Welcome to Straight from the Beek! The Falcons have wrapped up the second of three organized team activities (OTA). Their final session begins next week and … there’s 100 days until kickoff. In the meantime, you’ve got plenty of questions, so let’s get right to them. Just remember that all opinions here are mine unless noted otherwise.
And we’re off.
Barry from High Point, NC
Aw, come on Beek. You know as well as everyone else that (on paper) this is the best team the Falcons have ever fielded. Us lowly fans see this team as being better than the 2016 team that went to the Super Bowl and we are getting excited. Sure, we all realize that there is still work to be done and still some holes to fill, but we also realize that if the rooks even come close to living up to expectations, the Dirty Birds are going to be hard to beat this season. While we all still love you and your column, we realize that someone has to be the voice of reason and you seem to be the anointed one at the moment. However, every once in a while, let yourself go and join the frenzy. Get excited beyond reason for a moment or two. You can always go back to being the needed Jiminy Cricket on our shoulder telling us, "... but they haven't played a single down yet." And the world will continue turning as it should. FALCONS DAMNIT!
Matt: Wow, I’ve gone from being called the secretary of state and a Kool-Aid drinker to the anointed one and Jiminy Cricket. Well, to quote Mr. Cricket, “maybe you and I had better have a heart-to-heart talk,” Barry. Look, there are plenty of things to like about these 2019 Falcons. At their core they still have Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Alex Mack, Jake Matthews, Calvin Ridley, Austin Hooper and Mohamed Sanu on offense. The three other yet-to-be-named starters are question marks, no matter how you slice it – and they’re all along the offensive line. The left guard, right guard and right tackle have yet to be determined. Is there potential there? Absolutely, especially when two of the candidates are first-round picks. But let’s see how that shakes out first. Remember, Ryan was sacked 42 times last season and the Falcons struggled to run the ball effectively on a consistent basis. Those aren’t opinions, Barry. They’re facts. Some serious camp battles are about to unfold between Jamon Brown, James Carpenter, Ty Sambrailo, Matt Gono, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary. On defense, things should be much different just having the regular starters back together. Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen are still on the mend, however, working their way back from season-ending injuries. All signs point to them being ready for training camp – and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Falcons ease them back into playing at full speed. As long as they’re ready for the Week 1 showdown against the Vikings on Sept. 8, that’s really all that matters. But, again, there’s nothing wrong with tapping the brakes until it happens. On the bright side, Deion Jones – who missed 10 games last season – appears to be at full strength again. Also back are De’Vondre Campbell, Grady Jarrett, Jack Crawford, Desmond Trufant, Damontae Kazee and three former first-round picks at defensive end – Takk McKinley, Vic Beasley and Adrian Clayborn. There are more returning players (and some new additions), but you get the idea. It should be a solid unit – if they can stay healthy and live up to expectations. Put it all together and there’s a lot to be excited about for Falcons fans, Barry. And, yes, they have playoff potential. But, let’s watch how this team comes together in the next three months before we turn this into an all-out frenzy! And while we’re at it, did you know that Jiminy Cricket wasn’t really a cricket? Hey, I’m here to point out the facts (and question faulty logic), bud.
James from Atlanta, GA
I’m concerned that the Falcons are putting all of their eggs in one basket. They have made numerous changes to have depth except at the quarterback position. There is a definite need for some fresh younger blood at this position. We are in trouble if Matt Ryan goes down and he is not getting younger. What do you think?
