Dan Quinn was into his sixth season as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons when he was fired in Week 5 of last season. Quinn advanced to the Super bowl in 2016 that he lost in overtime to the Patriots. They reached the Divisional Round in 2017 but then turned in seasons of 7-9, 7-9, and 4-12 last year. The Falcons were 0-5 when team owner Arthur Blank fired Quinn.
Ex-Tennessee Titans’ Arthur Smith became one of the first new head coaches hired in January. He’s spent the last decade on the offensive side as the quality control coach, offensive line coach, tight ends coach, and then their offensive coordinator for the last two seasons before being hired by the Falcons. He’s the son of Fed-Ex founder and CEO Fred Smith.
Smith was a much-desired head coaching candidate, and his Titan’s offense reinvigorated Ryan Tannehill’s career. It also allowed Derrick Henry to explode from being a lesser-used back to leading the league in rushing for two straight seasons. He also improved the offensive line to be one of the top units. Under Marcus Mariota in 2018, the Titans only passed for 15 touchdowns. Two seasons with Smith and Tannehill working together and they totaled 29 and 33 passing scores.
Derrick Henry was a workhorse in college but far less so for his first three NFL seasons. That changed when Smith fed him over 300 carries each year and witnessed him rush for 2,027 yards last season.
Dave Ragone was hired as the offensive coordinator after his five seasons with the Bears as the quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. Ragone worked alongside Smith when both were with the Titans in 2011-2012. The offensive scheme belongs to Smith, with Ragone there to help install it. Ragone has already gone on record as the play caller for at least this season.
To run the defense, Smith didn’t look far. He brought in 71-year old Dean Pees as the defensive coordinator in the same role that he had in Tennessee from 2018-2019. Pees spent time in the college ranks before leaping to the NFL in 2004 when he joined the Patriots for six years, then the Ravens for eight years helping run their defenses. Pees ran the Titans defense for two years and then retired. Smith brought him back into the NFL for one more time.
Pees is one of only a handful of defensive coordinators to coach two different teams in the Super Bowl. Since 2008, his defenses always sent one or more players to the Pro Bowl. Pees retired in 2019 but said that he “really missed it”. He said he wasn’t going to look for a job but his friend and fellow coach on the Titans came to him.
Head Coach Arthur Smith – Smith oversaw one of the best rushing attacks in NFL history with Derrick Henry becoming the eighth player to rush for over 2,000 yards. His offense set a team record with 168.1 rushing yards per game and while it is easy enough to point at Derrick Henry as the real reason, Henry had never rushed for more than 1,059 yards in his first three seasons without Smith running the offense. Henry scored 23 touchdowns over his first three years and then 35 in just the last two seasons.
And it is not enough to expect that Smith is all about the rushing game. He’s given Ryan Tannehill a second chance in the league that resulted in career years in most passing metrics for the one-time Dolphins quarterback. Some of his success was giving up on Marcus Mariota. He also helped second-round pick A.J. Brown to break 1,000-yards receiving in his first two seasons. He helped Corey Davis to finally play like a first-round pick when his fourth season ended with a career-high 984 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
The Titans under Smith had one of the highest rates of rushing the ball in neutral game scripts (when they neither trailed nor led significantly) but that was reflective of what he had to use and how well it worked. They often relied on the shotgun formation, but the passing attack was never that diverse. Aside from Corey Davis and A.J. Brown, no other wide receivers caught more than 23 passes last year. Adam Humphries managed 37 receptions in 2019, but the passing scheme is heavily weighted towards the two starting wideouts.
Smith has also employed tight ends as receivers and ranked in the Top-10 for tight end receiving yardage both years that he led the offense. Last season, the team tight ends produced 12 scores to rank No. 3 among all NFL teams and No. 4 in overall fantasy points generated by the position. That was split up almost evenly between Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firkser, so he relied on more than one individual tight end.
