State Of The Franchise

State of the 2021 Atlanta Falcons: Julio Jones' future weighs heavy as Falcons usher in new era

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was published prior to the Falcons agreeing to trade Jones to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. The Falcons sent Jones and a 2023 sixth-round pick to the Titans in exchange for a 2022 second-rounder and 2023 fourth-rounder, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported.)

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Falcons organization, Falcons fans around the world and those who still think it's hilarious to do "The Dirty Bird" at wedding receptions when MC Hammer comes on:

It's an interesting time for the Atlanta Falcons as they usher in a new head coach. There are so many possibilities for this team right now. Despite finishing tied for the fourth-worst record in the league last season, there is a lot of talent for them to be competitive in the NFC South in 2021. But there is also a school of thought that maybe the Falcons should start planning more for the future.

How the Falcons got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • Younghoe Koo. He became an international sensation as one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL. And I also have to mention he's made me rethink my anti-kickers stance in fantasy football.
  • Beating the Raiders, 43-6, in Week 12. This might have been a low moment for anybody expecting huge fantasy production from a Raiders offensive player. Contrarian plays in DFS were huge. And if you don't know what DFS is, don't worry, I won't keep doing that.

The lows

  • The rest of the season. That win over the Raiders was the Falcons' third in four games. Atlanta was 4-7 at that point. And maybe, just maybe, there was an outside chance they could go on a run and sneak into the playoffs. I mean, the Bears clinched seventh seed at 8-8. The Falcons were competitive in most of their games down the stretch but lost five in a row to close out the season. Only the loss to Tampa Bay in Week 17 was by double digits. The rest were by fewer than five points.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Arthur Smith. I'll be honest, I wasn't completely sold on Smith when he was elevated to offensive coordinator in Tennessee a few years ago. But he quickly put me in my place as he basically salvaged Ryan Tannehill's career and cracked the cheat code for the Titans' offense. The code was giving the ball to Derrick Henry. I'm not saying it was a difficult cipher to unravel, but it suggests he has the know-how to get the ball into the hands of his most talented playmakers. And the Falcons are loaded in that area. Well, at least for now. I'll get to the Julio Jones situation in a moment. But of all the first-year coaches, Smith might have the best chance for an immediate turnaround.

Quarterback: Matt Ryan. Ryan has been one of the most overlooked elite quarterbacks in the NFL. I always kind of equate his standing to the Top Gun room. You have Maverick. You have Ice Man. But you also have a lot of other talented pilots in there. And if I'm being honest, Matty Ice (despite the nickname) is one of those other pilots. Sure, he's good enough to be in that room. But he's not good enough to be considered one of the top two. Or to get a speaking role. Maybe we get a cutaway reaction shot when Tom Brady says something funny.

That all said, it's interesting to me the Falcons are all-in on the 36-year-old Ryan. Not that he's not a capable quarterback. He is. But to pass up on Justin Fields or Mac Jones with the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft indicates to me that they see the veteran as a viable option under center for the next few years. Not unheard of, given how old quarterbacks are nowadays. But it just shows you that Smith is going to be linked with Ryan to start his coaching tenure. Unless the team craters again this season, and then who knows.

Projected 2021 MVP: Matt Ryan. I know it's kind of a copout to just say the quarterback, but his entire Falcons career really rests on this season. At No. 4 overall, Smith had a chance to put his stamp on this team and move on with his hand-picked quarterback. Going with Ryan is kind of a risk. Again, think of the veteran as Hollywood or Chipper in that Top Gun room. But not investing a top-four pick in a quarterback leads me to believe the Falcons (and Smith) believe they are going to be competitive this season. Which I'm here for. It's hard to find good quarterbacks. Ryan just turned 36 in May. And in quarterback years, that's like 29. But either Ryan is good, the team is close or near .500 and you're committed. OR the team struggles and maybe you have a top-10 pick (again next year) that will allow you to take a quarterback.

And if it's not Ryan, then it's my dude Younghoe.

2021 breakout star: John Cominsky, defensive end. I wrote about John in my players to root for piece here on NFL.com. And the Falcons fans cheered the selection. Certainly makes you feel good when that happens. Cominsky was an option-quarterback at Charleston who switched to defensive end and wound up being a fourth-round pick of the Falcons. He's continued to improve in each season, and Year 3 seems like a perfect time for him to break out for the Falcons' defense. He also recorded his first sack of his career last season when he got Derek Carr in the Falcons' blowout win over Las Vegas.

BTW, he's 6-foot-5 and 286 pounds. That's a heck of an option quarterback. (Scared emoji.)

New face to know: Kyle Pitts, tight end. I wrote this back in my mock draft (with a twist!) that the Falcons would be best served to trade out of No. 4 because a quarterback-starved team might be willing to jump up. But if they stayed, the best option might be Pitts. He is one of the best tight end prospects to come into the league in quite some time. He's a legitimate downfield threat. This pick does make a lot of sense. The Falcons had Tony Gonzalez at the end of his career. And it was fine. Kind of like if you went to a Metallica show this year. I'm telling you, the show will be really good. But it is not Cliff Burton-era Metallica. The Falcons will now be able to ride the lightning with Pitts. I hope fans don't get whiplash watching him play. And if he's a bust, well, it could be a fade to black for Ryan. Fine, I'll stop right there. I love what Pitts is going to be able to do for this offense. Smith had Jonnu Smith during his time in Tennessee, and the former Titan TE was pretty good. But this isn't comparable at all. It's like comparing Metallica with a toaster. It's not even the same thing.

