The Atlanta Falcons offense made tremendous leaps forward between 2015 and 2016. In 2015, Atlanta scored 21.2 points per game (21st in football). In the second season under Kyle Shanahan, that number jumped to 33.8. They were the seventh highest scoring offense in NFL history. This season, the offense finished first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA; they finished 23rd last season.
While it may not be likely that we see a single unit progress the way Atlanta’s offense did this past season, every year teams make significant leaps, while others take steps back. Denver’s defense jumped from 15th in the league to fourth in 2014 (per DVOA). Seattle’s offense jumped from 22nd in 2011 to fourth in 2012 large due to the addition of Russell Wilson (also per DVOA). Here I will break down some of the positional unit candidates to make significant improvements from this season to 2017.
What Positional Unit Will Be the 2016 Atlanta Offense Next Year?
The Miami offense fits the 2016 Falcons mold nearly perfectly. If Kyle Shanahan is the best offensive play caller in the NFL, Adam Gase has to be top five. Prior to Matt Ryan‘s 2016 MVP season, him and Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill looked like very similar middle-of-the-road starters. It took Ryan into his second season with Shanahan to completely figure out the system. Tannehill just finished his first season with Gase. With the astronomic rise of Jay Ajayi and the addition of Kenyan Drake – an explosive third round pick from 2016 – both teams display a set of dynamic young running backs. While Miami has no Julio Jones, their receiving corps of Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, and Kenny Stills is as dynamic as any in the league. This offense finished 14th in DVOA in Gase’s first season, they should be even better next year. Look for Tannehill and the Miami offense to take significant leaps heading into 2017.
Exotic smash-mouth. The Titans love using the phrase to describe their unique, ever-evolving running schemes. Modifying some themes that Carolina runs with Cam Newton, the threat of Marcus Mariota keeping the ball (even though he carried only 60 times in 2016) helps open holes for Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry. This system helped Marcus Mariota’s development as a passer, giving him more time in the pocket and one of the more effective play action themes in the league. Mariota will be entering his third year in the league, and will likely be asked to throw the ball more in 2017. His ability to continue to improve at reading defenses and diagnosing pre-snap reads will be critical. Additionally, adding an elite receiving threat – potentially Alshon Jeffery in free agency or Mike Williams with the fifth pick – would take this offense to the next level.
The next Falcons offense is the Falcons defense? Potentially. The Falcons sported the youngest defense in the league last season. They weren’t great (finished 27th in DVOA), but they held their own in the playoffs. During the Super Bowl run, they held Seattle to 20 points, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to 21. In the Super Bowl they held the Patriots to three first half points. Remarkably, when Atlanta went to nickel this season, six of the 11 players on the field were in their first or second season. Each of these players will have more experience this upcoming season, and Dan Quinn will be in his third season implementing his Seattle defense in Atlanta. Returning one of the best cover corners in the league in Desmond Trufant will only help this young team improve. Expect Atlanta’s defense to make significant strides in 2017.
During the 2016 offseason, the Bears made significant moves to upgrade the defensive front seven. In addition to drafting Leonard Floyd with the ninth pick, they signed veterans Danny Trevathan, Pernell McPhee, and Jerrell Freeman in free agency. However, the Bears only finished 22nd in defensive DVOA. If the Bears avoid drafting a quarterback with the third pick, they will likely have their choice of the elite defensive talents. Jonathan Allen, Malik Hooker, or Jamal Adams all fill positions of need in Chicago. The secondary definitely needs work – Cre’Von LeBlanc, Tracy Porter, and Sherrick McManis don’t exactly scare people at corner. However, the development of Floyd plus the increased consistency along the front seven should help bolster this defense.