With an end to the lockout in sight, the predominant storyline in the NFL should soon shift from Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations to a wild flurry of free-agent moves and the start of training camps. League observers will make predictions as rosters take shape and a handful of teams will be declared "Super Bowl-caliber."
The Falcons should be in that group.
They were the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs last season and made the aggressive move up the board in the first round of this year's draft to land a missing piece in WR Julio Jones. It was perceived as a statement — we're going all out to win this season.
Despite their quick playoff exit in a blowout loss to the Packers last season, the Falcons are not a pretender. This is a team worthy of hype, but it also has its fair share of question marks. Free agency will serve as an obstacle and an opportunity for the Falcons, and younger players stand to be thrust into the spotlight with an abbreviated offseason to prepare for the regular season.
Here are 10 questions facing the Falcons as we move closer to the start of free agency and training camp:
1. Will Matt Ryan improve on a Pro Bowl season?
He's coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance, but I think Ryan would be the first to say he needs to get better. With Jones, Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez in his arsenal, Ryan has a potentially elite collection of weapons and the passing game will be expected to take off. Ryan has proved himself in the regular season, but he's yet to do so in the playoffs.
2. Does the trade for Julio Jones pay off immediately?
The book on Jones is that he won't be intimidated by the transition to the NFL and that he's prepared to help from Day One. He impressed his new teammates at player-organized workouts and appears to have recovered well from foot surgery in March.
3. Will Michael Turner's production drop off?
There is some concern that Turner's best days are behind him. The Falcons have leaned heavily on him — he led the league in carries in two of the past three seasons — and he's delivered, but the shelf life for running backs is short. It would be a tough thing to overcome if Turner, who turned 29 in February, declined significantly.
4. Will Jason Snelling be re-signed?
Snelling has done a nice job of backing up Turner, but he's an unrestricted free agent. The Falcons drafted Jacquizz Rodgers in the fifth round and he could become an explosive change-of-pace back, but the team can't count on him to carry the load if Turner gets hurt. There will be a large void at the position if Snelling moves on.
5. Are major changes in store for the offensive line?
Three of the Falcons' five starting offensive linemen — OLG Justin Blalock, ORG Harvey Dahl and ORT Tyson Clabo — could be unrestricted free agents. It's not out of the question that all three will re-signed, but it seems unlikely. The Falcons have been developing some young O-linemen, and they could be thrust into the spotlight. Inexperience at certain spots could lead to more miscues than the Falcons are used to seeing from their solid front five.
6. How much of a contribution will Peria Jerry make?
Jerry, the Falcons' first-round pick in 2009, suffered a season-ending knee injury two games into his rookie season and made just nine tackles and two sacks as a rotational player in '10. He'll have to compete against Corey Peters, coming off a solid rookie year, to win a starting job at nose tackle.
7. Is help on the way at defensive end?
The Falcons waited until the seventh round of the draft to address what some observers felt was a top need. There's no doubt Atlanta would like to become more explosive off the edge, and indications are the team will try to land one of the top defensive ends on the open market. Vikings DE Ray Edwards and Panthers DE Charles Johnson are said to be on the Falcons' radar. Pairing one of them with John Abraham would give the pass rush a jolt.
8. Is Sean Weatherspoon ready to break out?
Injuries were an issue for Weatherspoon in his rookie year, but the Falcons' coaching staff liked what they saw from him early in the season when he was at full strength. The team is expecting more from its 2010 first-round pick and he has the potential to be a constant disruption for offenses.
9. Can Chris Owens do the job at nickel back?
Owens was one of the goats in the playoff loss to Green Bay, as he was out of position on some big plays, but head coach Mike Smith has said he's confident in the third-year corner. It appears the nickel back job is his to lose.
10. How will rookie P-PK Matt Bosher fare?
With PK Matt Bryant and P Michael Koenen hitting unrestricted free agency, the Falcons spent a sixth-round pick on Bosher. The Falcons are expected to pursue re-signing Bryant, but Bosher could handle the punting and kickoff duties from Day One and is likely to replace Koenen.
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