Jeff Risdon. 18th August, 2009 - 11:39 am
2008 record: 11-5, Lost in Wild Card round
Key Stats:Turnover Ratio: -3, Sack Differential: +17, Point Differential: +66
Coming In: TE Tony Gonzalez, LB Mike Peterson, C Brett Romberg, DT Thomas Johnson
Going Out: LB Keith Brooking, LB Michael Boley, WR Laurent Robinson, DT Grady Jackson, T Todd Weiner, CB Domonique Foxworth, S Lawyer Milloy
Key Rookies: DT Peria Jerry, S William Moore, CB Chris Owens, CB William Middleton
QB: Atlanta appears to have hit the jackpot with Matt Ryan, who has all the trappings of a very good franchise quarterback. Ryan exploded into the NFL, completing his first pass for a long touchdown and never really looked back. Blessed with great arm strength and accuracy all over the field, Ryan played better than expected even by those of us who supported the Falcons taking him with the third overall pick. To think that a large block of fans slammed the pick now seems comedic. The question becomes how much Ryan can improve. He added several visible pounds of lower-body muscle in the offseason, which should help Ryan hold up fine and perhaps enhance his mobility, not his strong suit. If he can learn to throw more balls away and improve his accuracy on the run, Ryan will quickly become an elite franchise quarterback.
Chris Redman will be the backup, where he has carved out a decent career. Strong-armed and very confident with it, Redman can hold down the fort for a few drives if needed but is over his head if he has to start more than one game. D.J. Shockley is squat but athletic as the #3. He has some potential if he can stay healthy, which has rarely been the case. John Parker Wilson could have something to say about the #3 spot, though he seems more destined for the practice squad.
RB: Best free agent signing of last summer: Michael Turner to Atlanta. "The Burner" proved he was more than capable of being a feature back, leading the league in carries and finishing with nearly 1,700 yards rushing. Turner has a big, strong lower body and understands how to use it, blending power with balance and subtle hip moves that prevent defenders from getting a clean shot. Deceptively fast for his thick build, Turner should have no problem handling another season of 350 or so carries, though offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave would be wise to use more of backup Jerious Norwood. Norwood had a successful statistical season, but closer scrutiny shows he racked up almost all his yardage against the league's bottom feeders, often in mop-up time. He has blazing speed and good vision, but Norwood doesn't run with much power and breaks few tackles. Durability is a concern. He is a superior receiver to Turner, and the Falcons use him in the slot and in motion quite effectively.
Thomas Brown is trying to nail down the third down back role after missing his rookie year with a nasty groin injury (is there any other kind?). Diminutive but not lacking for toughness, Brown could steal some scant carries from Jason Snelling, a hybrid running back/fullback with nice hands out of the backfield. Ovie Mughelli has not been worth the lucrative free agent deal they gave him, but that's more because they don't use him than any fault of his own. He is an above-average lead blocker who sees the play like a runner. Mughelli has shown he can tote the rock as well, though he'll be lucky to net 10 carries this year. This group is deep but loses a lot of luster if Turner were to go down for an extended time.
WR/TE: Every young quarterback needs a reliable go-to target he trusts. Manning had Harrison, Favre had Sharpe, Romo had Witten, and now Matt Ryan has Roddy White. And Tony Gonzalez. With big Michael Jenkins also blossoming into a pretty solid #2 wide receiver, the Falcons have lots of good options in the passing game to keep Ryan on the upswing.
White is a Pro Bowl talent that has hit his stride the past couple of seasons, finally harnessing his outstanding size/speed package into a complete receiver that runs great routes and can make tough catches in traffic. He still doesn't look every ball all the way in, but he's coordinated enough to still hang on most of the time. His ability to run after the catch is underrated. Jenkins may never live up to his first round draft status a few years back, but the former Buckeye has become much more sure-handed. His footwork has improved, which has helped Jenkins get better separation on shorter routes. Veteran Brian Finneran is finally healthy again after years of battling injuries, and if he can stay that way the Falcons have a very capable, versatile set of wideouts. They will miss Harry Douglas in the slot, as the promising second year man is on the shelf with a knee injury. Eric Weems looks to fill that role, but he's not as quick or outwardly confident as Douglas, one of the more entertaining interviews in the league.
Then there's the addition of Gonzalez, perhaps the best receiving tight end in NFL history. He still has plenty left in the tank at age 33, judging by his monster season in Kansas City last year. He's not as apt to slip behind the defense anymore, but his hands, footwork, and fight are still exceptional. Gonzalez provides a major upgrade for the Falcons and a great red zone target for Ryan. He pushes Ben Hartsock and Justin Peelle down a notch to where they belong on the depth chart, as the designated blocker (Hartsock) and H-back-ish blocker/safety valve (Peelle) that will probably not catch more than 15 passes combined.
