Win or lose, Falcons in position to soar for years to come

By Nicholas McGee 3 February 2017
Win or lose, Falcons in position to soar for years to come

You only had to listen to the atmosphere in the Georgia Dome, to see Samuel L Jackson enjoying the NFC Championship game rout of the Green Bay Packers to know that it has been a fun season for the Atlanta Falcons.

The Falcons racked up 540 points and swept aside both the Seattle Seahawks and the Packers in the postseason to book a date with the New England Patriots at Super Bowl LI on Sunday.

But you could be forgiven for thinking the ride is about to end for Atlanta.

Quarterback Matt Ryan has enjoyed the best season of his career and the Falcons led the league in total offense, but the man behind their dominance with ball in hand is about to leave for pastures new. 

It is the NFL's worst kept secret that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, whose scheme has been the subject of widespread praise, is to take over as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers following the Super Bowl.

Atlanta's offense was far from disappointing prior to Shanahan's arrival – they ranked 12th in the NFL in that aspect of the game in 2014 and actually dropped to 21st in his first season a year later.

But Shanahan's influence on the offense this season is undoubted and, with him set to exit the picture, it would be fair to suggest the Falcons could experience a particularly trying Super Bowl hangover.

However, there are plenty of reasons to keep the faith with the Falcons in the years to come, even without their play-calling mastermind. 

Ryan is tied down until 2019 and is set for talks over an extension, while star receiver Julio Jones has a contract until 2021. Keeping that duo in place will be pivotal to the Falcons' hopes of sustained success.

Atlanta also boast a talented backfield pairing in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and have seen receivers Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel flourish behind Jones.

Like Jones, Sanu has a deal until 2021, while Gabriel – as a restricted free agent – can be signed to an offer sheet and potentially kept around with minimum hassle.

With that core of talent, the Falcons have enough on offense to trouble any team in the league and Atlanta fans should be encouraged by talk of Chip Kelly – who did an underrated job with a 49ers offense severely lacking in skill-position players in 2016 – taking over from Shanahan.

But it is on defense where the Falcons can likely expect the most growth in the coming seasons.

On the defensive line Grady Jarrett and Ra'Shede Hageman continue to display promising signs of development, while in Vic Beasley, Deion Jones and Keanu Neal the Falcons have three rising stars.

Outside linebacker Beasley responded to a disappointing rookie year to lead the league in sacks with 15.5, and rookies Jones and Neal have impressed, swarming to the ball from their respective inside linebacker and safety positions and displaying an exciting blend of athleticism and physicality.

Each of that trio are under the age of 25 and figure to be key pieces in the Atlanta puzzle for a long time to come.

Despite the play of that triumvirate, the defense still needs improvement having finished the year ranked 27th in the NFL.

There has been shaky play in the secondary without the injured Desmond Trufant, but the Falcons now have pieces to build around on the defensive side of the ball, where their performance has improved significantly in the postseason.

The right defensive additions and a replacement for Shanahan will need to be found for the Falcons to continue to contend for Super Bowls.

But the wealth of resources they have at their disposal mean that, win or lose on Sunday, Falcons fans can afford to be confident of having more success to celebrate.

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Nicholas McGee

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