This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The Falcons' postseason hopes eroded rapidly in 2018, in large part due to a rash of injuries that left the defense shorthanded and utterly futile against the pass. Meanwhile, the offense is a well-oiled machine. The question is, are the defensive studs capable of returning to and staying on the field?
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
O-LINE ADJUSTMENTS SHOULD PAY DIVIDENDS
A mountain of capital was devoted to the offensive line during the offseason, and justifiably so. The Falcons seem poised to replace three of five starters – left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack will retain spots – from a unit that ranked 31st in "stuffed" percentage and 27th in quarterback hits allowed last year. James Carpenter comes over from the Jets to man left guard after a proficient season in which he allowed no sacks and committed just three penalties in 10 games. Atlanta also used free agency to obtain extra guard candidates in Jamon Brown and Adam Gettis. Management later invested the No. 14 overall pick on Chris Lindstrom, who was widely acknowledged as one of the top O-line prospects in this year's draft class due to his ability to play a variety of positions. Later in Round 1, the Falcons traded a pair of 2019 Day 2 selections to score two-time All-Pac-12 tackle Kaleb McGary. Lindstrom and McGary are the future linchpins of the right side of the line, and the former may even challenge Brown for the starting guard spot right away. Considering all the focus made on the line and the addition of competent run-blocking tight end Luke Stocker, Matt Ryan should have time to allow routes to develop as the Falcons attempt to regain their elite standard from the team's 2016 Super Bowl run.
EXPECTATIONS HIGH DESPITE GROUND-GAME WOES
Atlanta was the only team in the NFC to make playoff appearances in both 2016 and 2017, but suffered debilitating defeats in those instances to the Patriots and Eagles, respectively. Following a 7-9 finish last year, the Falcons are primed to compete for a wild-card berth, at the very least. Matt Ryan is playing some of the best ball of his career, coming off a 35:7 TD:INT campaign in which he reached 4,900 passing yards for the second time in three years. After enduring a career-high 108 QB hits in 2018, he'll work behind what appears to be a vastly improved offensive front as he gets to work with Dirk Koetter, who generated two top-10 finishes for the Falcons offense as coordinator between 2012 and 2014. With Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley and Austin Hooper in tow, Ryan and Koetter shouldn't have much trouble maintaining a strong aerial attack. However, the ground game may be a different story. In Koetter's past eight seasons as a head coach or coordinator, his squads finished better than 21st in yards per carry only one time. The Falcons seemingly have the personnel to reverse that trend, but much will depend on Devonta Freeman avoiding the injury bug after a lost season, and one of Ito Smith or rookie Qadree Ollison supplying a steady complementary option in the wake of Tevin Coleman's departure.
NOW-HEALTHY DEFENSE LOOKING TO REBOUND
The Falcons defense was ravaged by injuries last year, with Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen each going down for the season by Week 3 and middle linebacker Deion Jones missing 10 games. Losing both starting safeties was daunting enough, but without Jones – the NFL's No. 1 coverage linebacker in 2017, per Pro Football Focus – the Falcons often were picked apart through the air. Atlanta gave up 17 more receptions (117) to opposing running backs than any other team, and also tied for 31st in receiving touchdown allowed to wideouts (24). The most significant offseason development will be getting those three players back on the field at the same time, but GM Thomas Dimitroff orchestrated a subtle influx of talent to beef up the roster in other areas. Veteran pass rusher Adrian Clayborn managed just 2.5 sacks during one season with New England but now returns to Atlanta, where he had a team-leading 9.5 sacks two years ago. Additionally, the Falcons devoted a fourth-round pick in the draft to Kendall Sheffield. While he may be hard-pressed to earn snaps in a group of cornerbacks that includes Desmond Trufant, 2018 second-rounder Isaiah Oliver and Damontae Kazee, Sheffield at least provides depth to what was the sixth-worst outfit against the pass last year.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Julio Jones
Jones has been a standard for elite production, playing 14-plus games and amassing at least 1,400 yards per season for five consecutive years. A touchdown drought contained his output in 2017 and the first half of last season – he had three scores during that 23-game span – but he erupted for eight TDs over the final nine weeks of 2018.
RISING: Austin Hooper
Hooper broke out in his third campaign, racking up 71 receptions for 660 yards en route to his first Pro-Bowl nod. Operating within the Falcons' prolific passing offense, he should continue his ascendance within the TE ranks.