The 2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: MEDIUM. We don't expect a first-year coach to waltz in here and make this team competitive. But there is a lot of offensive talent. You have a veteran quarterback, a former MVP who was on the cusp of winning the Super Bowl. Falcons fans should feel like their team can win every game. Even Arthur Smith told Peter King that he expects this team to be competitive.

Three key dates:

Week 1 vs. Philadelphia Eagles. It's fair to say these two bird teams felt last season was a little bit of a disappointment. I had the Eagles picked to win the NFC East in 2020, and I had the Falcons being very competitive. (I'm an idiot.) Thankfully, one of these teams is likely to open with a dub. Though now that I've written that, there will be a tie for sure.

Week 7 at Miami Dolphins. I know it might seem weird to pick a game that doesn't include a division rival. But I feel like the Dolphins could be a very good measuring stick as a young team with a solid defense. If the Falcons pull off a road win here, they could be on to something.

Week 18 vs. New Orleans Saints. This could be a game where both teams are fighting for the playoffs -- or for a top-five draft pick. Although I'm not sure "fighting" would be the right way word choice in that case. But we need more Week 18 games between blood rivals.

Will the Falcons be able to …

Replace Alex Mack at center? The Falcons are likely looking at Matt Hennessy as the starting center, which shouldn't be a huge drop-off. The Falcons have low-key done a nice job on the offensive line for the past couple of years. One of the biggest pieces is Chris Lindstrom, who made a huge leap during his sophomore season, becoming an exceptional run blocker for the Falcons. He is starting to get recognized as one of the best at his position and might be the most important player from Boston College on this team. (Oh, I'm just kidding, Matt Ryan.) This will be a critical ingredient because we know the head coach likes to run the football. Not that he's going to ignore the passing attack (not with this team), but the run game is going to be a huge focus.

Get the most of Mike Davis? The former Carolina Panthers running back earned a legion of fans last year, as fantasy enthusiasts scooped him off the waiver wire after Christian McCaffrey went down with an injury. And I'm not sure if the Falcons were influenced by the fact that Davis had his best games against them last year (who didn't?), but this is a pretty suitable replacement for Todd Gurley. Davis produced more than 1,000 scrimmage yards. He scored eight touchdowns. I would imagine a team that features Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and rookie Kyle Pitts is going to throw. The good news is, Davis can catch, too. He had 59 receptions last year. Matt Ryan has a history of throwing to his backs, and if Davis can match the 70 targets he had last year in 12 starts for the Panthers, his numbers are going to be as good as Chick-fil-A waffle fries. Davis might not lead the NFL in rushing like Derrick Henry, but he will be effective. Although, Davis did look jacked at the Falcons' offseason program back in May. Maybe he is the next Derrick Henry. But the key point, Davis can catch.

Go on without Julio Jones? Because it seems inevitable that Julio is going to be gone at some point this summer. Maybe by the time you are reading this, Julio will be with another team. Well, not the Dallas Cowboys. Julio was very upfront about that during a recent appearance on Undisputed when Shannon Sharpe kind of put him on the spot when asking about his situation. Now, it might have been a cold move by Sharpe to not let Julio know that he was on live television. But Sharpe seemed about as remorseful as Brooks Koepka when he was caught talking about one of his colleagues. Funny thing is, Dallas would be (or would have been) a perfect trading partner considering it could have sent Michael Gallup (and some picks) in return. And I for one would have kept Julio happy because fortunes change quickly in the NFL. A team with Julio, Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts would be tough to defend. And for you fantasy dorks, you should know Ridley actually performed better without Julio in the lineup. The touchdowns decreased, but he had more receptions and yardage, so keep that in mind this summer.

One storyline …

... people are overlooking: The Falcons' secondary could be better. Not that it could be much worse. All of us fantasy dorks knew to start our quarterbacks and receivers against the Falcons. What that means in practical terms for those of you who don't play fantasy is that Atlanta allowed an NFL-worst 293.6 passing yards per game. Opposing quarterbacks had a 112.4 passer rating against them. And their 34 touchdown passes allowed were tied for third-worst.

The Falcons had a lot of turnover in the secondary. Which always sounds bad, but if they weren't playing well, isn't that for the better? One player who they will miss is Keanu Neal. That guy was a stud back there. Like when you go see a band play and most of them are garbage, but the bass player really kicks ass. That's Neal in this situation. But he's gone. The team will be counting on second-round pick Richie Grant, a UCF product who could be an absolute baller for the Falcons. And if A.J. Terrell can continue to produce, suddenly the Falcons could be better in 2021. I'm not saying they could be "Legion of Boom" good. But just work on not being the worst defense in the league.

… people are overthinking: The salary cap struggles are real. I've always felt that salary cap struggles were some mythical creature. An excuse for teams that don't want to spend money. Like the way I use my children. Like if somebody needs me to help them move, I can't. Kids. But if somebody has a tee time at Arroyo Trabuco, then those kids will be at their grandparents'. The Falcons can find a way to keep everyone happy. They just need to be creative.

For the 2021 season to be a success, the Falcons MUST:

  • Win (I keep saying this). It's not going to cost coach Smith his gig if this team is not successful. But there is way too much talent for this squad to end up with a top-five pick again. Even with a secondary that has a lot of hope and question marks. The Falcons should be in every game. Even Smith said, "They hired the wrong guys if they thought we were going to lower expectations, take our time, and rebuild."

Let's see it.

In closing

I'm very interested to see where this Falcons team ends up. I mean, it's cool to take over a job and talk about competing right away. But stuff changes. Like the first time you try a Peloton. You think you're going to crush it on the first day. So you pick the intermediate level and even think that's going to be too easy. But then you try it and you're barely able to make it through. You can't walk for a week. And feel like you need to dial it back a notch. So it could be a lot like that. But good luck, Falcons.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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