The Atlanta Falcons have won more games the past four seasons than any other NFC team, but have failed to win a playoff game. Since coming into the league in 2008, the same year coach Mike Smith took over in Atlanta, Ryan and Smith have had great success, but the playoff failures, going 0-3, hang over their heads.
Meanwhile, both offensive and defensive coordinators have left, something that may not be a bad thing...
Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who came under a lot of scrutiny in his four seasons with the Falcons, is now the head coach in Jacksonville. Ironically, he was replaced by the Jag's offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter. Look for the Falcons to be much more aggressive down the field under Koetter. That should be good news for quarterback Matt Ryan.
Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder left for Auburn, replaced by highly respected Mike Nolan. Nolan has said he is not bringing in the 3-4 defense that he ran as coordinator at Miami, and Baltimore, and as head coach of the 49ers, although some hybrid-fronts are expected.
QB: Franchise quarterback Matt Ryan is playing under his rookie deal that will last through 2013. Ryan will be given more chances to throw this season on early downs with Koetter as offensive coordinator, which will help his improvement to the next level. Chris Redman spent five seasons with the Falcons, four as Matt Ryan’s backup. John Parker Wilson is the No. 3 guy, a player the Falcons like but hope never plays.
WR: A pass attack that jumped from a 15th ranking with 222.9 yards per game in 2010 to the eighth-best, with 262 this season will have all it's important pieces returning. The Falcons’ 29 touchdowns through the air in 2011 was tied for sixth-best in the league.
Roddy White led the Falcons in catches with 100, but his yards-per-catch average was down to 13.5. He also had some trouble with drops. Julio Jones missed three games with injuries, but had 54 catches and averaged 17.4 per catch to show off his big-play ability. White’s contract runs through 2014 and Jones’ rookie deal runs through the same season. Harry Douglas is a nice No. 3 who signed an extension, and could be used more in the new offense. There isn't much after those three. Eric Weems signed with the Bears. Most of Weems’ contributions came on special teams as the team’s returner and key member of the coverage teams. Kerry Meier, a fifth-round pick in 2010, is signed through 2013. Expect the Falcons to draft a WR with return ability in one of the last three rounds
TE: Tony Gonzalez had 80 catches last season, but he averaged just 10.9 yards per catch. He doesn't separate like he used to, but did manage to have seven touchdown catches. Michael Palmer will be an exclusive rights free agenti, and is more of a blocker. Gonzalez is the only TE assured of returning, and Gonzalez's back-up, and eventual replacement is likely to come from this years draft.
RB: Atlanta’s running game took a hit during the season with lead blocking fullback Ovie Mughelli’s season was lost due to injury. The Falcons signed Mike Cox and began to work him into the scheme. The rushing attack finished 17th in the league with 114.6 yards per game. The Falcons’ 14 rushing touchdowns in 2011 was tied for seventh-most in the NFL.
Michael Turner is still capable, but he has had a lot of carries and it's starting to show. Turner isn't explosive, so look for second-year player Jacquizz Rodgers to be more involved in the offense. Turner had 301 carries last season, so that has to be cut down some. Rodgers had only 57. They need to get Rodgers more involved in the passing game. Jason Snelling, a key player on special teams and in backup roles, returned to the Falcons after testing the free agent market. Turner’s contract runs through 2013, while Rodgers’ rookie deal is signed through 2014. Ovie Mughelli and Mike Cox are the fullbacks. Mughelli is expected to recover from his season-ending injury and his current contract runs through next season.
OL: Veteran center Todd McClure who just turned 35 years old, just signed a one-year deal. With McClure in charge and Matt Ryan at quarterback, the Falcons have never finished below the top-10 in the league in sacks allowed. The line has not finished lower than 17th in rushing since 2008, finishing second that season. Joe Hawley, who started at guard some last season, could move to back-up center, his more natural position. Hawley is signed through 2013. The guard play wasn't as good as expected last season. That's why Vince Manuwai was signed. Garrett Reynolds was a tackle prospect miscast as a guard and it showed. He won the starting job out of training camp after Mike Johnson went down with an injury. Reynolds, a 2009 fifth-round pick, is signed through 2012. Mike Johnson is a backup guard, signed through 2013. Jose Valdez and Andrew Jackson were both practice squad players last season.
The Falcons still hope San Baker can turn his career around after being a first-round pick four years ago. Injuries have really hampered his progress at left tackle. The reality is, you just don’t find a franchise left tackle in the draft when you’re not picking until the middle of the second round. Right tackle Tyson Clabo is a mauler, but his play dropped off some in 2011 after he signed a big contract to stay. Will Svitek started some for Baker last season, and may enter 2012 as Matt Ryan's blindside protector. Both Svitek and Baker will be free agents after 2012, so the Falcons will need to properly evaluate both this year. At left guard, the Falcons have Justin Blalock, who is better at pass-blocking than run blocking. Blalock and Clabo signed new deals with Atlanta are locked up through at least 2015.
DL: Atlanta’s 33 sacks were only two more than 2010, but their run defense jumped from tenth in the NFL last season to sixth this year, allowing less than 100 rushing yards per game this season.
