NEEDS RATING KEY
5.0 - High priority. This is a position that is a glaring weakness and there is the likelihood that this team cannot compete next year without making a major addition here.
4.0 - Medium Priority. This is an area that is an obvious weakness, but the team isn't quite desperate to make a major move here possibly because they have some young potential. But this is an area that if the team cannot fix via free agency, will definitely use one of their picks in the first three or four rounds to supplement.
3.0 - Upgrade Potential. This is a position that isn't a weakness per se, but there is significant room for an upgrade. If the right player comes along they will certainly snag him, but if they don't fix this position with a major free agent addition or early round pick, then it's not the end of the world.
2.0 - Depth Need. An area where there is a need to add depth. Perhaps there is an aging veteran and they might want to start to look at grooming his heir apparent or replacement. Not likely to be a high priority and a position that more than likely will be address in the middle and late rounds rather than with a top pick.
1.0 - Future Need. This is an area that is not a priority, and doesn't initially appear as a need. But there is some room to develop some depth for perhaps two or more years down the line. This is usually an area that a team will look at in the late rounds if at all.
0.0 - Non-need. This is a position that is a strength of their team, they have a solid starter, capable depth, and/or a young player at the position that they like and want to develop. Very little possibility this area is addressed and would be the equivalent of a wasted draft pick.
Top 7 Needs
1. DE - 3.5
2. WR - 3.0
3. CB - 2.5
4. LB - 2.5
5. TE - 2.0
6. RB - 2.0
7. OT - 1.5
How much need the Falcons have at this position is largely tied to how much confidence they have in John Parker Wilson as the third guy on the roster. But at this point, it doesn't seem like their confidence in Wilson is waning and thus all that can really be expected from the team is to bring in a body to perform as the fourth arm in camp.
Matt Ryan made significant improvement as a passer from 2009 to 2010, and if he makes a similar improvement in 2011, he'll be among the best quarterbacks in the league. Ryan still has room to grow, as improving his ability as a vertical passer is currently his biggest weakness.
Chris Redman is a solid No. 2, and has one more year left on his contract and is fully expected to play that out. After this season, the Falcons will have to make a decision whether to bring him back or promote Wilson as the top backup. But that is a decision that is at least a year away.
The Falcons want to become a more explosive team at this position. Michael Turner is a solid lead back, but his yards per carry dropped from 4.9 in 2009 to 4.1 in 2010. That drop in production was largely due to Turner having less big gains this past year. He had the same total of 20+ yard gains (9), but in 2010 he had 156 more carries than he did in 2009, which basically means his frequency was about half.
The Falcons could hope that Turner is a bit more explosive next year. But that seems questionable, since the scuttlebutt was that in 2009 he was too heavy and had slimmed down for 2010, but it didn't produce any more explosive plays. With Turner hitting 29 years of age, the clock is ticking in terms of how long he can produce at a high level.
That gives the Falcons more concern about their depth. Jason Snelling took a significant step back as a runner from 2009 to 2010. He performed well in a Week 2 matchup against a weak Arizona Cardinals defense, but other than that he added little to the Falcons ground attack. He did improve his production in the passing game, but the Falcons will be looking for more off the bench.
Jerious Norwood is a prospective free agent, dependent on how the CBA shakes out. He could be back, but the team would love to add a young player with explosive potential to either push or replace him in the rotation. Norwood's lack of durability and the minimal improvement he's made during the Smith era means that he could be on the outside looking in next year.
Mainly the Falcons will likely be looking at reliability and speed at this position. Guys like Gartrell Johnson and Antone Smith will have a chance to push for time next summer, but if a draft pick is added they will be roster long shots.
At fullback, Ovie Mughelli is a solid piece for another year. He's coming off a Pro Bowl season and he's got two more years left on his contract. The team doesn't have a strong candidate to potentially replace him, but Snelling is in the mix and it's not considered a priority. If anything, they'll probably add a body for camp, but it's highly unlikely to be a draft pick.
The Falcons want to get more explosive here. Roddy White had a career year and one for the record books in Falcons franchise history. But there were too many times were the team was forcing balls to him, and over the second half of the season when opposing defenses had caught on, it exploited the weakness at this position. Which was the fact that the team didn't have a second option here that could make teams pay for overcompensating for White.
