 

The thing that makes this situation interesting is that Ryan isn’t on an obvious decline. He just ended the 2020 season as a top-12 quarterback by PFF grade. Both his play and his contract indicate that he’s not going anywhere until 2022 at the earliest. Even in the 2022 offseason, a post-June 1 move saddles Atlanta with over $17 million in dead cap space. That rises to over $25 million pre-June 1. 

Is Atlanta comfortable with their top-five quarterback sitting on the bench for two seasons if Ryan succeeds with the new coaching staff? Are they comfortable taking that dead cap hit to move on from Ryan after this season? These are questions that the front office will have to ponder leading up to the draft. 

How does Arthur Smith influence this offense in his first year as head coach?

The Tennessee Titans fielded one of the most efficient offenses in football with Arthur Smith as the offensive coordinator over the past two seasons. Tennessee ranked fourth in EPA per play over those two years, trailing only the Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens and Green Bay Packers. You can say that Ryan Tannehill’s injection into the starting lineup was a driver in that success, but on the flip side, it’s difficult to say that Smith’s offense didn’t have a positive impact on Tannehill. 

The Titans' rushing attack was unique in that they were one of the biggest proponents of outside-zone in the league, but they also had plenty of success in duo run concepts with Derrick Henry at running back. Tennessee also attacked valuable areas of the field in the passing game. Looking at the heat maps for both the Atlanta and Tennessee offenses last season, it’s fair to assume that the Falcons' offense will target more intermediate routes over the middle of the field. Atlanta’s play-action rate increasing in 2021 is a reasonable bet, as well.

Above all else, the key for Atlanta offensively next season will be giving Ryan clean pockets to work from. We’ve seen an uptick in Ryan's pressure rate over these last two seasons and a decrease in his performance under pressure, but there is reason to believe that Smith’s scheme will help in the effort to slow down that pressure from opposing defenses. 

Do the Falcons shuffle pieces on the offensive line or go into next season with Hennessy as the only new starter?

It appears as if there will be at least one change along the offensive line for Atlanta next season with 2020 third-round selection Matt Hennessy set to take over from Mack at center. Is that where the shuffling ends, though? 

Matthews at left tackle and Lindstrom at right guard both have strong claims to their respective starting jobs. The confidence level in Carpenter at left guard and McGary at right tackle shouldn’t be quite as high. Since 2019, Carpenter’s 50.1 PFF grade ranks 38th out of 42 qualifying left guards. McGary’s 57.9 grade at right tackle stacks up similarly poorly over that same stretch, finishing 39th out of 44 qualifiers. McGary showed some signs of growth in 2020, but there is still a way for the 26-year-old to go. 

Atlanta could stick with their starting four from last season around Hennessy at center, but don’t be surprised if they look to upgrade the group.

Potential targets at open spots

Running back: Marlon Mack, Trey Sermon 

Atlanta isn’t in a position to sink heavy resources into adding a starting running back this offseason. They’re tight on cap space and have more pressing needs at more valuable positions.

Mack could be a quality discount option following a 2020 season where injury limited him to just 11 snaps. He won’t offer the Falcons much in the passing game, but he did earn rushing grades of at least 72.0 in each of his first three seasons in the NFL and only recently turned 25 years old.

Similarly, Sermon could offer value after the first wave of running backs come off the board in the 2021 NFL Draft. He does a good job maintaining his balance through contact and has an excellent all-around game. Two of his better performances on the year came in the Big Ten championship against Northwestern and the playoff semifinal against Clemson — two solid defenses.

Guard: Lane Taylor, Quinn Meinerz  

Taylor has hit a string of bad injury luck over these past two seasons with the Packers. He went into both years as a starting guard but managed just under 200 total offensive snaps across those seasons combined. Before that, Taylor had put up pass-blocking grades of at least 67.0 in each of the 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons in Green Bay. If Atlanta gets that version of Taylor, he would be a cheap upgrade over Carpenter at left guard. 

