Falcons head into rebuilding year with new coach, no Julio

ATLANTA FALCONS (4-12)

New faces: Head coach Arthur Smith, TE Kyle Pitts, RB Mike Davis, OG Josh Andrews, TE Lee Smith, QB Josh Rosen, DE Jonathan Bullard, S Erik Harris, S Duron Harmon, CB Fabian Moreau, P Cameron Nizialek.

Key losses: WR Julio Jones, C Alex Mack, RB Todd Gurley, OG James Carpenter, QB Matt Schaub, S Ricardo Allen, S Keanu Neal, DE Allen Bailey, P Sterling Hofrichter.

Strengths: Even with the trade of Jones, the greatest receiver in franchise history, the Falcons have a deep group of potential targets for quarterback Matt Ryan. Calvin Ridley emerged as one of the league’s top receivers, Russell Gage showed he was ready to step into a leading role, and top draft pick Pitts is a dynamic tight end with receiver-like skills. The Falcons will likely go with plenty of double-tight end sets, pairing Pitts with Hayden Hurst.

Weaknesses: The offensive line is extremely young and requires big improvement from RG Chris Lindstrom, RT Kaleb McGary and C Matt Hennessy to prevent Ryan from taking another awful pounding. The defensive front has been a perpetual area of concern and must get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Falcons desperately need DE Dante Fowler to step up his game after a disappointing 2020 season. If the 36-year-old Ryan went down for an extended period, the team’s shaky quarterback depth would really be a problem.

Camp Development: The Falcons were counting on AJ McCarron to serve as Ryan’s backup after Schaub retired. But McCarron went down with a season-ending knee injury in the second preseason game, forcing the Falcons to hastily sign former Arizona first-round pick Josh Rosen. The only other quarterback on the roster is undrafted rookie Feleipe Franks.

Fantasy Player To Watch: Ridley has emerged as one of the league’s elite receivers, and his role will only grow now that he’s no longer playing in the shadow of Jones. Ridley had 90 catches for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns in 2020. Gage could be a steal after hauling in 72 catches for 786 yards and four TDs last season. With much of the focus shifting to Ridley, Gage should be poised for an even more productive season.

FanDuel Says: Win Super Bowl: 60-1. Over/under wins: 7 1/2.

Expectations: The Falcons are in full-scale rebuilding mode after firing coach Dan Quinn and longtime general manager Thomas Dimitroff five games into the dismal 2020 season. New GM Terry Fontenot inherited a salary cap mess, forcing the trade of Jones and the release of several other key players just to make the numbers work. New coach Smith barely played his starters during the preseason, saying he wanted to use that time to develop players not only for 2021 but potentially to contribute down the road — a sure sign of a team that has longer-term goals.

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