Michael Jenkins put together a nice year considering he missed the first 5 games of the year, and was coming off a very disappointing 2009 campaign. But it's become increasingly clear that Jenkins is as good a player as he's ever going to be in this offense. And the Falcons need more help.
Harry Douglas had a disappointing year. But the excuse is that he was only a year removed from a knee injury and he's still young and working his way into the offense. He had some issues early on with concentration and dropped passes. His lack of size also limits how effective he can be as a vertical option. The Falcons will be smart to try and use him more wisely by taking advantage of his ability to gain yards after the catch on short, quick throws. They still want to develop Douglas, but at this point they cannot rely on him developing into more than a competent No. 3 option.
Brian Finneran was a solid veteran option off the bench, but he's a free agent and the team will have to decide if the 35-year old veteran is worth another year. The team may want to make room for any draft picks and/or Kerry Meier, who missed all of last year with an injury.
A key for the team will probably be adding another option early in the draft that can help add some splash plays to the offense and be developed potentially to take over for Jenkins on the outside. That will make someone that has both size and speed premium.
Tony Gonzalez has already indicated that he's coming back for the last year of his contract, so the Falcons need here isn't dire. Gonzalez is still a solid weapon on third downs, but he's clearly lost a step, and while being an integral factor in the team's passing game in 2009, he was often lost in the shuffle in 2010.
Justin Peelle was mediocre in his blocking this past year, an area that was formerly a strength. The team got some positives from Michael Palmer, who proved to be a nice outlet receiver and flashed some potential as a blocker. But because both are at best role players, the team should be on the lookout for a prospective No. 2 guy that can take over for Gonzalez if/when he retires in 2012 or beyond.
A younger body that can contribute immediately on blocking downs, as well as be a factor to challenge the defense vertically would be a perfect fit for the offense. And if such a player comes along in the early or middle rounds, the Falcons would be smart to snatch him up.
Sam Baker struggled this year at left tackle, after looking so promising for the early part of 2009 before he was injured. The positive for his 2010 season was that he was better in the second half than in the first and made it through a full season without any major injury concerns. But he's going to have to step up his play and 2011 will be a make or break season for him. Baker still is a mediocre at best run blocker, but the main thing with him is going to be getting better in pass protection. He is just to liable for too many breakdowns, and the Falcons will be interesting in adding some depth and insurance.
At right tackle they are solid, but Tyson Clabo's contract is up. But among their prospective free agents, Clabo is likely to be their highest priority. He is the team's most consistent blocker up front, and while nothing special as a run blocker and pass protector, he is typically good in both areas.
Swing tackle Will Svitek is also a free agent. Svitek played this past year predominantly as a third tackle/tight end in blocking situations, after spending much of 2009 filling in for an injured Baker at left tackle. He's proven his value, but the team may want to give a longer look at Jose Valdez. Valdez shined at times this past summer, and has spent the past two years on the practice squad, which under the old CBA meant that his eligibility had expired. That would mean that if the Falcons want to keep Valdez going forward, they will have to do so on their 53-man roster. Assuming the Falcons can keep Svitek on a one-year deal worth near the veteran minimum, it's a worthwhile signing. But the presence of Valdez gives them options in case Svitek is looking for a deal with better long-term security.
Both starters are free agents, and the Falcons may be in a position to only bring one back. If they had to choose, the likelier of the two to return is right guard Harvey Dahl. Dahl is the superior blocker, particularly when it comes to the ground game, and he and Clabo work very well in conjunction. If anyone on this line epitomizes the toughness and style of play championed by position coach Paul Boudreau, it is Dahl, who was practically hand-picked by the coach back in 2008 to shake up the Falcons line.
But Blalock stepped up his play in 2010, particuarly in the second half and is coming off arguably his best year. But it might not be enough to keep him a Falcon. The team drafted Mike Johnson in the third round a year ago just for this explicit purpose, as an insurance policy in case they lost one or both of their guards. And while Johnson was inactive for the entirety of his rookie campaign, that doesn't mean that the team isn't prepared to go with him or Garrett Reynolds at left guard for the future.
It at least gives them the option to pass on signing one of the two starters, and price tag could pay a key role in decision who stays.
