2011 team previews
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Recent posts by Dan Parr
The Falcons head into 2011 looking to shake off a deflating one-and-done appearance in the postseason. Atlanta had aspirations of a deep playoff run last season, but its hopes were dashed when the Packers came to the Georgia Dome and steamrolled through the Falcons in the divisional round.
This, after Atlanta entered the postseason as the NFC's No. 1 seed and appeared poised to get a playoff win for the first time in six years.
Some major flaws were exposed vs. Green Bay, however, and adding the missing elements — speed and explosion on both sides of the ball — moved to the top of the Falcons' list of offseason priorities.
Owner Arthur Blank rewarded head coach Mike Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff with contract extensions in the offseason, and Dimitroff executed his plan to get more explosive players, moving up 21 spots in the first round of the draft to land WR Julio Jones and signing one of the top defensive ends available, Ray Edwards, in free agency.
The Falcons have compiled three winning seasons in a row under Dimitroff and Smith — a first in franchise history. They're 0-2 in the playoffs, though.
The top decision makers have overseen a dramatic turnaround from the mess they inherited in Atlanta, but the franchise will not be satisfied until that postseason record improves.
The Falcons seem to be in better position than ever to make that happen.
QB Matt Ryan, coming off his best season and first Pro Bowl appearance, seems to keep getting better. While the passing game should open up a bit more as Ryan continues to earn more trust from the coaching staff, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey will return after being considered for a couple of head-coaching vacancies in the offseason, and the Falcons are likely to maintain a balanced attack under his watch. Atlanta leans on RB Michael Turner and an offensive line — featuring a new starting right guard — that has done a fine job of executing its power-running game.
Quarterbacks: Matt Ryan, a fourth-year veteran, studies hard to prepare for defenses, and it pays off for him in games. He reads and reacts well and makes good decisions. While Atlanta's passing game hasn't stretched the field vertically much with Ryan under center, league evaluators say that has had more to do with the personnel at wide receiver than Ryan's ability to make the deep throw. He has plenty of arm strength. He is also accurate but isn't great at escaping from pressure. Chris Redman, a pocket passer, is Ryan's primary backup. Redman is smart and has proven to be a serviceable fill-in, making six starts since 2007. John Parker Wilson has spent the past two seasons developing behind Ryan and Redman. He has a decent arm but lacks the physical tools to become more than a backup. Wilson has yet to take a snap in a regular-season game.
Running backs: With Michael Turner's wide build and punishing running style, the Falcons are able to run between the tackles and wear down defenses. Turner is strong enough to run through the outstretched arms of a defender, but he's also agile and maintains his balance well. He can spin to avoid a tackle, is highly productive and has good speed for his size. Turner keeps a low center of gravity and always falls forward. Jason Snelling is a versatile reserve and will get third-down touches and contribute as a receiver. He has good size and some power. The team found good value late in the draft, selecting Jacquizz Rodgers in the fifth round. He'll offer a change of pace from Turner's style and helps replace Jerious Norwood. Rodgers is undersized, and some question whether he will be able to stay healthy, but he has great lateral agility and should be an elusive rusher. Ovie Mughelli is one of the league's better fullbacks. He's a shrewd player and knows how to balance power and finesse when he's making a block.
Receivers: As one of the top receivers in the league, Roddy White has posted four consecutive seasons with at least 1,153 yards, and he made a career-high 115 catches in 2010. He has been playing at an elite level since his breakout year in '07, even though defenses have focused on trying to minimize his impact and often roll coverage in his direction. White's strength, length and quickness make him a tough matchup for defensive backs. He'll be complemented by rookie Julio Jones, who was drafted sixth overall after the Falcons dealt five picks, including a first-rounder in 2012, to move up 21 spots. Jones looks the part and has the hardworking and unselfish mentality Atlanta looks for in its players. TE Tony Gonzalez, the most productive tight end in league history, is heading into his 15th season. He's nearing the end of his career and is not the playmaker he used to be but is still a solid all-around performer. Atlanta is hopeful that WRs Harry Douglas and Eric Weems will develop and function as big-play threats. Both have the speed to stretch the field vertically, but Douglas is the primary option in the slot. He was slow to recover from a torn ACL last season but appears to have that extra gear again. Weems' primary focus has been on special teams, where he excels. Kerry Meier, a fifth-round pick in '10, missed all of last season with an ACL tear, but he should get involved as a situational player. The Falcons like his size and character.
Offensive linemen: The Falcons were able to keep their offensive line from being blown up in free agency, re-signing two of the three starting O-linemen who hit the open market. The Falcons committed to OLG Justin Blalock and ORT Tyson Clabo, a Pro Bowler last season, while ORG Harvey Dahl departed for the Rams. It's not the most naturally talented front five, but it has functioned well within the scheme. C Todd McClure, a durable stalwart, sets the example. He doesn't have great size but is a sound technician and rarely makes a mental error. OLT Sam Baker, who was selected 18 picks after Matt Ryan in the first round of the 2008 draft, is decent, but he'll never be spectacular. His game is built on technique, and he struggles to win matchups against speed rushers. Baker is not as athletic or as physical as the league's top left tackles. Blalock has started all 62 games in which he has played since being drafted by Atlanta in '07, and he has the girth and strength to generate movement at the point of attack. He's not the nastiest player, but he has a good punch and is a reliable pass protector. Clabo is not a great athlete, and he didn't impress evaluators when he came into the league, going undrafted. He has compensated for some shortcomings with toughness and has made himself into one of the better right tackles in the league. He'll be playing next to a new starter this season, as some young players are competing to take over for Dahl at right guard. The top candidates are '09 fifth-round pick Garrett Reynolds and '10 third-round pick Mike Johnson. Reynolds has the size to be a tackle, but protecting against quickness isn't a strong suit of his, and he could fit better inside. Johnson has short arms and lacks power, but he's competitive and has good instincts. Will Svitek has good size and serves as the team's top backup at tackle. Second-year veteran Joe Hawley is versatile — he can play all three spots on the interior — and his scrappy style of play makes him a good fit for Atlanta's O-line.
