A lot was expected of the Atlanta Falcons in 2013, and they didn’t deliver. During the latter part of the season, there was even talk that head coach Mike Smith was in trouble. That did not prove to be true, but there were coaching changes.
Highly regarded Mike Tice has taken over the offensive line which played miserably last year. The defensive line coach was replaced by Bryan Cox. Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan is making a scheme change. While they don’t necessarily say so publicly, the personnel on the defensive line and at linebacker seem more suited to a base 3-4 scheme. The way clubs play defense now in the NFL, the base scheme is really just in first-and-10 situations.
The Falcons also had injury problems in 2013, and like every team in the NFL, they have to keep their core players healthy. Here is how their lineup looks going into training camp.
Matt Ryan, going into his seventh year, should be at the top of his game. He took a beating last year, was sacked 44 times, and his play fell off. It didn’t help that he didn’t have a healthy Roddy White for a good part of the season. With the offensive line revamped and White healthy, Ryan’s play should improve. He has the talent to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
There is not much behind Ryan. The Falcons recently traded for Houston backup T.J. Yates. Yates gives the Falcons the best chance for a reliable backup who can hold the fort should Ryan get injured.
Receivers and Tight Ends
The big loss at tight end is Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. His loss leaves the Falcons without a known receiving threat at the position. Free agent signee Bear Pascoe is more of a blocking tight end. The receiving tight end will most likely be second year man Levine Toilolo. He only caught 11 passes a year ago but has excellent talent and upside.
In Julio Jones, the Falcons have one of the top wide receivers in the NFL. If Roddy White returns to pre-2013 form, the Jones/White duo is as good as any in the league. The third receiver is seven-year veteran Harry Douglas who had one of his best seasons in 2013.
During free agency, the Falcons signed Devin Hester. Hester will be their primary return man as well as their fourth receiver. He is a threat any time he touches the ball in space.
Steven Jackson is the number one back, but with 11 years of experience, he can’t be counted on to carry a full load. The Falcons drafted productive Devonta Freeman from Florida State in the fourth round and I expect him to get a number of touches. Antone Smith, another Florida State product has shown top talent. Based upon the personnel, it looks as if this will be a running back-by-committee year.
To put it mildly, the O-Line was terrible last year, and changes were made. Sam Baker is healthy and is back at left tackle. The Falcons first round pick this year was Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews. Matthews played left tackle in 2013 but, prior to that, was a very productive right tackle, and that’s where he will line up.
The guards will be holdover Justin Blalock, who hasn’t missed a start in years and free agent Jon Asamoah from Kansas City.
At center, the starter will either be 2012 second round pick Peter Konz or Joe Hawley. Both players can play center or guard. For depth, the Falcons signed former Bears first round pick Gabe Carimi, who Tice feels can still be a solid NFL player.
Just looking at the defensive line personnel, the players fit more of a 3-4 type scheme, but they will be playing multiple fronts in 2014.
New to the defensive line in 2014 are free agent signees Paul Solial, a giant 345 pound nose tackle and Tyson Jackson, a 5-technique and former top draft choice in Kansas City. In the second round, the Falcons drafted talented Ra’Shede Hageman. Hageman had first round talent but played with an inconsistent motor. He has the ability to be special. The main holdover inside is Jonathan Babineaux, who still plays well after 10 years in the trenches.
Lining up outside is Kroy Biermann coming off an injury. When healthy, he can rush the passer. Veteran Osi Umenyiora will be the designated pass rusher. Others in the mix to play in the defensive line rotation are Peria Jerry and Corey Peters. My feeling is it will be midway through training camp before it all gets sorted out on the D-Line.
The surprise of last year’s rookie class is back at one of the linebacker positions. Undrafted free agent Paul Worrilow not only made the team, but he lead the Falcons in tackles.
The Falcons lost Sean Weatherspoon for the season this spring with an Achilles injury. He could very well be replaced by rookie fourth round pick Prince Shembo from Notre Dame. Shembo played outside as a pass rusher at Notre Dame and is a high motor guy. The Falcons were originally going to play him inside, but with Weatherspoon’s injury, Shembo may have to play outside. Second year man Joplo Bartu is also in the mix outside and has pass rush skills.
After the Weatherspoon injury, the Falcons signed Tim Dobbins from Houston. He is not seen as a potential starter. Rookies Marquis Spruill and Yawin Smallwood also figure into the mix.
Last year’s second round pick, Robert Alford from Southeastern Louisiana, played very well as a rookie, and more is expected in 2014. Last year’s first round pick, Desmond Trufant, will line up at the other corner. The Falcons will be young and inexperienced at the position but have two players with great upside starting.
Also in the mix at corner is free agent Josh Wilson from Washington and Javier Arenas, who is more of a nickel corner.
The safety position has some depth with William Moore, Dwight Lowery, Zeke Motta and rookie Dezmen Southward. Southward has safety size but corner skills and looked good in OTA’s.
Schedule and Outlook
The NFC South has become one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. Carolina has shown great improvement and New Orleans is always tough. Tampa Bay, with Lovie Smith, looks to show great improvement. The Falcons first four games aren’t easy. They open with New Orleans before traveling to Cincinnati for weel two. In week three, they host Tampa Bay on Thursday night before traveling to Minnesota to finish the first quarter of the season. If the Falcons are going to challenge for the NFC South crown they have to come out of that opening month with a 3-1 record.
Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe
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