With NFL teams stuck in limbo thanks to the lockout, we are looking at where teams stand as they await the opening of the 2011 league year. Today, we take a look at the Falcons.
Top three story lines
1. The Falcons were knocked out of the 2010 playoffs in a blowout loss to the Packers at home. They didn't look like a team on the verge of a title that January night. With the memory of that loss fresh in his mind, GM Thomas Dimitroff sensed that it was time to be bold, and he received owner Arthur Blank's blessing to be bold. Dimitroff became the talk of draft weekend when he traded five draft picks to move up 21 spots in the first round of the draft to land WR Julio Jones sixth overall. It was a missing piece the Falcons felt they had to have. They sacrificed their first-round pick in 2012, among other draft choices, to get him, though, and it's a move that could haunt them if they don't get over the hump and into the Super Bowl this season. Acquiring Jones, a potential perennial Pro Bowler, gives the offense an element it lacked last year — a weapon at receiver not named Roddy White — and expectations are high for him.
2. A pass-rushing defensive end to play opposite John Abraham is one of Atlanta's top needs, but the Falcons didn't spend a pick on a D-linemen until they drafted DE Cliff Matthews in the seventh round. Can the pass rush improve without any major additions to the defensive line? It's possible if third-year veteran DT Peria Jerry, a first-round pick in 2009, has a breakout year. There is talk, however, that the Falcons will pursue signing DE Ray Edwards, one of the Vikings' free agents. He could be a restricted free agent if the NFL operates under the same free-agency rules that it did in the previous two seasons.
3. We don't know which players will be unrestricted free agents just yet as the lockout lingers on, but if players with four years of experience or more allowed to become unrestricted, the Falcons could have some difficult decisions to make on the offensive line. Three of the five starters — OLG Justin Blalock, ORG Harvey Dahl and ORT Tyson Clabo — from last season have expiring contracts. Clabo, who is heading into his seventh season, is guaranteed to be unrestricted and will generate interest on the open market coming off his first Pro Bowl nod. Blalock and Dahl are in limbo. Atlanta has some young, but inexperienced prospects that could slide in to replace the veterans, but their transition to starting roles could leave QB Matt Ryan in danger.
2011 free-agency — whenever that happens
Unsigned players: OG Justin Blalock (4), PK Matt Bryant (8), OT Tyson Clabo (7), OG Harvey Dahl (5), WR Brian Finneran (11), CB Brent Grimes (3), DT Thomas Johnson (4), P Michael Koenen (6), OLB Stephen Nicholas (4), RB Jerious Norwood (5), OLB Mike Peterson (12), RB Jason Snelling (4), DT Vance Walker (2), WR Eric Weems (3), CB Brian Williams (9), QB John Parker Wilson (2). (Editor's note: The number after a players' name is his years of service in the league. If the NFL decides to go with free agency under the same rules as used in 2010, then a player would become a restricted free agent after three years and an unrestricted free agent after six years.)
Analysis: The Falcons were as aggressive as any team in the draft, and they could continue making it clear that they're going for it all if and when free agency begins. Vikings DE Ray Edwards has already been mentioned as a potential target for them, and he would be a nice, albeit expensive, fit. The Vikings have placed a first-round tender on him. The other priority will be keeping the offensive line intact. That could be a challenge, considering OLG Justin Blalock, ORG Harvey Dahl and ORT Tyson Clabo all have expiring contracts. Clabo will definitely be unrestricted and appears the most likely to move on of the three. Atlanta seems set to part ways with P Michael Koenen, RB Jerious Norwood and CB Brian Williams.
2011 rookie class
First-round WR Julio Jones (No. 6 overall) — Jones looks, plays and works like a prospect that will become a No. 1 receiver some day, but he's going to complement Roddy White initially. The Falcons are counting on him to make their offense more explosive. He should start from Day One.
Third-round SLB Akeem Dent (No. 91 overall) — Versatile enough to back up at all three linebacker positions, he might fit best on the strong side as a run-stuffer. Dent is strong and will contribute immediately on special teams.
Fifth-round RB Jacquizz Rodgers (No. 145 overall) — The Falcons continued in their quest to become more dynamic on offense by adding a change-of-pace back in Rodgers, who is expected to replace free agent Jerious Norwood. He runs with passion and is very elusive.
Sixth-round PK-P Matt Bosher (No. 192 overall) — Bosher will likely take over for Michael Koenen, a free agent, as the punter and kickoff specialist. He plays with poise and has experience punting, placekicking and kicking off.
Seventh-round OG Andrew Jackson (No. 210 overall) — Atlanta likes scrappy, tough-minded players up front, and Jackson fits the bill. He'll serve as a backup at both guard spots.
Seventh-round DE Cliff Matthews (No. 230 overall) — GM Thomas Dimitroff said the Falcons will need to refine Matthews' pass-rush moves, but they like his relentlessness. He has a motor that doesn't quit. Matthews will need to add strength in the weight room.
Lockout fallout: How impacted will the Falcons be by the work stoppage?
On a scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 being the most significantly impacted), the Falcons rate a three. This isn't an old team, but there is good veteran leadership on both sides of the ball and they've had the same coordinators since head coach Mike Smith took over in 2008. There's consistency throughout the coaching staff — the only significant change is Bob Bratkowski, who replaces Bill Musgrave as quarterbacks coach — and there shouldn't be many starting jobs up for grabs. There is no doubt that Matt Ryan would like to start getting to know Julio Jones sooner rather than later, though, and the two would benefit from working together in structured practice sessions.
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