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49ers opponent preview: Falcons, Giants, and schedule wrap-up

In the fourth, and final, part of our 2015 opponent preview, we take a look at the Giants and Falcons before wrapping up the schedule as a whole and making some predictions.

Today we’re wrapping up our preview of the San Francisco 49ers’ 2015 opponents by checking in on the Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants before recapping the schedule as a whole. If you’ve missed them, you can catch-up on the first three parts of the opponent preview at the following links: NFC West, AFC North, NFC North.

Atlanta Falcons

After a 6–10 season that had the Falcons slotted in the top 10 of the NFL draft in back-to-back seasons, the Mike Smith era finally came to an end in Atlanta this offseason. The first order of business for new head coach, and former Seahawks defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn was rebuilding a defense that declined in each of the past three seasons under Smith.

Atlanta shed over 3,700 snaps from a defense that ranked as the league’s worst in 2014 according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. The most notable additions came via the draft, where the Falcons added three pieces they hope can become the foundation of Quinn’s defense in the coming years. With the No. 8 overall selection, Atlanta added edge rusher Vic Beasley, who was highly praised by both the draftnik and analytics communities entering the draft. Though the Falcons also added depth options O’Brien Schofield and Adrian Clayborn in free agency, the burden to improve a perennially terrible pass rush — the Falcons haven’t ranked higher than 23rd in adjusted sack rate since 2008 — will largely fall on the explosive rookie out of Clemson.

LSU product Jalen Collins was added in the second round. While not without his concerns, Collins has the size and speed that everyone is looking for at the cornerback position. We don’t yet know if Quinn will be as successful developing defensive backs as his boss back in Seattle has been, but if he can round Collins into shape the Falcons will be able to pair him with the underrated Desmond Trufant and boast one of the better cornerback tandems in football.

In the fifth round, the Falcons landed a player many felt would be selected a day earlier with Beasley’s Clemson teammate Grady Jarrett, who should slot into the Brandon Mebane role in Quinn’s 4–3 under defense. Though built like a nose tackle, Jarrett is far from a stationary space-eater in the middle, possessing the quickness and athleticism to make plays in the backfield, a trait Atlanta desperately needs. In addition to the problems bringing the quarterback down, the Falcons were the third-worst team in football when it came to stopping the ballcarrier for no gain or a loss. There’s still a lot of work to be done defensively, but the quartet of Trufant, Beasley, Collins, and Jarrett provides a good start toward dragging this unit out of the basement.

Offensively, the Falcons should have no issues putting out an above average unit as long as Matt Ryan is on the field — even when Julio Jones missed the majority of the season in 2013, the Falcons ranked 14th in offensive DVOA. Depth at receiver is a concern, especially with Roddy White undergoing elbow surgery at the beginning of his age–34 season, but as long as Julio and Ryan are around, this should be a top–10 passing offense. They’ll be helped by the additions of Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki, who aren’t exactly splashy additions, but should bring some competence to the tight end position that Levine Toilolo could not in life after Tony Gonzalez. And if recently drafted ballcarriers Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman can improve upon the low bar set by Steven Jackson over the past two seasons, when he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, it’s not a stretch to imagine this unit improving on their top–10 finish from a year ago.

There’s also a solid statistical case for improvement from the Falcons in 2015. Much like we discussed with the Bears, teams that bottom out and fire their head coaches have a tendency to improve in their first season under the new head coach when some unsustainable areas of their performance rebound a bit. The Falcons don’t have quite as strong of a case as the Bears do, but they did go 2–4 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2014, underperforming their Pythagorean expectation by over a full game, both of which are strong indicators for improvement in the following campaign.

With the NFC East and AFC South on the docket this season, Football Outsiders projects the Falcons to play the league’s easiest schedule in 2015. If Quinn can extract competence from this group right away, and Ryan and Julio remain healthy, the Falcons have a legitimate opportunity to finish atop of a division that has no clear frontrunner.

New York Giants

In last year’s opponent preview, I noted that the Giants looked primed to resume their 9–7 ways after falling below .500 for the first time since Tom Coughlin’s first season running the show back in 2004. Eli Manning’s interception rate ballooned to a career-worst 4.9 percent, contributing to a turnover differential that collapsed from the fourth-best margin in 2012 (plus–14) to the second-worst margin in 2013 (minus–15). New York also suffered injuries at a historic rate, recording the highest adjusted games lost (144.6) that Football Outsiders has ever measured. As long as Manning returned to throwing interceptions at a rate more in line with his career average (3.3%), and the Giants’ injury report resembled something even remotely approaching league norms, they seemed like a safe bet to get back to the fringes of the playoff race.

