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Why the Falcons' passing game is the NFL's best and could be even more dangerous in 2017

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Like every team in the NFL, the Falcons enter training camp with lots of unknowns and questions to answer.

In fact, our own Kelsey Conway came up with 12 burning questions for Falcons fans right here on Tuesday. You should check it out.

Without rehashing too much about 2016 – because we all know that we are officially on to 2017 – every NFL fan would acknowledge that the Falcons were close to unstoppable on offense at times, especially during the tail-end of the season and throughout the postseason.


And while it's easy to pinpoint the obvious weak spots of every NFL team – many would argue that the defensive line was the Falcons' Achilles heel in 2016 – what about those proven areas of strength?

More specifically, can the Falcons be even better on offense in 2017? I'll answer that by saying, "Why not?" (And more on that later.)

On July 6, Cam Mellor of Pro Football Focus ranked all 32 NFL teams based on their passing game. If you didn't click on the link, put down your cup of coffee, Falcons fans: Mellor ranked the New England Patriots No. 1, just ahead of your Beloved Birds at No. 2.

Yes, the Patriots still have Tom Brady, Julian Edelman they added a dangerous deep threat Brandin Cooks during the offseason. But Mellor also notes that tight end "Rob Gronkowski's 3.18 yards per route run ranked first not just among tight ends, but among all receivers."

An impressive line and there's no doubt Gronkowski is one of the Patriots' most important weapons when healthy, but that's been the big question mark with Gronk: his health. Despite restructuring his contract so that he has the opportunity to be the highest-paid tight end in the league, Gronkowski only played in eight games last year and has had trouble staying healthy.

So there's that.

And I'm not even sure I'd rank the Patriots No. 3 or No. 4. Not that we need yet another offseason list or ranking, my top five passing games would look something like this:

  1. Falcons: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel
  1. Packers: Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Ty Montgomery
  1. Buccaneers: Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard
  1. Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Jesse James
  1. Patriots: Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Rob Gronkowski

But back to my original point on the Falcons and why I think the passing game can be even better in the passing game than they were in 2016. The Falcons have the quarterback, proven weapons, depth, balance and coaching. The one key to every successful season not listed? Health. Injuries, unfortunately, are unavoidable and part of the game.

The Falcons also have experience. This group – which returns virtually all of their starters – now knows what it takes to reach the Super Bowl, and don't discount the value of that. And while we've heard countless questions about the dreaded Super Bowl curse and hangovers, we've also just witnessed a few teams – the Golden State Warriors, Chicago Cubs and North Carolina Tar Heels – provide the blueprint for what it takes to bounce back.

It's no secret what quarterback Matt Ryan brings to the table. Ryan, the NFL's 2016 Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year, is entering his 10th season in the league and has only missed two regular-season games in his career.

If you don't think Ryan is motivated by the Super Bowl loss, think again (and watch below).

And when Ryan connected with Julio Jones in 2016, they shredded more than a few defenses.

But even if Ryan and Jones do not top last year's statistics, that might not be a bad thing for the Falcons – as long as others are making plays instead. And the Falcons have the pieces in place.

Yes, Julio Jones is the No. 1 receiver on the planet, but take a look at Mohamed Sanu. Yes, his offseason workouts have been epic. He's also recently expressed wanting to be more of a leader and taking on a larger role in this offense.

And Sanu's not just good and capable – he made 59 catches for 653 yards and scored four touchdowns as the Falcons' second receiving option in 2016 – but he's reliable. How reliable?

But it doesn't stop with Sanu. The Falcons have another capable playmaker in Taylor Gabriel as well. When Ryan looked Gabriel's way, no receiver in the NFL netted a higher passer rating in 2016.

Gabriel, who only started three games last year for the Falcons, hauled in 35 passes for 579 yards and six touchdowns last year. You've got to believe new offensive coordinator will find more ways to get the fourth-year receiver more involved this season. It's clearly paid off to this point.

Backing Gabriel up is Justin Hardy, another receiver with big-play potential who is entering his third year. Hardy averaged almost 10 yards per catch (9.7) and scored four times in 2016.

Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman – arguably the best 1-2 punch in the NFL – contributed to the passing game in a big way last year, combining for 883 receiving yards. In fact, Freeman was dangerous coming out of the backfield.

Throw in some new wrinkles with Sarkisian, who's also determined to get over the hump and win that last game, and I think there's a strong case to be made for the Falcons' passing game to be even better in 2017.

And, in my opinion, better than the Patriots. If you disagree and want to discuss, hit me up on Twitter.

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