My goal with the Offseason Preview series is to get caught up with each team’s 53-man roster, offensive and defensive schemes, team needs, and offseason capital within a 10-minute read. The basics will be at the top -- cap space, draft picks, cut candidates, notable departures -- and the film and analytics takes will be at the bottom. I hope to write these in a way that they’re referenceable throughout not just free agency and the NFL Draft, but also the 2021 season as we look into weekly matchups. The offseason is the time for me to get outside of our fantasy football bubble and learn more about what’s going on at the other positions. You can read the rest of my 2021 Offseason Previews here and can follow me on Twitter (@HaydenWinks).
Falcons 2020 Recap
It was another year of awful luck for the Falcons. Despite finishing sixth in percentage of offensive snaps with a lead, the Falcons went 4-12 with eight of those losses coming in one-score games. The Falcons played with decent pace (8th) and passed a lot (11th) in neutral situations, partially because their run game ranked 28th in EPA per carry. Matt Ryan was inconsistent in the seven games Julio Jones missed, but Calvin Ridley took the third-year leap (90-1,374-9) the offense desperately needed as Jones begins exiting his Hall of Fame prime. Getting Jones to play more games and getting any semblance of ground game will lead to more wins, especially if the new coaching staff can get more out of the roster. I’m optimistic this will happen.
Falcons 2021 Offseason
Falcons Cap Space
-$36 million (30th)
Falcons Draft Picks
1.04, 2.35, 3.68, 4th, 5th, 6th, plus compensatory picks
Falcons Cut Candidates
Falcons Depth Chart
% of Passes
RB (Early Down)
RB (Third Down)
Offensive Coordinator: Ex-DC Dirk Koetter’s offense was mostly aggressive, using pace (8th), neutral pass rate (11th), and play action (16th) at above-average clips. Koetter also allowed Matt Ryan to take chances downfield, finishing third in percentage of passes traveling at least 15 air yards downfield. A lot of these principles will carry over with new coach Arthur Smith, just with more creativeness and yes, with a lot more play action. Smith’s offense in Tennessee was balanced (27th in neutral pass rate) and used play action on 36% of pass attempts, easily the highest rate in the NFL. Smith elevated Ryan Tannehill from 45th out of 72 quarterbacks in EPA per play across 2012-2018 to second out of 32 quarterbacks in EPA over the last two seasons. That improvement doesn’t happen without Smith dialing things up.
Passing Offense: Julio Jones only played in seven games after removing two contests where he played 35% and 21% of the offensive snaps, and that includes a couple of games where he clearly wasn’t fully healthy. Jones’ presence creates better matchups for all Falcons’ skill players, so getting Jones’ hamstrings squared away for 2021 is a must even with Calvin Ridley emerging as a borderline top-15 receiver. Jones, Ridley, slot WR Russell Gage, and TE Hayden Hurst are all under contract with little depth behind them, so the Falcons are likely to remain an 11-personnel offense despite Smith flirting with 12-personnel in Tennessee. As for Ryan, he’s clearly running out of time as a franchise quarterback now that he’s 36 years old. He was 19th out of 32 quarterbacks in completion percentage over expected (CPOE) last season. Smith’s play-calling and better injury luck at receiver might be enough for Ryan to bust out one more top-10 passing season. The Falcons were 13th in passing EPA per play last year.
Rushing Offense: The Falcons have invested a lot in their offensive line in recent seasons but still can’t run the ball. Atlanta was 28th in rushing EPA and 31st in rushing EPA on short-yardage carries. The Todd Gurley experiment failed (3.5 YPC), and the offensive line wasn’t getting push. For 2021, the Falcons will retain three (possibly four) starters up front in LT Jake Matthews, RG Chris Lindstrom, and RT Kaleb McGary, all of whom are former first-rounders. Veteran LG James Carpenter, a 2020 starter, is a cut candidate or could be replaced by a rookie. At center, 2020 third-rounder Matt Hennessy will take over for impending veteran free agent Alex Mack. Overall, the hope is that the new coaching staff will be able to maximize the raw talent across the line and that a younger running back (preferably without arthritis in his knees) can make more defenders miss. Ito Smith (5’9/195) and Qadree Ollison (6’2/225) are backup-caliber players, while Brian Hill is a free agent without connections to the new coaching staff and front office. A fourth- or fifth-round rookie running back would make the most sense.
