The Atlanta Falcons and coach Dan Quinn enter a pivotal, must-win season coming off back-to-back 7-9 campaigns. If the Falcons hope to be contenders, a potentially high-powered offense led by Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and newcomer Todd Gurley has to do its part. There’s a chance the Falcons could start 11 former first-round draft picks on offense, depending on if James Carpenter wins back the left guard job and Laquon Treadwell catches on as the third receiver. None of that really matters if the Falcons don’t move the ball and score points under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
Here’s a position-by-position look at whether the Falcons are better, worse or the same as the 2019 team on offense.
Snaps played 2019: Ryan (1,004), Schaub (92), Benkert (none), Etling (none)
Better, worse or same? Same
Ryan, 35, enters his 13th NFL season still playing at a high level, having thrown for 4,100 or more yards and averaging a 66.7% completion rate the past nine seasons. With Koetter entering his second season since rejoining the team, it should bode well for the chemistry between Ryan and Koetter and the progression of the offense. Ryan and the offense stumbled out of the gates last season as Ryan threw eight interceptions during a 1-6 start. Of course, having solid protection and a strong running game would help his cause, but Ryan knows he has to avoid turnovers and hit on more explosive plays.
Schaub’s 460 passing yards in place of an injured Ryan (ankle) against the Seahawks last season showed he’s still a capable backup at age 39. Benkert, coming off injury, could push for backup consideration based on his arm talent and high confidence, but Schaub is the seasoned vet with 93 career starts.
Additions: Todd Gurley (Rams), Mikey Daniel (undrafted)
Losses: Devonta Freeman (free agent), Kenjon Barner (free agent)
Snaps played 2019: Gurley (750), Hill (225), Keith Smith (182), Ito Smith (137), Ollison (53)
Better, worse or same? Better (assuming Gurley can stay healthy)
Folks are anxious to see if Gurley, the 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, can experience a resurgence after being released by the Rams. Well, it will depend on how the Falcons manage the former University of Georgia star’s health. Yes, Gurley passed his physical, but the Falcons are aware that there’s a left knee condition that needs to be monitored -- whether that means limiting reps in practice or in games. Gurley played in a wide-zone offense in L.A., so it would make sense for Koetter and the Falcons to move back toward that to ignite the running game and set up play-action.
Gurley won’t have to carry the full load, and some players believed Hill deserved a shot to be the featured back based on his tough running and steady improvement. Ito Smith, who flashed during his first two seasons, told ESPN he was fully cleared at the end of January from last year’s season-ending neck injury. When healthy, Ito Smith is a great asset in the passing game and as a change-of-pace runner. Ollison is that big power back who could help in short-yardage situations, as his four touchdowns of 3 yards or fewer in 2019 indicated. Veteran fullback Keith Smith is an underappreciated blocker.
Losses: Justin Hardy (free agent)
Snaps played 2019: Jones (763), Ridley (660), Gage (487), Blake (321), Treadwell (165) Zaccheaus (84).
Better, worse or same? Same
Jones’ yearly production, with six straight seasons of at least 80 catches and 1,300 receiving yards -- not to mention an NFL-best 96.2 receiving yards per game for his career -- proves why he’s such an elite receiver and arguably the best of them all. The sometimes-overlooked part of his game is his ability to draw added coverage and open up other opportunities for teammates to win one-on-one matchups.
But the emergence of Ridley has created a pick-your-poison scenario for opponents, with Ridley’s speed, quickness and outstanding route running possibly elevating him to superstar status this season. Ridley just needs to stay healthy and shake off any timing errors that were part of his maturation. Gage obviously grew as a player last season after the team traded Mohamed Sanu. Gage can separate well but needs to improve at getting yards after the catch.
The Falcons would like to see former Vikings first-round pick Treadwell find himself now that he's in new surroundings. Treadwell will have to perform well in camp to overtake Zaccheaus and Blake, with Zaccheaus maybe holding an edge right now among the three because of special teams. Rowland might end up being the surprise of the bunch with his return ability in a competition with Powell and Zaccheaus.
Losses: Austin Hooper (Browns), Luke Stocker (free agent)
Snaps played 2019: Hurst (435), Graham (195), Meier (24)
Better, worse or same? To be determined
The sting of losing Hooper seemed to hurt a lot less when the Falcons acquired Hurst, who didn’t get a chance to live up to his full potential with the Ravens as Mark Andrews emerged as the top guy. Ryan has spent extensive time with Hurst this offseason and already offered the ultimate praise for his new target, saying, “He is, for sure, one of the fastest and most athletic tight ends that I’ve ever played with." Now it’s up to Hurst to show that he can do it consistently as the team’s primary Y tight end (more blocking responsibilities). Hurst is not a great blocker, but based on tape, he seems to at least make a good effort.
Graham flashed last season and could spell Hurst on occasion. Both Lee and Meier have the opportunity to develop into the type of blocking tight end the Falcons thought they had last year in Stocker. The Falcons could use an offensive lineman in that blocking tight end role, with the NFL allowing that extra lineman on game day.
Snaps played 2019: Matthews (1,028), Mack (1,021), McGary (1,002), Carpenter (562), Brown (551), Lindstrom (253), Gono (39), Wetzel (18).
Better, worse or same? Better
With Matthews at left tackle, Mack at center, Lindstrom at right guard and McGary at right tackle, the Falcons should have four of the five starting spots settled for Week 1. The question is, who will start at left guard? Hennessy, believed to be the heir apparent to Mack at center, will begin his NFL career competing for the left guard job. Last year, the veteran Carpenter was the initial starter, but he didn’t perform up to expectations while dealing with injuries. Both Carpenter and Brown were significant free-agent signings before last season and neither panned out, with Brown falling into the doghouse by season’s end and Carpenter ending up on IR.
Some believe Gono should have every opportunity to compete for a starting role at guard based on his steady progress or, at least, have a chance to be the swing tackle. The 34-year-old Mack, who remains the anchor, will evaluate his playing future after the season, with his contract expiring. Lindstrom, who came back from a season-opening broken foot as a rookie last year, is ready to take the next step in Year 2. Both Matthews and McGary have to do a better job in protection, particularly McGary against speed rushers.