The Update: Atlanta Falcons 2017 Preview

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June 30, 2017
The Update: Los Angeles Chargers 2017 Preview
July 11, 2017

The Update: Atlanta Falcons 2017 Preview

Justis Mosqueda

In an effort to break the two-paragraph preview trend of national writers, Setting the Edge has dedicated themselves to previewing all 32 teams in the NFL in a series called “The Update”, which will focus on:

  1. Where a team stands from a decision-maker standpoint
  2. Where teams were efficient and inefficient last year by using percentile radar charts
  3. Who the moving parts between the 2016 and 2017 seasons were
  4. Where a team is trending heading into the 2017 regular season

Justis Mosqueda will be writing the team previews while Charles McDonald posts film breakdowns based on the writing. After posts on entire divisions are finished, they will discuss teams on division-specific Setting the Edge podcasts which you can find on SoundCloud and iTunes. Five stars only. Tell a friend.

FOLKS, we’re switching this up!

It is yours truly: the most handsome, vociferous, mesmerizing football analyst on the planet, Charles McDonald. Since the Falcons are (for better or for worse) my favorite team, Justis and I thought it would be a good idea for me to write the Falcons’ season preview.

The question for the 2017 Falcons is simple: will the defense improve enough to compensate for the offense’s regression? Matt Ryan had a historically good 2017 season on his way to his first MVP award, but it would be irresponsible to expect that same level of production.

Offense

Backs: Combined with a greater understanding of Kyle Shanahan’s offense, upgraded weapons, and a little luck with interceptions, Matt Ryan posted a season for the ages in 2017. He threw for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, and completed 69.9% (nice) of his passes.

Ryan also had ridiculous numbers in other key passing statistics.:

  1. Touchdown Percentage: 7.1% (1st in the NFL)
  2. Interception Percentage: 1.3% (7th in the NFL)
  3. Adjusted Yards Gained Per Attempt: 10.1 (1st in the NFL)
  4. Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt: 9.03 (1st in the NFL)
  5. ESPN Quarterback Rating: 83.3 (1st in the NFL)
  6. Passer Rating: 117.1 (1st in the NFL)

Atlanta signed Matt Schaub to a two year, nine million dollar deal in the offseason to continue being the backup quarterback.

The Falcons passing attack will obviously regress, but the team has arguably the best running back duo in the NFL. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman took the league by storm last year. Coleman missed some time with a hamstring injury during the season, but when he was in the lineup he was a key piece of the Falcons offense.

Freeman picked up where he left off from 2015 and had a stellar 2016 campaign. Here’s how the two backs compared to each other using a few of Football Outsider’s running back statistics (rank is out of the 42 players with a minimum of 100 rushes):

Success Rate:

  1. Devonta Freeman: 50% (12th)
  2. Tevin Coleman: 48% (25th)

Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR):

  1. Devonta Freeman: 142 (12th)
  2. Tevin Coleman: 86 (18th)

Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA):

  1. Tevin Coleman: 9.7% (12th)
  2. Devonta Freeman: 6.3% (14th)

Here’s how Football Outsiders distinguishes DYAR vs DVOA:

Running backs are ranked according to DYAR, or Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. This gives the value of the performance on plays where this RB carried/caught the ball compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. DYAR (and its cousin, YAR, which isn’t adjusted based on opponent) is further explained here.

The next statistic given is DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. This number represents value, per play, over an average running back in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player’s performance. Negative DVOA represents below-average offense. DVOA (and its cousin, VOA, which isn’t adjusted based on opponent) is further explained here.

The simple version: DYAR means a running back with more total value. DVOA means a running back with more value per play.

As long as the Falcons are relevant and the offense is rolling, the debate surrounding Freeman and Coleman will exist. According to Football Outsiders, Coleman brings more value per touch, but Freeman’s been better at staying healthy and carrying the load. It’s a great “problem” for the Falcons to have.

The team has an interesting situation down the line with 5th round rookie running back Brian Hill, but for now he’ll man the third running back spot and lay on special teams.

Pro Bowl fullback Patrick DiMarco signed with the Buffalo Bills this offseason. The Falcons brought in former Seahawks’ fullback Derrick Coleman to be the team’s fullback.

Pass-Catchers: Atlanta has a talented and diverse group of pass catchers led by All-Pro receiver Julio Jones, the fourth Migos. They brought in Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Aldrick Robinson (now with the 49ers), and Austin Hooper to complement Jones, Devonta Freeman, and Tevin Coleman in the passing game.

