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Training Camp Primer: Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons have gone 10-22 over the last two seasons which led to the firing of head coach Mike Smith and the hiring of Dan Quinn. Atlanta is simply searching for an identity in 2015.

Just three years ago, the Falcons were in the NFC Championship game where they ultimately lost to San Francisco, but it marked the fifth straight season that they had a winning record. Under the defensive-minded Quinn, you can bet the defensive side of the ball will be given an added focus on top of an offense still potent with quarterback Matt Ryan calling the shots.

Most Important Position Battle

Matt Ryan has been sacked 75 times over the past two seasons including a career-high 44 times in 2013. In his previous four seasons he was taken down a combined 113 times.

To say the protection up front needs to get better is an understatement. The Falcons were successful in the passing game ranking fifth with 284.5 yards per game, but they finished 20th in quarterback hits (89) and 13th in sacks (31). Atlanta’s running backs averaged four yards per carry which was the 20th best mark as well as ranking 17th with 11 total rushing touchdowns.

The Falcons averaged 23.8 points per game in 2014 which placed them 12th among NFL offenses. This offseason the Falcons brought in Chris Chester hoping that he can compete for a job on the interior offensive line.

Can Jake Matthews be the anchor at left tackle the Atlanta Falcons drafted him to be?

Can Jake Matthews be the anchor at left tackle the Atlanta Falcons drafted him to be?

Center Joe Hawley will be the starter in the middle if he can recover fully from his torn ACL from a season ago. If he can’t return in time the Falcons could use Chester at center and Mike Person at left guard. Jon Asamoah returns as the starting right guard while Ryan Schraeder will be the man at right tackle after starting 10 games there in 2014 and last year’s first-round pick Jake Matthews will return to start at left tackle.

This group needs to protect their quarterback better and most importantly open up running lanes for speedy backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

Primary Storyline

It will take the defense time to become a complete unit under Quinn’s command, but still the focus of this team resides on the offense with Matt Ryan. The eighth-year Boston College star has averaged nearly 26 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions in seven seasons in the NFL.

He has four straight 4,000-yard passing seasons and five straight years with 26 or more touchdown passes. However, Ryan has gone just 1-4 in five playoff appearances with nine touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 85.2 passer rating. In comparison, his career regular season passer rating is 91.2.

Ryan has made $11.5 million over the past two years from his five-year, $103 million deal he signed in 2013. He is still owed $91 million over the next four seasons including $11.5 million in 2015. The Falcons were still right in the thick of things in the NFC South race at 6-10 last season, so if Ryan can lead them to the playoffs you never know what can happen.

Breakout Stars

No. 8 overall selection Vic Beasley Jr. has a chance to be the Defensive Rookie of the Year. He is projected to be the starting weakside linebacker next to middle linebacker Paul Worrilow and strongside backer Brooks Reed. Beasley’s main competition for the starting gig is offseason addition Justin Durant and third-year man Joplo Bartu. Beasley has a chance to be a big playmaker for Quinn with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end at times as well as at outside linebacker.

Atlanta Falcons DL Ra'Shede Hageman has to become more consistent in 2015 if he's going to make an impact in Dan Quinn's defense.

Atlanta Falcons DL Ra’Shede Hageman has to become more consistent in 2015 if he’s going to make an impact in Dan Quinn’s defense.

Meanwhile, last year’s second-round pick Ra’Shede Hageman has a breakout year written all over him. After appearing in all 16 games in 2014 with 17 tackles and one sack he should give eight-year starter Jonathan Babineaux a serious push for the starting gig at defensive tackle. At 6’6″, 318 pounds, Hageman is by the far biggest defensive lineman on Atlanta’s roster.

Potential Cuts

The Falcons don’t have too many guys with bad contracts that they would be inclined to dump.

Two offensive players that had key roles with Atlanta a season ago could be on the outside looking in with Eric Weems and Levine Toilolo. 30-year-old wide receiver Eric Weems is a solid special teams player, but the Falcons added Leonard Hankerson in free agency and Justin Hardy in the draft. They could opt to go a cheaper route with one of their final receivers on the roster.

After starting all 16 games a season ago with 31 catches for 238 yards and two touchdowns it’s clear that tight end Levine Toilolo shouldn’t be the No. 1 guy. Veteran pass catchers Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki were signed this offseason as well as polished blocker Mickey Shuler.

In the end, the Falcons have plenty of competition on both sides of the ball heading into camp. Don’t be shocked to see very few notable players let go.

Atlanta will be much better off with Quinn as the man in charge and the running game should bounce back under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The Falcons certainly have as well of a chance as anyone in the NFC South despite all of their changes.

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