Coming off one of the worst seasons in recent memory, in both wins and morale, it shouldn’t be too surprising that only four Falcons made USA Today’s Top 101. This list is more intriguing than most top 100 player lists because Doug Farrar and Mark Schofield used something most lists don’t consider. They compiled 14 different lists of the best players at every position then used those lists to compile the 101 best players, forcing themselves to stick to players they had named in the positional lists to avoid overdoing “skill position players” at the expense of slot cornerbacks, guards, and interior defensive linemen.
“Jones also has great man and zone coverage skills for a linebacker, as we saw back in 2019,” writes USA Today. “While he was picked on a bit more in coverage last season — he allowed an NFL passer rating of 103.8 when targeted, the worst number of his career — he still notched a pair of interceptions and three pass breakups. If his coverage numbers return to form, he’ll appear even higher on lists like this next summer.”
It is refreshing to see a list not skip over the fact that Debo is still one of the best linebackers in this league. Last season was a tale of two stories — before and after Dan Quinn was fired. Once Raheem Morris became interim head coach and Jeff Ulbrich was named defensive coordinator, there was a clear difference in Jones’ production. Before Quinn was fired (weeks 1-5), Jones recorded 37 total tackles, 0.5 sacks, two TFL, and one QB hit. After Morris took over (weeks 6-17), Jones saw an uptick in every statistic — 69 total tackles, 4.0 sacks, seven TFL, nine QB hits, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), six passes defended, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery.
Dean Pees will surely use Jones similarly as Todd Bowles uses Devin White as a blitzer, but Pees is much more deceptive as a play designer, and his system could catapult Jones back to the Pro Bowl. Falcons linebackers coach Frank Bush knows how experienced he is as a blitzer and will lean on him for their multiple defense.
“Last season was by far his most productive NFL campaign,” writes USA Today, “as he set career-high marks in targets (137), receptions (90), yards (1,374) and yards per reception (15.3). With the departure of Julio Jones, there is every reason to think that next year could be even bigger.”
I expect this ranking to be several spots lower next season because Ridley is an elite wide receiver in this league as he caught 90 passes for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 109 yards per game during the seven games Julio Jones missed, resulting in second-team All-Pro honors. He’s one of the best route runners in the league, and I fully expect Arthur Smith to hone in on exactly what Ridley does well.
“Sure, the Falcons traded away Julio Jones this off-season,” says USA Today, “but with the addition of Kyle Pitts and Ryan still playing at a high level, this could remain a potent offense.”
In the Flying Coach podcast hosted by Sean McVay and Peter Schrager, Arthur Smith had a fascinating conversation about the role Matt Ryan played in Smith’s decision to become the head coach for the Falcons. Shrager asked Smith how much Matt Ryan played a role in him wanting to be in Atlanta. “It was a big factor; I’ve always been a fan of Matt Ryan from afar… I’m just so impressed with how he [Ryan] handles himself, and he wants to be coached, and Ryan [Tannehill] was the same way. But they are different players, and they both have their strengths… When you’ve got players like that, who come in there and work hard, and Matt’s going into year 14, thrown for 55,000 passing yards, he comes in here, and I imagine he works as hard as he did when he was a rookie. It’s unique. It sounds so simple, but Sean [McVay] can tell you not everybody does that. So that was a big part of it as well.” Matt Ryan is a damn good quarterback, and in a competent system, he’ll remind the NFL of that.
“Jarrett has been an absolute force throughout his NFL career,” writes USA Today. 2020 showed more of the same, as Jarrett totaled four sacks, 17 quarterback hits, 35 quarterback hurries, and 26 stops with very little help alongside him. Jarrett is able to win consistently inside the guards because he’s freakishly strong for his 6-foot-0, 305-pound frame, but he also brings a formidable quickness to his pass rush.”
By far and away, the Falcons best player is Grady Jarrett, though I feel as if he is still getting disrespected. According to ESPN Analytics, Jarrett ranked third (19%) in pass-rush win-rate among interior defenders behind Chris Jones (20%) and Aaron Donald (24%) and ahead of guys like Cameron Heyward and DeForest Buckner — both ranked higher than Jarrett on the list. Some might point towards their ability to defend the run as to why Heyward and Buckner are ranked higher than Jarrett, but the analytics wouldn’t corroborate that notion. The former Clemson Tiger ranks eighth (39%) in run-stop win-rate among interior defenders, which is better than every defender ranked ahead of Jarrett on the list at his position.