Meinerz rose up the draft board with his performance during the week of Senior Bowl practices in Mobile. His 58% win rate in the one-on-ones was the second-best rate of any interior offensive lineman in attendance. And that success against high-level competition is significant for a small-school prospect like Meinerz. He looks to be capable of playing any of the three interior offensive line positions in the NFL. 

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI Grady Jarrett 13 / 125 $20.8 million
DI ?
DI Marlon Davidson N/A $1.6 million
EDGE Dante Fowler Jr. 104 / 110 $18.5 million
EDGE ?
LB Deion Jones 12 / 83 $12.6 million
LB Foyesade Oluokun 35 / 83 $2.2 million
CB AJ Terrell 62 / 121 $3.3 million
CB ?
CB ?
S ?
S ?

First-year Falcons’ defensive coordinator Dean Pees will have his work cut out for him in 2021 with this group. As things stand, they’re a group without many starters who you feel confident in heading into next season. 

I opted for a base 3-4 defensive look here, though Pees has already made it clear that he plans to be multiple in the defensive fronts he employs next season.

Jarrett remains the cornerstone of the defensive line. Surrounding him, the team will hope that Davidson can take a step forward in his second year out of Auburn. Tyeler Davison, John Cominsky and Deadrin Senat could all factor in, but none are clear-cut starting options. 

On the edge, Fowler will look to bounce back from a disappointing first year with the team. It’s one of the positions where the Falcons most need additional talent because the depth behind Fowler is thin. 

The same can be said for the secondary. Atlanta did not franchise tag safety Keanu Neal, and they already released Ricardo Allen to shed salary. With Damonte Kazee and Sharrod Neasman both coming in as free agents, the only safety still on the roster to play a snap last season is fourth-round 2020 draft pick Jaylinn Hawkins.

At cornerback, Terrell is locked into one of the starting jobs outside following a rookie season that showed some promise. Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield return as the favorites to start at the other cornerback positions, but both players have struggled early in their NFL careers. Additionally, Darqueze Dennard could be a candidate to return in free agency after a solid showing in 2020. It’s a position where the Falcons should be looking to add competition this offseason.   

How does Dean Pees scheme up pressure with this defensive front?

Pees talked about how he wants his defense to attack in an interview following his hiring as defensive coordinator. Per Matthew Tabeek of the Falcons’ official team website, Pees said, “One of the things that our defense will know, if you’re on defense, every position will blitz. Every position. Not just the safeties. Not just the linebackers. It’s corners. It’s everybody.”

The Falcons did blitz at an above-average rate in 2020 (31.8%), but that didn’t aid in their efforts to get after the quarterback. Atlanta’s 29.3% pressure rate on the season ranked 19th in the league. Diving into the pass-rushing grades for individual defenders in 2020, it’s clear that they need someone other than Jarrett to provide a spark. Jarrett’s 83.3 pass-rushing grade was the highest mark on the defense, but Cominsky was the only other player to clear the 65.0 threshold at 66.7.  

Unless Atlanta gets a major jump in play from guys like Fowler or Davidson, Pees will have his work cut out for him to generate pressure through scheme rather than overpowering talent.  

Should the Falcons trust any of their younger cornerbacks beyond Terrell?

The Falcons first-round pick in last year’s draft had his ups and downs on his way to a 60.8 PFF grade in his rookie season. However, when you compare his results to other notable rookie cornerbacks across the NFL, that qualifies as a successful year. Terrell graded out better than the other two Falcons cornerbacks who played at least 500 snaps on the year, Isaiah Oliver (58.8) and Kendall Sheffield (40.3).

The 2020 campaign marked the second straight season that Oliver posted a coverage grade below 55.0 in a starting role for Atlanta. He played almost exclusively outside in his second season in 2019 before transitioning to a slot role later in the 2020 season. There wasn’t a pronounced jump in Oliver’s play following the move inside. In fact, he graded worse in the slot than he did out wide in 2020. 

As for Sheffield, he now has two straight seasons with PFF grades in the 40s since being taken in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Whether in the slot or out wide, teams have been able to pick on him in coverage. 

It’s tough to say that Atlanta should have much confidence in either Oliver or Sheffield returning in a starting role in 2021.  

