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2016 season preview: Atlanta Falcons

Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Mike Jenkins (24) rushes for yardage behind tackle Ryan Schraeder (73) during the second half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa, Fla., Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014.(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

The Atlanta Falcons started off the 2015 season on fire by winning six of their first seven games, four of them coming against a weak NFC East. However, the wheels fell off in the second half of the year, as they won just two remaining games to finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

The majority of 2015’s fourth-highest-overall-graded offense remains intact, with a significant upgrade at center and the departure of a long-time veteran receiver, Roddy White. The development of youth and addition of an economical veteran should lead to an improved defensive line, while the back seven has several notable changes to this year’s roster.

[More: Be sure to check out PFF’s ranking of all 32 NFL QB situations, offensive lines, running back units, receiving corps, secondaries, and defensive front-sevens. Catch up on all the team previews here.]

Matt Ryan remains just outside elite QB conversation

Quarterbacks: Eighth in PFF’s season preview rankings

Matt Ryan always seems to fall just outside the elite QB discussion, and last year was no exception. In 2015, he finished with our eighth-highest QB grade, although his 21 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, and 89.0 QB rating failed to impress.

While QBs traditionally take a considerable amount of blame for losses, it’s hard to blame Atlanta’s second-half fade solely on Ryan, as he graded negatively in just two of the Falcons' losses, and was victimized by 37 drops, the fourth-most in the league.

Backup Matt Schaub returns to the team that drafted him in 2004, but has not graded positively since 2012 in Houston.

Devonta Freeman must improve elusiveness, drop rate to take next step

Running backs: 16th

Devonta Freeman was essentially four plays (three drops and a fumble) against Carolina away from being a top-10 RB last season. While he rushed for over 1,000 yards, he only averaged 2.06 yards after contact per carry, and ranked just 18th in elusiveness. He added 73 receptions, as well, but his 8.75 percent drop rate ranked 42nd among backs with at least 20 receptions. His backup, Tevin Coleman, dropped and fumbled (three in each category) more balls than he caught (two), and forced just six missed tackles on 89 total touches. Patrick DiMarco ran away with our top grade as a fullback, as he had a breakout season in terms of run-blocking.

Wide receiver depth very thin after Julio Jones

Receiving corps: 17th

The fact that Julio Jones was our second-highest-graded WR last year and the unit as a whole still managed to rank in the bottom half of the league is a testament to how thin the rest of the corps is. Gone after a third-consecutive subpar season is Roddy White; gone is Leonard Hankerson and his eight drops out of 34 catchable balls; and gone is Devin Hester, who played just one snap last year before suffering a toe injury that required season-ending surgery. To replace the departed production, the Falcons signed former Bengal Mohamed Sanu, essentially paying him $7 million per year for two seasons before options kick in for the remainder of his five-year deal. That’s a large chunk of change for a slot receiver who has graded negatively three-straight seasons.

Both Jacob Tamme and Levine Toilolo return at tight end. Neither graded out particularly well last season, as both struggled notably on run blocks. Added to the mix this season is former Stanford TE Austin Hooper, who was selected in the third round this past April. He could be ready to contribute immediately, especially as a run-blocker.

O-line easily Atlanta's best unit heading into 2016 season

Offensive line: Fifth

Four out of Atlanta’s five offensive-line starters graded positively last year, led by PFF's second-highest-graded right tackle, Ryan Schraeder. The sole position with a strongly-negative season grade was center, and the Falcons upgraded that position this offseason with one of the best in the game—when healthy—by signing former Brown Alex Mack. Considering this was a top-five unit last season, with the significant upgrade at center, Atlanta’s line could be in the running with Oakland and Dallas for the best in the NFL in 2016.

Defensive front-seven full of young, unproven players

Front-seven: 28th

Turnover and youth are the main reasons why this unit is ranked so low. Third-year DT Ra’Shede Hageman is the only projected front-seven starter who was even on the roster just two years ago. The Falcons do have the makings of a solid defensive line, as they look to have found two strong long-term starters from their 2015 draft class in DE Vic Beasley and DT Grady Jarrett, and free-agent acquisition DE Derrick Shelby (Falcons) was our fourth-highest graded 4-3 DE over the last five weeks of the 2015 season.

The linebacker corps will likely look completely different this season; most likely to start are Philip Wheeler (just 146 snaps with Atlanta last year) and rookies Deion Jones (LSU) and De'Vondre Campbell (Minnesota). Jones is an outstanding athlete, but his college play leaves us unconvinced, while Campbell earned our fourth-highest coverage grade among 4-3 OLB prospects in 2015, and was sixth in tackling efficiency (Jones finished 42nd).

Desmond Trufant bright spot in otherwise shaky secondary

Secondary: 26th

CB Desmond Trufant had somewhat of a down season by his standards, as he yielded the highest NFL QB rating on targets against in his three-year career (86.5). The fact that teams only targeted him 56 times, compared to an average of 90 during his first two seasons in the NFL, speaks volumes about how offensive coordinators around the league view him.

Robert Alford’s 2015 campaign was the best of his young career, although he still yielded four touchdowns and graded just above average. He was projected to move to the slot, both those plans could be temporarily on hold as Jalen Collins, the projected outside CB opposite Trufant, will first serve a four-game suspension for violating the league’s PED policy. 2015 seventh-round pick Akeem King could also see significant playing time, but outside of Trufant, this unit is a real concern.

Ricardo Allen should hold down the free-safety position again, as he graded out slightly above-average in coverage last season, despite offering little support against the run. 2016 first-round pick Keanu Neal (Florida) is expected to win the strong-safety spot, but isn’t a player we would have felt comfortable drafting before day three due to his below-average grades in coverage and against the run, and his ranking of 70th among draft-eligible safeties in tackling efficiency.

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