NFL season preview 2017: Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan throws a touchdown pass to Austin Hooper, during the first half of the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game against the New England Patriots. (Darron Cummings/AP)

The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams in the month leading up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 7. Today, the Atlanta Falcons.

Head coach: Dan Quinn
Last season’s record: 11-5
Playoff result: Lost to Patriots in Super Bowl LI (aka they blew it)

Key Free Agent gains: Dontari Poe was a huge pickup (literally) for Atlanta. The defensive line, which was relatively weak in the middle, lost veterans Jonathan Babineaux, Dwight Freeney and Tyson Jackson, but Poe is an upgrade on all of them. Although his sack and tackle totals don’t jump off the page, the former Chiefs nose tackle eats up space on the line of scrimmage just like Vince Wilfork used to do for the Patriots and Texans. Poe can even be used as a secret weapon on offence near the goal line with two career rushing attempts for two yards and two TDs. Defensive end Jack Crawford, formerly of the Cowboys, was another piece added to an improved D-line.

Derrick Coleman is a more-than-capable fullback and a player that adds character to the locker room. He’s familiar with Dan Quinn from their time together in Seattle.

“I know of the man that Derrick is after being on the team with him,” Quinn told the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I knew he could handle the fullback job. He’s played the single back. So, he can double as a halfback. He really has value in special teams as well. He’s an outstanding teammate. The effort and the strain that he plays with, I thought that’s why he’d fit in so well with the offence.”

Key Free Agent losses: As mentioned above, the team lost a few older defensive linemen. They also moved on from oft-injured linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Paul Worrilow. Weatherspoon was a beast early in his career before his body started failing him in 2013, while Worrilow had 364 total combined tackles in his first three seasons but only started one game in 2016.

Patrick DiMarco fit in nicely as a complementary piece in the Falcons offence but he signed with the fullback-hoarding Buffalo Bills in the off-season.

Tight end Jacob Tamme is gone but Austin Hooper is primed to have a breakout campaign entering his sophomore season, so Tamme won’t be missed.

Jalen Collins got popped for PEDs for the second time in his career and will miss 10 games for it. His absence hurts more than any player they lost in free agency.

Key draft picks: Takkarist McKinley, a first-rounder out of UCLA, made an immediate impression with NFL fans after being drafted with the 26th pick.

The emotional edge rusher has the ability to complement someone like Vic Beasley quite nicely. If he lives up to his potential he could be a Tamba Hali type.

Linebacker Duke Riley was taken in the third round and is reunited with former LSU Tigers teammate Deion Jones.

Indications out of camp are that fourth-round selection Sean Harlow is looking impressive, and with Chris Chester retiring he could challenge for a starting offensive guard spot. He’s an excellent run blocker who allowed just 14 sacks and took only 20 penalties in four seasons at Oregon State.

X-factor: New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. The Falcons had something special with Kyle Shanahan and it resulted in one of the most potent offensive attacks in the league’s history. Shanahan took the vacant head coaching job with the 49ers and the Falcons are left with a man with just one year of NFL experience, which was back in 2004 when he was QB coach with the Oakland Raiders.

Still, with a strong offensive line opening holes for the dynamic RB duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, plus Matt Ryan dropping dimes to Julio Jones, there’s really no excuse for Atlanta to be anything besides a top-five offence—and a big-play offence to boot.

2017 will be a success if: They can avoid injuries. Don’t expect a Carolina Panthers-esque 15-1 to 6-10 turn from this Falcons team. Consider this: In addition to fielding a stronger defence, they have 10 of 11 starters returning on offence. The same offence that averaged 5.17 yards per carry on plays where opposing teams stacked eight bodies in the box in 2016. That’s tremendously impressive.

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