Credit where it’s due: Through the ongoing influx of young talent, the Falcons have brought their defense, which not so long ago was a swinging gate, up from oblivion. The 2017 Falcons were ninth among NFL teams in yards against. It marked only the second time since 2007 – and the first since 2012 – this club had cracked the top 10 in total defense.
Two problems here. First, yardage isn’t always the best measure. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA (defense-adjusted valued over average) ratings, the Falcons’ defense was only 22nd-best, which bettered the 26th of 2016 -- but not by all that much.
Second, their offense -- again per DVOA -- was the league’s ninth-best last season, down from the No. 1 of 2016. It’s a unit in decline, and not just because Kyle Shanahan no longer works here. Taylor Gabriel, a big deal in the Super Bowl run, just left as a free agent. Tevin Coleman, the understudy to Devonta Freeman, could leave next winter. (No way they can afford both backs.) That Matt Ryan and Alex Mack are 32 isn’t ominous – quarterbacks and centers can go on a while – but age at receiver is always a concern. The great Julio Jones is 29 and has some nagging something every week; Mohammed Sanu is 28.
Since Dan Quinn arrived in 2015, the Falcons have exercised eight picks in the draft’s first three rounds. Six were spent on defenders. (The exceptions – Coleman and tight end Austin Hooper – were third-rounders.) Jalen Collins washed out on a wave of suspensions. Keanu Neal and Deion Jones became key starters on a Super Bowl team. Takkarist McKinley had a promising first year. Duke Riley should be a contributor. Vic Beasley Jr. led the NFL in sacks in 2016. And Grady Jarrett, a fifth-rounder in 2015, might well be the team’s best defender.
The defense is coming, but – as the Football Outsiders’ rating suggests – it mightn’t be as far along as you’d think. Yes, they’re faster. Yes, they hit harder. Yes, they’ve gotten better. Still, they ranked 16th in opponents’ third-down conversion percentage and last on fourth down, and their 39 sacks tied them for 13th and their eight interceptions tied them for 29th. They’re not there yet.
The Falcons hold the 26th pick in next week’s draft. There will be temptation for them to try to offset the loss of Dontari Poe, who was here only a year, but the more prudent course would be, for the first time under Quinn, to wait until later to address the defense. All this accumulated young talent should improve with time, should it not? (Although Beasley’s near-disappearance last year – he slipped from 15.5 sacks to five – is a major concern.) It’s the star-spangled offense that needs immediate help.
Chris Chester’s retirement after the Super Bowl left a void at right guard as yet unfilled. The Falcons have high hopes for Hooper, but he disappeared in the playoffs – four catches for a total of 18 yards. (One year earlier, he’d caught a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.) Justin Hardy has been here three seasons and caught no more than 21 passes in any of them. If he’s not capable of becoming at least a No. 2 receiver, they need to find somebody who can.
Last summer, Pro Football Focus adjudged the Falcons’ roster as the league’s best. That it didn’t often play that way last fall was mostly a failure of coaching, but the Falcons won’t be allowed to draft an offensive coordinator in Round 1. The NFL isn’t like college football, where the difference between Alabama’s talent and Vanderbilt’s is as broad as the Atlantic Ocean. A hard salary cap means talent cannot be hoarded forever, that money spent on one player -- $30 million per year to extend Ryan’s contract, say – can come at a cost of other players. (Poe and Gabriel, say.)
The Falcons’ offense is still the better of the two units, but it’s also the older of the two. It needs more than a new coat of paint. It needs a playmaker to replace Gabriel, a guard to replace Chester, a more reliable third wideout for Ryan, a potential successor to Coleman. No team can ever fill every need in any one draft, but the Falcons’ tepid showing in free agency – their biggest acquisition was 29-year-old guard Brandon Fusco, surely not a long-term answer – suggests they’ve been waiting for these three days in April.
They’ve done well the past three Aprils. They need, duh, to do well again. Last year’s team wasn’t nearly as good as the Super Bowl team. If this year’s team isn’t as good as last year’s, you know what we’ll be calling that Super Bowl? A blip.