Using Football Outsider’s wide receiver statistics, here is how Jones, Gabriel, and Sanu stacked up against the rest of the league (among 93 players with at least 50 targets):

DYAR:

  1. Julio Jones: 458 (1st)
  2. Taylor Gabriel: 189 (24th)
  3. Mohamed Sanu: 124 (43rd)

DVOA:

  1. Taylor Gabriel: 36.6% (1st)
  2. Julio Jones: 31.8% (2nd)
  3. Mohamed Sanu: 6.7% (34th)

Taylor Gabriel obviously can’t handle the target load that Julio Jones receives, but it’s interesting to see that in his limited targets (he hit the cut off right at 50), he was the most efficient receiver in the league. That should regress some in 2016, but if the Falcons can hold two of the top 10 receivers in DVOA for the 2017 season they’ll be in good shape.

Austin Hooper is the only tight end returning to the Falcons with at least 25 targets. He ranked 2nd(!) in DVOA among tight ends and 15th in DYAR. His DVOA likely won’t remain as high as it did in 2016, but if he can keep his DYAR high with an increased workload, he’ll more than justify his spot as a third round draft pick.

To provide support to Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo, the Falcons drafted Drake tight end Eric Saubert who has encouraging athletic comparisons, via Mockdraftable.com.

Offensive Line: Chris Chester retired after the season, leaving a position battle at right guard. Ben Garland and Wes Schweitzer will battle for that spot in preseason. Obviously having a player who spent time at defensive tackle last season and a sixth round pick who was inactive for all 16 games isn’t overtly inspiring, but Dan Quinn and co. don’t publicly seemed to be worried about it.

Here’s how the Falcons offensive line will look come week one:

Left Tackle: Jake Matthews

Left Guard: Andy Levitre

Center: Alex Mack

Right Guard: Ben Garland/Wes Schweizter

Right Tackle: Ryan Schraeder

For as much praise as the Falcons’ offensive line received, the numbers suggest that they were a bit of a boom or bust unit in 2016. They finished 24th in both Tackle for Loss percentage and Sack percentage. The unit did go against teams with strong defensive line play. Here are a few of the impact defensive linemen and pass rushers the team faced in 2016:

An asterisk notes the second face-off was in the postseason.

  1. Aaron Donald
  2. Fletcher Cox
  3. Kawann Short (2x)
  4. Von Miller
  5. Gerald McCoy (2x)
  6. Khalil Mack
  7. Brandon Graham
  8. Cam Jordan
  9. Chandler Jones
  10. Mike Daniels (2x*)
  11. Michael Bennett (2x*)
  12. Cliff Avril (2x*)
  13. Star Lotulelei (2x)
  14. Joey Bosa
  15. Chris Jones

That is an absolutely brutal slate of defensive linemen. 2017 is tough with the Bears, Patriots, Jets, Dolphins, and Vikings on the non-conference schedule, but it’s not exactly death row like 2016.

According to Football Outsider’s offensive line statistics, Atlanta ranked:

  1. 23rd in Adjusted Sack Percentage (6.3%)
  2. 10th in Adjusted Line Yards (6.09)
  3. 3rd in Open Field Yards (1.20)
  4. 23rd in Stuffed Percentage (22%)
  5. 7th in Second Level Yards (1.30)

Here is Football Outsiders’ definition for Adjusted Line Yards:

Teams are ranked according to Adjusted Line Yards. Based on regression analysis, the Adjusted Line Yards formula takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on the following percentages:

  • Losses: 120% value
  • 0-4 Yards: 100% value
  • 5-10 Yards: 50% value
  • 11+ Yards: 0% value

These numbers are then adjusted based on down, distance, situation, opponent, and the difference in rushing average between shotgun compared to standard formations. Finally, we normalize the numbers so that the league average for Adjusted Line Yards per carry is the same as the league average for RB yards per carry. These stats are explained further here.

Open Field Yards:

Open Field Yards: Yards which this team’s running backs earn more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, divided by total running back carries.

Stuffed Percentage:

Stuffed: Percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. Since being stuffed is bad, teams are ranked from stuffed least often (#1) to most often (#32).

Second Level Yards:

Second Level Yards: Yards which this team’s running backs earn between 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage, divided by total running back carries.

