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NFC South Preview 2015: Atlanta Falcons

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In this series we take a look at the offseason moves made by the Saints' NFC South division rivals. Today we scout the Atlanta Falcons.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

In 2014, the Atlanta Falcons ended the season with a 6-10 record and a 3rd place finish in the NFC South.  Atlanta was astonishingly 5-1 in division games including their first 2-0 record vs. the New Orleans Saints under the Mike Smith regime.  The Falcons had the 8th ranked offense and the 32nd ranked defense (both in yards) in 2014.  Head coach Dan Quinn enters his first season in Atlanta, while starting quarterback Matt Ryan returns for his eight season.

Key player acquisitions

DE - Adrian Clayborn

LB - Brooks Reed

LB - Justin Durant

G - Mike Person

TE - Jacob Tamme

TE - Tony Moeaki

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Key players lost / not re-signed

RB - Steven Jackson

WR - Harry Douglas

G - Justin Blalock

LB - Sean Weatherspoon

DE - Corey Peters

CB - Robert McClain

RB - Jacquizz Rodgers

OT - Sam Baker

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Draft selections

LB - Vic Beasley - Clemson (Round 1)

CB - Jalen Collins - LSU (Round 2)

RB - Tevin Coleman - Indiana (Round 3)

WR - Justin Hardy - East Carolina (Round 4)

DT - Grady Jarrett - Clemson (Round 5)

G - Jake Rogers - Eastern Washington (Round 7)

S - Akeem King - San Jose State (Round 7)

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Here's how walterfootball.com graded Atlanta's draft:

Atlanta Falcons (Last Year: 6-10)

NFL Draft Team Grade: B+ Grade

Goals Entering the 2015 NFL Draft: The Falcons will be hoping that one of the top pass-rushers will fall to them at No. 8. They desperately need to improve their ability to get to the quarterback. Beyond that, upgrades are needed at tight end, running back, guard and safety.


2015 NFL Draft Accomplishments: One of the top pass-rushers did indeed drop to the Falcons, as Vic Beasley was somehow available in the eighth spot. Mel Kiper and Todd McShay inexplicably forgot to place Beasley in the first round of their joint mock draft, but Beasley was certainly worth the eighth choice. In fact, it could've been argued that he belonged in the top five. The Falcons are going to greatly benefit from his ability to put heavy heat on opposing signal-callers.

Atlanta upgraded one of the other three aforementioned positions, adding Tevin Coleman in the third round. Coleman could have easily gone in Round 2, so he was a bargain at that spot. Other quality picks include Justin Hardy and Grady Jarrett early on Day 3. Hardy will replace Harry Douglas, while Jarrett has terrific athleticism and tons of upside.

My only issue with the Falcons' haul was their second-round pick. I don't really have a problem with Jalen Collins, but Atlanta had Maxx Williams just sitting there. Williams fit what they look for in terms of athletic players, and he definitely would have filled a huge need, yet the Falcons passed on him, allowing a smarter front office (Baltimore) to obtain him. I have a feeling the Falcons are going to be kicking themselves after watching Joe Flacco repeatedly fire passes to Williams over the middle of the field on third downs. Williams was exactly what Matt Ryan needed after losing Tony Gonzalez.

Here's how Lead Editors, Dave & Jeanna at The Falcoholic graded Atlanta's draft:

Dave Choate

A-

This was a potentially transformative class. If everything breaks right, Vic Beasley, Jalen Collins and Grady Jarrett will be huge assets for a rebuilding defense, while Tevin Coleman and Justin Hardy are weapons for an offense in need of new ones. We're a long ways away from finding out whether this class is as successful as it could be, but right now, it looks like a great mix of needs-based drafting and huge potential. I'm a happy Falcons fan.

The only knock is that this team still has potentially major holes at left guard and free safety that might have been addressed starting in the fourth round, and those holes remain today. It may be a minor quibble, given what the teams got in rounds four and five, but it's enough of a concern that I have to knock a little off.

Jeanna Thomas

A-

It was a weird feeling to actually like all of the Falcons' moves during this draft. They addressed a glaring need by selecting Vic Beasley with the eighth overall pick, and did so without having to move up, which was a pleasant surprise. Throughout the rest of the draft, I felt like they added tremendous talent and potential and addressed needs with great value.

I also got the overwhelming sense that Dan Quinn had significant influence on these choices, which is encouraging in that it suggests Quinn is getting the players with whom he believes he can build a winning team.

The minus is for the lack of an inside linebacker and the lack of a starting-quality offensive guard, but as long as the picks they did make pan out and the coaching staff is able to work effectively with the guys they already have on the roster at those positions, these issues certainly won't outweigh the overall success of this draft.

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How this affects the Saints in 2015

The Mike Smith era in Atlanta is over.  The man who was the epitome of a B+ coach led the Falcons to soaring highs and crushing lows during his tenure in Atlanta.  His glass ceiling was always met in the playoffs, and it's because of this fact owner Arthur Blank parted ways with Smith and hired former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.

Quinn is tasked with turning around the worst defense in the NFL and he will attempt to do so with less talent on the roster than he was gifted with in Seattle.  In his two-year stint as the Seahawks' defensive coordinator, Seattle had the 1st ranked defense in the NFL.  During that time, Atlanta was ranked 27th and 32nd respectively.  Last season alone, the Falcons gave up 131 more yards and 10 more points on average per game than the Seahawks.  The challenge will be great for the rookie head coach, and should he turn this defense around to roughly 26th ranked in 2015, it should be considered a victory.

The consensus feeling regarding Atlanta was that they should have selected a defensive-minded head coach (as they did) not only because their defense was so atrocious, but because their offense was already so potent.  The only issue with that sentiment is the fact that the Falcon offense, despite the fantastic play of Julio Jones, was never quite dominant in the seven seasons under Smith to begin with.  The highest the offense ever ranked was 6th in Smith's first season (2008) and has ranked 11th on average since that season.  Now, while Jacksonville or Tampa would do anything for that type of consistent offensive ranking, it's not the type of ranking to lead you to believe the offense doesn't need some work itself.

The Atlanta offense lacks any semblance of balance, relying far too much on Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and the passing game.  The running game has really been a non-factor in Atlanta for the past four seasons.  With Michael Turner long, long gone and Steven Jackson now departed, the Falcons have to decide if they want to find balance with a new-look backfield or continue to go all-in on the passing game.  Either way, Atlanta will need much better offensive line play than they've gotten over the past two seasons.

The top two picks by the Falcons were really no-brainers considering their desperate and plentiful needs on defense.  Vic Beasley should be a factor for Atlanta, and a problem for opposing offenses this year.  He should be the defender the Saints will be scheming against in 2015, and slowing him down on the rush and keeping him off balance will be a top priority for Sean Payton.  As usual, attacking Matt Ryan and slowing down Julio Jones will be paramount for Rob Ryan and the Saints' defense in 2015.

The Saints lost the 2014 Week 1 matchup 37-34 in overtime, then suffered an embarrassing loss in their Week 16 matchup 30-14 in the most lopsided loss to Atlanta since Week 10 of 2008.  The loss sunk any chance the Saints had at winning the NFC South title.  After being swept by the Falcons in 2014, I see the Saints returning the favor this season, winning a nail-biter in Week 6 on Thursday Night Football in the Superdome, then winning convincingly in Atlanta for the regular season finale in Week 17.  With a new coaching staff and a new identity to settle into, the Falcons will likely find themselves back in 3rd place in the NFC South in 2015.