The Atlanta Falcons will surely look a bit different in 2014, and maybe that's not a bad thing. Coming off of their worst season since 2007, a surprising 4-12 finish after nearly making the Super Bowl the year prior, the Falcons must move on without tight end Tony Gonzalez and still try to improve next year. Falcons head coach Mike Smith was a coach at this year's Senior Bowl and that gave him a closer look at potential players to select in the upcoming draft.
But Smith spoke to the media on Thursday at the scouting combine, and said the Falcons were more focused on free agency this year than the draft. Atlanta is currently slated to pick sixth overall thanks to its poor finish in 2013, and it's been noted that the Falcons could go in several different directions, including offensive tackle. What Smith knows for certain, though, is that there is little margin for error in the NFC South, with both the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints making the playoffs last year. Smith told the media that the South is the "toughest division in football."
Atlanta may need to do a better job of protecting Matt Ryan and blocking for its running backs, and that usually starts at the tackle position.
Smith said this is a deep class of tackles, according to Dan Kadar of Mocking the Draft, and that's certainly one direction that the Falcons could go. They finished dead last in rushing yards last year, and Matthew Fairburn of SB Nation noted that Smith said the team is aware of its need to improve in that area, and it didn't get the chance to see enough of Steven Jackson last year. That could be a signal that the team intends to keep the veteran running back around for next season.
As far as replacing Gonzalez, who retired after 17 seasons, Smith said you simply can't do that, though he does have confidence in second-year pro Levine Toilolo out of Stanford. Toilolo had just 11 catches as a rookie, but should see an increase in targets with Gonzalez now a host on CBS' The NFL Today program.
Another second-year player who can be expected to take a step forward in 2014 is cornerback Desmond Trufant. The Falcons traded up to select Trufant with the 22nd overall pick last year, and many analysts graded him as one of the best corners in the league last season. Smith said Trufant is "an outstanding competitor" and that his experience as a rookie -- starting all 16 games -- should "pay dividends moving forward."