The Atlanta Falcons are coming off a rough 2018 campaign in which they won just seven games, two years after making the Super Bowl. Last season also marked the first time they missed the playoffs since 2015.
Yet, with a talented offense and some pieces returning from injuries, the Falcons could be a sleeper contender in 2019.
We know about Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, who represent one of the most lethal quarterback-receiver combinations in football, but what are some of the X-factors on the roster heading into the season?
Here are three that could make all the difference in whether Atlanta returns to contention:
3. The Health of Devonta Freeman
Devonta Freeman played just two games this past year due to both knee and groin injuries, the latter of which resulted in surgery. Now, Freeman is on the mend and should be good to go for Week 1.
During the Falcons’ run to the Super Bowl in the 2016 season, Freeman racked up 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards per carry. In addition, he hauled in 54 receptions for 462 yards and a couple of scores en route to the Pro Bowl.
Obviously, Freeman is a huge piece of an impressive Atlanta offense when he is right, and his absence this past year definitely put a damper on things.
With a really good quarterback, a very deep receiver corps, and a decent offensive line, a healthy Freeman could be the difference between a good offense and a great offense.
2. The Return of Deion Jones
Linebacker Deion Jones played in just six games this past year due to injuries, and the Falcons missed him dearly on the defensive side of the ball.
In the first two seasons of his career in 2016 and 2017, Jones was one of the most dominant linebackers in football, totaling a league-leading 165 tackles in 2016 and registering 138 tackles en route to a Pro Bowl campaign in 2017.
Atlanta ranked ninth in defense in 2017, but with Jones missing more than half of the season in 2018, the Falcons’ defense dipped to 28th in yards allowed and gave up 26.4 points per game.
With Jones on his way back, Atlanta is regaining a critical piece of its defense, and while the Falcons still have plenty of issues on the defensive side of the ball, Jones’ return will make things better.
1. Can Calvin Ridley Improve?
Calvin Ridley had a spectacular rookie campaign in 2018, hauling in 64 receptions for 821 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Now, imagine if he improves this coming season?
The Falcons could have the best receiver corps in football in 2019 with Jones, Ridley and Mohamed Sanu, not to mention tight end Austin Hooper.
Considering that Jones may be the best wideout in the game and that Sanu is a proven veteran, a jump from Ridley can make Atlanta’s aerial attack nearly unstoppable.
It’s a very realistic possibility, too, which will given Ryan a plethora of options to target. Atlanta will be able to stretch the field and put defenses in impossible situations on a continuous basis.
This Falcons team might be really, really good in 2019, and if Ridley continues to develop, look out.