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New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons

Southern Comfort: Getting to know the 2021 Atlanta Falcons

How will the post-Julio era start in Atlanta?

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Coming into the 2020 NFL Season many expected the Atlanta Falcons to finish second in the NFC South, and had an outside shot at competing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a Wild Card spot in the playoffs.

Well, none of that happened as the Falcons stumbled away some big leads, fell to 4-12, and last place in the division, all leading to a rather public divorce from star wide receiver Julio Jones.

Yikes.

Of course, it also led to the firing of the team’s head coach and general manager.

Turning the page to 2021 the Falcons now have a new front office feel and Arthur Smith leading them as the newest head coach of Matt Ryan’s team.

So how will it go? We caught up with Aaron Freeman of the Locked On Falcons Podcast to get more comfortable with this divisional foe ahead of the coming season.

Denver Broncos v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

KEY LOSSES

Kind of like he did in the photo, Julio Jones ‘ran’ away from the Falcons almost as soon as he could this past offseason.

He ended up with the Tennessee Titans in a trade which gained the team he spent ten seasons with some draft capital but left a huge hole at WR1 which they hope can be filled adequately by Calvin Ridley entering his fourth NFL season.

“It kind of snuck up on us,” Freeman said of the trade. “We knew going into the offseason that it was a possibility that the Falcons would trade Julio Jones, but as we made it through February, and March, and then basically the Monday before the draft, up to that point we had heard almost nothing about the idea of the Falcons trading Julio Jones. So we were operating with this sort of assumption that it wasn’t going to happen. Then, the Monday before the draft we heard these rumors the Falcons were at least taking calls on Julio Jones.”

Of course, it was a phone call on live network television which Shannon Sharpe that really blew the whole thought Jones would be back in Atlanta to pieces.

Jones is a big loss. This much is obvious. But he isn’t the only guy from 2020 who won’t be back this year.

The Falcons lost center Alex Mack and offensive lineman James Carpenter this offseason. While neither is going to be a huge loss by himself, it’s the lack of replacement strategy which has Freeman concerned.

“The Falcons kind of did the minimum possible to fill those voids...,” said Freeman. “...there are some major question marks on the interior of this offensive line, and when you have a quarterback like Matt Ryan who (is) more of a pocket quarterback that likes to step up in the pocket...that is a cause for concern.”

KEY ADDITIONS

Signing Josh Andrews to help bolster the offensive line isn’t going to move the needle outside of Atlanta any more than it already isn’t for Freeman.

It isn’t an offensive lineman Freeman points to as the biggest addition this offseason (outside the NFL Draft - more on that in a minute), it’s a new running back.

“I think Mike Davis is probably the player that you get the most excited about if you’re a Falcon fan,” Freeman said. “Just because the Falcons running game has not been particularly effective. And while Mike Davis is far from a proven commodity you’ve seen the flashes of him, particularly last year in Carolina stepping in for Christian McCaffrey, and then particularly early in the season looking pretty good. And so the hope is that with Arthur Smith’s offense and the success that Derrick Henry was able to have in Tennessee...that’s going to be an improvement on the Falcons running game.”

Hear Aaron Freeman in his own words, and more from this conversation, on this episode of the Locked On Bucs Podcast!

Florida v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

NFL DRAFT

Round 1, Pick 4: TE, Kyle Pitts (Florida)

Round 2, Pick 40: S, Richie Grant (UCF)

Round 3, Pick 68: OT, Jalen Mayfield (Michigan)

Round 4, Pick 108: CB, Darren Hall (San Diego State)

Round 5, Pick 148: DT, Ta’Quon Graham (Texas)

Round 5, Pick 182: DE, Adetonkunbo Ogundeji (Notre Dame)

Round 5, Pick 183: CB, Avery Williams (Boise State)

Round 6, Pick 187: WR, Frank Darby (Arizona State)

My favorite pick is going to be for selfish reasons, and it’s wide receiver Frank Darby from the Arizona State Sundevils. Full disclosure, I’m an ASU alum.

Beyond that though, what I saw out of Darby against other NFL talent like Washington Football Team cornerback Benjamin St-Juste solidified my opinion of the player that he belonged in the NFL.

Truth be told, he’s in a much better situation for himself with the Falcons given the fact anyone beyond Calvin Ridley could feasibly be out of the league in the next three years based on talent alone, depending on how they do or don’t develop.

In Tampa with the Buccaneers Darby would have had a much harder chance at getting playing time. So at least this ensures he’ll be on Madden 22 for me to trade him to the Bucs and give him preferential treatment in development and play-time as I get into future seasons of franchise mode.

Moving on to Freeman’s favorite, we had to exclude Kyle Pitts from the options of course, and he picked the player who would likely be my actual favorite minus bias. Of course, that is UCF safety Richie Grant.

Again, another Senior Bowl stud, Grant became a favorite of mine very quickly and was someone I wanted to see in the pewter, not black.

WHAT ABOUT KYLE PITTS?

Alright. We avoided Pitts a little in the additions portion, but to be fair we want to save all rookies for the draft portion anyway. Then we took him off the list of options for a favorite draft pick just to talk about someone who isn’t getting as much burn in social or traditional media these days.

We can’t leave the conversation without talking about the Florida Gators standout weapon though.

And talk about him we did, in the second part of our conversation.

Our biggest focus was on the hype though, not the scouting reports. We’ve heard plenty about when Pitts should be. Is the expectation real? Or is it overinflated in a way only the NFL Draft can bring?

“I think the pressure is certainly on Kyle Pitts,” said Freeman. “...I think it’s fair that some of the hype has probably gone a little too far where he’s kind of instantly being projected as being one of the three to four or five best tight ends in the league without playing a snap.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

WHERE DO THE 2021 ATLANTA FALCONS STACK UP IN THE NFC SOUTH?

“Prior to the Julio Jones trade, I was very optimistic the Falcons should be considered the front runners for second place in the division...I’m not as optimistic, not as confident in that take in a post-Julio Jones world...but I certainly think they have as good a chance as anybody to be the team that can finish second place to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (in the NFC South).”

- Locked On Falcons Podcast Host, Aaron Freeman

To listen to the entire conclusion of my conversation with Aaron Freeman, check out this episode of the Locked On Bucs Podcast

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