NFL Nation

NFL Nation

The Atlanta Falcons and coach Dan Quinn enter a pivotal, must-win season coming off back-to-back 7-9 campaigns. If the Falcons hope to be contenders, a potentially high-powered offense led by Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and newcomer Todd Gurley has to do its part. There’s a chance the Falcons could start 11 former first-round draft picks on offense, depending on if James Carpenter wins back the left guard job and Laquon Treadwell catches on as the third receiver. None of that really matters if the Falcons don’t move the ball and score points under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.

Here’s a position-by-position look at whether the Falcons are better, worse or the same as the 2019 team on offense.

Quarterbacks

Additions: None

Losses: None

Returners: Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, Kurt Benkert, Danny Etling

Snaps played 2019: Ryan (1,004), Schaub (92), Benkert (none), Etling (none)

Better, worse or same? Same

Ryan, 35, enters his 13th NFL season still playing at a high level, having thrown for 4,100 or more yards and averaging a 66.7% completion rate the past nine seasons. With Koetter entering his second season since rejoining the team, it should bode well for the chemistry between Ryan and Koetter and the progression of the offense. Ryan and the offense stumbled out of the gates last season as Ryan threw eight interceptions during a 1-6 start. Of course, having solid protection and a strong running game would help his cause, but Ryan knows he has to avoid turnovers and hit on more explosive plays.

Schaub’s 460 passing yards in place of an injured Ryan (ankle) against the Seahawks last season showed he’s still a capable backup at age 39. Benkert, coming off injury, could push for backup consideration based on his arm talent and high confidence, but Schaub is the seasoned vet with 93 career starts.

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Running backs

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The sting of losing Hooper seemed to hurt a lot less when the Falcons acquired Hurst, who didn’t get a chance to live up to his full potential with the Ravens as Mark Andrews emerged as the top guy. Ryan has spent extensive time with Hurst this offseason and already offered the ultimate praise for his new target, saying, “He is, for sure, one of the fastest and most athletic tight ends that I’ve ever played with.” Now it’s up to Hurst to show that he can do it consistently as the team’s primary Y tight end (more blocking responsibilities). Hurst is not a great blocker, but based on tape, he seems to at least make a good effort.

Graham flashed last season and could spell Hurst on occasion. Both Lee and Meier have the opportunity to develop into the type of blocking tight end the Falcons thought they had last year in Stocker. The Falcons could use an offensive lineman in that blocking tight end role, with the NFL allowing that extra lineman on game day.

Offensive line

Additions: Matt Hennessy (third round/draft), Justin McCray (Browns), Hunter Atkinson (undrafted), Austin Capps (undrafted), Scottie Dill (undrafted), Justin Gooseberry (undrafted)

Losses: Wes Schweitzer (Redskins), Ty Sambrailo (Titans)

Returners: Alex Mack, Jake Matthews, Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary, James Carpenter, Jamon Brown, Matt Gono, John Wetzel, Sean Harlow

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Snaps played 2019: Matthews (1,028), Mack (1,021), McGary (1,002), Carpenter (562), Brown (551), Lindstrom (253), Gono (39), Wetzel (18).

Better, worse or same? Better

With Matthews at left tackle, Mack at center, Lindstrom at right guard and McGary at right tackle, the Falcons should have four of the five starting spots settled for Week 1. The question is, who will start at left guard? Hennessy, believed to be the heir apparent to Mack at center, will begin his NFL career competing for the left guard job. Last year, the veteran Carpenter was the initial starter, but he didn’t perform up to expectations while dealing with injuries. Both Carpenter and Brown were significant free-agent signings before last season and neither panned out, with Brown falling into the doghouse by season’s end and Carpenter ending up on IR.

Some believe Gono should have every opportunity to compete for a starting role at guard based on his steady progress or, at least, have a chance to be the swing tackle. The 34-year-old Mack, who remains the anchor, will evaluate his playing future after the season, with his contract expiring. Lindstrom, who came back from a season-opening broken foot as a rookie last year, is ready to take the next step in Year 2. Both Matthews and McGary have to do a better job in protection, particularly McGary against speed rushers.