There is never a dull moment for The Athletic’s Atlanta Falcons beat reporter Tori McElhaney.
After garnering the role, she immediately became the beat writer for the Falcons. In her first year as a beat reporter for the franchise, McElhaney observed the most tumultuous season in recent memory for the Falcons.
“Going into the season, I never thought that it would be this crazy,” McElhaney said. “From Dan Quinn being fired and going 4-12, this was a nightmare season.”
Nightmare is correct as not only did the Falcons fail to make the playoffs, they’re cap-strapped and facing an uncertain future with veteran quarterback Matt Ryan. The Falcons are currently $15 million over the cap and will be hard-pressed in free agency on March 17. The new regime will need to be creative to navigate the precarious cap situation for the upcoming season.
The Falcons are picking fourth overall in the NFL Draft, as a new regime takes hold in Atlanta.
Former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith is the new head coach, and former New Orleans Saints pro-scout Terry Fontenot is the general manager. However, the two have their work cut out for them as they take charge.
“Smith has a lot of work to do here,” McElhaney said. “The offensive line and the running game need work and might need to be addressed in both free agency and the draft.”
McElhaney also highlighted that the limited cap would also hamstring the Falcons due to COVID-19. The NFL cap will likely be just above $180 million, and while it’s not the worst-case scenario, the cap is still lower than projected.
The Titans were one of the most efficient offenses last season, and Smith turned former bust Ryan Tannehill into a top-10 quarterback. However, the Falcons are missing a crucial piece to Smith’s offense, and it’s 6 feet, 3 inches with a lethal stiff arm named Derrick Henry.
Henry ran for over 2,000 yards in 2020, more than the Falcons did as an entire team. McElhaney notes that the running back is a dire need for the Falcons in the offseason in several of her articles.
“Without a running game, it doesn’t matter who is playing quarterback,” McElhaney said. “The Falcons lost many games because they didn’t have a running game that could run out the clock.”
While many fans like myself are salivating at the thought of Najee Harris in a Falcons uniform, he might be gone late in the first round. The Falcons will look at other great running back options, such as North Carolina’s Javonte Williams, who went to the same school as head coach Smith.
“This is a very deep running back class for the Falcons,” McElaney said. “Running will definitely be a priority for the birds, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they were to pick a running back early on day two.”
When looking at the Falcons draft, the hot topic is whether the Falcons will draft Ryan’s successor. While he had a solid statistical season, many have questioned how much the near-36-year old signal-caller has left in the tank. The Falcons could secure their post-Ryan future by selecting a quarterback in the first round.
Multiple mock drafts have projected the Falcons to select either Ohio State’s Justin Fields or Zach Wilson from Brigham Young University. However, some believe that they will keep Matt Ryan, especially with Smith now calling plays.
As a Georgia alum, McElhaney is all too familiar with the hype of drafting a hometown product in Justin Fields. Fields transferred from Georgia due to lack of playing time and racial taunts and carved out a successful Ohio State tenure.
However, McElhaney is also familiar with the journey she took to get to this point as a professional journalist. As a student journalist, she got her start on the UGA newspaper The Red & Black and never looked back.
After her time writing at UGA, she eventually moved on to write for the Bulldogs’ in-state rivals, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. McElhaney also interned for Major League Baseball before applying for a position at The Athletic. The experience taught her to take every opportunity and not leave anything to waste.
“One piece of advice I’d give to students is to take any job,” McElhaney said. “Any one of those small sites could establish a connection that could take you a long way.”
As women breaking into a mostly (white) male industry, the challenge is daunting for some female student journalists. As McElhaney progressed through the industry, she could see how much of a difference she’s making in the industry.
“As a woman, I’m proud to be where I am currently,” McElhaney said. “I also like to speak to other female student journalists to guide them in their careers as well.”
With Women’s History Month in March, women’s rise in the sports world must not go unnoticed or uncredited. It wasn’t too long ago that play-by-play and color commentary crews only featured men. Today, some of the best are women.
“It’s always encouraging to see more young women excited to get into the industry,” McElhaney said.
Women such as Doris Burke now project their voices to fans while leading the industry and becoming role models for other young women. The industry has also changed due to COVID-19, which saw many journalists leave their jobs.
“COVID definitely hit the industry hard,” McElaney said. “However, I think we’re going to see a turnaround, and current and former students need to be prepared when hiring begins.”
As the industry returns to normal, more openings will become available for current and recent graduates. While the industry might take time to recover, McElhaney is confident that it won’t be long until major sectors are open for applicants’ interviews again.
“I don’t think it’ll be long until more openings are available,” McElhaney said. “The industry, like others, will take time to recover, but young journalists should keep a lookout for more opportunities.”