Falcons hoping Gurley, Fowler can lead return to playoffs

ATLANTA FALCONS (7-9)

New faces: RB Todd Gurley, OLB Dante Fowler, TE Hayden Hurst, WR Laquon Treadwell, OL Justin McCray, LB LaRoy Reynolds, TE Khari Lee, LB Edmond Robinson.

Key losses: RB Devonta Freeman, CB Desmond Trufant, LB De’Vondre Campbell, DE Vic Beasley, TE Austin Hooper, OG Wes Schweitzer, DE Adrian Clayborn, DT Jack Crawford, P Matt Bosher, SS Kemal Ishmael, DE Ra’Shede Hageman, DT Michael Bennett, TE Luke Stocker, OT Ty Sambrailo, TE coach Mike Mularkey.

Strengths: QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones and C Alex Mack provide proven foundation for offense. Gurley should boost running game, even at his career-low level of production with Rams in 2019. Fowler, who had 11 1/2 sacks with Rams in 2019, was key signing. Fowler should boost pass rush that finished near bottom of league in sacks.

Weaknesses: Questions remain on OL which allowed Ryan to be sacked career-high 48 times. Ryan lost one of his favorite targets in Hooper and must develop chemistry with new TE Hayden Hurst. Defense has been unable to overcome injuries to S Keanu Neal and others last two years and again could lack sufficient depth.

Pandemic Development: Coach Dan Quinn tried to take advantage of time away from practice facility for more learning. He organized one-on-one time with players through video calls — time that is rare in normal offseason. Hope was young players especially could advance faster mentally; feedback was positive.

Fantasy Player To Watch: Russell Gage may be overlooked as No. 3 receiver behind Jones and Calvin Ridley. Gage emerged with 49 catches in 2019. He moved up after Mohamed Sanu was traded to New England. Gage had only one TD last season but could have more scoring opportunities with full season as No. 3 receiver.

Vegas Says: Win Super Bowl: 50-1. Over/under wins: 7 1/2.

Expectations: This is crucial season for Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Falcons missed playoffs with back-to-back 7-9 finishes. Ryan is 35, Jones is 31 and window for repeat of 2016 Super Bowl season is shrinking. If Falcons don’t return to playoffs, owner Arthur Blank could decide it’s time to start over.

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