This sticks to the theme of the Falcons’ offensive line being a boom and bust unit in 2016. The Falcons drafted Oregon State offensive lineman Sean Harlow in the fourth round of the 2017 Draft to provide depth at offensive guard.

Defense

Line of Scrimmage: The Falcons defense has a lot of promise, but there’s no need to sugarcoat their 2016 performance. Despite the splash plays the team made, it was still a poor unit. Second year pass rusher Vic Beasley led the NFL in sacks with 15.5, yet his play as a whole could stand to be more consistent. He converted a high number of his pressures into sacks, but he wasn’t that consistent in getting pressure as a whole.

The Falcons desperately needed an edge rusher to pair with Beasley long term; they hopefully filled that spot with first round pick Takk McKinley.

Grady Jarrett had a solid sophomore season and broke out in the Super Bowl with three sacks. Behind those two, the defensive line was largely hit or miss. Derrick Shelby missed most of the season with a torn Achilles and Adrian Clayborn was hampered with various injuries throughout the regular season and Super Bowl run. Keeping those two players healthy for the 2017 will be huge.

To help shore up the interior of the defensive line, Atlanta signed former Kansas City nose tackle Dontari Poe to a one year deal. Poe’s play has seen a hit after suffering back injuries and playing an absurd amount of snaps for the Chiefs over the years. Ideally, the Falcons will be able to sub him in and out frequently with the abundance of defensive line bodies they have including free agent acquisition Jack Crawford.

The best way to overview the Falcons defensive line is the separate the players into three categories. True defensive tackles, hybrid inside/out players, and true edge defenders.

True Defensive Tackles: 

  1. Grady Jarrett
  2. Dontari Poe
  3. Ra’Shede Hageman

Hybrid Inside/Outside Players:

  1. Jack Crawford
  2. Derrick Shelby
  3. Adrian Clayborn
  4. Courtney Upshaw

True Edge Defenders:

  1. Vic Beasley
  2. Takk McKinley
  3. Brooks Reed

Like the rest of the Falcons’ defense, this is a unit with a lot of speed and overall athleticism. They just need to put it together on a more consistent basis to fully take advantage of the points the offense will undoubtedly produce.

Backs: The Falcons re-signed Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford to long term deals, solidifying their top two cornerbacks for the future. Behind them they have young players in Brian Poole and Jalen Collins who have both logged extensive playing time. Expect Collins to take over nickel back duties with Trufant returning from injury and Poole to be a corner/safety hybrid and a matchup player.

At safety the Falcons’ have Ricardo Allen starting a free safety, Keanu Neal at strong safety, and fifth round pick Damontae Kazee as depth. Allen recorded two interceptions in 2016. Neal failed to record and interception, but he forced five fumbles on the season.

Kazee had a whopping fifteen interceptions in his last two years at San Diego State. Ideally he’ll be able to move the needle a bit and help Atlanta’s 24th ranked interception percentage from a year ago. Kazee’s transition will be one to watch as he primarily played the right corner in a heavy Cover 4 defense at San Diego State. His ball skills are promising, but he’ll need some seasoning.

At middle linebacker the Falcons return Deion Jones who had a fantastic rookie season with three interceptions, taking two back to the house. De’Vondre Campbell will likely be making the switch to strongside linebacker as the team used a 3rd round draft pick on LSU linebacker Duke Riley to take over weakside responsibilities.

Moving Campbell closer to the line of scrimmage should help him in 2017. His snaps will likely decrease, but he struggled deciphering route combos in zone coverage at times. His length and athleticism will help him on the edge and with covering tight ends.

Kemal Ishmael will be making the switch from strong safety to weakside linebacker; he’ll likely backup Duke Riley.

The Falcons have a young, highly athletic trio of linebackers (all clocked in the 4.5s at the combine). There will likely be growing pains again, but that’s to be expected as they continue the youth movement on defense.

2017 Prediction: The Falcons are still the best team in the NFC South. Despite losing Kyle Shanahan to the 49ers, they return a ton of firepower on the offensive side of the ball. If they can remain healthy they should easily be a top five offense.

Where the Falcons need to continue to improve is on the defensive side of the ball, particularly in the front seven. Atlanta was 10th in opposing yards per completion and 9th in opposing passer rating after their Week 11 bye. Dontari Poe, Grady Jarrett, and Vic Beasley will need to be big time performers in order for the defense to reach their potential.

Barring a major injury to Matt Ryan or Julio Jones, this should be a team that’s in contention for a bye in the playoffs again.