Matt: James, James, James. Pick any of the 32 teams in this league and look at who they have sitting behind their starting quarterback and tell me they wouldn’t be in trouble if the backup had to start a significant amount of games (four or more). Let’s stay in the NFC South and look at those three teams – the Saints, Panthers and Bucs. Behind Drew Brees the Saints have Taysom Hill and Teddy Bridgewater. Those two guys have completely different skill sets, and neither compare to Brees. I will say this about Bridgewater, though – before his devastating knee injury, he was considered to be a rising young star in this league. OK, behind Cam Newton, the Panthers have Taylor Heinicke and unproven rookie Will Grier. And behind Jameis Winston, the Buccaneers have Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin. And then there are the Falcons, who have Matt Schaub and Kurt Benkert behind Matt Ryan. I think it’s safe to say that all four teams would be very different without their current starting quarterbacks in place. And that’s how it is for most teams who have established quarterbacks under center. Why? Because it’s the hardest position to play and the highest-paid one in the league. That’s why having at least a proven veteran who knows the offense and can still make all the throws is so valuable, James. Just look back at the 2017 Eagles when Carson Wentz went down. Not many outside the Eagles organization thought Nick Foles could lead them on a Super Bowl run, but he did just that. And back to Ryan for a minute. The Falcons' 12th-year quarterback is still playing at a very high level and is coming off a year where he passed for 4,924 yards, 35 touchdowns and completed nearly 70 percent (69.4) of his passes. Those are fantastic numbers, considering he was sacked 42 times. And prior to last season, Ryan signed a five-year contract extension. There’s no need to start thinking about his replacement at this point. Not even close.
HaaShim from Charlotte, NC
Which rookie do you think will have the biggest impact on the season?
Matt: Well, it had better be Chris Lindstrom, HaaShim, the guard the Falcons picked 14th overall out of Boston College. When teams pick a player in the top half of the draft, those players are expected to make an immediate impact. In fact, most first-rounders are expected to make an impact. So, you might as well include tackle Kaleb McGary – the Falcons’ other first-round pick (No. 31 overall) – into the conversation. If one or both of those players aren’t starting at some point this season, I’ll be surprised.
S. Huckaby from Dawson, GA
Good to see all the enthusiasm here about the Falcons after a down year. My question or statement is, why is Vic Beasley not featured at DE? I think the coaching staff put him at a huge disadvantage playing him so many snaps at linebacker not to mention hurting the team effectiveness rushing the QB. I think if he knows that his job is going to be DE and he can settle in on that he would be a much more consistent pass rusher and maybe a star at that position. What’s your thoughts on that?
Matt: Hey there, S. Huckaby. Following the 2017 season – one in which Vic Beasley played both linebacker and the nickel defensive end – the Falcons announced that they were moving their former first-round pick back to defensive end full time. And that’s where he lined up in 2018. In four years, he’s tallied 29.5 sacks with most of those coming in 2016 when he finished with a league-best 15.5 sacks. It’ll be interesting to see what wrinkles Dan Quinn has added to the defensive and how he uses Beasley this season. No matter how you slice it, it’s a huge year for Beasley, who is playing in the final year of his deal.
Cameron from West Seneca, NY
We grabbed a ton of depth at a lot of positions that needed it. We also have a couple key players coming up on contract years including Deion Jones, Grady Jarrett, Keanu Neal and the following year, both Desmond Trufant and Calvin Ridley the year after. And that’s on top of restructuring Julio Jones’s contract. I can see us letting Trufant go in free agency but my question would be, how do we go about keeping our superstar roster intact while staying under the cap? And who would we be willing to part with to keep the others?
Matt: OK, before I answer your questions, let’s get a couple of things straight. Desmond Trufant’s current deal runs through the 2022 season, not 2020. Calvin Ridley, who was a rookie last year, is currently playing on a four-year deal (with a fifth-year option) – which is up following the 2021 season. Deion Jones is playing in the final year of his rookie deal, so you’re right about that. The Falcons exercised their fifth-year option with safety Keanu Neal, and his current deal expires following the 2020 season. And Grady Jarrett had the franchise tag placed on him, which is a one-year deal. The Falcons, as you probably already know, are working on giving Jarrett and Julio Jones new contracts to keep them in the fold – that should also make the salary cap more maneuverable for Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff. OK, now that we’ve cleared all of that up, it should be obvious even to the casual fans that navigating the salary cap is tricky for teams, especially ones that draft well like the Falcons (which is also a very good thing). Simply put, there’s no way to keep all of your players under contract when they’re blossoming into stars. Teams have to prioritize who they want to keep and where they’re going to spend the bulk of their money while, at the same time, continuing to draft well and take advantage of players’ cap-friendly rookie deals. Who are they ultimately going to keep and sign to long-term deals? I have no idea, Cameron. So many things will play into it, including their health, performance, the team’s salary cap situation, depth at that position and so on. Every single year teams are forced into making difficult decisions. That’s why it’s critical to draft well and protect your superstars, Cameron – something the Falcons continue to do.