By Shawn Lealos
The Atlanta Falcons drafted Matt Ryan back in 2008 and he led them straight to the playoffs. However, something happened in the years that followed and the Falcons lost their momentum. By the time they made the playoffs again this year, they had missed the postseason for three straight years. Changes needed to be made to get them back to the top, and everything finally came together in 2016, sending the Falcons to their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
Here is a look at the Atlanta Falcons’ roster moves that helped them make it back to the playoffs.
Atlanta Falcons Sign Dan Quinn
The first move that brought the Falcons back to respectability was hiring a new head coach before the 2015 NFL season. Mike Smith’s first season as head coach was also Matt Ryan’s first year with the team. He rode Ryan to success early, but started to lose players and missed the playoffs in two straight seasons. After leading the Seattle Seahawks defense to two straight Super Bowl appearances as their coordinator, Quinn got his first head coaching job with the Falcons and began to make changes.
Atlanta Falcons Sign Kyle Shanahan
The next biggest step was changing who was calling plays on offense. That man was Kyle Shanahan, the son of legendary head coach Mike Shanahan, who had coached at Houston, Washington and Cleveland. In Atlanta, everything clicked and he helped turn Matt Ryan into an MVP-candidate with the second-ranked offense of 2016. The Super Bowl will be Shanahan’s final game with Atlanta, as the San Francisco 49ers will reportedly hire him as their head coach for the 2017 NFL season.
Devonta Freeman – 4th Round Draft Pick, 2014
The final draft for Mike Smith produced one of the top weapons that the Atlanta Falcons had on their team this season. Devonta Freeman was a fourth-round draft pick and has paid off tremendously. In 2016, he enjoyed his second straight 1,000-yard season and remains one of the top receivers as well. Over the last two seasons, Freeman has averaged 1,070 rushing yards, 520 receiving yards and 13.5 touchdowns a season. In 2015, the Falcons also added Tevin Coleman in the third round and used a two-headed rushing attack.
Vic Beasley – 1st Round Draft Pick, 2015
With Quinn as a defensive coach, he looked to fix that side of the ball first. The No. 1 draft pick was linebacker Vic Beasley. After performing like a rookie in 2015, with four sacks and 26 tackles, Beasley became the leader of this defense in 2016. Beasley finished his second season with a league-leading 15.5 sacks and added six forced fumbles with 34 total tackles. He was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2016, although he will gladly miss it as a member of a Super Bowl team.
Deion Jones – 2nd Round Draft Pick, 2016
While the Atlanta Falcons were hoping that Beasley would finally turn things up in his second season, not many people expected their 2016 second round pick to do the same in his rookie season. Deion Jones was drafted out of LSU and finished the season leading the Falcons with 108 total tackles. He never picked up a sack, but finished his rookie season with three interceptions, two returned for a touchdown.
Mohamed Sanu – Free Agent, 2016
The Atlanta Falcons had a fantastic wide receiver in Julio Jones, but they rode Roddy White too hard for too long and he was no longer able to help take pressure off Jones in the offense. That’s when the Falcons signed Cincinnati Bengals free agent Mohamed Sanu. After a down season in 2015, Sanu looked to revive his career in Atlanta and was successful beyond expectations. He finished the year with 59 receptions for 653 yards and four touchdowns, but more importantly, he was a legitimate target that helped Julio Jones and was able to fill in with little drop in talent when Jones was out injured.