2014 NFL Offseason: Atlanta Falcons
Draft Grades, Season Previews, Team Needs, Free Agents
Atlanta Falcons (Last Year: 4-12)
2014 NFL Season Preview:
QB T.J. Yates, TE Beat Pascoe, G Jon Asamoah, G Gabe Carimi, DE/DT Tyson Jackson, NT Paul Soliai, CB Josh Wilson, CB/KR Javier Arenas, S Dwight Lowery, KR Devin Hester.
Early Draft Picks:
OT Jake Matthews, DE/DT Ra'Shede Hageman, RB Devonta Freeman, DE/OLB Prince Shembo, CB Ricardo Allen. Falcons Rookie Forecast
RB Jason Snelling, FB Bradie Ewing, TE Tony Gonzalez, G Garrett Reynolds, OLB Stephen Nicholas, ILB Akeem Dent, CB Asante Samuel, S Thomas DeCoud.
2014 Atlanta Falcons Offense:
Poor Matt Ryan was so helpless last year. Players around him were going down like flies. Julio Jones, Roddy White and Steven Jackson all missed action this past season. Jackson was out for four contests, but never looked right after he returned. White missed just two games, but he was clearly hobbled in the first half of the year, and he was pretty much just a decoy until December. Jones' absence hurt the most, however, as he was enjoying a dynamic season before he went down. Jones played five games, but was on pace for a ridiculous 1,856 receiving yards.
Jones and White should be back at full strength, but Ryan lost Tony Gonzalez to retirement this offseason. Gonzalez could always come back - he joked that he would return if Atlanta began the year with a 10-0 record - but it's looking like the team will have to move forward with Levine Toilolo as its starting tight end. This means that the Falcons will utilize more three-receiver sets. Harry Douglas proved himself worthy of more playing time when he racked up 85 catches and 1,067 receiving yards when Jones and/or White were out of the lineup.
Jackson, however, is a different story. He turns 31 in late July, so there's a chance that his ineffectiveness last season was the product of his aging body; not the injury that knocked him out for a quarter of the year. Jackson will get another chance to prove himself, but the Falcons spent a fourth-round pick on Devonta Freeman, who was terrific in rookie minicamp.
One area that really hurt Ryan this past season was the offensive line. Ryan took 44 sacks in 2013, the highest total in his career (previous high was 28). Thus, it's no surprise that the Falcons did multiple things this offseason to improve Ryan's protection.
Atlanta began by hiring Mike Tice. The former Bears' offensive line coach was responsible for turning around a very weak front that always had Jay Cutler running for his life. He's capable of working the same magic in Atlanta, especially given that the team used the No. 6 overall selection on Jake Matthews. The Texas A&M product was once considered as a potential choice for the Rams at No. 2 overall, and he's viewed by many as the safest rookie in the class. Matthews will begin his career at right tackle across from Sam Baker, who will be manning the blind side. Baker was atrocious in four games in 2013, but was bothered by a knee injury. He's coming off surgery and should be better with Tice's tutelage, as long as he's healthy.
The Falcons also bolstered the interior of the front by signing Jon Asamoah away from the Chiefs. Asamoah is a solid blocker who figures to start at right guard, joining Justin Blalock and Joe Hawley inside. Blalock was solid at left guard this past season, while Hawley proved to be a massive upgrade at center once the team started him there over the inept Peter Konz.
2014 Atlanta Falcons Defense:
The Falcons didn't just focus on improving their offensive line. They made numerous additions on defense as well, as they mainly focused on bolstering the trenches.
Atlanta signed two key free agents there - Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai - and spent its second-round choice on Ra'Shede Hageman. Jackson and Hageman are ideal fits as 3-4 ends. Hageman is a raw player who has tons of upside. He's not ready to start yet, so he'll play behind Jonathan Babineaux, who is coming off a solid, all-around season. Jackson, meanwhile, doesn't offer anything in terms of a pass rush, but he's a monstrous run-stuffer. The same can be said for Soliai, who will be a big upgrade at nose tackle.
Many figured the Falcons would find a new pass-rushing linebacker, but that never happened. There were rumors about Atlanta moving up for Jadeveon Clowney, and to a lesser extent, Khalil Mack, but nothing ever surfaced. In fact, the Falcons never addressed the position until the fourth round when they selected Prince Shembo out of Notre Dame. Shembo probably won't be ready to play - and if he is, he may even be used at inside linebacker - so he likely won't unseat Kroy Biermann this year. Biermann is an average player who tore his Achilles last September. He almost certainly won't be 100 percent even though Atlanta will ask him to get to the quarterback with Osi Umenyiora, who wasn't as impressive as the 7.5 sacks he accumulated in 2013 indicate he was.
Atlanta planned on using Sean Weatherspoon and Paul Worrilow at inside linebacker. Weatherspoon, a former first-rounder, is yet another player who missed extensive time in 2013. That may have been a blessing in disguise, however, as it helped the coaching staff find Worrilow, who led the team with 127 tackles. Worrilow isn't great or anything, but he definitely proved himself worthy of being a capable starter. Unfortunately, disaster struck this offseason, as Weatherspoon tore his Achilles in June. His absence will once again be huge.
Aside from Weatherspoon, the only real defensive starter the Falcons lost was safety Thomas DeCoud, but his departure isn't a big deal because he may have been the worst regular player on Atlanta's stop unit. Unfortunately for the team, it didn't really find an upgrade for DeCoud, opting instead to sign Dwight Lowery, who was waived by the Jaguars of all teams last year. The Falcons spent a third-round pick on Dezmen Southward to perhaps challenge Lowery, but Southward was considered a reach. Either way, it's not looking good in terms of the spot next to William Moore.
Atlanta at least has the cornerback position figured out. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, chosen in the first and second rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft, respectively, both were effective starters in 2013. That's especially true for Trufant, who performed exceptionally. The Falcons did lose Asante Samuel this offseason, but he was just a depth player at this point in his career. Besides, they more than made up for it by signing Josh Wilson away from the Redskins. With Wilson and Robert McClain on the roster, Atlanta is very deep at corner.
2014 Atlanta Falcons Schedule and Intangibles:
In five seasons, Matt Ryan is 37-12 in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons were 3-5 at home this past season, but they were 4-12 overall.
The Falcons were pretty mediocre in terms of the return game. No touchdowns were scored for or against them for the second straight season.
Matt Bryant has been one of the top kickers in the NFL over the past four years. He was 28-of-31 in 2010, 27-of-29 in 2011, 33-of-38 in 2012 and 24-of-27 last season. He's 10-of-12 from 50-plus in that span. He's also very clutch.
Matt Bosher ranked 11th in net average in 2012, but improved this past season, finishing sixth. He was in the middle of the pack in terms of placing kicks inside the 20.
Atlanta has a somewhat tough schedule. Playing the Saints twice, Packers, Bears, Bengals (road), Ravens (road) and Cardinals will be difficult.
2014 Atlanta Falcons Rookies:
Go here for the Falcons Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.
2014 Atlanta Falcons Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
2014 Atlanta Falcons Analysis: The Falcons will rebound, and because expectations are down, they'll surprise many of their opponents. They had so many injuries this past season, so as long as they stay mostly healthy - beyond Sean Weatherspoon, of course - they'll compete for a wild card spot, or perhaps even the division title. Remember, they nearly beat the 49ers in the NFC Championship in January 2013, so they could easily bounce back to that level.
Projection: 9-7 (2nd in NFC South)