What position group on defense is Atlanta’s biggest need heading into this offseason?

There are needs all over this defense, but none may be more glaring than at safety. Four safeties played over 100 snaps for the Falcons in 2020, and there is a chance that none will be back next season. Those four players — Neal, Allen, Neasman and Kazee — are all free agents following Allen’s release for cap savings.  

That leaves 2020 fourth-round pick Jaylinn Hawkins (76 defensive snaps in 2020) as the only player under contract with any kind of experience heading into 2021. There was some consideration for placing the franchise tag on Neal, but the deadline for that potential move has come and gone.

Not only will Atlanta likely need to find two new starters — unless they’re confident in Hawkins’ ability to step in next season — but they’ll also need to find depth at the position. Going into free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft with one starter in the secondary that you feel confident in is not an enviable position to be in. 

Potential targets at open spots

Interior defender: Tyler Shelvin, Tyson Alualu 

If more odd fronts are coming for Atlanta, they could use more of a traditional nose tackle. 

Listed at nearly 350 pounds, Shelvin is exactly that coming out of LSU. He can eat double teams and has a track record of strong play against the run. Shelvin opted out of the 2020 season, but he earned an 88.3 run-defense grade with the Tigers in 2019. 

Alualu is fresh off his first season handling nose tackle responsibilities following the departure of Javon Hargrave in Pittsburgh last offseason. Alualu responded to that new role with arguably the best season of his 11-year career — he now has career-high 80.0-plus PFF grades in each of the last two seasons and would give Atlanta some versatility and experience up front if signed. 

Edge defender: Romeo Okwara, Joe Tryon

The Falcons need some additional pass-rushing juice on the edge. 

Okwara comes with some one-year-wonder risk in free agency, but that should help hold down his price tag a bit for a team that will have difficulty reaching the top-tier options. Okwara earned an 84.5 pass-rushing grade in 2020, and his 61 quarterback pressures on the season was one of the highest marks of any pass rusher in the league. The biggest question for potential suitors is whether Okwara can sustain that kind of pass-rushing success. 

Tryon is another target who requires some projection following his opt-out of the 2020 college football season. He wasn’t dominant in his lone season as a starter back in 2019 (71.9 pass-rushing grade), but he has the kind of length and explosiveness that teams covet at the position. 

Teammates such as Levi Onwuzurike have talked recently about how Tryon has transformed his body in his year off, as well. He could be a Round 2 target for Atlanta in this year’s draft.  

Cornerback: Jason Verrett, Aaron Robinson

Atlanta needs starting competition both at the outside spot opposite Terrell and in the slot. Robinson is an interesting prospect in that he played in the slot at UCF but has tools that could translate outside in the NFL. His physicality and ability to attack downhill is a bonus inside. Robinson’s numbers took a step back in 2020, but he did put up an 84.9 coverage grade back in 2019. 

The concern with any team signing Verrett this offseason will be whether he can stay on the field in 2021. He played over 300 snaps for just the second time in his career this past season with the San Francisco 49ers, and he delivered a solid 76.1 grade in coverage, reminding everyone that he once profiled as one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL. That level of play outside would be welcomed with open arms on Atlanta’s defense.  

Safety: Duron Harmon, Elijah Molden

The franchise tag deadline has come and gone, and Atlanta will not be using their tag on Neal at strong safety. There is no one particular mold of safety that the Falcons will be looking for — they need multiple starting options and depth at the position. 

Harmon brings plenty of experience at free safety from seven seasons with the New England Patriots and one year in Detroit. He profiles as a reliable last line of defense and has never ended a year with a sub-64.0 grade in coverage. His age should help keep his next contract at a reasonable price point. 

Molden is a different type of safety target for the Falcons this offseason. He played almost exclusively in the slot at Washington, but the Huskies did play him some at safety toward the end of this past year. It remains to be seen how he would transition to a full-time safety role, but Molden’s floor seems to be a productive nickel defensive back. He is coming off back-to-back seasons with PFF grades north of 85.0. 

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