ATLANTA – If it wasn’t clear before, today’s 38-0 loss in Carolina makes it quite clear that 2015 is a lost cause for the Atlanta Falcons. At 6-7 and having lost six straight, every decision the coaching staff makes over the course of the next three games ought to be with an eye toward building a winner in 2016 (kind of like what we saw all year long at Turner Field).
We don’t know what the front office will do with what could be another top ten draft pick. We don’t know what their plan will be during free agency.
What we do know is that this team has several building blocks; cornerstone guys who are critical to the future success of this franchise. If each of these men can take a step forward from 2015 to 2016, the Falcons will end their soon-to-be three year playoff drought next fall.
5. LT Jake Matthews
Matthews is a second-year player, whose sole responsibility to this point has been protecting Matt Ryan. While fighting injuries and a steep learning curve, the results have been somewhat mixed.
Job one for Matthews in 2016 is to become the dominant, all-pro left tackle befitting his family pedigree.
Job two is becoming a leader. Matthews met most of his O-linemates less than a week before the regular season began. There is sure to be more turnover along the line in the offseason. At some point, that unit has to become something more than a liability. It must evolve into something offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and quarterback Matt Ryan can trust.
With his talent and his first-round expectations, it’s time for Matthews to step up and become the leader they need.
4. RB Devonta Freeman
With four 100-yard rushing performances so far this season – three of them in victory – Freeman reminded Falcon fans how potent an offense can be when it can lean on the run. A concussion slowed Freeman’s breakout season, but so did playcalling. In six wins, Freeman averaged just shy of 20 carries per game. In the six losses in which he played, Freeman got the ball just 12 times.
Work hard this offseason and figure out a way to convince Kyle Shanahan to call your number more, and Devonta Freeman could help elevate this offense to one of the league’s most dangerous.
3. WR Julio Jones
The big question in NFL circles throughout the month of September was: “Has Julio Jones emerged as the best wide receiver in the NFL?” It was a valid question, as he averaged 147 yards receiving and had four touchdowns over the first three games of the season. But the debate quickly died after the numbers Julio put up over the next three games: 66 YPG and no touchdowns.
Julio needs to be more consistent, we know that’s true. He also needs to be more assertive. Five times this year Julio has been targeted 11 times or fewer. Your best player cannot be touching the football so infrequently. If the playcaller doesn’t know that, Julio needs to raise cain – whether behind closed doors or in the media – to make sure he’s getting those opportunities. It’s not selfish, it’s effective (see White, Roddy).
2. CB Desmond Trufant
The Falcons play in a division where they’ll be competing for the next ten years against Cam Newton and Jameis Winston. Each of them has a young, potentially Pro Bowl-caliber wide receiver in Kelvin Benjamin and Mike Evans. The Falcons don’t exactly have a “young” QB-WR combo to match, but they do have Des Trufant.
The third year vet has the opportunity to continue his maturation and become the shut-down corner in the NFL. Currently, there’s not a lot of help around him in the Falcon secondary (Rocky Alford can be good, bad or ugly…and we saw the ugly against Carolina), but one game-changing corner can neutralize a quarterback’s favorite target.
I guess you could make an argument for putting Vic Beasley in this spot, but – while he NEEDS to step up – do you have any expectation that he CAN step up? I don’t either.
1. Head coach Dan Quinn
Ultimately, it’s going to be on DQ whether this franchise sinks or swims. This isn’t a Mike Smith type of thing, where you’re focused in on game management or X’s and O’s. Arthur Blank gave his new head coach unprecedented say in personnel matters. This team will need help along the lines, in the linebacking corps and likely on special teams in the upcoming draft and free agency period…and Coach Quinn has a lot of sway.
There were some hits and misses in his first offseason with the team, but whiffing on big acquisitions like Beasley and linebacker Brooks Reed have hurt the 2015 squad.
He’ll also have to change the culture of losing at Flowery Branch. Three straight losing seasons means most of the guys on the squad – and all the guys on this list – do not know what it is to be part of a winner. Even for Julio Jones, 2012 must seem like a lifetime ago. Quinn will need to draw on his Seahawks pedigree to help change the mentality of the players in that locker room.
One name you don’t see on the list is quarterback Matt Ryan. We’ve seen the best of Matt (2011, 2012) and we’re currently seeing the worst. Even in a quarterback-driven league, Matt’s not going to be able to do this by himself. If all the guys on this list raise their game, then Matt can hopefully raise his and be a part of getting the Falcons back where they belong: the postseason.