OL: This is the same basic unit that started last season and made a huge leap across the board, but the team can afford no regression. Left tackle Sam Baker comes back from a injury-ravaged rookie season, playing in parts of just 8 games (5 starts). The team traded up to get him with a first round pick and he must meet expectations. He's not built like a traditional bookend tackle -- more like a center -- but Baker uses his hands expertly and does a great job staying square on his blocks. His replacement last season, cagey vet Todd Weiner, retired, so it is imperative that young Baker stay healthy and play consistently well. Weiner proved a very effective run blocker, something Baker has to work on as he matures. Right tackle Tyson Clabo is another strange-bodied guy but he proved a tremendous run blocker last season. He gets his weight into his blocks and fights beyond the whistle even if the play is 50 yards downfield.
Up the gut the Falcons are similarly solid but somewhat tenuous. Left guard Justin Blalock, center Todd McClure, and right guard Harvey Dahl probably overachieved collectively last season, but that fits with their mentality and style and should carry over into 2009. They handle the straightforward, uncomplicated, smash-mouth blocking scheme quite well. Dahl is pugnacious and the best run blocker of the group, but he plays too upright and can get caught lunging in pass protection. McClure hasn't missed a game in over nine years and his savvy leadership is invaluable. Blalock is the strongest guy up front but doesn't always show it, and he too can get caught lunging and diving in pass protection. Matt Ryan helped them avoid a lot of sacks last year with his quick release and pocket awareness.
The depth up front is passable, though they don't have a Weiner waiting in the wings to bail them out anymore. Will Svitek comes from Kansas City as the top reserve tackle based on his run blocking, and he can also play some guard if needed. Quinn Ojinnaka is better in pass protection and has some developmental, athletic upside. He has worked at both guard and tackle as well and reminds me of former Panther Frank Omiyale, who parlayed scant playing time into a nice free agent deal with the Bears as a projected starter this summer. Signing veteran Brett Romberg helps bring stability to the interior, though he's undersized. The team drafted Garrett Reynolds to nurture into a tackle, which might work out if he learns that his knees actually bend. Alex Stepanovich has some experience at both guard and center, little of it positive. One to root for: Michael Butterworth from Slippery Rock, who has some potential if he can gain strength without losing athleticism. That's what practice squads are for...
DL: John Abraham bagged 16.5 sacks in 2008 and, just as importantly, stayed healthy and fresh all season long. He is an elite pass rushing talent who can beat tackles with either speed or power, and his technique and ability to set up moves are as good as anyone in the league. Coordinator Brian VanGorder did a great job spotting Abraham rest when he needed it. The Falcons line him up at either end spot, which keeps the offense off-balance. They need to line him up on both sides because he's the only real pass rushing threat up front. Jamaal Anderson has flopped as a pass rusher, getting just two sacks (in back-to-back games last year, both charted as "coverage" sacks) in his first two seasons. Anderson is an above-average run defender who consistently dictates the edge and can get off the block quickly to assist on the tackle. Coach Smith has put Anderson's starting status up for grabs, giving Chauncey Davis a shot at taking the job. Davis has better quickness and gets pressure more consistently, plus he's shown aptitude at covering screens nicely. Rookie Lawrence Sidbury will see some action in nickel packages as an edge rusher and his ceiling is high, but he must show consistent physicality and strength to be more than a niche talent. Kroy Beirmann is an undersized ball of kinetic energy, most of which is spent trying to stay upright.
Jonathan Babineaux returns at one starting tackle and he's a good fit for the three-technique with his quickness and active hands. He can get into the backfield and isn't at a loss for what to do when he gets there. Babineaux also excels at getting his hands in the way of passing lanes when he's stonewalled at the line. First round pick Peria Jerry will take over for Grady Jackson as the "big beef" tackle, though he's several trips to Golden Corral lighter. Like Babineaux, Jerry has very good quickness and a high motor, refusing to concede to blockers even when he can't get penetration. He led the SEC in tackles for loss and fires off the snap as fast as anyone. It's a very different style from Jackson, who was essentially a fat guy sumo wrestling double teams last year. The Falcons are hopeful that Trey Lewis can bounce back from a lost 2008 and build upon the solid potential he flashed as a rookie two years ago. Free agent Thomas Johnson is making noise in camp and was quite good in the preseason opener, outshining his competition (primarily Jason Jefferson and Tywain Miles) for a backup spot.
LB: Longtime stalwart outside linebacker Keith Brooking is gone, as is fellow outside starter Michael Boley. But all is not lost with the veteran departures. The best linebacker on the roster is last year's defensive rookie revelation, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. Crafty and demonstrating better range and closing speed than alleged, Lofton held up quite well against the run. He hits with great form and power, and showed some coverage acumen as well. Lofton isn't as tall as most backers, but he compensates with great upper body strength, and the fact he has a very short neck means the limbs aren't necessarily short for his size.
Lofton enters year two flanked by former Jaguar Mike Peterson (a favorite of Coach Smith) and up-and-comer Stephen Nicholas. Peterson is on the downside of his productive career but he knows the system and expectations of the weak side spot and can still run well enough to handle the task. The most noticeable drop-off in his play has been in pass coverage, but Brooking was a detriment there as well. Nicholas has shown he can handle cover duties fine during limited appearances his first two seasons, but he has issues moving through traffic and finishing his hits. Coaches and observers have raved about his development this offseason, and if more than half of the hyperbole is true, the run defense will be better. Or rather, the run support from the linebackers will be better. Veterans Coy Wire and Jamie Winborn are functional depth that won't rock the boat if they only see a few snaps per game.
