Last year, the Falcons had times when they were a dominant offense, and they also flashed an improved and revamped defense. Unfortunately, they also showed that their offense could practically be shut down, and that an effective pass rush was still a major hole. They were essentially a model of inconsistency.
This offseason, the Falcons brought in an All-Pro center, a few under-the-radar free agents, and a group of rookies to try and correct some of these glaring issues that saw a 5-0 start turn upside down. Some of these players will be three down guys, while others will spend most of their time as a role players. Obviously, the team’s overall success hinges on the performance of the group as a whole, but a few specific players are vital to keep all of the parts working smoothly. Here are two Falcons who will play major roles in deciding the team’s success this upcoming season:
X-Factor on Offense: Mohamed Sanu
Why Sanu over others? Well first off, Julio Jones is going to continue to be Julio Jones. Devonta Freeman should be in store for another electric season, Patrick DiMarco was the most reliable fullback in the league last year, and we are all expecting Alex Mack to give us a Pro Bowl year. I personally am not too worried about Matt Ryan, as a completely new scheme on offense is hard to grasp for any player, and I believe he will go back to proving why he is the franchise quarterback this upcoming season.
Honorable Mention X-Factors- Matt Ryan, Justin Hardy, Austin Hooper
Last year, Julio Jones was constantly forced to deal with double and triple teams, as the beloved, but aging Roddy White was not able to make opponents respect him as much as they once did. Mohamed Sanu was specifically brought in this offseason because the coaching staff believes in his ability to beat 1v1 coverage. The reason why he is considered an X-Factor is because he is not yet a proven number 2 receiver. We truly do not know what to expect from him, but the performance of the offense as a whole hinges on him being able to create separation from opposing cornerbacks.
Although he is not the fastest, Sanu is a physical receiver who can be a great complement opposite Julio. If Sanu can show the ability to consistently beat man coverage, it will be a nightmare for defenses to choose whether to play weak on Julio or Sanu. With those two on the outside and Jacob Tamme, Justin Hardy, Austin Hooper, and Devonta Freeman beating coverages on short to mid routes, the Falcons passing attack could be deadly. However, if Sanu struggles to beat his man, as Roddy White did last year, we will most likely see a lot of forced balls to Julio and a sluggish passing offense. Sanu’s success would mean more balls thrown to him, which would in turn put less pressure Julio and allow him to go to work on single and double coverages. An effective Sanu would give the Falcons a balanced aerial attack that would be absolutely potent with Freeman, Coleman, and DiMarco making opposing defenses respect the run game.
X-Factor on Defense: Derrick Shelby
Why Shelby over others? Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are primed to continue their growth after a solid past season, Vic Beasley is expected by most to make the second-year jump and become our true #1 pass rusher, and the linebacker corps are so unpredictable right now that it is hard to know which guys the team will rely on.
Honorable Mention X-Factors- Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, Brooks Reed
It is hard to understate the importance that Derrick Shelby will have in his first year on Dan Quinn’s defense. To say that he will be Quinn’s new Michael Bennett is unfair, but he physically fits that role and is just entering his prime at 27 years old. He is expected to go into the season as a starting DE in base formations, and will rush from the inside in nickel sets, with Clayborn and Beasley from the edge. Shelby only posted 3.5 sacks last season, which isn’t jaw dropping by any means, but most of his time was spent as a backup on Miami’s already ridiculous defensive line. As a three down starter in Quinn’s system, we should see a large spike in pretty much all of his stats.
When you hear Shelby’s name, versatility is what should come to mind. PFF ranked him as the 15th best pass rusher and 8th best run stopper out of the all 4-3 defense ends. Atlanta was in the middle of the pack in both rush and pass yards allowed, but Derrick Shelby could take them out of mediocrity if he performs to his capabilities, and thankfully DQ has a reputation of bringing out the best in defensive players. With elite speed and explosiveness from Beasley paired with the power and technique of Shelby, the Falcons could have a much improved pass rush, which is absolutely crucial in a division built around great quarterbacks.