The Falcons operate out of a 4-3 alignment in their base defense and play mostly zone coverage. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will throw some wrinkles at an offense, but Atlanta stays true to its base "D" for much of the time. The team doesn't blitz much, relying on the front four to pressure quarterbacks and force passers to get rid of the ball quickly. A key factor for the Falcons will be the performance of their last two first-round picks, DT Peria Jerry and OLB Sean Weatherspoon. Both have been affected by injuries in their young careers, and Atlanta is counting on them to develop and live up to high expectations.
Defensive linemen: John Abraham re-established himself as one of the league's more productive pass rushers last season. He's explosive off the edge and has collected 10 sacks or more in three of the past four seasons. Abraham has a spin move that he uses to get into the backfield, and he's quick enough to beat slow-footed blockers with his first step. However, he is not as imposing against the run. The Falcons are hoping to strengthen their pass rush with the signing of former Vikings DE Ray Edwards, who made 16½ sacks in the past two seasons. Edwards is still recovering from offseason knee surgery, and the Falcons didn't play him in either of the first two preseason games. He's quick off the ball and has improved and expanded on his pass-rush moves in recent years. Kroy Biermann has a high motor and will be involved in the rotation at defensive end after starting 14 games last season. He has bulked up since entering the league but still is a bit undersized for his position. He's more quick than fast. Atlanta likes the rush skills of Lawrence Sidbury, a fourth-round pick in '09, but, after playing in all 16 games that year, he was a healthy scratch in 10 games last season and didn't register any tackles. This will be a big season for Sidbury, and it's time for him to prove he can make an impact. Rookie DE Cliff Matthews, a seventh-round pick, is a high-cut, high-motor player. Incumbent starting NT Corey Peters, who is coming off an impressive rookie season, is competing against Peria Jerry, the team's first-round pick in '09. The Falcons have said that Jerry, who missed all but two games of his rookie year because of a knee injury, was never 100 percent when he returned last season. He has the quickness, agility and motor to succeed when healthy. Peters, who has good lower-body strength, can get upfield quickly and penetrate. The team's top tackle, three-technique Jonathan Babineaux, played at a Pro Bowl level in '10. He's active, very athletic and quick, making him a disruptive force.
Linebackers: Curtis Lofton is not going to impress anyone with his size or speed, but he has developed into a solid middle 'backer. He sells out to make plays, is highly competitive, gets through trash well and can be counted on to make tackles. He has improved in pass coverage but still can show up late trying to drop into his zone. Last year's first-round pick, Sean Weatherspoon, showed promise early in his rookie campaign before injuries hampered him. He's versatile enough to play on the strong or weak side in Atlanta's "D," but he's set to start on the weak side this season. He can get caught up in traffic but has good range and flows to the ball well. Stephen Nicholas is a physical run defender and will start on the strong side. He gets upfield and shows quickness off the edge. Veteran Mike Peterson started on the weak side last season, but his role has been reduced. He'll back up on the strong side and can still help as a run defender. Rookie Akeem Dent, a third-round pick, can play any of three positions at linebacker, but he will provide depth in the middle for now. He's stiff but could be effective as a two-down run stopper. Backup MLB Coy Wire is a team leader and helps on special teams.
Defensive backs: Through free agency and the draft, the Falcons have made significant investments in the secondary since the current regime took over before the 2008 season. Last year's marquee free-agent addition, Dunta Robinson, signed a deal that made him one of the higher-paid corners in the league. Robinson turned in a solid performance, but it was the team's other starting corner, Brent Grimes, who stood out in the secondary. Grimes, feisty and competitive, made the Pro Bowl after breaking up an NFC-best 23 passes. Both Grimes and Robinson lack great size and could struggle against bigger receivers, but they're quick and aggressive. Chris Owens and Dominique Franks are battling to become the nickel back. Owens struggled at times in '10 — a back injury bothered him during the regular season — but Atlanta's not giving up on him. He's on the smaller side but shows toughness and good awareness. Franks, who flashed big-play ability at Oklahoma, appeared in two games last season. He has good size and is very physical. FS Thomas DeCoud has developed into a decent starter. He'll struggle to make tackles in the open field and sometimes misses the mark while trying to deliver a knockout hit, but DeCoud covers a lot of ground in coverage. William Moore took over as the starting strong safety last season and emerged as a hard hitter with playmaking potential. Durability is a concern with Moore, however.
Eric Weems has developed into one of the league's top returners. He made the Pro Bowl last season and is a big-play threat on punts and kickoffs. Weems changes speed and direction well and can break through arm tackles. PK Matt Bryant will return after being re-signed. Late last season, head coach Mike Smith said Bryant was one of the Falcons' more valuable players. Bryant, who connected on 28-of-31 field-goal attempts, is coming off a career year and is dependable in crucial situations. Sixth-round pick Matt Bosher has experience in all facets of the kicking game. The team is committed to having him replace Michael Koenen as the punter/kickoff specialist. Bosher has average leg strength.
The Falcons are built to contend now, and in the future. They have consistency at the top of the organization, a franchise quarterback and elite talent on both sides of the ball, but the club enters 2011 smarting after its quick playoff exit. Atlanta is hungry for a deep postseason run.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.