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.

 

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 21: Jake Matthews #70 of the Atlanta Falcons stands on the line of scrimage during a game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 21, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Big Jake Matthews will need to take ownership of a new-look O-line in 2016. (Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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.

 

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 22: Devonta Freeman #24 of the Atlanta Falcons runs the ball during the first half against the Indianapolis Colts at the Georgia Dome on November 22, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Running back Devonta Freeman has showed flashes of brilliance in his second year in the NFL. (Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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.

 

SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 08: Jaquiski Tartt #29 and Dontae Johnson #36 of the San Francisco 49ers breaks up this pass to Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons during the third quarter of their NFL football game at Levi's Stadium on November 8, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. (Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Julio Jones needs to be more outspoken about his role in the Falcon offense going forward. (Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

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).

 

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 14: Desmond Trufant #21 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates after a missed 4th quarter field goal by Cody Parkey (not pictured) of the Philadelphia Eagles at the Georgia Dome on September 14, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Desmond Trufant has a chance to become the premier shut-down corner in the NFL. (Credit: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

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.

 

Dan Quinn

With his personnel authority, head coach Dan Quinn holds the keys to the Falcons’ success in 2016. (Credit: Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

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.

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