The Atlanta Falcons saw their remarkable season crumble before their eyes in the span of about an hour Sunday. They watched a 25-point second-half lead slip through their grasp, allowing the New England Patriots to snatch the Lombardi Trophy in overtime.
It’s obviously a terrible way to end what was a surprisingly great year, but there is plenty of hope entering 2017. The Falcons’ core of key contributors will be back in the mix next season, Matt Ryan is the reigning NFL MVP and the defense is loaded with young talent.
There are still moves to be made, but Atlanta is on the rise in the NFC and should be good for a long time. Here are five ways it can get back to the Super Bowl next season.
Bob DonnanBob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Draft a cornerback
Heading into free agency and the draft, cornerback isn’t a huge need. The Falcons have Robert Alford locked up long-term, Desmond Trufant is returning from injury and Brian Poole was solid as a nickel corner. So what’s the issue?
There isn’t a huge problem, considering the depth Atlanta has, but you can never have enough defensive backs – and that’s something coach Dan Quinn absolutely believes in. Trufant will be a free agent after next season and there’s no guarantee he’ll remain in Atlanta. Poole is good, but he’s not a No. 1 corner. The same goes for Alford, who played well in place of Trufant, but isn’t a shutdown guy.
It’s a big reason the Falcons allowed the fifth-most passing yards this season and surrendered 466 yards to Tom Brady on Sunday in Super Bowl LI. Adding a big cornerback in the mold of Richard Sherman, whom Quinn coached in Seattle, would go a long way – even if it’s in the later rounds of the draft.
Address the guard position
The Falcons had a strong offensive line this season. Jake Matthews was good, Alex Mack was terrific and Ryan Schraeder is one of the top right tackles in the league. Where the Falcons are a bit weak is at guard – namely with Chris Chester.
Chester will be a free agent this offseason, and at 34 years old, the Falcons aren’t likely to chase him. They shouldn’t. Guards are typically undervalued in the draft and free agency, which means the Falcons can take one in the middle rounds and get decent value.
Shoring up the guard position will be key for the Falcons, who love to use outside zone in the running game, which forces guards to move laterally and get to the second level against linebackers.
Find a defensive tackle to pair with Grady Jarrett
Had the Falcons beat the Patriots on Sunday, Jarrett would have been among the favorites to win Super Bowl MVP. He had five tackles, three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss against the Patriots, proving to be a one-man wrecking crew on the defensive line.
That’s all well and good, but the Falcons can’t stop building after his emergence. They need to find a complement to him at 1-technique (run-stuffing defensive tackle). Garrett plays a similar role to that of Aaron Donald for the Rams, both rushing the passer and stopping the run up the middle.
Jonathan Babineaux is 35 years old and set to be a free agent, essentially setting the Falcons up to let him walk and move on this offseason. Spending a mid-round pick on a big defensive tackle would be a smart move for the Falcons, especially after they were gashed on the ground late in the year. Their poor run defense was mostly masked by the fact that they were always playing with a lead, forcing teams to throw the ball.
Bob DonnanUSA TODAY Sports
Add another pass rusher opposite Vic Beasley
The Falcons had the NFL’s leader in sacks this season with Vic Beasley pacing the league at 15.5 sacks. The next-closest Falcon in that department was Adrian Clayborn at 4.5. What does that say? Well, that the Falcons seriously need a complement for Beasley on the other side.
Having one pass rusher is great, but having two is infinitely better for several reasons. They’re able to take pressure off of each other, allowing for more one-on-one matchups on the edge. Von Miller and Shane Ray, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney, Justin Houston and Dee Ford. While none of those players matched Beasley’s sacks total, all three of those pairs' teams had better overall pass rushes than the Falcons.
Whether it’s through free agency or at the end of the first round, Atlanta needs to address the pass rush. It desperately has to find someone who can generate pressure opposite Beasley in order to make the defense more balanced.
Brett DavisBrett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Find a replacement for Kyle Shanahan
Priority No. 1 of the offseason has to be finding a replacement for Shanahan, who’s on his way to San Francisco to become the head coach of the 49ers. Despite his shortcomings in Super Bowl LI, playing it far too aggressively late in the game, Shanahan is a great offensive coordinator – a terrific play-caller.
He and Matt Ryan really meshed this past season, getting on the same page with each other’s styles. It led Ryan to win NFL MVP thanks to one of the best offensive seasons in NFL history.
The Falcons have to replace Shanahan with a coordinator who coaches with a similar style. There aren’t many out there, but Chip Kelly would be a viable candidate with his up-tempo offense and quick-passing game.