Let's cut right to the chase and get to the most-asked questions about the Atlanta Falcons right now.
Did they get better during the offseason?
Will they contend for a division title and return to the playoffs?
Does this team have it takes to win a Super Bowl?
Before I answer those, let's take a step back and provide some context.
We all remember how the Falcons wrapped up 2019. They closed things out with four straight wins – including an 28-22 squeaker in overtime against the Bucs – to finish 7-9 for the second straight year.
Despite missing the playoffs again, there was all this talk about "momentum" and how the Falcons went 6-2 over their final eight games following a disastrous 1-7 start. Much of that optimism stemmed from the fact that the Falcons upset a 7-1 Saints team on the road, swept the Panthers and then went on the road and stunned an 11-2 49ers team in a six-week span.
Many of us were thinking the same thing in late December: Where was this team all year? There's no question those three wins reshaped how we looked at that 2019 team.
There was a lot of chatter, too, about whether Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff would be back in 2020, despite the late-season turnaround. Two days before the season finale, Falcons owner Arthur Blank announced that both Dimitroff and Quinn would be retained despite being "extraordinarily disappointed."
With free agency looming and a tight salary cap heading into 2020, many Falcons fans wondered if the team could somehow carry that momentum into the offseason and, somehow, find way to improve. I asked Quinn about it, too, on Bird Noises.
About that roster ... The Falcons ended up losing or parting ways with a number of key players, including Austin Hooper, Desmond Trufant, Devonta Freeman, Vic Beasley and De'Vondre Campbell. Think about all of the production those five players alone accounted for over the last few seasons. That's a pretty good chunk of rushing yards, receiving yards, tackles and sacks.
Still, the Falcons went out and improved the roster. Yes, I believe they upgraded every single one of those positions – tight end, running back, defensive end, cornerback – except one, linebacker.
Let's start with Hooper's replacement, Hayden Hurst. On the first day of the new league year, the Falcons traded for the former Baltimore Raven and first-round pick. Not only has Matt Ryan gushed over Hurst, but there's a ton of optimism about him within the halls of the Falcons training facilities as well. When we put together our list of top-10 breakout candidates for 2020, Hurst came in at No. 1, too.
Former All-Pro running back Todd Gurley replaces Freeman, another upgrade. Gurley is playing on a one-year prove-it deal and this is undoubtedly a make-or-break season for the former Rams star. However, production-wise and talent-wise, Gurley's presence in the backfield should be an improvement over what the Falcons have had there the last two or three seasons. We think Gurley is poised for a breakout season.
Maybe the biggest splash the Falcons made was at defensive end, when they went out and signed Dante Fowler – fresh off a season in which he tallied 11.5 sacks with the Rams. Yes, when compared to the player Fowler replaces – Beasley – their career numbers are indeed similar. The difference is while one is pointing up, the other is trending downward. The Falcons believe Fowler, who also brings a lot of attitude and confidence, will continue to improve.
Two days ago, I would not have said the Falcons are necessarily better at cornerback, but I will now. Trufant may be in Detroit now, but after the Falcons drafted former Clemson star corner A.J. Terrell with the No. 16 overall pick in April, they went out and signed another former first-round pick in Darqueze Dennard on Monday. Those two, along with young cornerbacks Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Jordan Miller make this group better.
So, what does it all mean?
The roster is better, but does that mean the Falcons will contend for an NFC South title and make a deep push into the postseason?
The short answer is no, it does not.
The Bucs may have made the biggest splash of the offseason when they landed quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski. Brady has played in nine Super Bowls, won six and was named Super Bowl MVP four times. It's going to be a long time before anyone comes along and accomplishes that. Keep in mind, Tampa lost a number of really close games last season.
The Saints are coming off a 13-3 season and didn't really lose a whole lot. In fact, you could make the argument that they've gotten better through free agency and the draft. I believe the NFC South will still go through New Orleans.
The Falcons may be better on paper, but so is the division (and I'm not even mentioning the Panthers here). Atlanta's schedule, too, poses a number of other challenges, not to mention a brutal seven-week span at the end of the year.
While the roster appears improved and the pieces may be in place for the Falcons to contend for an NFC South title and make a deep playoff push, I honestly have no idea how this 2020 season is going to play out in the midst of player opt-outs and COVID-reserve lists due to a global pandemic. No, I don't even know if we're even going to make it through an entire season, for that matter.
And neither does anyone else.
As much as I'd like to say, "Yes, yes and yes" to those three questions at the top of this column, I think for now we should simply embrace every day we have actual football being played and, much more importantly, our health.
The Atlanta Falcons are back to work as 2020 AT&T Training Camp kicked off in Flowery Branch. Take a look at the best images from Day 1.