Atlanta Falcons 2018 team preview
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After being one play away from winning the Super Bowl, the Atlanta Falcons got off to a rough start in 2017. They won the first three games, but then lost four of the next five and entered the second half of the season with a .500 record.

From there they rebounded to make the playoffs as a wild card participant. They upset the NFC West champion Los Angeles Rams in the first round and were one play away from upsetting eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round.

Head Coach

Dan Quinn is entering his fourth year as head coach of the Falcons. They have not finished below .500 in any of his three seasons. He has amassed a 29-19 record and made the playoffs in each of the last two. Prior to joining the Falcons, he was the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks. He also has experience as a defensive coordinator at the University of Florida and defensive line coach of the Seahawks, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers.

Draft Picks

Round 1, Pick 26 – Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama. Ridley is the best wide receiver in this class. He is the only game-changer with blazing speed, good hands and excellent route running skills.

Round 2, Pick 58 – Isaiah Oliver, CB, Colorado. Oliver has a good blend of size, speed and length. He has the potential to be a physical, shutdown, outside cornerback.

Round 3, Pick 90 – Deadrin Senat, DT, South Florida. Senat is strong, stocky nose tackle. He does not have ideal length, but eats up blockers and doesn’t knock backward.

Round 4, Pick 126 – Ito Smith, RB, Southern Mississippi. Smith is a diminutive, pass-catching running back. He lacks the size or explosiveness to be anything more than a situational back.

Round 6, Pick 194 – Russell Gage, WR, LSU. Gage is an impressive athlete and competitor. He lacks ideal size and collegiate production but has high-end special teams potential.

Round 6, Pick 200 – Foye Oluokun, LB, Yale. Oluokun was a versatile piece of the Bulldogs defense. He has the athletic ability of skilled players. He has star potential on special teams.

Notable Additions

DB Justin Bethel (Cardinals) – Bethel is a special teams star. The Falcons were 24th in the league last season in average opponent starting field position. Bethel will help the punt and kickoff coverage units improve on that.

OL Brandon Fusco (49ers) – Fusco is projected to start at right guard immediately. He is the only outside free agent the Falcons signed to a multi-year deal.

DB Ron Parker (Chiefs) – Parker is a versatile defensive back that can play in coverage and in the offensive backfield. He has nine interceptions and seven sacks in his four full seasons.

Projected Starters

Offense

Quarterback – 2 Matt Ryan; Running Back – 24 Devonta Freeman; Wide Receiver – 11 Julio Jones; Wide Receiver – 12 Mohamed Sanu; Wide Receiver – 18 Calvin Ridley; Tight End – 81 Austin Hooper; Left Tackle – 70 Jake Matthews; Left Guard – 67 Andy Levitre; Center – 51 Alex Mack; Right Guard – 63 Brandon Fusco; Right Tackle – 73 Ryan Schraeder

Defense

Defensive End – 50 Brooks Reed; Defensive End – 44 Vic Beasley; Defensive Tackle – 95 Jack Crawford; Defensive Tackle – 97 Grady Jarrett; Linebacker – 42 Duke Riley; Linebacker – 45 Deion Jones; Linebacker – 59 De’Vondre Campbell; Cornerback – 23 Robert Alford; Cornerback – 21 Desmond Trufant; Safety – 37 Ricardo Allen; Safety – 22 Keanu Neal

Specialists

Kicker – 3 Matt Bryant; Punter – 5 Matt Bosher; Long Snapper – 47 Josh Harris

Biggest Question

How will Julio Jones’ impending holdout and contract dispute affect the team?

Jones may be the best wide receivers in the league, but, according to spotrac.com, will be the 12th highest paid player at his position. His cash total of $10.5 million is less than half that of Sammy Watkins (($21.8 million). He also will be paid less than Allen Robinson (Bears), Paul Richardson (Washington), T.Y. Hilton (Colts) and DeSean Jackson (Buccaneers). Jones is certainly deserving of more money than all of those guys and probably should be paid more than any receiver in the league. But, the Falcons don’t have to pay him that way with one year remaining on his contract.

Jones missed mandatory minicamp in mid-June and is on his way to missing the beginning of training camp later this month. The coaching staff and quarterback Matt Ryan would like to Jones there, but he has every right to skip it.

To Answer That Question

Not that much

Jones and Ryan have been together since 2011. They have connected for over 1,000 yards every season, but two (Jones’ rookie year and injury-shortened third season). If Jones misses training camp, then he and Ryan will be on the same page and ready to go by Week 1. If his holdout goes into the preseason, then they will be fine and shortly after the start of the season. Jones isn’t going to need more than three or four weeks to be his dominant self. Jones’ contract holdout is nothing more than an offseason storyline that writers need to fill pages. On the field, it largely overblown.

Outlook

The Falcons made the playoffs last season as a wild card but will benefit from playing a third-place schedule. The Falcons, like everyone else in the NFC South, will play the NFC East and AFC North, but also will play the third-place team in the NFC West (Arizona) and NFC North (Green Bay). At the end of the season, the Falcons will likely have one of the ten easiest schedules in the league. They will turn their favorable schedule into another double-digit win season, most likely 12, and a second-place finish in the NFC South behind the NFC top-seeded Saints. In the playoffs, they will fall on the road at the Minnesota Vikings in the wild-card round.