Smith prefers a more balanced offense than what we’ve seen in Atlanta the past few seasons where the rushing effort remained below average and Matt Ryan was Top-5 in the number of passes thrown. Smith has been described as an old-school coach with a gift for innovation and motivation.
Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees – The Falcons went with one of the most experienced – and successful – defensive minds in the NFL. He’s tasked with rebuilding one of the worst defenses in the league. The Falcons ranked dead last against the pass last year – No. 32 versus quarterbacks and wide receivers and No. 30 against tight ends.
His defenses are marked as opportunistic. Both the Patriots and Ravens excelled in defensive scoring under him and his final two years at the Titans saw their unit ranked No. 3 and No. 12 in the metric.
When he was asked if his defense was a 3-4 or a 4-3, he replied. “Yeah, that’s what we are.” His defenses are complex and always hard to read. Given the state of the Falcons secondary, the need for someone like Pees is dire.
Pee’s defenses are notoriously hard to decipher for opposing quarterbacks and he calls a very aggressive game that usually features a high volume of blitzes. The Falcons already have one of the better trios at linebacker that shows up in their No. 8 ranking versus running backs last year. The Falcons have to address the defense first and foremost in the offseason with a better safety and more edge rushers as the primary need. The Falcons cannot hope to turn it all around in one year from being the leakiest secondary in the league, but better pass rushing helps cover the defense while they install a new scheme and incorporate new and younger players.
The needs are bigger than the dollars to spend, so the Falcons have to be judicious addressing the rebuild. The only notable offensive player that becomes a free agent is Todd Gurley who stated that he wants to return. But his first season in Atlanta resulted in a career-low 195 rushes for 678 yards and 3.5 yards per carry. He ran in nine touchdowns but did little else. The 26-year-old was a beast for the first four seasons in the NFL and then on rapid descent for two years due to his chronic knee problems.
Brian Hill is also a free agent while Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison were nonfactors. The Falcons have to acquire or draft a new running back with both youth and a working set of knees. Smith just spent the last two seasons directing the best rusher in the NFL and he lands on a team with basically no No. 1 running back. There will be a new running back in Atlanta. There has to be.
Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley return so there’s no personnel changes to the passing game. With so many other needs, particularly on defense, there’s no sense in spending any draft picks on a wideout.
Other than running back, the notable changes need to be in the secondary with a new safety and improved corners. Center Alex Mack also becomes a free agent but the Falcons may not resign him. There’s speculation that Mack may retire as well.
Fantasy football takeaway
Arthur Smith and Dave Ragone will install a new offense that will bring more balance. The weak Atlanta defense of the last two years prompted Matt Ryan to throw over 600 passes in each while the Titans offense ranked No. 30 and No. 31 over the last two seasons in pass attempts (484 and 446). If the defense improves quickly enough, there will be less need to throw so often and that almost certainly lowers the passing production.
To their benefit, Smith’s scheme focused on only three players when they pass – both starting wideouts and the tight end. No one else had any fantasy relevancy. That won’t bode well for No. 3 types like Russell Gage or Olamide Zaccheaus. But Ridley and Cooper should both remain solid fantasy options since they will remain the primary targets and likely take an even bigger percentage of the throws.
Hayden Hurst’s first year as a Falcon produced a career-best 56 catches for 571 yards and six touchdowns. The Titans tight ends turned in nearly double that much in 2020 under Smith, but that was with a near split between two different tight ends. Hurst’s stock may rise incrementally since the new offense will rely on their tight ends as receivers.
The most interesting and fantasy-relevant change revolves around the primary running back. There is a chance that they bring Gurley back but there’s no reason to expect him to improve even with Smith there. His health likely sees him move onto another team. Free agency and the draft will be considered to upgrade the position. The new offense will take time to install and the offensive line was already below average even with C Alex Mack and LT Jake Matthews. It will take a running back time to reach their potential in the offense, and more so if they rely on a rookie rusher.