Free agency, the combine and the owners meetings are in the rearview mirror and the draft is just a few days away. But it’s time to get back to football on the field. Here’s a quick look at the Atlanta Falcons as they open their offseason workout program on Monday:
Biggest challenge facing head coach Dan Quinn: It has been a distracting offseason for Quinn with two of his assistant coaches, Bryan Cox and Marquand Manuel, running into trouble at the combine, fan favorite and franchise-leading receiver Roddy White being shown the door while criticizing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's coaching tactics on the way out, and cornerback Jalen Collins, a second-round pick last season, being suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. Now Quinn has the challenge of keeping it all together to make sure the Falcons don't implode, like they did after last season's 5-0 start. Quinn says that turnovers were the only issue with the offense a year ago, but the coach also knows he has to make sure Matt Ryan plays at a consistently high level. Quinn is a defensive-minded coach, so having a team that ranks last in the league in total sacks (19) is totally unacceptable and has to be fixed.
Player on the rise: Devonta Freeman. He had a breakout sophomore campaign while making the Pro Bowl, finishing tied for first in the league with 14 total touchdowns. And the thing about Freeman is he's always hungry for more. Sure, the Falcons will probably try to incorporate Tevin Coleman into the mix to make it a two-back system, but Freeman proved he's worthy of shouldering the bulk of the load. Freeman also gives the Falcons an added dimension as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Fantasy owners certainly hope Freeman repeats last year's showing. Freeman might have bigger holes to run through with the addition of three-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack to anchor the line.
Player who has the most to prove: Ryan is the easy target here because he's the $100 million quarterback and the guy under the most scrutiny anyhow. He’s coming off a season where he had 16 interceptions – one off his career high – and five lost fumbles. Ryan didn’t look comfortable in Shanahan’s scheme and admitted he was overwhelmed at times, as is the case whenever you learn a new scheme, regardless of experience. But the guys surrounding Ryan have to help him get back to a high level of play. Julio Jones is going to be dynamic regardless, but receivers such as newcomer Mohamed Sanu and second-year player Justin Hardy have to get open and win their one-on-one matchups. The offensive line has to keep the pressure off Ryan, and Mack should help prevent some of the defensive push up the middle. And Ryan himself has to make wise decisions, something he didn’t always do throughout last season. The Falcons won’t succeed if Ryan fails to perform up to expectations. He knows it.
Surprise player to watch: Ricardo Allen made a seamless transition to safety from cornerback and caught the attention of the coaches. Sure, he had some hiccups here and there, but Allen is a guy who learns from his mistakes and closely studies film to correct them. The range of the free safety is key in this defense, and Allen showed he could play with such range. Now he just needs to make more plays on the ball and make certain he's sure with his tackling. He has the desire to improve every day, which is the kind of player Quinn wants in his scheme. And Allen could be pressed to elevate his game even more by Robenson Therezie, a young player who also caught the eye of coaches. The Falcons are counting on Allen to continue his ascent. Now they just need to find a steady strong safety to play alongside him.
Position that should be addressed in draft: The Falcons need to address their situation at inside linebacker. They need players capable of tackling well, roaming the field and being solid in coverage against tight ends such as Carolina's Greg Olsen. Atlanta's speed at the position is nowhere where it needs to be, which is why Ohio State's Darron Lee continues to be connected to the Falcons with the 17th overall pick. LSU's Deion Jones is another speedy linebacker who's high on the Falcons' radar, while Georgia's Leonard Floyd and Alabama's Reggie Ragland both have generated strong interest from the Falcons. If it's not inside linebacker, then look for the Falcons to find a pass-rusher such as Clemson's Shaq Lawson in the first round, provided they stay pat at No. 17.