They did re-sign ends John Abraham and Kroy Biermann, two free agents. Abraham needs to be better in division games after getting just one sack in six games against NFC South teams. Ray Edwards was a disappointment after signing as a free agent last season. He is decent against the run, but doesn't provide much in terms of pass rush from the other end spot. His five-year contract runs through 2015. Rotational rushers Lawrence Sidbury and Cliff Matthews are still on their rookie contracts and are locked up with the team for a while. Sidbury is signed through 2012 and Matthews through 2014. Jonathan Babineaux had a subpar season and need to be better inside, his contract expires at the end of the 2013 season. Peria Jerry ended up playing about 30 percent of the snaps last season. Jerry’s career simply was cursed almost right from the start. In the second game of his rookie season, Jerry tore up his knee, and injury he has never fully recovered from. Both Jerry and Corey Peters are currently on their rookie contracts that will end at the conclusion of the 2013 season. Vance Walker, a seventh-round pick in 2009, had a solid third season and signed his restricted free agent tender.
LB: Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was the lone starter to leave via free agency. A starter in all 16 games in 2011 he led the Falcons with 147 tackles and added one sack and two interceptions. Look for Akeem Dent, who led the team in special-teams tackles as a rookie last season, to get first crack at the middle linebacker spot. The Falcons added former Seahawk MLB Lofa Tatupu as insurance. Sean Weatherspoon is the team's best linebacker. He is an explosive athlete who came into his own in his second season in 2012. He could be on the verge of being a Pro Bowl player. Stephen Nicholas is solid at the other outside spot. Weatherspoon’s rookie contract will run through 2014. The deal Nicholas signed during training camp in 2011 will run through 2015. Spencer Adkins provides depth, 14 year vet Mike Peterson is unlikely to return.
DB: The secondary helped the Falcons rank fourth in 2010 in the NFL in interceptions and they maintained a top-10 finish in 2011, finishing in a tie for sixth.
The Falcons put the franchise tag on corner Brent Grimes, which means he's back. After making the team as an undrafted free agent in 2007, Grimes has started 42 games in his five seasons with Atlanta. Dunta Robinson is the other starting corner, and has been a disappointment since coming over as a top-dollar free agent, he signed a six-year contract as a free agent in 2010. His deal will run through the 2015 season. The nickel corner is up for grabs between Chris Owens and Dominique Franks. Franks, a 2010 draft pick is signed through 2013 and Owens, a 2009 third-round pick, is scheduled to become a free agent at the end of next season. The Falcons re-signedThomas DeCoud, a starter for three seasons, to a three year extension. At 27, DeCoud figures to be entering the prime of his career. William Moore, the starter opposite DeCoud, is currently on a four-year contract that expires after the 2012 season. Depth is needed.
So, without picks in both the first and fourth round, who what will be the ideal draft for the Falcons?
2nd round: DEs Andre Branch, Vinny Curry, and Chandler Jones all have appeal. Call this the “Giants-effect”, but I have long felt you can never have too many pass-rushers.
However, I prefer Alameda Ta'amu, the 345 pound Samoan DT out of Washington. Our DTs are undersized (by NFL standards) and with new DC Mike Nolan, we are likely to use 3-4 fronts at least occasionally. Currently we do not have a DT capable of manning the nose. Ta'amu has often been described as a over-sized 3-technique, which is fine, since we will be in a 4-3 most of the time. Our top three DTs have contracts that expire after 2013, and given the historical performance, it should be considered an upset if more than one of them is resigned.
3rd round: Orson Charles: TE, Georgia: I am confident Charles DUI and poor 40 time will push him back to our 3rd round pick. The former Georgia Bulldog has put one weight since the end of his junior season, and perhaps that decision effected his combine/pro-day performances? At his Georiga Pro-day, the athletic tight end looked good in position drills despite very difficult conditions. He caught the ball well and battled high winds which made throwing the football impossible at times. Despite his poor 40 time, Charles still looks explosive on film, and will “red-shirt” next season, learning from a future Hall-of-Fame TE.
5th round: Brandon Lindsey, OLB/DE Pittsburg: AT 6'2" 250, Lindsey is too small for a 4-3 DE. New Pitt head coach Todd Graham tried using Lindsey at the "Panther" position -- standing up as a rusher as well as capable run-stopper on the edge. He does not have elite straight-line speed or quickness, but has strength and pass-rush ability. Lindsey had 8.5 sacks last yr, down from 10 the previous year. There is no depth behind starting OLBs Weatherspoon and Nicholas, and Lindsey could provide that while also competing with DE Sidbury as a pass-rushing OLB on the occasions we use a 3-4 front.
6th round: Donnie Fletcher, CB, Boston College: Most Falcons fans were at piece with the slighly overrated Pro-bowler Brent Grimes departure, and talk had began that Dominique Franks had overcome nickle-back Chris Owens and would be the new starter opposite free-agent mistake Duanta Robinson. Furthermore, FS Thomas DeCoud had resigned at a reasonable rate.
However after an average senior year, and a poor performance at the Senior Bowl, Fletcher is under-rated both by draft “experts” and draft fans. The four year starter has had an solid, but not outstanding career, and appears to lack the coverage skills of NFL starting corners. However, he had a good pro-day and was clocked as fast as 4.38 according to Tony Pauline. I believe a move to free safety would bring out the best in Fletcher, something we have experience in with DeCoud.
7th round: Travis Benjamin, WR, Miami: The Falcons did lose return specialist Eric Weems to the Bears, but Benjamin looks capable of handling those duties even if he is unable to be a full time receiver. At only 5'10, 170, Benjamin used his 4.3 speed to accumulate over 1600 yards in returns (KO and punt) while at Miami.
7th round: Byron Coleman, QB, Tenn-Chattanooga: Back-up Chris Redman will be 35 yrs old when the 2012 season begins, and John Parker Wilson doesn't appear to be capable of starting in the event of a Ryan injury. Coleman is a transfer from Tennessee, who has enough tools to work a look in the seventh round.