Last season, the Falcons won six of the seven games they played in September and October, only to lose the next six consecutively, resulting in a third-straight early vacation.
On the heels of another disappointing campaign, Atlanta made two notable changes to the coaching staff. Raheem Morris transitioned from the defensive backs coach to assistant head coach/wide receivers coach, and Jerome Henderson (formerly the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive backs coach) was hired as the defensive passing game coordinator.
The defense, in particular, has seen a large amount of turnover in personnel this offseason. On the line, gone are defensive ends Kroy Biermann and O’Brien Schofield, as well as Paul Soliai; all three played more than 350 defensive snaps in 2015. The key addition to the unit is former Dolphins DE Derrick Shelby, who graded third among NFL edged defenders on run plays during the final five weeks of the regular season.
In the back-seven, Justin Durant (661 snaps) and William Moore (six years with the Falcons) were allowed to depart via free agency (both remain free agents). The linebacker corps’ additions of Baltimore free agent OLB Courtney Upshaw, former Cardinals (and Falcons) ILB Sean Weatherspoon, and draft picks Deion Jones (LSU) and De’Vondre Campbell (Minnesota) suggest Paul Worrilow (51 missed tackles in three seasons with Atlanta) will finally be relegated to the bench. First-round selection Keanu Neal (Florida) is expected to compete for Moore’s vacated starting safety position.
On the other side of the ball, WR Roddy White’s career in Atlanta has come to an end (like Moore and Durant, he remains a free agent), and WR Leonard Hankerson signed a free-agent deal with Buffalo. Cincinnati free-agent WR Mohamed Sanu was signed to replace their production, and center Alex Mack will take over starting duties from Mike Person.
While the Falcons likely won’t see immediate positive production from their rookie class, the addition of Alex Mack to an already veteran offensive line, as well as the nearly-wholesale changes to the linebacker corps, has Atlanta expecting a return to 2015 first-half form.
Below is a list of all offseason transactions conducted by the Falcons thus far, including free agency and the draft.
Overall Grade: C
Free agency and trades
New Arrivals: C Alex Mack (Browns), DE Derrick Shelby (Dolphins), WR Mohamed Sanu (Bengals), OLB Courtney Upshaw (Ravens), OLB Sean Weatherspoon (Cardinals), WR Aldrick Robinson, WR David Glidden, WR Daje Johnson, WR JD McKissic, OT Tom Compton, OT Laurence Gibson, OT Cody Elenz, OG Shahbaz Ahmed, C Jake Reed, TE Joshua Perkins, QB Matt Schaub, RB Brandon Wilds, DE Josh Dawson, DE Brandon Williams, DT Chris Mayes, DT Cory Johnson, OLB Torrey Green, OLB Ivan McLennan, OLB Will Ratelle, ILB LaRoy Reynolds, CB DeMarcus Van Dyke, CB Devonte Johnson, CB David Mims, CB Brian Poole, CB Jordan Sefon, S Sharrod Neasman, K Nick Rose
Retentions: RT Ryan Schraeder, OG Chris Chester, DL Adrian Clayborn
Departures: S William Moore (UFA), DT Paul Soliai (Panthers), DE O’Brien Schofield (UFA), DE Kroy Biermann (UFA), OLB Justin Durant (UFA), WR Roddy White (UFA), WR Leonard Hankerson (Bills), TE Tony Moeaki (UFA), TE Mickey Shuler, C Gino Gradkowski (Panthers), OT Jake Long (UFA), OT Tyler Polumbus (retired), OLB Joplo Bartu, CB Dezmen Southward, CB Phillip Adams (UFA)
The re-signings of right tackle Ryan Schraeder, our 72nd-ranked player from 2015, and veteran guard Chris Chester, as well as the signing of long-time Browns’ standout Mack, should launch the offensive line—which ranked seventh on both run- and pass-blocks in 2015—into the top five this year.
One of the issues the offense faced during the second half of 2015 was a lack of production at wide receiver outside of superstar Julio Jones. Devin Hester’s turf-toe injury shelved his season after one snap, and White’s 43 receptions for 506 yards and one touchdown were all his lowest outputs since 2006. Sanu seems a pricey addition to the corps, considering his pedestrian production with the Bengals last year, and shouldn’t be relied upon as the sole source of supplemental production.
As intimated earlier, the front seven on defense will see several new faces this year. 2015 first-round pick Vic Beasley will be transitioning from defensive end to outside linebacker (at least on run downs), and the newly-acquired Shelby should be a positive addition to the defensive front if he can duplicate his production down the stretch from last season.
While some combination of Upshaw, Weatherspoon, Brooks Reed, Phillip Wheeler, and the rookie-tandem at the other two LB positions, isn’t terribly encouraging, the new unit almost can’t help but be an upgrade from last year’s group.
The four-game suspension of CB Jalen Collins and lack of free-agent acquisitions leaves Atlanta razor-thin at the position, in particular during September. While many had hoped Collins or a new face would be brought in to upgrade Robert Alford, the fourth-year corner will likely get another shot to establish himself as the long-term starter opposite Desmond Trufant. The departure of Phillip Adams leaves the Falcons at this stage without a nickel cornerback (at least until Collins is reinstated), as the only remaining CB with NFL snaps is 2015 seventh-round pick Akeem King (16 snaps).
2016 NFL draft
- Round 1 (pick No. 17) Keanu Neal, S, Florida
- Round 2 (pick No. 52) (from Houston) Deion Jones, ILB, LSU
- Round 3 (pick No. 81) Austin Hooper, TE, Stanford
- Round 4 (pick No. 115) De’Vondre Campbell, OLB, Minnesota
- Round 6 (pick No. 195) (from New York Giants via Houston) Wes Schweitzer, G, San Jose State
- Round 7 (pick No. 238) Devin Fuller, WR, UCLA
Keanu Neal made Mike Renner’s list of worst picks on day one, and it’s difficult to imagine him upgrading the secondary in 2016 (even though the departed Moore had not graded positively for Atlanta since 2012), considering his average level of play at Florida against both the run and pass.
Keanu Neal’s 2014 and 2015 season grades
While linebacker Deion Jones will certainly upgrade the defense’s athleticism, his 17 missed tackles and poor play in coverage led to him grading out as the 109th 4-3 outside linebacker in the FBS last season, and our 250th-ranked draft prospect. Campbell, however, was a much better value getting picked in the fourth round, and ranked fourth among all FBS OLBs in coverage grade last year, with just four missed tackles in more than 700 snaps (three in one game against Purdue).
Austin Hooper should be a solid addition on offense, as the former Stanford tight end is a solid blocker and capable of stretching the middle of the field vertically. Former San Jose State left tackle Wes Schweitzer was an impressive run- blocker in college, and could develop the skill-set to push left guard Andy Levitre for playing time in future seasons.
While there is reason for playoff expectations in Atlanta this season, there is still more work to be done. Although they’d like to eventually move Alford to nickel corner, the thinned-out secondary needs immediate help. Without going back to the free-agent market, the Falcons will likely need to resort to giving a safety like Charles Godfrey or Kemal Ishmael snaps when in nickel formation—a less-than-ideal situation.
Atlanta would also do well to add another veteran receiver, although expectations are that the Falcons will need to use much of their remaining $3.9 million in cap space to lock Schraeder up beyond 2016 (he is currently signed through the season under a second-round restricted free agent tender).
The Carolina Panthers are still clearly the class of the NFC South, but with few other elite teams in the conference, Atlanta should contend for a wildcard berth.