New offensive coordinator Bob McAdoo’s offense put more emphasis on the short-passing game and Manning did turn the ball over far less frequently, chopping his interception rate by more than half (2.3%). That helped the Giants’ turnover differential stabilize at a more reasonable minus–2. However, it didn’t have the affect on New York’s final record that you would have expected because the Giants continued to defy logic when it comes to injuries, following up their recording-setting AGL with the second-highest figure (137.1) in Football Outsiders’ database. And improbably, New York’s 2015 injury list is already growing before they’ve played even a single regular season contest.

Left tackle Will Beatty suffered a torn pectoral and will miss at least half of the season. The reshuffling up front as a result of his absence has left the offensive line as a significant question mark in what otherwise appears to be a very good offense. First-round pick Ereck Flowers will now be forced to shift over to Beatty’s spot, which puts Marshall Newhouse into the starting lineup at right tackle. Many thought Flowers would kick inside to guard in the NFL entering the draft, and Newhouse was Jonathan Martin-level bad last year with the Bengals, so it’s hard to imagine the Giants being very pleased with their starting tackle tandem.

New York’s other gaping hole is at safety, where a very underwhelming group is already a man down. Fifth-rounder Mykkele Thompson was going to be competing for the starting free safety position after the Giants lost every notable safety on their roster early in the offseason. Thompson obviously wasn’t going to be a sure thing as a late-round selection himself, but New York’s depth chart at safety now consists of second-round pick Landon Collins, who profiles as more of an in-the-box type, and a bunch of day-three picks (Cooper Taylor and Bennett Jackson) or journeyman free agents (Stevie Brown and Brandon Meriweather).

Beatty and Thompson have suffered the most significant injuries, but they’re hardly the only Giants dealing with health issues entering the start of the regular season. Victor Cruz, Jason Pierre-Paul, and linebackers Jon Beason and Jameel McClain are all dealing with ailments that threaten to keep them out of the regular-season opener against the Cowboys.

If the Giants continue to suffer injuries at the abnormal rate they have dealt with for the past several seasons, it’s nearly impossible to predict what will happen with this team. If we presume some reasonable level of health, the offense has a chance to be very good in their second season running McAdoo’s offense. Despite his laughable moments and tendency to throw his team out of one or two games a season by turning the ball over five times (the way he did against the 49ers last year), Eli Manning is a more-than-capable starting quarterback and his ability to get rid of the ball quickly should help overcome some of the issues with the offensive line.

Manning also has a talented group of skill position players around him that includes the league’s most exciting wideout from last season in Odell Beckham Jr., and versatile space player Shane Vereen, who came over from the Patriots this offseason.

The Giants are perennially short-handed at linebacker, and 2015 is no different, particularly if Beason and McClain spend any significant amount of time on the sideline. If you can name even a single other linebacker on the roster without looking it up, you better be related to one of them or you might need to seek help for spending too much time perusing the NFL’s most meaningless roster transactions. We’ve already addressed their issues at safety, but if a nine-fingered JPP can lead another quality Giants defensive line, they can hope to be at least below-average on defense in 2015.

At the end of the day, the only things we can reasonably assume when the 49ers travel to the Meadowlands in Week 5 is that Tom Coughlin will be the head coach and Eli Manning will be lining up under center. Everything else is up in the air.

Schedule Wrap-up

Now that we’ve previewed all 13 opponents on the 49ers’ schedule, how does it stack up against the rest of the league? Well, if you’ve been reading along so far (if you’ve missed them, you can catch-up on the first three parts of the opponent preview at the following links: NFC West, AFC North, NFC North), you can probably guess that the schedule won’t be doing the 49ers any favors this season.

Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 projects the 49ers to face the second-most difficult schedule this season, narrowly behind the Cardinals. Chase Stuart of Football Perspective, using implied SRS ratings based on Vegas odds, projects San Francisco to have a similarly difficult schedule. Facing a tough slate of opponents is nothing new for the 49ers, of course. They’ve played a schedule that’s ranked among the 10-most difficult in each of the past three seasons according to Football Outsiders. However, it’s one more hurdle to overcome for a team that has ton of questions to answer entering the season.

Finally, here’s a chart showing each of San Francisco’s 2015 opponents, their 2014 record, and whether I expect their win total to improve or decline in 2015: