ATLANTA — New coach. New general manager. No Julio Jones.
The Atlanta Falcons have entered a new era, and it doesn't include the greatest receiver in franchise history.
Jones was dealt to the Tennessee Titans earlier this summer for a couple of draft picks, a move that helped the Falcons deal with a messy salary cap situation exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
It was also a clear signal that the Falcons, after pushing repeatedly to replicate their run to the Super Bowl in the 2016 season, have decided on a longer-term rebuilding job on the heels of a dismal 4-12 season.
The Falcons fired head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff after losing their first five games in 2020, stumbling to the finish of a third straight losing season with an interim coach.
"This is a great opportunity to build a foundation, to build a culture," said linebacker Brandon Copeland, part of the Falcons' bargain-basement class in free agency. "We may be starting from the ground up, but we plan on starting fast."
Team owner Arthur Blank has turned things over to a rookie head coach, former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, and former longtime New Orleans Saints executive Terry Fontenot, the first Black general manager in Falcons history.
Fontenot had to make plenty of tough decisions to get under the reduced salary cap, cutting ties with productive veterans such as safety Ricardo Allen and center Alex Mack. But the trade of Jones was the most stunning blow of all, depriving the Falcons of a seven-time Pro Bowl selection who has the most catches in franchise history (848) and shared the lead role with quarterback Matt Ryan.
The deal was generally panned by Atlanta fans who found it difficult to fathom the best Fontenot could get for Jones was a second-round pick. But the 32-year-old former University of Alabama star commands a huge salary and was coming off an injury-filled season in which he played only nine games. With the Falcons in need of cap relief and their star receiver making it clear he was ready to move on, Fontenot wasn't in much of a position to haggle.
Smith spent training camp and the preseason working extensively with younger, lesser-known players who may not make much of an impact this season. Ryan didn't play at all in the three preseason games, and most of the starters experienced little action.
Said Smith: "We've got a lot of young guys that we wanted to look at and need these game reps that we may not be relying on early, but chances and odds are we need them to play at some point for us this season, and especially next year."
It's yet another sign the Falcons are in full rebuilding mode.
With Jones now in Tennessee, Calvin Ridley steps into the unquestioned role as the Falcons' top receiver, and he seems up to the challenge coming off the best season of his three-year NFL career (90 catches, 1,374 yards, nine touchdowns). Also keep an eye on Russell Gage, who filled in capably while Jones was injured last season and finished with a career-best 72 receptions.
The Falcons passed on some more obvious needs to draft University of Florida tight end Kyle Pitts with the No. 4 overall pick. Fontenot said he couldn't pass on a dynamic talent such as Pitts, who is built like a tight end (6-foot-6, 245 pounds) but has the speed and skills of an outside receiver.
"He checks all the boxes," the new GM said.
Smith is counting on the rookie to create all sorts of matchup problems.
"This team is going to rise," Pitts said. "People may think we're a work in progress. But I think we've got the start to be a very good team during the year."
The Falcons are eager to find a running back who can provide more balance to the offense.
Former University of Georgia star Todd Gurley didn't pan out during his one year in Atlanta, so the team turned to former Carolina Panthers back Mike Davis. He did a solid job filling in for the injured Christian McCaffrey (642 rushing yards, 59 receptions) last season, but it's a bit of a red flag that this is the Atlanta native's fifth team in seven pro seasons.
The Falcons have a lot of work to do on both lines. On defense, they have struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, managing just 29 sacks last season. Former Jacksonville Jaguars and Los Angeles Rams outside linebacker Dante Fowler was a huge disappointment in his first season in Atlanta, totaling three sacks.
On offense, the guys up front have struggled to keep Ryan on his feet. The team needs big improvement from youngsters Matt Hennessy, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary to cut down on the number of sacks and hits on the veteran.
Still, Ryan has been one of the NFL's most durable quarterbacks, missing only three games in his 13-year career. The Falcons hope he can maintain that trend, even at age 36, because there are lots of questions behind him on the depth chart.
Veteran backup and former NFL starter Matt Schaub retired, and expected backup AJ McCarron went down with a season-ending knee injury in the second exhibition game. Days before the final preseason contest, the Falcons hastily brought in former Arizona Cardinals first-round pick Josh Rosen, who's already with his fifth team in four years. The only other quarterback on the roster was undrafted rookie Feleipe Franks.
ATLANTA FALCONS 2021 SCHEDULE
All times Eastern and p.m. unless noted
Sept. 12 — Philadelphia, 1 (Fox)
Sept. 19 — at Tampa Bay, 4:05 (Fox)
Sept. 26 — at N.Y. Giants, 1 (Fox)
Oct. 3 — Washington, 1 (Fox)
Oct. 10 — N.Y. Jets at London, 9:30 a.m. (NFLN)
Oct. 24 — at Miami, 1 (Fox)
Oct. 31 — Carolina, 1 p.m. (Fox)
Nov. 7 — at New Orleans, 1 (Fox)
Nov. 14 — at Dallas, 1 (Fox)
Nov. 18 — New England, 8:20 (Fox/NFLN/Amazon)
Nov. 28 — at Jacksonville, 1 (CBS)
Dec. 5 — Tampa Bay, 1 (Fox)
Dec. 12 — at Carolina, 1 (Fox)
Dec. 19 — at San Francisco, 4:05 (CBS)
Dec. 26 — Detroit, 1 (Fox)
Jan. 2 — at Buffalo, 1 (Fox)
Jan. 9 — New Orleans, 1 (Fox)