Falcons’ Smith faces difficult rebuilding task in first camp
ATLANTA FALCONS (4-12)
CAMP SITE: Flowery Branch, Georgia
LAST YEAR: The Falcons’ first 0-7 start since 1997 led to the firings of coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Interim coach Raheem Morris managed four wins, but that was not enough for him to keep the job or change the team’s path toward an overhaul. Terry Fontenot was hired from the Saints as general manager and former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith was hired as coach. A flurry of cost-cutting moves, including the trade of seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones to the Titans, helped to define the rebuilding job facing Smith and Fontenot.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WR Tajae Sharpe, RB Mike Davis, S Erik Harris, CB Fabian Moreau, RB/WR Cordarrelle Patterson, S Duron Harmon, OL Josh Andrews, LB Brandon Copeland, Smith, offensive coordinator Dave Ragone, defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: Jones, C Alex Mack, S Keanu Neal, S Ricardo Allen, DE Allen Bailey, RB Todd Gurley, RB Brian Hill, RB Ito Smith, S Damontae Kazee, OG James Carpenter, QB Matt Schaub.
CAMP NEEDS: The Falcons delayed drafting an eventual replacement for Ryan, but a backup for the 36-year-old quarterback must be found following Schaub’s retirement. AJ McCarron, who played a combined four games for Houston the last two years, is the favorite. There will be adjustments to new schemes on offense and defense. Smith will call the plays, but former Chicago Bears quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Dave Ragone gets his first chance to lead an offense. Pees’ decision to come out of retirement and direct the defense may be the biggest accomplishment of Smith’s offseason.
KEY CAMP COMPETITIONS: First-round draft pick Kyle Pitts is expected to immediately claim a starting job at tight end. Pitts could play a hybrid role, lining up as a wide receiver, to keep 2020 starter Hayden Hurst on the field. The depth chart at running back is almost all new, topped by Davis, who must show he’s ready to handle the lead role. Patterson is projected for a dual role at running back and wide receiver, and he could win significant time in the backfield. A key competition is at center, where second-year player Matt Hennessy could be pushed by Andrews and rookie Drew Dalmon. Jones is a significant loss, but he missed much of 2020 and Calvin Ridley already is established as the new No. 1 threat. Russell Gage, Olamide Zaccheaus and Christian Blake will be joined by Sharpe and Patterson in complementary roles.
EXPECTATIONS: Smith could contend for coach of the year honors if the Falcons avoid a fourth consecutive losing season. Those who suggested the team should use the 2021 No. 4 overall draft pick on a quarterback because Atlanta might not have another top-five pick anytime soon could have to rethink that projection. The Falcons’ rebuilding job is daunting. New starters must be found in the secondary, running back, wide receiver and center. Smith also must find a way to provide better protection for Ryan and revive a dismal pass rush.
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