Falcons gear up for new season

Julio Jones (right), Matt Ryan (center), and Calvin Ridley (left) will look to lead the Falcons back to the playoffs for the first time since 2017. // Photo Courtesy of USA Today.

Facing a number of changes both COVID-related and otherwise, the NFL has resumed team activities, and games start this weekend. Only a month into their off-seasons when widespread shutdowns began, teams are starting to conduct their training camps. Every team resumed practice at their respective camps by the end of July, where they worked to implement their offseason program in a shortened time frame. Teams had an extra four weeks before any sort of game this year as the preseason games have all been canceled.

The regular season will start on time, albeit with limited fans and new sideline and postgame protocols. All teams have introduced limits on their attendance numbers, with around quarter capacity being the uppermost limit announced. Every team’s protocols are either in the process of being reviewed by the NFL or have been cleared for implementation. Any non-team personnel in attendance will have their temperature checked and be required to wear a mask, and any non-player team personnel will be masked at all times on the sideline. Postgame pleasantries are limited to interactions from a six-foot distance, meaning the congregation at midfield following most games will be limited and jersey swaps are outright banned for the season. Beyond COVID-related changes, the offseason’s highlights were found mostly in the NFL Draft and the ratification of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the players and team owners. The draft, in a virtual format this year, happened as scheduled in late April. The flurry of trades that often occurs on Day 1 was limited this year while teams felt out the draft’s remote nature. The new CBA was ratified in March, setting in motion the big changes of a 17 game season and a 14 game playoffs, the latter of which is set to go into effect as early as this season. The new playoff structure would have the four division champions qualify along with the top three wild card teams in each conference. The first seed would be the only team to receive a bye, and wild card weekend would move to six total games, up from four. The Falcons plan to host a limited number of fans; September home games will be played with no fans in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and as conditions change the capacity will begin to increase.

Rookies and certain veterans reported to the Falcons’ practice facility on July 23, followed by the rest of the team on July 26. Due to the cancellation of the preseason, the Falcons will return to action on September 13 against the Seattle Seahawks.

This past season was a tale of two seasons for the Falcons. After a 1-7 start which included four losses by at least 14 points, things began clicking, leading to a 6-2 record on the back half of the season and a 7-9 record overall. Head coach Dan Quinn went from the hot seat to appearing poised for potential success in 2020.

That success will not come easy though, as the Falcons are tied for the fifth hardest schedule in the league and must now deal with Tom Brady twice.

Across 17 weeks the season will ebb and flow, though the breaks will be hard to come by. The NFL is a competitive league, and with a schedule as hard as the Falcons’ this season it will take strong play every week to remain in contention for any postseason hopes. In the first seven weeks Atlanta will have to face the entire NFC North, a division that yielded a pair of playoff teams last season, and two NFC contenders in the Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys.

Before their Week 10 bye, the Falcons must travel to play the Carolina Panthers and host the Denver Broncos, two teams that struggled last year but have each found consistency at the quarterback position heading into 2020.

Following the bye are five games against likely playoff teams: the 2019 Super Bowl champion Chiefs, the revamped Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the New Orleans Saints, winners of 13 games last season.

Looking to help the Falcons in 2020 will be their new free agent signings and draft picks. Todd Gurley, after being cut by the Rams early in the offseason, signed with the Falcons on a one-year, $6 million dollar deal.

Atlanta’s rushing offense sat at third-worst in the NFL on a yards per game basis, so Gurley provides a needed upgrade. Gurley was the AP Offensive Player of the Year in 2017 and, when healthy, has been among the best backs in the league.

Joining Gurley on the offense will be tight end Hayden Hurst, who the Falcons traded for as a replacement for Pro Bowler Austin Hooper. Hurst was the Ravens’ second option at tight end last season, but he has potential to flourish with a starting role.

A small draft class hopes to complement these free agency signings.
Only selecting six players, Atlanta worked to shore up the defense with four of those picks. Highlighting the class is cornerback AJ Terrell, taken 16th overall from Clemson.

Among the top cornerbacks in a star-studded class, Terrell will look to shore up the back end of Atlanta’s defense as this season gets underway.