This article is part of our Team Previews series.
Generating takeaways changed the course of Atlanta's 2019 season, and it will be a vital factor in determining the team's 2020 fortunes as well. The Falcons forced just four total turnovers en route to a 1-7 start, but the defense created two takeaways per game Weeks 10 through 17 while going 6-2.
- RB Todd Gurley (from Rams)
Makes his return to Georgia to spearhead the backfield.
- TE Hayden Hurst (from Ravens)
The 2018 first-rounder is slated to start after failing to catch on in Baltimore.
- LB Dante Fowler (from Rams)
Slides in as the Falcons' top edge rusher after 11.5-sack year in L.A.
- CB A.J. Terrell (Rd. 1, No. 16 – Clemson)
Atlanta's earliest defensive back selection since DeAngelo Hall in 2004.
- TE Austin Hooper (to Browns)
Becomes NFL's highest-paid tight end after consecutive Pro Bowl seasons.
- RB Devonta Freeman (FA)
Previously a workhorse, he's lost 16 games to injury since the start of 2018.
- LB De'Vondre Campbell (to Cardinals)
Tackling machine takes a raise in salary to join Vance Joseph's defense.
- CB Desmond Trufant (to Lions)
Veteran cornerback to start opposite rookie Jeff Okudah in Detroit.
A Look Under the Hood
Head Coach: Dan Quinn (Year 6)
Offensive Coordinator: Dirk Koetter (Year 5) - Air Coryell scheme
Defensive Coordinator: Raheem Morris (Year 1) - 4-3 scheme
2020 Vegas Projected Wins: 7.5 (T-20th)
2019 Record: 7-9
2019 Points Scored: 381 (13th)
2019 Points Allowed: 399 (23rd)
2019 Point Differential: -18 (T-19th)
2019 Run-Play Rate: 33.0 percent (32nd)
2019 Situation-Neutral Pace: 29.92 seconds per play (9th)
2019 Offensive Snaps: 1,096 (2nd)
2019 PFF O-Line Ranking: No. 24
Projected 2020 Depth Chart
Kicker: Younghoe Koo
Gurley and Hurst Complete "All First Round" Offense
Atlanta's offense has potential, so much so that the Falcons may become the first team in NFL history to deploy first-round draft choices at each starting spot.
Some components to the depth chart have been altered in recent months, but Matt Ryan remains firmly planted as the No. 1 signal-caller, having displayed remarkable durability throughout his 12 NFL campaigns by missing just three regular-season games. He'll work behind the same O-line that Atlanta deployed to kick off 2019, a five-man front that ultimately surrendered 3.1 sacks per game (T-27th) and was only able to generate 3.8 YPC for its ballcarriers.
Perhaps the biggest loss for Ryan and the skill positions is that of tight end Austin Hooper, who produced back-to-back 70-catch seasons and promptly signed with Cleveland on a lucrative four-year contract this offseason. GM Thomas Dimitroff may have offset Hooper's departure by acquiring Hayden Hurst from Baltimore, but he has yet to establish himself as a receiving threat, with just 43 catches through the first 28 games of his young career.
There's also uncertainty at running back, though newly acquired Todd Gurley, the 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, may well be an improvement over Devonta Freeman. To ease the burden on Hurst and Gurley, they'll be working in an offense with perennial All-Pro Julio Jones and rising receiver Calvin Ridley.
Can Matt Ryan get new weapons on the same page as the old reliables?
Morris' Retooled Defense Riding Momentum into 2020
The improvement in Atlanta's defensive play in the second half of 2019 was no coincidence, as coach Dan Quinn handed over play calling duties to assistants Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich at midseason. While the Falcons gave up 31.3 points per game Weeks 1 through 8, the defense improved to allow just 18.6 PPG the rest of the way.
Morris has since been promoted to defensive coordinator, providing stability for a unit that lost three starters from its 2019 lineup. The team's leading tackler from the past two seasons, De'Vondre Campbell, departed for Arizona during free agency, and Vic Beasley jetted to Tennessee after playing out his fifth-year option.
To adjust up front, Atlanta inked edge rusher Dante Fowler from the Rams and brought in Auburn's battle-tested Marlon Davidson in the second round of April's draft. The Falcons also released Desmond Trufant to alleviate $4.95 million in cap space before drafting Clemson's top corner A.J. Terrell at No. 16 overall.
Despite these developments in personnel and an incumbent coaching staff that showed growth last season, Atlanta doesn't boast anywhere near the level of pass rush that divisional rivals Carolina, New Orleans and Tampa Bay possess. Given that the Falcons' top three corners also have just 29 combined starts, expect growing pains to persist in 2020.
Secondary's Performance Vital to Playoff Chances
Atlanta's odds to win the NFC South are unfavorable according to sportsbooks, projected largely on the fact that two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history reside within the division. The Falcons competed well against the Saints, Buccaneers and Panthers last year by fighting to a 4-2 mark and quietly have finished second in back-to-back seasons by virtue of 7-9 records, but Tom Brady's arrival in Tampa Bay alters the landscape.
Atlanta has ranked as a bottom-12 pass defense in both of the past two seasons, and that deficiency may prove to be the team's downfall again in 2020. The Buccaneers have weapons on the perimeter to expose the Falcons' inexperienced cornerback group, with Chris Godwin and Mike Evans both eclipsing 1,150 receiving yards en route to Pro-Bowl nods last year. Add Rob Gronkowski to the mix – even a version that isn't at his physical peak – and it's hard to imagine the Falcons avoiding mismatches downfield in coverage.
New Orleans remains a powerhouse with consecutive 13-win seasons and added Emmanuel Sanders to secure a legitimate No. 2 wide receiver for the first time since Brandin Cooks was dealt to New England in 2017.
Atlanta has the requisite talent to remain around .500, but it will be an uphill battle to the postseason given the pedigree of its divisional foes.
⬆️ Rising: WR Calvin Ridley
Ridley's output grew over his last six showings of 2019, as he logged 5.7 catches for 82.2 yards per game after Mohamed Sanu's Oct. 22 trade to New England, compared to 4.1 and 53.3, respectively, before the move.
⬇️ Falling: RB Ito Smith
Smith's YPC average grew from 3.5 to 4.8 between his rookie and second seasons, but his touch count shrank from 117 to 33 overall. As a backup to Todd Gurley in 2020, Smith is expected to compete with Brian Hill for snaps.
😴 Sleeper: TE Hayden Hurst
During the past two campaigns, Austin Hooper's 146 catches ranked behind only Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz and George Kittle among tight ends. With Hooper moving on to Cleveland, Hurst has an enormous opportunity to produce.
🌟 Pivotal Player: Julio Jones
Jones has now gone six straight seasons with at least 1,300 receiving yards, dwarfing the NFL's current second-leading player in that category, Michael Thomas and his streak of two. Jones retains momentum going into 2020 after a prolific final four weeks to the 2019 campaign, during which he recorded 35 catches on a monstrous 56 targets.
There's seemingly no end in sight to Julio Jones' dominance in the stats department.