Two consecutive losing seasons resulted in the seven-year tenure of Mike Smith to come to an end quickly after the final game of the 2014 season. The defence in particular had been struggling and so it wasn’t a big surprise for the Falcons to look to an up and coming defensive coordinator candidate as his replacement. Dan Quinn, like the man he succeeded in Gus Bradley, parlayed success running the Seattle Seahawks defense into a head coaching appointment, taking over in Atlanta. The changes didn’t stop there however, with quarterback Matt Ryan working under a new offensive coordinator in Kyle Shanahan, following Dirk Koetter’s departure to the Buccaneers. Record: 8-8, 2nd in NFC South, 17th overall draft pick. Quinn and the Falcons looked a rejuvenated team to start the season, storming out of the gates by winning their first five games, and six of the first seven, a loss to the Saints in the Superdome the only blemish on the record. The defence, while still lacking in personnel in some areas, had shown some improvement. That said, the signs were there that this team was not as good as the record suggested. Despite some progress on D, they still allowed at least 19 points during the undefeated start, and four of the wins were narrow victories of six points or less. The week 7 win over the Titans that sent them to a 6-1 record, was a dire affair that they scraped 10-7. The wheels came off quickly after that, as a disastrous run of six straight defeats followed, including three losses to division rivals that ruined their playoff hopes. One positive in a second half to the season which had so few, was the notoriety of being the only team during the regular season to hand defeat to the runaway NFC South champion Carolina Panthers in week 16. The Falcons finished the year a relatively disappointing 8-8 without a playoff spot. On a more positive note, Quinn’s first season in charge was a bit of progress following a 4-12 then 6-10 record that led to his appointment. He’ll be expected to take the next step into the post-season in year two however. Offense: The Matt Ryan to Julio Jones connection continues to be one of the most productive QB to wide receiver combos in the league, with the latter of the pairing’s battle with Antonio Brown of the Steelers to try and break numerous NFL records an interesting sidebar over the course of the year. Matt Ryan continues to be a solid quarterback for the team, but his play was far from inspiring, failing to lift the team and take games by the scruff of the neck in clutch-requiring moments. His owner and coach are convinced he has what it takes to lead the team to a championship, but that remains to be seen. What certainly helps is the emergence of an effective running game, supplied by second year pro Devonta Freeman, who broke out in a massive way in 2015, particularly in the first half of the season. He was a touchdown-converting machine, with a stretch of 10 total TDs over a five-game period from week 2 through 6. While slowed by injuries later on in the year, he looked a stud, with fellow young back Tevin Coleman there to relieve him as well. The offensive line is still a bit of a work in progress, but in Jake Matthews they have a left tackle who is arguably already there as one of the best at the position in the league; they scored big with his selection a couple drafts ago. Opposite Matthews, Ryan Schraeder was a surprisingly efficient performer on the right. It’ll be interesting to see if he can be brought back at a reasonable price to continue a nice tackle tandem going forward. The big move this off-season so far sees the long 11-year run of Roddy White come to an inevitable end, after a decline on the field, and a big cap saving with no more guaranteed money either. He was an all-time great for the team, but the time was right. Defense: Dan Quinn and Richard Smith’s presence saw improvements from a poor unit in 2014 to a mostly-competent one in 2015, finishing fairly middle of the road in the league in points per game (14th) and yards allowed per game (16th), but still needs an influx of talent to take the next step. Linebacker Brooks Reed was one of the bigger signings the Falcons made in free agency last off-season, and thank goodness they did. The group overall is fairly limited and could be where the team looks to improve early in the draft in April. Another option is doubling down on first round pass rushers with a compliment to Vic Beasley, who flashed late in the year but not often, and getting to the quarterback continued to be a problem most of the year for Atlanta, finishing dead last in the NFL with just 19. Arguably the strength right now of the Falcons defence is in their secondary with the cornerbacks. Robert Alford is developing well and should continue to do so under Quinn, while Desmond Trufant deserves to be discussed among the best in the league right now. Considering how well the pair play without the compliment of a consistent pass rush, if the Falcons can improve that then they only become more effective. There’s the makings of a good defence here in Atlanta with the right moves this off-season with a smart coach to use those pieces effectively. Rookie Class: The team didn’t get a huge immediate payoff from their 2015 rookies this year. Beasley came in from Clemson with the 8th overall selection with a well-earned reputation for his explosive ability off the edge. While that only resulted in 4 sacks, that still led the team this year. He should improve in year two, in particularly if some help opposite is added. The afore-mentioned quality cornerbacks meant that second round pick Jalen Collins from LSU had limited opportunities, and in truth wasn’t ready to play much anyway, as a good athlete whose game is still raw. He’ll continue to have a minor role next year too barring injuries. Third rounder Tevin Coleman filled in nicely during Freeman’s absence, putting up 392 rush yards at a solid 4.5 yards per carry. Grady Jarrett arguably had a bigger impact than his fellow Clemson graduate. He looked a bargain at the time, and even more so now, playing well and seeing around 30%+ of snaps. Watch out for 4th round pick Justin Hardy to break out next season too. He may not have gotten much looks his rookie year, but had some hype around him all season. With White gone, he’ll have a shot to earn a bigger role in 2016. Overall: Continued progress in year two for the new head coach will be looked for, and more mental toughness after the mid-season collapse that won’t have sat well with owner Arthur Blanks. It won’t be easy though, as the Panthers will continue to be strong going forward, the Saints could well bounce back with the Brees-Payton team still in place, and the Bucs developing a talented young squad. The NFC South is looking a tough division top to bottom for the next few seasons. Matt Ryan has a point to prove, and if he can use that motivation positively, along with some pieces on defence, perhaps getting back to a winning record for the first time since 2012 and a return to the playoffs will be on the cards for 2016.