FALLING: Ito Smith
Smith failed to take advantage of Devonta Freeman's absence last season, managing 3.5 yards per carry after posting 5.5 YPC in college. To make matters worse, Smith has competition in the form of draftee Qadree Ollison.
SLEEPER: Qadree Ollison
Ollison may capture the vacated spot behind starting RB Devonta Freeman as soon as Week 1. A backfield mate of James Conner at Pittsburgh, Ollison exceeded 1,100 yards and 11 TDs on the ground in both 2015 and 2018.
KEY JOB BATTLE – BACKUP RUNNING BACK
Atlanta has gotten immense production out of the No. 2 running back over the past three seasons, exemplified by Tevin Coleman's 1,785 total yards and 18 touchdowns in 28 appearances alongside Devonta Freeman since 2016. With Coleman now playing for San Francisco, there are major fantasy implications riding on the battle between Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison for the backup job. Smith enters training camp as the favorite despite an uninspiring debut season in which he picked up just 3.5 yards per carry. One trend that stands out from his game splits is the fact that he appears to be a rhythm player, capable of wearing down defenders and becoming more effective as the game progresses. In eight appearances last year with at least seven rushes, Smith averaged 4.2 YPC, while his average in six games with six or fewer carries was 1.1 YPC. Just a year after Atlanta took him with the 126th pick in the 2018 draft, the team selected Ollison 152nd overall, potentially indicating a lack of conviction in Smith being the second-string back moving forward. Ollison bowls through defenders with his 6-1, 230-pound frame and may provide a better fit than Smith for the power blocking scheme that Dirk Koetter-operated offenses tend to deploy.
QADREE OLLISON – RB (Rd. 5, No. 152 – Pittsburgh)
Tabbed in the draft to push Ito Smith for the backup role.
LUKE STOCKER – TE (from Titans)
The blocking tight end will help open holes in the ground game.
JAMES CARPENTER – G (from Jets)
A quality veteran, he replaces Andy Levitre at left guard.
CHRIS LINDSTROM – G (Rd. 1, No. 14 – Boston College)
The skilled lineman boasts experience at both guard and tackle.
KALEB McGARY – T (Rd. 1, No. 31 – Washington)
Dan Quinn endorsed a draft-day trade to obtain his "nasty" demeanor.
JAMON BROWN – G (from Giants)
Providing depth for a revamped Falcons O-line.
TEVIN COLEMAN – RB (to 49ers)
After four seasons as a Falcon, he's reunited with Kyle Shanahan.
MATT BRYANT – K (FA)
Franchise's all-time leading scorer searching for a new home.
THE INJURY FRONT
Devonta Freeman, RB – Freeman has been keenly affected by injury over the past two seasons, missing 16 combined games after sitting out only once during his first three years in the NFL. The issues have piled up in a variety of ways, as he suffered two concussions within a three-month span early in the 2017 season, and later dealt with MCL and PCL sprains that hindered his postseason production. Last year, Freeman suffered a right knee contusion Week 1 that forced him out of the subsequent three games. Upon his return Week 5, he suffered foot and groin injuries and landed on injured reserve. With ample time to recover, Freeman thus far has been a full participant in offseason activities and appears primed to lead the Falcons backfield yet again.
Keanu Neal, S – Entering 2018, Neal had suited up for 57 of a possible 63 games over his previous four collegiate and pro seasons. On that fateful night in Philadelphia last September, he seemed to contort his knee awkwardly, but after an evaluation he returned to action. Covering a receiver downfield later in the contest, Neal's knee buckled while he was trying to make a cut, sending him to the ground with a torn ACL. The blessing in disguise to a severe Week 1 injury is that the player has an entire year to recuperate. Neal appears on pace to do just that, as coach Dan Quinn stated during a press conference in May that based on his recovery to that point, "it seems more than realistic" the 23-year-old safety will be ready to participate fully in training camp.
Deion Jones, LB – Much like his peer from the 2016 draft class, Keanu Neal, Jones made his first career Pro Bowl in 2017 only to miss the majority of last season due to injury. Jones suffered a pedal foot fracture in the regular-season opener that forced him to miss Weeks 2 through 12, but he looked strong following his return in early December. He had two performances of at least 14 tackles and recorded a pick-six during the five games he was active to wrap up 2018. He was withheld from mandatory minicamp in June for what coach Dan Quinn described as "maintenance," but the middle linebacker is expected to be ready in time for training camp.