Due in large part to an avalanche of injuries, the 2018 season did not go as planned for the Falcons, who bumbled their way to a 7-9 finish after the two previous seasons had ended in playoff heartbreak. But just because the Falcons are coming off a disappointing season doesn't mean they should be written off heading into the 2019 season. Assuming they'll stay healthier than they did a year ago, the Falcons could be primed for a return to the playoffs.
After throwing for 4,924 yards, 35 touchdowns, and only seven interceptions, Matt Ryan remains one of the better quarterbacks in football. The receiving group is stacked with Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu. The offensive line should, in theory, improve after they drafted two offensive linemen in the first round. And the defense should get better simply by staying healthy a year after losing Deion Jones and Keanu Neal to long-term injuries. This is still a talented team.
If the Falcons are hoping to return to the playoffs, though, they shouldn't be satisfied with the current makeup of their roster. There's still a few pressing problems that demand attention before the beginning of the season. With that in mind, let's take a look at the three moves the Falcons should make to give them the best chance of making it back to the Super Bowl.
We begin with a player already on the Falcons' roster.
1. Reach long-term agreement with Grady Jarrett
Barring a holdout, a surprising trade, or a season-ending injury, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett will be playing for the Falcons in 2019, which is important given how valuable of a player Jarrett has become on the interior of the Falcons' defensive line. A fifth-round pick in 2015, Jarrett has missed only three games and has piled up 95 solo tackles, 14 sacks, 31 tackles for a loss, and 40 quarterback hits in his career.
The Falcons made sure Jarrett will be around in 2019 by only own about $4.3 million in cap space. Only two teams have less cap space. That makes it difficult for the Falcons to add any of the remaining free agents., but they would be wise to come to a long-term agreement with him. As it stands, Jarrett is carrying a cap hit of $15.2 million. Although a long-term deal would be expensive for the Falcons, they could structure it in a way that lowers his cap hit this year. That could be important, because the Falcons
Signing Jarrett to a long-term deal wouldn't just help their cap situation. It'd also remove any kind of distraction that a holdout could cause. Who knows how much contract distractions actually matter, but it's probably best to avoid one if possible.
2. Add depth to the defense
While the Falcons did add two cornerbacks and a defensive end in the draft, those three selections were made after the first three rounds. If the Falcons can free up some cap space, they should try to add a defensive player in free agency. It being May, NFL calendar shouldn't be that costly.in the
Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson is available. A year ago, . An , so he shouldn't be any more expensive now, but he would bring plenty of upside to Atlanta. It wasn't that many years ago that Wilkerson was a double-digit pass rusher. Adding Wilkerson to a rotation that also includes Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley, Adrian Clayborn, and fourth-round rookie John Cominsky would give the Falcons a deep group of edge rushers.
The Falcons also might want to explore signing a defensive tackle to play alongside Jarrett after they ignored the position in the draft. Many mock drafters (me) thought they might draft one in the first round. Instead, they addressed their offensive line, another huge need. Ndamukong Suh is , but Corey Liuget could be an option. The longtime Charger only played in six games last season, but he's been a solid player throughout his career. To be clear, if the Falcons can free up enough space to sign Suh to a one-year deal, they should absolutely do it. A Suh-Jarrett pairing on the interior would be deadly. It might just push them over the playoff hump.
The Falcons could use another quality corner too, although it's less of a need after they drafted two this year. One option in free agency could be Morris Claiborne, who stayed healthy the last two years with Jets, playing in 30 games and notching 22 pass breakups and three interceptions. In a pass-heavy league, teams can never have enough quality corners.
It's worth noting that for a while I considered the idea of the Falcons adding another running back either through free agency or the trade market. The loss of Tevin Coleman matters, especially given Devonta Freeman's recent injury history, and adding Jay Ajayi (a free agent) or Duke Johnson ( ) is an intriguing idea for an already explosive offense. Ultimately, though, it doesn't really seem like a prudent move for the Falcons to make given their cap situation, more pressing needs on the defensive side of the ball, and selection of running back Qadree Ollison in the fifth round of this year's draft.
The Falcons, in theory anyway, already made the big improvements they needed to make on offense in the draft by taking two offensive linemen in the first round. Their biggest priority now should be bolstering a defense that was their downfall a year ago.
A year after losing so many important players to injury, the Falcons should realize the importance of depth. If they can manufacture some cap space, they should be a player in the late stages of free agency, when players with upside are available for relatively cheap.
3. Upgrade at kicker
Yes, we're devoting an entire section to the kicker position. It might seem unimportant in May, but just ask the Bears about if you don't have a reliable leg on your roster.
For years, the Falcons didn't need to worry about the kicker position. From 2009-18, Matt Bryant made 88.7 percent of his field goals and 99.2 percent of his extra points. But the Falcons let Bryant hit free agency (where he remains as of Monday night).
Their new kicker is Giorgio Tavecchio, who made only 76.2 percent of his field goals with the Raiders two seasons ago and all five of his field-goal attempts with the Falcons after Bryant went down injured last year. With only 26 attempted field goals on his NFL resume, he's a big question mark heading into the upcoming season. The Falcons might end up regretting their decision to move on from Bryant, who went 20 of 21 on his field goals last season.
It seems incredibly unlikely the Falcons will bring back Bryant after announcing his departure. There aren't any better options in free agency. And the Falcons likely won't try to trade for Robbie Gould. So this is my way of saying that the Falcons should upgrade at kicker, but they probably won't.
That said, if Bryant remains unsigned throughout the summer and Tavecchio shows signs of shakiness, the Falcons shouldn't hesitate to bring him back. They likely let him leave to save money given their cap situation, but if Bryant can't get another offer, he could be willing to come back on a cheaper deal. Stranger things have happened.
Either way, while it's understandable that a cap-strapped team would want to get cheaper at kicker, it's the kind of decision that could backfire in a big way. The Falcons have had the luxury of a reliable kicking game for a while now. But they're now poised to enter the upcoming season with a giant question mark at kicker. It could just end up becoming their downfall.