Because of the presence of homegrown talent like Johnson and Reynolds, the Falcons need at this position isn't strong. They would probably prefer to see what either player can do in camp or with at least a year under their belts as starters before making any significant additions here.
Todd McClure hasn't made any indication that he plans to retire this off-season, so presumably the Falcons can expect him back for one more year. It will possibly be his last in a Falcon uniform since his contract expires at the end of the 2011 season.
The presence of Joe Hawley on the roster means that the team doesn't have to be really worried about his replacement. Hawley had a strong summer this past year, but was largely ineffective in his very limited playing time during the regular season. But that isn't likely to be a major deterrent for the Falcons considering him as the heir apparent.
Jonathan Babineaux is the defense's anchor in the middle, and while he took a step back from 2009 to 2010, he still is one of the more disruptive one-gap tackles in the business. He's 29 years old and the team feels he still has several more good years left in the tank.
For much of the 2010 season, the Falcons got minimal production from the rest of their defensive tackles on the roster. Rookie Corey Peters started most of the year, but he didn't really start to show up and make impact plays until the last month of the year. But his play down the stretch indicates that he has a nice future in Atlanta.
Peria Jerry was coming off a major knee injury and was limited to a situational role on passing downs, but flashed power and quickness off the bench. The team is hopeful that with him having another year to heal up, he can start to live up the high expectations placed on him when they used their top draft choice on him in 2009.
Vance Walker is a valuable rotational player because he's the better run defender of the trio. Trey Lewis struggled in a season opener vs. Pittsburgh, and didn't play after that. Barring an injury or strong summer he seems like a goner.
While there is significant room for improvement from this position besides Babineaux, the team is prepared to give their young guys another year to develop and see what shakes out after then.
While John Abraham had a resurgent year, going from 5.5 sacks in 2009 to 13 in 2010, the team isn't convinced that there is a lot left in the tank for the soon-to-be 32-year old pass rusher. He's reached the age where most of his peers really start to show decline and no longer are every down players. But the Falcons are hoping for at least one more productive year from Abraham.
But they clearly need to add help at this position. Kroy Biermann started at left end, and while his play against the run improved to a level where he is a competent run defender, his production as a pass rusher declined. It would seem that all signs indicate that he is better coming off the bench in a situational role than as a full-time starter.
Behind Biermann is Jamaal Anderson, a first round disappointment that only started to prove valuable this past year. Anderson is a solid run defender and was a more effective pass rusher in limited stints there, but he's not the sort of impact defender. The team will contemplate whether they bring him back for another year.
And a big factor into that equation will be whether or not the team can add another solid piece at that position. Ideally, the Falcons can add a player that can take over for Anderson on first and second down, but also be able to produce on third downs as well, which could save reps for Biermann and Abraham. That player could potentially be found in either free agency or the draft, although it's likely due to the strong defensive end class at the top of the draft, the Falcons will opt for the latter.
Chauncey Davis is a solid role player because he too is a good run defender, and you can bet that he's much more likely to be kept around than Anderson because of his lower salary. Lawrence Sidbury was a disappointment this past year, hardly playing at all. BUt the team is still hoping they can get more production out of him, particularly as a guy that can spell Abraham and develop into a solid situational pass rusher. But the addition of a rookie will make it that much harder for him to retain a job.
Curtis Lofton is the leader of this unit, but his play against the run took a step back from 2009. Part of that blame could rest on the inconsistent play of the defensive tackles up front. But while Lofton took steps back vs. the run, he took steps forward against the pass. He still struggles at times in that realm, but he's approaching a level of confidence that he is no longer considered a liability, just a weakness.
But he'll need to bounce back and get better in both areas in 2011. Beside him will likely be Sean Weatherspoon. Injuries and inexperience limited how effective Weatherspoon was in his rookie season with the Falcons. But the team is high on his potential and thinks he can be an outstanding every-down player in the future. His athleticism and speed can be a major asset when it comes to coverage.
He might be moving to his more natural weakside position, if the team chooses not to keep free agent Mike Peterson. Peterson will turn 35 in June, and he's still a valuable run defender, he's essentially become a one-dimensional player because the team did their best to hide his flaws in coverage. He split reps with Stephen Nicholas, who isn't a whole lot better in coverage, but is younger and plays with intensity much like his older counterpart. He too is a free agent, and the Falcons likely can't afford to keep both players. But both players could potentially walk if the Falcons look for an outside linebacker that can be more impactful in coverage.
