Julio Jones, receiver: Contract issues aside, no player means more to the Falcons’ success than Jones. When healthy, he’s arguably the most dominant offensive threat in the league with his speed and explosiveness. Over the past four seasons, Jones has averaged 103.6 receiving yards per game, 15.37 yards per reception and 4.9 first downs per game. Although Jones had just three touchdown receptions last season, folks have to consider the added defensive attention he typically draws and how that opens up one-on-one opportunities for others to make plays. Take Jones off the Falcons’ offense and it’s an average unit.
Matt Ryan, quarterback: Debate all you want about whether Ryan is among the elite group of quarterbacks — he’s still a guy plenty of franchises would love to have as the signal-caller. Ryan is known for his precision and has worked
hard to put a little more strength into his deep ball. The knock will continue to be whether he can win the big one, with a 4-7 postseason record and no Super Bowl title to his credit. But the Falcons didn’t make him the first player to $30 million per year, with $100 million guaranteed, for no reason. What Ryan needs to do is take more control of the offense in Year 2 under offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
Devonta Freeman, running back: Staying on the subject of offense, the Falcons’ success relies heavily on establishing a strong running game. Once Freeman and tag team partner Tevin Coleman get the defense going one way in the outside zone-blocking scheme, it sets up the play-action passes and big plays down the field. Freeman, a former fourth-round pick who now averages $8.25 million per year, always plays with a chip on his shoulder. He might have even more of an edge to him in 2018 coming off what he thought was a bad ’17 showing, marred by a significant knee injury. This also might be the last year of the Freeman-Coleman tag team combo, so the Falcons need as much production as possible from the two. And Freeman, who also has dealt with concussions, has to remain healthy.
Deion Jones, linebacker: A dominant defense typically has a strong leader. Jones, a Pro Bowler last season, has found his voice and made a tremendous impact in just 31 career games. Jones’ 4.4-second speed in the 40 and athleticism allow him to dominate in coverage, and he’s put more emphasis on being a sure tackler to compensate for being a bit undersized. Jones is the prototypical linebacker in today’s up-tempo game, the kind of player offensive coordinators plan against and defensive coordinators covet. The leadership of Jones in the middle, free safety Ricardo Allen on the back end and nose tackle Grady Jarrett up front will go a long way in defining defensive success.
Vic Beasley Jr., defensive end: Two seasons ago, Beasley led the league with 15.5 sacks while playing 644 defensive snaps. He also tied Bruce Irvin for the league lead with six forced fumbles that season. But last season, Beasley’s production dropped to five sacks and one forced fumble (456 snaps) as he missed a couple of games with a hamstring injury. He also was asked to play some strongside linebacker and drop into coverage, something that’s not exactly his strength. Now that he’s solely focused on playing defensive end, Beasley can concentrate on pressuring opposing quarterbacks and getting back in the habit of the strip sacks. Beasley and Takkarist McKinley rushing off the edges could be a devastating combo, with Jarrett one of the league’s best from the interior.