% of Plays
Defensive Coordinator: The Falcons were third in Cover 1 man defense (47%) last year under Raheem Morris, but legendary DC Dean Pees is likely to mix his coverages up more than what the Falcons have done in recent seasons. Pees’ philosophy is to bring pressure “from everywhere” and to do so in ways that are unpredictable, so I’m not expecting the Falcons’ top-five Cover 1 man defense to carry over to 2021. In New England, Baltimore, and Tennessee, Pees had enormous success using 3-4 fronts, something he’s likely bringing to Atlanta. His defenses have ranked inside the top-12 in scoring in 11-of-12 seasons as an NFL defensive coordinator. Pretty damn good. Even at 71 years old, it’s easy to be excited for what Pees will bring defensively.
Passing Defense: The Falcons may be forced into downgrading at both safety spots this offseason. 2020 fourth-round SS Jaylinn Hawkins is the likely Keanu Neal replacement, and veteran FS Ricardo Allen could be cut to get Atlanta back under the cap. Given their inexperience at corner and limited edge rusher presence, this is an obvious weakness for 2021 as the defense likely plays with more two-high safeties. There will be a lot of pressure on CB A.J. Terrell, DT Grady Jarrett, and EDGE Dante Fowler to mask the deficiencies at safety and the No. 2 corner spot, but they’ll be in the right spots under DC Dean Pees. Atlanta was 25th in passing EPA defense last season. A similar ranking in 2021 would be a disappointment.
Rushing Defense: The Falcons’ high usage of single-high meant they were well equipped to stop the run. They put more defenders inside the box than the average NFL defense in all situations per Anthony Reinhard. This explains how the Falcons ranked second in rushing EPA last season, although it didn’t hurt that DT Grady Jarrett and SS Keanu Neal were monsters. In 2021, the Falcons are likely to be worse against the run with DC Dean Pees more concerned with defending the pass, but that’s totally okay because opposing offenses will pass fewer times and settle for less efficient runs next season. The Falcons saw the second-highest neutral pass rate against last season. Baiting offenses to run against the Falcons is a top priority. Hopefully 2020 second-round DL Marlon Humphrey plays more than eight games, too.
Falcons Team Needs
1. Safety(s) - The Falcons are set to lose SS Keanu Neal to free agency, FS Damontae Kazee could join him, and veteran FS Ricardo Allen is a cut candidate with the Falcons in cap hell. With little to no money to spend, Atlanta may have to count on fourth-rounder Jaylinn Hawkins at strong safety and a rookie at free safety.
2. Edge Rusher - The Falcons were 23rd in adjusted sack rate in 2020 and desperately need Dante Fowler to rebound after a 4.0-sack season. He has a $18 million cap hit this season. Even if Fowler shows more under a new defensive coordinator, the Falcons need a second edge rusher with below-average end Steven Means heading to free agency and 2017 first-round bust Takk McKinley waived. Specifically, the Falcons are in the market for a 3-4 outside linebacker.
3. Linebacker - Deion Jones is an above-average linebacker with plenty of speed, but the Falcons need another body in the middle of the field, especially if SS Keanu Neal isn’t retained. Current starting LB Foyesade Oluokun is a 2018 sixth-rounder heading into the final season of his rookie contract. This is why you’ll see Penn State LB Micah Parsons mocked to Atlanta frequently.
4. Running Back - After Todd Gurley’s knee couldn’t handle a full workload late in the season, it was clear the future starter at running back wasn’t on the roster. Atlanta is a near lock to find a three-down option this offseason, especially with the success coach Arthur Smith had with his running back in Tennessee. Fantasy twitter may combust if Najee Harris or Travis Etienne fall to 35th overall.
