ATLANTA (AP) — New coach.
New general manager.
No Julio Jones.
The Atlanta Falcons have embarked on a new era, one that doesn’t include the greatest receiver in franchise history.
Jones was dealt to the Tennessee Titans over the summer for a couple of draft picks, a move that helped the Falcons deal with a messy salary cap situation exacerbated by the pandemic.
It was also a clear signal that the Falcons, after pushing repeatedly to replicate their run to the 2017 Super Bowl, have decided on a longer-term rebuilding job on the heels of a dismal 4-12 season.
Atlanta fired coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff after losing their first five games in 2020, stumbling to the finish of a third straight losing season with an interim coach.
“This is a great opportunity to build a foundation, to build a culture,” said linebacker Brandon Copeland, part of the Falcons’ bargain-basement class in free agency. “We may be starting from the ground up, but we plan on starting fast.”
Owner Arthur Blank has turned things over to a rookie head coach, former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, and long-time New Orleans Saints executive Terry Fontenot, the first Black general manager in Falcons history.
Fontenot had to make plenty of tough decisions to get under the reduced salary cap, cutting ties with productive veterans such as safety Ricardo Allen and center Alex Mack.
But the trade of Jones was the most stunning blow of all, depriving the Falcons of a seven-time Pro Bowler who has the most catches in franchise history (848) and shared the lead role with quarterback Matt Ryan.
The deal was generally panned by Atlanta fans who found it difficult to fathom that the best Fontenot could get for Jones was a second-round pick.
But the 32-year-old commands a huge salary and was coming off an injury-filled season in which he played only nine games. With the Falcons needing cap relief and their star receiver making it clear he was ready to move on, Fontenot wasn’t in much of a position to haggle.
Smith spent training camp and the preseason working extensively with younger, lesser-known players who may not make much of an impact this season.
Ryan didn’t play at all in the three preseason games, and most of the starters saw little action.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys that we wanted to look at and need these game reps that we may not be relying on early, but chances and odds are we need them to play at some point for us this season, and especially next year,” Smith said.
Yep, the Falcons are in full rebuilding mode.
Here are some other things to watch for heading into this new era.
With Jones now in Tennessee, Calvin Ridley steps into the unquestioned role as the Falcons’ top receiver.
He seems up to the challenge.
Ridley is coming off the best season of his three-year career, hauling in 90 receptions for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns.
Also keep an eye on Russell Gage, who filled in ably while Jones was injured last season and finished with a career-best 72 receptions.
The Falcons passed on some more obvious needs to draft Florida tight end Kyle Pitts with the No. 4 overall pick.
Fontenot said he couldn’t pass on a dynamic talent such as Pitts, who is built like a tight end (6-foot-6, 245 pounds) but has the speed and skills of an outside receiver.
“He checks all the boxes,” the new GM said.
Smith is counting on the rookie to create all sorts of matchup problems.
“This team is gonna rise,” Pitts said. “People may think we’re a work in progress. But I think we’ve got the start to be a very good team during the year.”
The Falcons are eager to find a running back who can provide more balance to the offense.
Todd Gurley didn’t pan out during his one year in Atlanta, so the team turned to former Carolina back Mike Davis.
He did a solid job filling in for the injured Christian McCaffrey (642 yards rushing, 59 receptions), but it’s a bit of a red flag that this is Davis’ fifth team in seven seasons.
The Falcons have major issues on both sides of the line.
On offense, the guys up front have struggled to keep Ryan on his feet, allowing an average of more than 44 sacks a game the past three seasons. The team needs big improvement from youngsters Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary and Matt Hennessy.
On defense, the Falcons have struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, managing just 29 sacks last season. Dante Fowler (three sacks) was a huge disappointment in his Atlanta debut.
Ryan has been one of the NFL’s most durable quarterbacks, missing only three games in his 13-year career.
The Falcons are hopeful he can maintain that trend, even at age 36, because there are all sorts of issues behind him on the depth chart.
Matt Schaub retired and expected backup AJ McCarron went down with a season-ending knee injury in the second exhibition game.
Days before the final preseason game, the Falcons hastily brought in former Arizona first-round pick Josh Rosen, who’s already on his fifth team in four years. The only other QB on the roster was undrafted rookie Feleipe Franks.
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