More than likely, the team will give Nicholas a decent contract offer and keep him on the strongside and move Weatherspoon to the weakside. But it would be smart for hte team even if Nicholas stays to add a draft piece that can be better asset in coverage going forward to groom behind him.
Spencer Adkins and Robert James are also in the mix, but neither has shown a lot besides some special teams prowess in their short stints with the Falcons. Coy Wire was re-upped and is a valuable reserve because he can play all three positions and is excellent on special teams. But he's not a strong option to be a starter since he's undersized and it often shows when defending the run and when trying to cover bigger tight ends in space.
The addition of Dunta Robinson and the emergence of Brent Grimes really solidified their two outside spots. Grimes is an athletic ballhawk that was among the league leaders in pass breakups and interceptions. Robinson is a nice contrast to him, and while not the playmaker, is a more physical option that is better able to match up against size and defend the run.
The weakness of this unit is at the nickel position in the slot. The team was hopeful that Chris Owens would solidify the spot, but he struggled early in the year, and was benched after an abysmal Week 7 performance against the Cincinnati Bengals as an injury replacement for Robinson on the outside. His return to the lineup in the playoffs did nothing to put him back in the coaches' good graces.
Brian Williams handled the duties for the brunt of the season, and while Williams is clearly past his prime in coverage, proved to be a valuable blitzer off the corner. But he's a free agent, and the 30-year old makes a nice insurance policy, he is overmatched in the lineup.
The Falcons will want to give Owens another shot, and also take a longer look at Dominique Franks, but it's clear that they need to find some help at this position. That could come via the draft or free agency, if allowed. A player with slot experience that offers both size, speed and physicality would be ideal, but those types of players aren't always easy to come by. But at the least the Falcons will make one addition to bolster this position in the off-season.
The team has seemingly found its pair of bookend starters in Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. DeCoud didn't make as many plays as hoped for this year in coverage, but he's still growing as a centerfielder. His drop in production could have been in part because of the emergence of Moore. DeCoud is a better run defender than ballhawk, and with Moore in the lineup he had to do less run defending because that is also the strength of Moore. Moore took over for an injured Erik Coleman in Week 2, and never relinquished the job. He showed that he was one of the team's top run defenders, a big-time hitter, and was also opportunistic in coverage, tying Grimes for the team lead with 5 picks.
DeCoud is going to have to find a way to transform his role playing beside Moore, but he's young and still growing as a player. Moore also has to improve and become a much better option when he's matched up one on one in coverage, an area that teams were able to often exploit in the redzone and on blitzes.
But agian, both are young and developing and the team is content here. They've already parted ways with Coleman, which leaves some question marks as far as depth is concerned. Shann Schillinger played mainly on special teams and ended the year on the injured reserve. It remains to be seen if he's shown enough progress to be entrusted with that vital No. 3 role as the top backup at either position. If not, then the team is likely to try and find a veteran stopgap that can compete for playing time. Adding more youth to the position via the draft is unlikely to strengthen it.
Matt Bryant had a strong year, showing he was capable in the clutch throughout the season. He's a free agent, but should return next year. He'll turn 36 in May, but that's still not too old for a kicker. The team will likely look to add another leg in camp to potentially push him, but they can afford to go with the wily veteran for at least one more year.
Michael Koenen hasn't played his best football the past two years, which isn't the best thing when your contract is up like his is. But right now, the Falcons don't have any better options and probably will give him another shot. It just remains to be seen if the team is ready to commit long-term to him. Koenen is still an excellent kickoff specialist, and the lack of dropoff in that area is probably his biggest saving grace. He's a good punter when he's playing well, but has been too often inconsistent over recent seasons.
If the Falcons were to bring in a new body, it would likely have to be a guy that can also kick off as well, since that is not a strength of Matt Bryant's game. Otherwise there would likely need to be a complete revamp of this position, and considering it's a strength of the team, that isn't necessary.
"Vincere scis, Hannibal, victoria uti nescis" -- Maharbal, 216 B.C.E.