5. Offensive Guard - There’s room for an upgrade over 32-year-old LG James Carpenter, especially with the Falcons transitioning from veteran free agent Alex Mack to 2020 third-rounder Matt Hennessy at center. The Falcons can get out from Carpenter’s contract with $4.0 million in cap savings.
6. Quarterback - Matt Ryan ranked 17th out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks in EPA last season and began looking like a starting pitcher transitioning into a bullpen role on tape. 36 years old, the Falcons would be transitioning out of the Ryan era now, but his contract makes that nearly impossible for at least one more season, possibly two. I’d be surprised if the Falcons used a first-rounder on a quarterback after coach Arthur Smith dragged 71-year-old defensive coordinator Dean Pees out of retirement. It seems like the search for a new quarterback will happen next offseason.
2021 Fantasy Football Rankings
Consider these my way-too-early 2021 fantasy football ranking ranges ahead of free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, and here’s where each player ranked in PPR points, expected PPR points, and PPR points over expected last year.
Calvin Ridley (WR1) - Hot off a career-high 90-1,374-9 receiving line, Ridley enters his age-27 season with a coach that got the absolute most of his skill players. Julio Jones’ injury history combined with his age (32) make Ridley the safer play in Atlanta. Ridley’s on/off splits with Jones aren’t worrisome either as he averaged 21.6 PPR points with Jones and 19.5 PPR points without him (check out my on/off splits column for more). Ridley finished with the most air yards per game (139) of any player in the league and was the WR5 in PPR points per game.
Julio Jones (WR1/2) - Jones is as likely to miss games as any high-end receiver. He has foot and soft-tissue injuries on his resume and will be 32 years old in 2020. Still, when Jones was healthy in 2020, he was an elite player. He was the WR3 in PPR points per game and the WR4 in PPR points over expected (an efficiency stat) when removing games he wasn’t healthy in. Jones is the definition of a boom-bust pick.
Hayden Hurst (TE1/2) - Hurst was a floor-based player in 2020, averaging 9.1 PPR points per game on 9.1 expected PPR points per game. Both were good for TE17 per game. Hurst didn’t look like a true difference maker in his first season as the unquestioned starter (PFF’s No. 34 receiving TE among 48 qualifiers), but he did finish fourth in routes run at the position and is an above-average athlete that coach Arthur Smith can work with.
Matt Ryan (QB2) - The QB17 in EPA per dropback and the QB19 in CPOE, Ryan is sliding out of the top-10 passer conversation heading into his age-36 season. Ryan has posted a 7.3 YPA in back-to-back seasons, while finishing with at least 600 attempts in three straight. Coach Arthur Smith’s success with Ryan Tannehill and potentially getting more games out of Julio Jones are the two arguments for Ryan as a top-15 fantasy quarterback. I’m not worried about the Falcons finding his replacement in 2021 as Ryan’s contract comes with dead cap hits of $50 million and $27 million over the next two seasons. He’ll be around for two more years or so.
Russell Gage (WR6) - The Falcons don’t have money to find a better slot receiver, so Gage should remain in three-receiver sets in 2021. Gage was the WR54 per game in PPR leagues on WR43 fantasy usage, meaning he was one of the least efficient players in the league. Only 9% of his targets traveled more than 15 air yards, too. Gage is a low-upside bench filler, even with Jones’ injury risk. He’ll be a free agent after this season with no ties to the coaching staff and front office.
Running Backs - Brian Hill and Todd Gurley are free agents, leaving scatback Ito Smith and plodder Qadree Ollison as the top guys on the roster. Both are below-average backups. The Falcons are likely to find their bellcow back in the draft or cheaply in free agency. Of the four, Hill is the best bet for potential RB3 viability just in case he’s re-signed and competition is weak. That’s obviously a low-probability outcome.