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Murphy: Three major offseason decisions will chart the course for the Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones during a game against the Denver Broncos on Nov. 8 in Atlanta. - photo by Brynn Anderson | Associated Press

The Atlanta Falcons need to hit it out of the park with their three big offseason decisions that have to be made, if they plan on packing Mercedes-Benz Stadium with fans once we’re done with the pandemic. 

Five-game losing streaks at the front and back end of the season (each under different coaches), like Atlanta produced en route to a 4-12 mark in 2020, are not going to be accepted by fans of a franchise that has steadily fallen off since the Super Bowl debacle just four short seasons ago.

Can the Falcons turn it around? Absolutely. 

However, it will take decisive action from owner Arthur Blank and president and CEO Rich McKay to put the right people in place to get the Falcons, who already have some of the league's best players, back in the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

Since the season ended with a loss at Tampa Bay on January 3, Blank and McKay have moved swiftly in interviewing candidates for the general manager and head coach positions. 

Then there’s that sweet fourth-overall draft pick, the silver lining of botching fourth-quarter leads seven times this season. 

Falcons fans are more likely to react fervently to the coaching hire since he’s the man they see on the field and is responsible for the performance of the 53 players. 

However, the general manager post has the most overarching impact as Atlanta looks to replace Thomas Dimitroff, who held that position since 2008, but was fired with former coach Dan Quinn after going 0-5 to start this season and 1-7 to open the 2019 campaign. 

Dimitroff didn’t lose games on the field, but missed the mark wildly with too many high draft picks that were busts during his 12 years — and some change — as GM.

Atlanta has already moved fast, but methodically, with interviews over Zoom for the head coaching job with interim coach Raheem Morris, Eric Bieniemy (offensive coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs) and Robert Saleh (defensive coordinator, San Francisco 49ers) already in the books. It also plans to interview Arthur Smith, Todd Bowles and Joe Brady. The Falcons are one of six open head coaching vacancies in the league, and not necessarily the most desirable with the Houston Texans and Los Angeles Chargers in the same boat and looking at the same candidates. 

The list of prospective general managers for the Falcons in equally robust. 

Blank and McKay have already interviewed Los Angeles Rams director of college scouting Brad Holmes, New Orleans Saints assistant general manager Terry Fontenot, and Atlanta director of college scouting Anthony Robinson, among others, for the Atlanta Falcons GM spot. 

It makes sense that Blank and McKay will make haste to name a head coach and general manager spots before addressing the upcoming 10 draft spots — which leaves ample equity to move even higher in the first round — along with determining the future of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones with the franchise. 

Once it comes time to navigate the draft talent, really anything is on the table. 

With his end-of-the-season press conference, Blank made it clear that the future for the Falcons does not necessarily include Ryan and Jones. 

However, to move forward without the veteran quarterback and wide receiver, it would require someone to be willing to pick up hefty contracts that remain for both players through 2023.

Many sports pundits in Atlanta have said the Falcons should jump at a second-round draft pick in exchange for Jones and the remaining years on his current deal.

The quarterback talent is rich in 2021. 

We can say with a reasonable degree of certainty say that the Jacksonville Jaguars will take Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the first pick, and the New York Jets could move on from Sam Darnold by taking Ohio State’s Justin Fields at No. 2 overall. 

That leaves North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, who many mock drafts predict Atlanta will take at No. 4, or BYU’s Zach Wilson as the two best options at quarterback that the Falcons will have a chance of grabbing, assuming they don’t move for Fields.

Before drafting a quarterback to become the successor to Ryan, who will be 36 when the 2021 season rolls around but is still very productive, it’s imperative to assess future NFL draft prospects. In 2020, Ryan went over 4,000 yards passing for the 10th consecutive season, despite Jones only playing in nine games.

Atlanta will have a pressing need in the coming seasons to replace Ryan by the time his third and most lucrative contract with the franchise expires. 

The Falcons have to decide if its better to address this need in the spring, instead of pushing it down the road to 2022 when Sam Howell (North Carolina), Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma), Kedon Slovis (Southern Cal) and Jayden Daniels (Arizona State) are all projected to be first-round quarterback talents.

It seems, at least to me, that Ryan still has a lot of tread left on the tires and will be a better solution at quarterback, rather than plugging in a rookie and expecting good results. 

Even if Jones isn’t back in 2021 (which just feels weird to even consider), the Falcons are rich in the receiving game as wide receiver Calvin Ridley and tight end Hayden Hurst set to be back. 

If Atlanta chooses not to go with a quarterback in the first round, it would benefit greatly by fortifying either line of scrimmage. 

The Falcons are young on the offensive line with Kaleb McGary and Chris Lindstrom coming in as first-round picks in 2019, while center Matt Hennessy was picked in the 2020 draft and is slated to take over for Alex Mack. 

After that, defensive line has need for improvement. One of the main reasons Dimitroff is no longer in Atlanta was using first-round picks on defensive linemen Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley, who both fell way short of expectations. 

It’s going to a busy start to 2021 for Blank and McKay that will have such a huge impact on the immediate future in Atlanta. 

Smart hires for general manager and head coach, and accurate assessment of available college talent in the draft will have Atlanta back in the playoff picture, sooner than later.

If not, expect more lean years for the Falcons. 

Bill Murphy is sports editor of the Times. He can be reached at bmurphy@gainesvilletimes.com.

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