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49ers opponents 2016: Can Falcons build on big years from Devonta Freeman, Julio Jones

Our review of the San Francisco 49ers 2016 opponents continues on with the Atlanta Falcons.

49ers opponents: Cowboys | Panthers

The 2016 NFL Combine gets going next week, and we are less than three weeks away from the start of free agency. Since news is going to start picking up shortly, I thought it was a good time to begin our annual review of the San Francisco 49ers upcoming opponents.

We will be providing three breakdowns. This first one will review the previous season for each team. It will also include a list of each team's free agents, and a look at some potential needs heading into free agency and the draft. The second one will come in April, providing a look at where teams are at following free agency, and what the draft means for each team. The third set will come in July, providing a recap of the offseason and a look ahead to training camp for each team.

We started with the Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers, and now move on to the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons jumped out to a 5-0 start, but after splitting their next two games, they lost six straight to fall out of the playoff race. They finished the season 8-8 after winning two straight in December. The highlight of their season likely ended up as being the only team to beat the Carolina Panthers prior to Super Bowl 50.

The offense had two big stories in 2015. We already knew Julio Jones was a great wide receiver, but he followed up a great 2014 with an absurd 2015. He had 136 receptions for 1,871 yards, both of which were good for No. 2 all-time among single season performances.

Second-year running back Devonta Freeman surpassed rookie Tevin Coleman after the latter suffered a rib injury in Week 2. Between Week 3 and Week 8, Freeman averaged a little over 5.1 yards per rush, putting up 666 yards and eight touchdowns. He hit a hall after Week 8, surpassing 4.0 yards per rush one time, although Falcons fans seem to blame that more on the offensive line.

Quarterback Matt Ryan remains a story that seems unresolved. He can put up big numbers, but the debate rages on as to whether he can lead the Falcons to the promised land. They've got some serious weapons on offense, and if they can add some talent on the offensive line, he seems capable of being part of an eventual Super Bowl champ. But he needs more around him.

The pass defense did a fairly decent job, finishing in the middle of the pack in points allowed and various total yardage stats. Football Outsiders ranked the pass defense 21st, and the run defense 25th on the season. First round pick Vic Beasley emerged as a solid pass-rushing threat, and the defense will be looking for big things from him heading into his second season. Second round pick CB Jalen Collins was unable to work his way into the lineup, but should get more opportunities in 2016.

Free Agents

Unrestricted free agents: S William Moore, DT Paul Soliai, OG Chris Chester, ILB Justin Durant, DE Adrian Clayborn, DE Kroy Biermann, C Gino Gradkowski, OT Jake Long, OT Bryce Harris, CB Phillip Adams, TE Tony Moeaki, OLB Philip Wheeler, S Charles Godfrey, FB Collin Mooney, CB Travis Howard, K Shayne Graham

Restricted free agents: ILB Paul Worrilow, OT Ryan Schraeder, OLB Nate Stupar

Exclusive rights free agents: S Ricardo Allen

The Falcons most notable unrestricted free agents are players they have elected to release, including William Moore, Paul Soliai and Justin Durant. Chris Chester is the most notable player hitting the market that is not due to being released. He started at right guard, and the Falcons will need to shore up their offensive line. Adrian Clayborn did some solid things on a one-year contract, and I im

Potential Needs

The offensive line has been much maligned, so look for the Falcons to invest heavily, particularly on the interior. Our friends at The Falcoholic put together a look at team needs, and they all agreed linebacker was a big need. They need at least one in the middle who can help in coverage, but could also use more pass rush help.

The decision to release safety William Moore opens the door to competition there. 2013 seventh round pick Kemal Ishmael took over Moore's starting duties late in the season, but the team could still elect to find another safety in free agency or the draft.

The Falcons could end up cutting wide receiver Roddy White as they look to get younger and cheaper at the wide receiver position. The Falcons have the 17th pick of the first round in April's NFL Draft, which opens the door to a few possibilities. They don't really have the arsenal to make any big day one moves up the draft board, but they could very well decide to move down. They are without a fifth round pick this year due to punishment for pumping in crowd noise at the Georgia Dome. They could move back in a round or two to pick up some later picks.