Falcons offseason
The Falcons will have to look for a new franchise quarterback if they want to embrace a rebuild. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Coming off a lackluster 4012 season, Atlanta must decide how they handle this Falcons offseason. They can try to add some win-now players to attempt another playoff run with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. Or they can embrace the rebuild and add foundational players for the future. Based on poor cap situations and an overall porous defense, we will assume they go full rebuild.

Roster Needs: QB, EDGE, CB, RB, S

Offense

Falcons offseason
Justin Fields could be the successor to 35-year-old Matt Ryan.(Chuck Cook/USA TODAY Sports)

Sitting at $23 million in the negative in terms of cap space means big-name free agents will not be signed this Falcons offseason. The Arthur Smith regime begins in 2021 and with that, he looks to acquire his quarterback of the future. Owning the fourth overall pick in the draft means Smith can get that done immediately.

2021 prospects Justin Fields and Zach Wilson will be the main targets as one of the two will likely be available. Both are popularly mocked to the Falcons and are prime candidates to be the heir to 35-year-old Matt Ryan. Ryan’s contract demands $40 million this year, but Atlanta gets an out in 2022. Fields or Wilson can take a year to sit and learn the system and become the full-time starter in their second season.

Outside of the aging quarterback situation, the Falcons are solid everywhere else. The offensive line is one of the best groups in the league consisting of four former first-rounders. The only problem is center Alex Mack is a free agent, but they have rookie Matt Hennessey to step into that role. Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley are arguably the best receiving duo in the league. Both of which are under contract for the next few years.

The running back position is the only one that needs attention now. Todd Gurley is going to hit the open market, but Atlanta will likely opt to keep it that way. Gurley led the backfield that totaled the 27th least rushing yards in the league. A 3.5 yards per carry average along with being healthy enough to handle 14 touches a game means he is not worth paying this Falcons offseason.

The impending rebuild means addressing the position through the draft makes the most sense. A later-round pick makes the most sense considering the more pressing needs on defense. After undrafted rookie James Robinson broke out to the scene accumulating 1,414 scrimmage yards, teams should wait to target the position in the back half of the draft.

Arthur Smith would be enamored with a player like Khalil Herbert falling into the later rounds. The Virginia Tech bell cow is a tackle-breaking machine with elite contact balance. His elite vision gives him immediate starter potential in the NFL.

Defense

Falcons offseason
Dante Fowler has disappointed with 3 sacks in 2020. (Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

The defensive side of the ball is where most changes will be made during the Falcons offseason. Their main needs come from their abysmal play against the pass. After giving up 4,697 passing yards in 2020, there will be new faces in the secondary and along the edge.

29 sacks were the 9th least in the NFL, as edge rushers Dante Fowler and Steven Means disappointed. Fowler is a cut candidate as his release will free up $8 million. The minimal cap space limits their opportunities in free agency. They will be inclined to go after high upside pass rushers in free agency that will come at a discounted price.

Noah Spence and former Falcon Takk McKinley fit that mold well. Each is an explosive pass rusher that shows potential based on their athletic profile. However, they lack the production to back it up. Neither of the two will be sexy signings but are the best free agents in a full-on rebuild.

The cornerback group got burned seemingly every week. Opposing receivers had their way with the Falcons making cornerback one of their highest needs this Falcons offseason. Darqueze Dennard’s versatility was a bright spot playing in both the slot and along the boundary. The former first-round pick will enter his thirties, but that gives him at least a couple more productive seasons to finish off his career. Rookie AJ Terrell showed that the cornerback position is a steep learning curve at the professional level but cemented his spot as a starting boundary corner going into 2021.

Trent Sheffield has faltered since being drafted and is best used as a depth player rather than a starter. Gareon Conley is a free agent entering his fifth year after missing all of 2020. In his short career, he has displayed elite skills in man coverage leading the league in force incompletion rate when healthy. His coverage skills fit Atlanta’s well given their man-heavy scheme as he has all the makings to develop into a star.

Safety Keanu Neal excelled as a box safety, but Atlanta will likely move on from his skill set to bring in a more refined ballhawk in the secondary. Most of the cap space will be used for the cornerback position, drafting a safety will be the best way to go. Lucky for Atlanta the safety class runs deep.

Ar’Darius Washington out of TCU is a smaller safety at 5-foot-8, but that might make him even more appealing to Atlanta. His size alone will cause him to fall in the draft and some teams may not even consider drafting him at all. Despite his smaller stature, Washington is a thumper in the run-game just like Neal. He is smart and confident in coverage, seeing routes develop and jumping the passing lane better than anyone. His instincts and physical capabilities draw comparisons to star Tyrann Mathieu.