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Team Previews: Atlanta Falcons

Mike Wendt

Mike Wendt writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

THE SKINNY
Will the ghosts of the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history haunt the Falcons and cripple their 2017 season? Or will it motivate them to get back to the big game and shake the proverbial monkey off their backs? Only time will tell, but the offense certainly has the personnel to hang with anybody.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

CAN A SUPER BOWL HANGOVER BE AVOIDED?
When it comes to Super Bowl hangovers, Atlanta's has to feel like a Sunday morning after a two-night bachelor party in Vegas. The Falcons will be remembered for their inability to hold a 25-point lead against the Patriots, but let's not forget just how dominant this team was during the regular season. Matt Ryan set career highs for touchdowns (38), interceptions (seven) and passing yards (4,944), fueling an offense that scored a league-high 540 points, which was 79 more than the second closest team. He also posted an otherworldly 9.3 yards per attempt, making him the most effective passer in a season since Kurt Warner led the Greatest Show on Turf in 2000 with a mark of 9.9. Although Ryan directed the charge last year, he wasn't the only Falcon who made a habit of finding the end zone. Both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman tallied double-digit touchdowns, and 10 different players crossed the goal line more than once. In the upcoming campaign, wideouts Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel will receive plenty of targets from Ryan, and if Austin Hooper or Levine Toilolo can emerge as a steady option at tight end, the Falcons may find even more ways to beat teams. Atlanta should once again be one of the best offenses in the league, a reality that will aid in its return attempt to football's final game.

SO LONG KYLE SHANAHAN
While the Falcons return most of their on-the-field threats in 2017, they lost a significant asset in the coaching ranks when offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left to take the head gig in San Francisco. His system was one of the most prolific in NFL history, as the Falcons churned out at least 30 points in 11 games and 40-plus points on five other occasions. In Shanahan's wake steps Steve Sarkisian, who hasn't coached at the professional level since he was quarterbacks coach for the Raiders in 2004. That doesn't mean Sarkisian doesn't know how to run an offense, as he put together several high-profile attacks at the collegiate level with USC and Washington. Most of his schemes operated out of the shotgun set, though, so it stands to reason that Matt Ryan may be taking less snaps under center this season. If Sarkisian's tendencies follow him to Atlanta, it may be the dynamic running back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman who are most affected by the shift in strategy. Last year, the Falcons averaged nearly one fewer yard per rush when operating out of the shotgun compared to runs that derived from plays under center. Therefore, an adjustment period may be in store for Freeman and Coleman, and by association the well-oiled machine that feasted on susceptible defenses, as they did in 2016.

FRONT SEVEN UNDERGOES MAKEOVER
Lighting up the scoreboard wasn't a problem for the Falcons last season, so it's no surprise that they spent three of their first four selections in this year's draft on defense. On Day 1, GM Thomas Dimitroff packaged picks together and moved up in the first round to select defensive end Takkarist McKinley, who is familiar with Atlanta's 4-3 system after playing in a similar formation at UCLA. Assuming a full recovery from March shoulder surgery, McKinley will line up on the side opposite Vic Beasley, providing another pass-rushing threat to the front seven. In the third round, linebacker was addressed with the addition of Duke Riley. He joins college teammate Deion Jones to bolster depth at the position, and a starting spot on the weak side could be Riley's if he outlasts De'Vondre Campbell in training camp and the preseason. Prior to restocking the defense through the draft, the Falcons signed free-agent defensive tackle Dontari Poe to a one-year contract, a development that should improve a run defense that surrendered 4.5 yards per carry in 2016. The new pieces will work under coordinator Marquand Manuel rather than Richard Smith, who was jettisoned after the Super Bowl. Despite the alterations in his staff, coach Dan Quinn still will call the shots on that end, meaning the overall structure is expected to remain the same.

PIVOTAL PLAYER: Julio Jones
Jones has been a model of consistency for the Falcons, racking up at least 14 games, 1,400 yards and six touchdowns in each of the last three seasons. He'll continue to be the first target for reigning league MVP Matt Ryan in an explosive offense and should have no problem putting up big numbers again in 2017, barring injury.

BAROMETER

RISING: Austin Hooper
Atlanta has been searching for a reliable tight end since the retirement of Tony Gonzalez, and Hooper may just be that guy. Matt Ryan looked his way more often in the playoffs, a trend that may continue in 2017.

FALLING: Devonta Freeman
Freeman has struggled to be effective running out of shotgun sets, something that he may see more of under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Ten touchdowns may be the ceiling, not the expectation.

SLEEPER: Tevin Coleman
Despite playing second fiddle to Freeman last year, Coleman still recorded 11 total touchdowns, meaning he's more than just a handcuff. Coleman will see plenty of carries and targets as the backup.

KEY JOB BATTLE THE BACKFIELD BREAKDOWN
Tevin Coleman amassed nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage and found the end zone 11 times in 2016, but he was still the second-best running back on the Falcons. Starter Devonta Freeman tallied more than 1,500 total yards and scored 13 touchdowns, making the pair one of the most dynamic ground threats in the NFL. Freeman is clearly the running back to own, as his 227 carries dwarfed Coleman's 118. Moreover, it was Freeman who received the lion's share of work in the red zone, where he earned 16 rushes inside the five-yard line, compared to just three for Coleman. There's a good chance that Coleman's average draft position will be higher than some starting backs on other teams, so while you may have to spend a higher pick than you'd like in order to lock up Freeman's backup, if his play stays at the same level as last year, he could be a viable flex option instead of just an injury handcuff.

KEY ACQUISITIONS:
Dontari Poe DT (from Chiefs)
Should improve mid-tier run defense from last season.

ANDRE ROBERTS WR (from Lions)
May step in on special teams following the departure of Eric Weems.

Takkarist McKinley DE (Rd. 1, No. 26 UCLA)
Tabbed with the hope of becoming pass-rush force opposite Vic Beasley.

Duke Riley LB (Rd. 3, No. 75 LSU)
Potential starter on the weak side could accrue plenty of tackles.

JACK CRAWFORD DE (from Cowboys)
Adds another pass-rushing option to the mix.

KEY LOSSES:
ALDRICK ROBINSON WR (to 49ers)
Follows offensive guru Kyle Shanahan to San Francisco.

PATRICK DiMARCO FB (to Bills)
Exit leaves lead-blocking duties in new hands.

Eric Weems PR/KR (to Titans)
Aging return specialist has few pass-catching chops at this point.

THE INJURY FRONT
Julio Jones, WR Jones, who underwent surgery to address a bunion in March, is expected to be fully healthy at the start or shortly after the beginning of training camp, which kicks off for the Falcons on July 26.

Takkarist McKinley, DE The Falcons used the 26th overall selection in this year's draft on McKinley, despite the fact that he underwent shoulder surgery in March. The 4-to-6 month timetable to return means he likely won't be a full participant at the start of training camp, which could hinder his chance to win a starting job at outside linebacker.

DESMOND TRUFANT, DB The Falcons could have used Trufant's coverage ability in the Super Bowl as Tom Brady led the Patriots back, but he was placed on injured reserve after tearing a pectoral muscle against Tampa Bay in Week 9. The fact that Trufant took part in OTAs suggests he's back to full health, or close to it.