The Atlanta Falcons finished the 2015 season with a .500 record, which was a marked improvement over their 2013 and 2014 campaigns. Under new head coach Dan Quinn, the Falcons ran a more streamlined, simpler defense that's better suited to their personnel, and with offensive talent like Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones, the team is poised to take a step forward in 2016.
But to do that, they have to address key personnel needs this offseason, including at receiver, tight end, the interior offensive line and their pass rush.
While Ryan drew a lot of criticism for his play last season, he still was statistically solid. Atlanta finished the season with the sixth-ranked passing offense in terms of yards per game, and the Falcons were sixth overall for total yards per game. Jones is in the conversation for the best wide receiver in the league, and Freeman demonstrated that he's capable of making an impact on the ground.
The Falcons improved defensively as well, not that there was anywhere for them to go but up after a 2014 in which they finished the regular season having allowed a league-worst 398.2 yards per game. In 2015, the Falcons finished the season ranked 17th in the league with 347.6 yards allowed per game.
Atlanta started 2015 strong, winning five in a row, and then seemed to fall apart. The Falcons hit a six-game skid, but of the eight total games they lost in 2015, five losses were by four points or fewer. If they had just limited mistakes and executed a little better, they could have reached the playoffs.
Their goal now is to find the right players who can help them get there next year. The process begins at the NFL Combine, where Quinn said he's looking for players who can add "more speed to the team and the line of scrimmage positions."
What went wrong in 2015?
Turnovers plagued Atlanta's offense, and Quinn said cleaning up the turnovers, particularly in the red zone, is fundamentally important. The Falcons were 1-6 in games where they had a negative turnover differential in 2015. For Quinn, taking care of the ball has to be a focus for the entire offense in 2016.
"There were some uncharacteristic interceptions [for Ryan], whether it was in a two-minute situation, or in the red zone. Those are the ones that jump out like, ‘Man, those have to be avoided in our game.' We're going to work extremely hard at that part of his game," Quinn said. "Is it all on him on some of those? Certainly not. Was it the protection? Was the route not right? Usually it's a combination of all or some of those. So that's going to be number one on top of the list."
In looking at Ryan's turnovers in particular, Quinn's point that they weren't all Ryan's fault is valid. There were interceptions where a receiver was off his route or failed to get separation. Several fumbles were the result of either poor pass protection from the interior line in particular or very bad snaps from center Mike Person.
The biggest problem with the turnovers is that they took points off the board for the Falcons. Five of Atlanta's eight losses had final point differentials of just four points or fewer, so eliminating even just a few of their 30 turnovers could have made a big difference in their final record.
Defensively, the Falcons actually regressed in rushing the passer, going from 30th in the league in sacks in 2014 to 32nd in 2015. This was discouraging, especially after adding defensive end Vic Beasley with the eighth overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Rookie pass rushers take time to develop, and the Falcons didn't have anyone bringing pressure off the other edge with any consistency.
How can the Falcons fix things for 2016?
The Falcons will surely be watching receivers and tight ends closely at the Combine this week. Adding a quality receiver in the second or third round and a tight end who can block effectively in Kyle Shanahan's zone scheme and provide a reliable target for Ryan, particularly in the red zone, would help.
Atlanta may look toward a slot receiver like Ohio State's Braxton Miller in the second. Sterling Shepard out of Oklahoma, another slot guy who's projected to go somewhere in the late second or early third rounds, is also a possibility. At tight end, Jerell Adams out of South Carolina would provide another receiving target who's an aggressive blocker at the point of attack and has the length and size Quinn covets in players.
The Falcons have to bring in a center who can provide stability along the offensive line. Person, a converted guard who transitioned to center last season, was inconsistent at best, and the play of the interior line as a whole suffered as a result. Whether the Falcons look to a veteran free agent or try to bring in a rookie via the draft, upgrading the center position is a necessity.
With the No. 17 overall pick, Atlanta will likely draft a player who can disrupt the passer. This year's interior defensive line draft class is stacked with talent, and there are a number of quality edge rushers available, also.
Someone like Clemson's Shaq Lawson, Vic Beasley's college teammate, could come in and make an impact right away if the Falcons want to address this need in the first round. Later in the draft, Jihad Ward from Illinois has the length and versatility Quinn likes, and though he needs to develop, has a high ceiling. If the Falcons want to shore up their pass rush through free agency too, perhaps we'll see a reunion between Quinn and Seattle Seahawks outside linebacker Bruce Irvin.
No matter what, the Falcons will be looking for players who fit the fast and physical style of defense Quinn wants to play this offseason:
Our top priority is to add more speed. We want to play fast and physical and the first part of that is fast! https://t.co/iyaXevg9lq— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) February 24, 2016
"When we add that speed to the club, the foundation, the principles and the tackling, the mindset is firmly established," Quinn said at the Combine. "Now, if we can continue to add the speed and attitude to the club, to that side of the ball, that’s when some of the other things will take place.
"That’s when more of the turnovers come. That’s when the hits on the quarterback come. I want it to be in our building where it’s so loud, our guys will absolutely be flying off the ball, going after that. That’s what I’m looking to create for our defense."
More than anything, the Falcons weren't consistent in 2015. They had stretches where they were firing on all cylinders. They had a balanced offense, good pass protection and run blocking, and they were taking care of the ball offensively and creating turnovers on defense. They also had stretches where they seemed to not be able to do anything particularly well.
Ryan thinks establishing that steadiness is going to be the most important thing for the Falcons going forward.
"I think consistency is the key, and throughout different times of the year I don't think we were very consistent," Ryan said following the season. "So if we can build that consistency and play the way that we're capable of week in and week out, I think we've proven we can play really good football, but we need to do it more often and every time we show up."
A majority of Atlanta's losses last season could have easily been wins based on the point differentials, and there were times that this Falcons team showed flashes of potential far greater than their final record implied.
Protecting Ryan effectively, adding receiving options who can consistently get separation and disrupting the opposing quarterback should make a big difference for the Falcons next season.