With spikes in several states as the country re-opens, it’s become overwhelmingly apparent that this virus isn’t going anywhere. No matter what kind of pre-cautions that sports leagues put in place, players are going to be exposed, especially in football where there are so many moving parts to each organization, including a 53-man roster, practice squad, coaches, and training staff. It is undeniable that each organization will suffer in some form or fashion from the virus. Even if a team miraculously avoids anyone testing positive, injuries will be even more prevelant than they already are with a shorter offseason and less practice time. Sean McDermott, head coach of the Buffalo Bills, made a fantastic point — the deepest teams are going to be the ones best fit to survive what will be the most peculiar season in NFL history.
Alex Lord made a case last week that COVID-19 could provide an advantage for teams such as the Falcons. They have a veteran organization that has been together for years, led by a 35-year-old quarterback. Their head coach is entering his fifth season with the team, and their offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, is going into the second year of his second stint as OC in Atlanta. Raheem Morris may be entering his first full season as the DC, but he’s been with the Falcons since 2015 and took over the defensive controls in the second half of last season. There’s a lot of continuity in Atlanta, which will be critical following a shortened offseason. However, because of their lack of depth, COVID-19 could prove much more problematic than helpeful.
For the last few seasons, the Falcons have consistently had some of the best starting lineups. Their offense has been loaded with names, and their defense possessed a lot of young players with talent. However, once the injury bug struck, they looked like a shell of themselves, particularly in the secondary and trenches. Those issues are always going to happen during an NFL season, which is why the deepest teams are often the last ones standing at the end; however, they will be even more prevalent this season, and Atlanta still has problems with their depth.
On offense, the Falcons should be just fine. The offensive line is where the injury bug has struck the most over the last three seasons, but this group is in fantastic shape compared to recent years. They are set at left tackle, center, right guard, and right tackle, with left guard being the only position up for grabs. However, they have five reliable options competing for the job, and the others can serve as quality backups. For once, Matt Ryan should be comfortable in the pocket more often than not, allowing him to make the most of his fantastic supporting cast at the skill positions, which may be the deepest it has ever been.
The defensive side of the ball isn’t so rich, though. Dante Fowler was brought in to replace Vic Beasley, and while he should be a significant upgrade, they still lack rotational pass rush depth. Marlon Davidson was another worthy addition, but the Falcons also lost Adrian Clayborn and Jack Crawford — two quality veteran pieces. This remains a very thin group and one that can’t afford a substantial loss to one of its starters.
The linebacking core isn’t in much better shape. Deion Jones is a star, but if he were to go down or test positive, the Falcons would be in serious trouble. Foyesade Oluokun is a first-year starter next to him, and he’s proven his worth over his first two seasons with the team. The coaches have full confidence that he will be able to take over for De’Vondre Campbell. However, their depth outside of those two is suspect.
Mykal Walker was a fourth-round selection by the Falcons this year, but the Falcons would ideally like for him to be used primarily on special teams before thrusting him into a starting role. Atlanta did make a quality late signing this offseason, bringing in Deonne Buccanon. He has experience at both safety and linebacker, but considering the Falcons depth at safety, he will surely be used as a linebacker in Atlanta. Charles Harris, who the Falcons acquired for a 7th-round pick this offseason, also has some experience playing linebacker — albeit, not very well. And the Falcons also signed LaRoy Reynolds and Edmond Robinson this offseason. They have bodies; however, an injury or positive test to Jones or Oluokun would create major headaches for the coaching staff. Still, this group isn’t nearly as thin as Atlanta’s secondary, where they absolutely cannot afford to lose a man.
The Falcons safety group is in excellent shape. Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen are the starters, with guys like Damontae Kazee, Sharrod Neasman, and Jaylinn Hawkins ready to step in at a moment’s notice. However, the Falcons have no idea what to expect out of their cornerback group. Their three starters have a combined four years of experience, and behind them, nobody inspires much confidence outside of maybe Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who performed well when called upon late last year. An injury/positive test to this cornerback unit or God forbid, two of them, and I’m not sure the Falcons will survive.
Atlanta still has a bit of cap space, so there’s a chance they patch one or multiple of these depth issues before the start of the season. There’s also the possibility that an UDFA comes out of nowhere and proves to be a starting-caliber piece. However, from what we know now, the Falcons have severe depth problems at all three levels on defense. With more injuries (due to a shortened offseason) and positive tests essentially a foregone conclusion, this could turn out to be a significant problem for Atlanta in 2020, even more so than it has been in the past.
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