Overlooked Atlanta Falcons Are NFC's Biggest 2020 Sleeper

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 13, 2020

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 15: Quarterback Matt Ryan #2 and wide receiver Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons talk on the sidlines during the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium on December 15, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers are the reigning NFC champions, and they look even stronger on paper this summer. 

The New Orleans Saints have won three consecutive NFC South crowns and are the winningest team in football dating back to 2017. 

The Seattle Seahawks haven't endured a losing season in nearly a decade and are always a contender with quarterback Russell Wilson

The Los Angeles Rams are 16 months removed from a Super Bowl run, the Philadelphia Eagles' roster remains loaded with championship pedigree, the Minnesota Vikings are coming off a playoff run of their own, the Green Bay Packers can't be counted out as long as they have Aaron Rodgers, the star-stacked Dallas Cowboys aren't flying under anyone's radar, and the retooled Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals are both, in the words of Mugatu, "so hot right now."

None of those 10 teams won more games during the second half of the 2019 NFL season than the Atlanta Falcons, and yet none have lower Super Bowl odds than an Atlanta team that is listed as a 25-1 shot to win the NFC in 2020. 

Those odds suggest the public is viewing Atlanta similarly to the Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears and New York Giants, which is a tremendous oversight considering those teams won a combined 15 games last year.

The Falcons are the conference's Rodney Dangerfield this offseason. They deserve more respect and attention after winning six of their last eight games and outscoring the competition by the second-highest margin in the conference during that stretch. 

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I understand there's probably a fear that finish was fool's gold. I get that the Falcons might seem untrustworthy considering their lack of consistency ever since losing Super Bowl LI in horrific fashion. They've been stumbling as a result of that, and they've often been ravaged by injuries in recent years. 

But last year's shocking late-season run—which included thrilling road victories over the Super Bowl-bound 49ers and the juggernaut Saints—might be an indication the Falcons have finally recovered from that demoralizing blow. 

The prospect has to be intriguing to those who are hoping the team has another run in it with a core similar to the one that averaged an absurd 33.8 points per game in 2016. Who's to say the Falcons can't rediscover that groove with 2016 MVP quarterback Matt Ryan and superstar receiver Julio Jones leading the way?

John Bazemore/Associated Press

Throw in six-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, and the three players whom Pro-Football-Reference deemed to be the most valuable from that 2016 team remain on the roster. The Falcons also still have head coach Dan Quinn, left tackle Jake Matthews and key defenders Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones and Keanu Neal. 

But because the Falcons were technically 7-9 in 2019, and because their offseason has been boring relative to the splashy Buccaneers and Cardinals, nobody's really talking about Ryan, Quinn and Co. right now. 

Still, considering their salary-cap constraints, there was a lot to like about the Falcons' offseason.

After only one team registered fewer sacks last year, they upgraded the pass rush by essentially swapping out the disappointing 27-year-old Vic Beasley Jr. (18 sacks the last three years) for high-ceiling 25-year-old Dante Fowler Jr. (9.5 sacks in his last 10 games). They also added 2018 first-team All-Pro running back Todd Gurley on a low-risk deal. And while they could miss departed Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper, replacement Hayden Hurst was a first-round pick just two years ago. 

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 22:  Hayden Hurst #81 of the Baltimore Ravens lines up for a play during the game against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 22, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. Baltimore defeated Cleveland 31-15. (Photo by Kirk Irwi
Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

The 26-year-old former Baltimore Raven became expendable due to the presence of Mark Andrews, but he was one of just five qualified tight ends to average at least 11.0 yards per reception and catch at least 75.0 percent of the passes thrown his way last year.

Ryan is fired up about him. 

"I've been incredibly impressed with Hayden's work ethic," the 35-year-old quarterback said this week, per Kelsey Conway of the team's official website. "He's got great speed, great athleticism. Wants to be a great player … the effort, the attitude all of that stuff is there. He fits in well with the group of guys we have."

Hurst has star potential, Ryan has borderline Hall of Fame credentials, Jones is a seven-time Pro Bowler, and 2018 first-round pick Calvin Ridley has gone over 800 yards in each of his first two seasons, compiling 17 touchdown receptions in the process. Toss in Gurley's exceptional skill set as a rusher and receiver, and you have a skill-position group that could do significant damage. 

Protection and continuity along the offensive line have been issues in recent years, but 2019 first-round picks Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary flashed down the stretch as rookies and look primed to take off in support of Mack and Matthews. 

The defense might still be viewed as a liability, but they surrendered only 18.6 points per game during that hot second half last year. Fowler should help up front, Jarrett is excellent, and there's still hope for 2017 first-round defensive lineman Takkarist McKinley. Jones looks to be back on track after a foot injury derailed his 2018 campaign, and Neal should be on pace to return from an Achilles injury. 

They've also been hit particularly hard by injuries on that side of the ball the last couple years, and the law of averages will eventually favor them in that realm. It could also help that they used their top two draft picks on defensive players A.J. Terrell and Marlon Davidson. 

The Falcons might have more potential flaws than some of the NFC's so-called elite teams, but they also have a scary, overlooked combination of playoff pedigree and balanced talent. Ruling them out would be foolish.

     

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon