Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank believes his team has the makeup of a Super Bowl winner, with some tweaks here and there leading into the 2018 season.
"You know, I think we're close," Blank said when asked about his team's chances of winning the franchise's first Super Bowl, not just getting there. "Obviously, we were there last year. We got to the second round this year. We could have proceeded further, but we didn't. So, I think the team is in good shape. We have some areas that need to be improved on and worked on. And I think the coach [Dan Quinn] and [GM] Thomas [Dimitroff] are aware of those. That's why we have the draft and free agency, and we'll be focused on those."
A return to the Super Bowl next season would carry a little added significance for Blank, considering the game will be played in the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He was the mastermind behind the new building.
The Falcons, who suffered a historic collapse in a 34-28 overtime loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI, finished 10-6 this past season and lost to eventual Super Bowl LIII champ Philadelphia in the divisional playoffs. The only players who started that game not under contract for next season are defensive end Adrian Clayborn, defensive tackle Dontari Poe, free safety Ricardo Allen and guard Ben Garland, along with kicker Matt Bryant and return specialist Andre Roberts. Clayborn, Poe, Bryant, and Roberts are unrestricted free agents, while Allen and Garland are restricted free agents.
The Falcons took a significant step back from an offensive perspective as the team adjusted to new coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who took over for current San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. The Falcons scored a league-high 33.8 points per game under Shanahan in his final year, but that average dipped to 22.1 in Sarkisian's first season. They were 0-7 in games they failed to score 20 points, including the playoff loss to the Eagles.
On defense, the Falcons actually finished in the top 10 in both scoring defense and total defense for the first time since 1998. It was a credit to the development of young players such as Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, De'Vondre Campbell and Takk McKinley, along with the coaching of first-year defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel. But they still didn't generate enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks, particularly up the middle.
Special teams had its share of woes, too, particularly with penalties that hurt the offense's field position.
Blank isn't too discouraged despite those shortcomings.
"I feel good about where we are," Blank said. "I think our defense was consistently good throughout this past year. Our offense didn't have that consistency. I think another year of Sark in the system and a year with [new quarterbacks coach] Greg Knapp, I think we'll be in good shape."
The Falcons will count on quarterback Matt Ryan to regain his 2016 MVP form and hope wide receiver Julio Jones remains healthy so the pair to have plenty of practice time together, for timing purposes. The potent running back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman could remain together, but there will be speculation about Coleman's future as he enters the final year of his contract, with Freeman already being paid $8.25 million per year. The Falcons need another deep threat to complement Jones. And the interior offensive line needs to be upgraded next to Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, whether that be through free agency or the draft. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay actually has the Falcons selecting Iowa guard/center James Daniels 26th overall in his latest mock draft.
The Falcons also need a pass-rushing defensive tackle, something they just didn't get from Poe this past season despite his ability to stop the run. Adding more playmakers to the secondary wouldn't hurt, either.
Blank didn't get into specifics when asked about the upgrades needed this offseason.
"Well, I think there will be things as we go through player evaluations, which we're in the process of now," he said. "We will see how things shake out."