DB: This group got by largely on smoke and mirrors last season, something that is unlikely to happen again. Fortunately, the Falcons have brought in some apparent upgrades and young talent. It's still a big question mark, however. Chris Houston will start at right corner and is the best cover man on the team. He's smallish and plays that way, but he has a nice nose for the ball and sound footwork. The team would be thrilled if Houston could hold onto some more interceptions -- he picked off just two passes but broke up 22 others, several of which could have been picked off. The other starting corner spot is up for grabs in a three-way battle between Brent Grimes, Chevis Jackson, or Chris Owens. Grimes got a few starts last year and showed pluck, but he's short and played his way to reserve status. Jackson played well as the nickel back in his rookie year and has better size and field vision. He fits better on the outside against bigger receivers, which would allow Grimes to slide into the slot. The wild card is rookie third rounder Owens, who made my "Draft Booms & Busts" column in a positive manner. Though he too is smallish, Owens is a rock against the run (he proved that in the preseason opener vs. Detroit) and has good instincts and sound technique. None of the top four corners are older than 26, which probably ensures that veteran Von Hutchens will have some role after missing last year with a foot injury. Rookie William Middleton is the fastest guy on the team and could challenge Grimes for the slot/nickel role. He did not lack for physicality at Furman. This corner group is young and fast and has good potential, but there are bound to be some painful bends in the learning curves.
Safety is also in flux with the departure of Lawyer Milloy. Erik Coleman comes back as the free safety and brings some playmaking flair to the position, but he's an average starter on his best days. He makes a load of tackles but very few are anywhere close to the line of scrimmage. Thomas DeCoud could challenge him for reps if he continues his strong early camp and preseason. The second-year man is a more natural cover man than Coleman, but not as fast or as quick to react to plays. Rookie William Moore has the inside track to take over Milloy's starting strong safety spot. Moore entered his senior season at Missouri as a potential top-15 pick, but played his way to the bottom of the second round. Moore has great size and really brings the pain with his hits, but he too seemed slow to react and easily confused in nickel and dime coverage schemes, not knowing where to help or when to step up. His faults are all coachable, but that generally takes time. Jamal Fudge is a big-time hitter but doesn't always find the right guy to hit and is much more valuable on special teams. Hutchens can also play some safety. If the corners hold their own, these safeties could be good enough, but if the youth at corner struggles their problems are only going to be exacerbated by the safeties.
Special Teams: One of the most underappreciated stats of 2008 was the Falcons allowing an obscenely low 49 total punt return yards the entire season. That's just three yards per game on average, and punter Michael Koenen had seven games where he did not allow a punt return attempt. A repeat of that record feat is extremely unlikely (that's why it's a record!), but expect the Falcons to again be near the top in net punting. Kicker Jason Elam came home to Atlanta and had a decent season, though his range isn't what it used to be. Koenen handles kickoffs capably. Jerious Norwood is the primary return man and could get punt return duties this year with the loss of Harry Douglas, though rookie cornerback Middleton offers intrigue there as well. Norwood has good potential as a returner but it hasn't translated real well in the past, where he's been wildly inconsistent. The coverage units are as good as any in the league, befitting of a team stocked with speedy young players fighting for roster viability.
3 Keys To The Season:
1. How well the team handles the transition from pleasant surprise to having heightened expectations. Most teams that have made huge leaps in the past have fallen back the following year -- see the 07-08 Cleveland Browns.
2. The development of the youthful infusion of defensive talent, particularly in the secondary.
3. Continued good health and fortune. The Falcons ranked near the top in fewest games lost to injury by starters in 2008, a major factor in their dramatic turnaround. Also factoring in were gift wins from the Bears and Rams that aren't likely to be repeated.
Forecast: Any time a team jumps from four wins and seeming hopelessness to 11 wins and a very promising future, it's hard to focus on the clouds instead of the abundant sunshine. And though Matt Ryan and his skill position friends might actually be better, there are a lot of clouds in the sky in Atlanta. Foremost is the schedule, as the weak NFC North and weaker AFC West are replaced by the AFC and NFC East divisions. When coupled with their own tough NFC South slate, the Falcons play almost all their games against the three strongest divisions in football. They got a lot of unpredictably strong seasons from heretofore unremarkable players last year, and that's very difficult to sustain. I genuinely like this team and don't believe last year was a fluke, per se, but this franchise has wildly regressed from strong seasons in the past. That's a tough history to ignore even though general manager Tom Dimitroff appears to have constructed this team for long-term success. The Falcons get their first consecutive non-losing seasons in franchise history, but the fans will be disappointed as Atlanta finishes 8-8.
-- Jeff Risdon is RealGM's senior football writer. He may be reached at Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com.