The Atlanta Falcons once again didn’t live up to the expectations, and once again couldn’t return to the NFL playoffs for the second consecutive year. The Falcons were projected by many to be in contention deep into the season and even be capable of a playoff run.
Fast forward to the end of the 2019 NFL season. Atlanta ended at 7-9, 2nd in the NFC South and missing the postseason despite the team’s powerful talent on offence. It wasn’t enough to prevent the team from starting 1-7 and suffering an injured Matt Ryan for a while before they finally woke up to go 6-2 in the remaining 7 meetings.
A disappointing campaign only further confirmed how unbalanced the team is – a high-scoring offence was not amongst the headlines in the Georgia press, but rather a mix of injury woes and a defensive unit that struggled in a historic fashion early on in the season.
After failing to reach the NFL playoffs, head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff heard from the organisation’s management that their positions were safe for at least another season. Nevertheless, neither of them did themselves any favours with a less-than-stellar beginning to the 2019 season.
If either of them wants to be employed after the conclusion of the 2020 season, the task is more than clear – get the Falcons back to the playoffs. That will take them to the market when free agency opens mid-March.
Let’s take a glance at who the Falcons could bring in to increase their chances for a playoff return.
Trade Keanu Neal
The decision not to relieve Dimitroff of his duties has been widely discussed, and it’s easy to see why. He’s contributed to a mess that leaves Atlanta at a crossroads heading into the 2020 offseason – the Falcons are extremely short on cap space and, if they want to actually improve, they’ll first need to move on from one of their higher-paid players.
That could be safety Keanu Neal, who has had four injury-plagued years with the Falcons, playing all 16 games just once and appearing a total of 4 times over the last two seasons. When healthy, he is pretty valuable to the Atlanta secondary. He’s, however, something that they can afford to give up in order to open up cap space to get pass rush and offensive line reinforcements.
In 2019, he allowed just 85.5 rating to opposing passers when in coverage (3 games), re-establishing his value and making himself relevant on the trade market after the Falcons exercised his fifth-year option a month ago. He’s the team’s best chance to cut down on payroll costs since Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are Atlanta’s two highest-paid players, and, amid problems in protecting and attacking the QB, LT Jake Matthews, and DT Grady Jarrett are vital pieces for Dimitroff to build around.
Trade up to draft Chase Young
It’s a consensus opinion that the Falcons should view pass rushers as their top priority this upcoming offseason. During the 2019 regular season, the Falcons recorded just 28 sacks, 3rd-fewest in the NFL. Things are getting even tougher with star defensive end Vic Beasley announcing last week he intends to test the free-agent market and isn’t going to re-sign with Atlanta.
The Falcons could use the free-agent market to address pass-rush around the edges. However, if they want a player more impactful, they can look no further than the probable No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft in Chase Young, an edge rusher from Ohio State who recorded NCAA-high 16.5 sacks with the Buckeyes in 2019.
Atlanta’s only first-round pick is currently No. 16. Since they won’t be able to afford Jadaveon Clowney in free agency as some project him to get up to $20 million a year, trading up with Washington to get Young is their best shot to improve the defensive line in the short term.
The Falcons would be happy to give up future high picks or even selections in the first round for the next few years. What could be intriguing is if that’s all it takes to acquire the No. 2 pick from the Redskins, or could a player be part of this deal? Then again, the only player the Falcons could look to move is Neal, so his trade might not be a separate one from this.
Drafting Young would not only guarantee the Falcons one of the brightest and most promising defensive prospects in the NFL and a player to build the defence of the future around, but also, as Atlanta is looking to return to contention with a very talented roster on the other side of the football, a short-term solution to their issue regarding putting pressure on the QB. He’s worth any kind of deal that doesn’t include one of the Falcons’ five highest-paid players (Ryan, Jones, Matthews, Trufant, Jarrett).
Sign Arik Armstead and Bashaud Breeland as free agents
The statement that the Falcons will be looking to improve their defence across the board probably will shock a grand total of nobody. They could face the challenge of doing this with limited cap space. If they end up moving on from the safety, that move will cut around $6 million and set the Falcons about $13 million under the $204 million salary cap threshold.
That means they can’t go get top defensive FAs such as Clowney or former Broncos CB Chris Harris – they’ll have to settle for less.
The best low-cost option that immediately pops up is 49ers defensive end Arik Armstead. He had 10 sacks during the regular season, with only four free agents bringing opposing QB down more often in 2019. Armstead was the best pass-rusher on one of the most prolific defensive lines in the league, even outplaying rookie sensation Nick Bosa, who had 9.
Meanwhile, the Falcons will also look to add another quality cornerback alongside Desmond Trufant in the secondary. Bashaud Breeland is one of two Kansas City corners that have their current deals expiring. He played full 16 games for the Chiefs and recorded 2 picks, allowing just 92.2 passer rating in coverage. His numbers were significantly better than KC’s higher-profile free-agent cornerback Kendall Fuller. Breeland could be a good addition which the Falcons will be able to afford.