Can Todd Gurley, Dante Fowler help the Falcons back to the playoffs?

NFL

It seemed only appropriate when recently acquired Falcons defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. took to social media Thursday and nudged his “big brother” Todd Gurley to join him in Atlanta.

The former Los Angeles Rams teammates, who played in Super Bowl LIII together at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, only to lose to New England, certainly are thirsty for a championship ring. So are the title-less Falcons, who lost to those same Patriots two years prior and remain in a Super Bowl hangover.

So with Fowler bolstering the pass rush and Gurley the running game, will it be enough for the Falcons to compete against Drew Brees and now Tom Brady in the NFC South? That remains unclear.

This is a critical year for Falcons coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. They were spared from being fired after back-to-back 7-9 seasons because owner Arthur Blank was satisfied with the improvement in the second half of last season, when Atlanta went 6-2 over the final eight games. But Blank is far from content with mediocrity. He said the playoffs “definitely” are the standard for this year’s version of the Falcons.

In the same breath, Blank made clear what he thought the top offseason priority should be: personnel.

“No matter who it is, very few quarterbacks — almost no quarterbacks — play better when running around thinking about their lives as opposed to their livelihood, so you want to continue to put pressure on them,” Blank told ESPN.

In steps Fowler, who received a three-year, $48 million contract and brings unique explosiveness and bend off the edge, along with good handwork. The Falcons were near the bottom of the league in sacks last season with 28 total and didn’t consistently pressure opponents, which contributed to a 1-7 start. Brady joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers only emphasizes the need for a formidable pass rush. If he has all day to throw, he can pick apart any defense. Same for Brees in New Orleans. Not to mention new Carolina starter Teddy Bridgewater, who has elusiveness to make plays out of the pocket.

One of the important factors against both Brees and Brady will be getting pressure up the middle, since they both have the awareness to step up when pressured off the edge. The Falcons have one of the best interior rushers in Pro Bowl defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. They probably need to add one more interior rusher along with another defensive end, with the team not completely sold on erratic Takk McKinley just yet.

As for Gurley, his production speaks for itself: 5,404 rushing yards, 58 rushing touchdowns, 2,090 receiving yards and 12 touchdown receptions. The skepticism revolves around his left knee and whether it’s healthy enough for him to be the explosive force he has been. In signing Gurley to a one-year deal, it’s obvious the Falcons want him to prove himself. They signed three-time Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson from the Rams in 2013, and that experiment didn’t work out. Gurley doesn’t have as much mileage as Jackson did when he signed, but there’s no getting around the knee concerns with Gurley.

What Gurley should benefit from is not having to carry the Atlanta offense. The Falcons have onetime MVP Matt Ryan, perennial Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones, budding superstar Calvin Ridley and possibly a hidden gem in newly added tight end Hayden Hurst. Gurley just needs to fit in and give the Falcons some semblance of a running game — and some power runs — after they finished 30th in the league in rushing last season (85.1 yards per game).

“I think he’s still a good short-yardage and red zone back, I really do,” one NFC scout said.

The other running backs as of right now are Ito Smith, Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison.

However the carries are distributed, providing offensive balance is key. Arguably the Falcons’ best effort last season, a 26-9 win at New Orleans, featured 35 pass attempts for 182 yards and 34 rushes for 143 yards, keeping Brees off the field enough to minimize his impact. The defense did its part that day too, sacking Brees six times.

Even with Fowler and Gurley, there’s work to be done. The Falcons need to shore up the offensive line, particularly at left guard. They need to continue to build the defensive line, perhaps with the 16th overall pick in the draft. They need a starting-caliber cornerback to add alongside promising youngsters Kendall Sheffield and Isaiah Oliver after releasing veteran Desmond Trufant. And they probably need to consider grooming an explosive rookie running back despite the addition of Gurley.

“You see what happens when we get through free agency and we get through the draft,” said Ryan, who is entering his 13th season. “You kind of evaluate what our 53 [roster] is going to look like, what we’re going to look like on the offensive side of the ball. You start to look at things better when you know who all is going to be in the building.”

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