In the two years since going 13-3 and planting their flag atop the NFC South, the Atlanta Falcons have put together a collection of disappointing losses, resulting in the departure of head coach Mike Smith in the offseason. With new coach Dan Quinn’s experience running an elite defense in Seattle, the Falcons have a new emphasis on that side of the ball.
With an offense that was rarely the problem in Smith’s final years, the Falcons head into 2015 with realistic expectations to knock the Carolina Panthers off the top of the division totem pole.
1. Can Coleman be the guy?
There’s no questioning the career that Tevin Coleman put together at Indiana, racking up an incredible 2,096 yards and 15 touchdowns last fall. Coleman was the Hoosiers’ only player of concern to Big 10 opponents, and he still only had one game in which he didn’t rush for 100 yards.
In the NFL, Coleman’s size (5’11”, 206 pounds) leaves something to be desired, but Atlanta showed their faith in the running back, picking him in the third round. Atlanta has moved on from Steven Jackson and Jazquizz Rodgers, so Coleman comes into the Peach City as the team’s most notable back.
Whatever running game the Falcons tote will be secondary to their downfield passing attack, but Coleman will be relied on to produce from the get go.
2. Time for Hageman to step up
Dan Quinn’s proved over his time coaching high-level NFL talent that he can consistently put his defensive linemen in positions to succeed in getting pressure in the backfield. Enter the ultra-talented Ra’Shede Hageman, who was drafted early in the second round last season.
Hageman came into the league too big and sluggish, and that resulted in only 220 snaps in his rookie campaign. Reports are that he’s slimmed down to around 295 pounds, 15 lighter than his rookie season weight, and Hageman’s strength that already rivaled that of the best at his position is now helped by his improved conditioning.
Atlanta took a chance on Hageman’s potential, and while he seems to be progressing well in the offseason, he will have to make strides on the field to improve his stock as a cog in Quinn’s defense.
3. Which former afterthought TE becomes Ryan’s go-to?
Long gone are the days of seemingly-immortal Tony Gonzalez catching passes for Atlanta, and Matt Ryan suffered from it in 2014. The Falcons go into 2015 with a pair of tight ends that avid football fans know from their days and block-first players.
Tony Moeaki spent time in Kansas City, Buffalo and Seattle and has a whopping five touchdowns to show for it, while Jacob Tamme owes nine of of his 10 career touchdowns to the arm of Peyton Manning. But they’re the best Atlanta’s got, and Ryan will have to develop chemistry with at least one of them to be able to lead a balanced offense, especially when under pressure in the pocket.
4. Will Hardy retire Hester?
Every great player is eventually reduced to replacability, and while Devin Hester will go down as possibly the greatest returner in the history of the NFL, the new life he enjoyed last season in Atlanta can’t be expected out of him again in 2015.
Enter Justin Hardy, the former speedster from Eastern Carolina, and the Falcons have who they believe can be the successor to Hester sooner rather than later. Hardy’s got vertical speed as well as crisp route-running ability, and while Hardy will play his rookie season in more of a third receiver role than he will at returner, his dynamic talents make the fifth-round pick an intriguing player to watch.
5. Alright Matty Ice, it’s crunch time
Matt Ryan has managed to avoid a lot of criticism over the past couple of years, as the brunt of fan frustration with the team fell on Smith and the Falcons’ struggling defense. But it’s only a matter of time until the franchise quarterback gets blamed for the failures of the franchise, and Ryan’s inability to even squeak out a .500 record in the porous NFC South is a realistic cause for concern.
Ryan’s been the golden boy in Atlanta since his arrival in 2008 and he’s been great at the helm of the Falcons offense, but the pressure to lift his team back into the postseason will be evident from the beginning of training camp.