With a new general manager and head coach in Atlanta, the culture and systems will change. The Falcons hired Dean Pees to coordinate the defense, a switch from Dan Quinn’s 4-3 under to a 3-4 multiple front scheme. Arthur Smith’s offense will perform substantially better than Dirk Koetter’s did last year, with a steady dose of play-action off a consistent running game. Hopefully, there will be more accountability around the locker room — as Smith has preached. The Falcons will look much different in 2021 than they did in 2020, and there are a few players who could really use this change of scenery. Here are my picks for bounce-back candidates in 2021.
After receiving a three-year, $48 million contract from the Falcons last offseason, Fowler was expected to step in and be a #1 pass-rusher following a career year in Los Angeles in 2019. It obviously hasn’t work out thus far, as Fowler had arguably his worst production in a season since entering the league. So it shouldn’t be divisive to say he’s going to bounce-back, simply because anything is better than what Fowler put on film last year.
However, I’m not just saying he’s going to improve from last year; I think Fowler will show his value and match his production to his paycheck. Dean Pees is a significant reason why. He likes to send a high-volume of disguised blitzes by having six or seven guys near the line of scrimmage, rushing five of them, which is called an odd front. He does this to ensure one-on-one’s across the board. Pees then combines this crowded line of scrimmage with twists and stunts, which will work perfectly with Atlanta’s athletic linebackers. Fowler should absolutely feast in this type of defense, similar to the one in Los Angeles with Will Phillips.
Julio Jones still had his highest yard per target in 2020, but the other numbers were the worst of his career — outside of 2013 when he played only five games. Obviously, these stats are deflated because Jones only started nine games in 2020, but his bounce-back year is different than Fowler’s. Julio is one of the greatest wide receivers to ever play in the NFL, so his highest points are unattainable for someone like Dante Fowler. A bounce-back year for Julio would sit somewhere around the best receiver in the league, whereas Fowler would be one of the 15-20 best EDGEs in the league.
I think Julio will ascend back into the All-Pro conversation because Arthur Smith’s offense is built to scheme receivers open off play-action. Instead of Koetter’s offense that relied on winning one-on-ones, Calvin Ridley and Julio will be running free just as A.J. Brown and Corey Davis were in 2020. If you even try to argue that the Tennessee duo is more capable than the Atlanta duo, you can kindly escort yourself out because, in no way, shape or form should the Falcons duo be mentioned in the same sentence as Brown and Davis. If Julio can stay healthy, expect him to exact his revenge on defenses this year.
Isaiah Oliver is a different case than the other two. He’s never even put together an average season since entering the league. His best production came halfway through last year when Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich moved the former Colorado Buffalo to nickel full-time. Once there, Oliver gave fans hope. Ulbrich had this to say about Oliver, “He’s proven to be a very good tackler. He’s got the ability to support the box. Play almost safety-like roles at times. He’s got length, the size, willingness and tackling ability, all of that.”
Playing in the slot allows Oliver to pressure more and blitz off the edge, which is exactly what Dean Pees’ expects out of his nickel corner/safety. During the 2018 season, the Titans dialed up a nickel personnel package on 73% of defensive snaps — ninth-most in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. More defensive backs on the field requires more diversity, where you need them to help in run-support just as much as defending the pass — where Oliver thrives. Pees also loves to, as he reiterated in a press conference, blitz anyone from anywhere — per the video below. Oliver is an above-average blitzer, another reason he is a perfect match for his new defensive coordinator.
Can’t stop laughing at the brilliance of this defensive scheme. #Titans rush 4—one of which is a corner, Jayon Brown sprints back into coverage, and Wake destroys the edge. Browns all kinds of confused. Dean Pees, you wild man. pic.twitter.com/ihbBGZwLrD
— Chris Harris (@ChrisHarrisWSMV) September 9, 2019