Special Teams: B-: With a 41-year-old kicker having his best pro season; so good that he made his first-ever Pro Bowl, you would think this would easily merit ‘A’ territory. Matt Bryant was great and he was even asked to pick up the slack punting in one game. Matt Bosher held his own punting and did an admirable job on kickoffs. But the return game was only average (credit to Eric Weems on handling the kicks so well, but he didn’t make many plays in return and had the misfortune of fair catching a couple too many punts inside his own 10 and even his own 5). The lower grade is really based on kickoff coverage, which lacked at times and nearly cost this club on a couple of occasions.
Defense: C+: Statistically it was not a great season, but there were big positives in all the negatives. There was a major leap in the number of hurries, sacks (19 in 2016, 34 this season), strips and picks. The bad included a lengthy stretch of games where opponents were able to take their first possessions and march into the end zone. The failure to get an early stop often left the offense to pick of the pieces. There were also way too many third and 10’s that this defense allowed to become first downs to keep opponents’ drives alive. Now the good: Vic Beasley’s Pro-Bowl emergence as a force and a star, leading the NFL in sacks (15.5) and forced fumbles (6). The top three defensive draft picks Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, all developed into starters, if not stars. And the “next-man-up” roles filled by Kemal Ishmael and Jalen Collins were played admirably. That and the overall growth and improvement in the back half of the season give fans reasons to be optimistic about even more growth ahead.
Offense: A+: There is no other grade to give. Matt Ryan had an MVP season: 4,944 yards, leading the league in TD passes (38) and QB Rating (117.1) while setting numerous franchise records. Julio Jones was his stellar self (1,409 yards receiving & 6 TDs) and the Falcons set a new NFL record when 13 different players caught TD passes. Breakout seasons were enjoyed from Tevin Coleman and Taylor Gabriel, and the franchise record-setting scoring total (540 points) were all part of an effort that propelled this club to 11 wins and the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Alex Mack’s contribution at center can not be understated. Kyle Shanahan got on the same page with his QB, stayed with the system he knew, allowed a two-back set with Devonta Freeman having another Pro Bowl season (1,079 yards rushing and a team leading 13 total TDs) to flourish. The wideouts and TEs battle injuries and still flourished throughout. Masterful.
Coaching: A: Dan Quinn changed the culture in the locker room. “Brotherhood” or “Brothership” and “next man up” along with a singular focus on “process.” It all added to individual growth, team unity and and belief in the success to come. The staff as a whole had an outstanding season and the coaches are the main reason all Falcons fans should think and know that 2016 is not a one-off but the start of a something big in this city.
Overall: A-: 11-5 and the No. 2 seed and all written above. Still this team knows it could have locked a lot more down, a lot earlier and that 13 wins was doable. Of course all that won’t matter if the Falcons finish what they started. One of the top five seasons in Falcons history could still become the best!