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Roster Roundouts ’10: An Atlanta Falcons Season Preview

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Atlanta Falcons (projected finish: 10-6)

Team synopsis: Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan seems ready to take the jump to the leagues elite, but a violent schedule involving the defenses of the AFC North and his own NFC South could delay his arrival by a year.  What probably isn’t about to be delayed is the Falcons ascension back to the top of their division.  With Michael Turner right on the back end of his prime (7th NFL season), Tony Gonzalez smashing all age curves for a tight end, Roddy White and Michael Jenkins bouncing back from down years, and a defense that could make serious noise this year, the Falcons aren’t just a trendy team.  This city finally has the real thing.

Best Players

  • QB Matt Ryan (drafted — Boston College/2008 1st round pick)
  • RB Michael Turner (signed — San Diego/2008 free agent)
  • WR Roddy White (drafted — UAB/2005 1st round pick)
  • TE Tony Gonzalez (trade — Kansas City/2010 2nd round pick)
  • RG Harvey Dahl (signed — San Francisco/2007 waivers)
  • RT Tyson Clabo (signed — Wake Forest/2006 undrafted free agent)
  • DT Jonathan Babineaux (suspended one game) (drafted — Iowa/2005 2nd round pick)
  • DE John Abraham (trade — NY Jets/2006 1st round pick)
  • LB Curtis Lofton (drafted — Oklahoma/2008 2nd round pick)

Best Prospects

  • WR Harry Douglas (drafted — Louisville/2008 3rd round pick)
  • LT Sam Baker (drafted — USC/2008 1st round pick)
  • LG Mike Johnson (drafted — Alabama/2010 3rd round pick)
  • DE Kroy Biermann (drafted — Montana/2008 5th round pick)
  • DE Lawrence Sidbury (drafted — Richmond/2009 4th round pick)
  • LB Sean Weatherspoon (drafted — Missouri/2010 1st round pick)
  • SS William Moore (drafted — Missouri/2009 2nd round pick)

When we looked at the division rival Saints, I noted how their defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, has a preference to load his secondary will his most physically talented players.  Clearly, the Falcons have an alternative philosophy.  This management group, lead by GM Thomas Dimitroff and Head Coach Mike Smith, inherited John Abraham as the starter at right defensive end.  They have turned over the other six positions, and had done so by mid-way through their second year.

They’ve also restocked the roster with plenty of talent.  Jonathan Babineaux was a part time player when Mike Smith came in.  Since then, Babineaux has started every game for the Falcons, and led all defensive tackles with 6.0 sacks last year.  He was deserving of a pro-bowl nod, one that never came.  He will be joined by 2009 first rounder Peria Jerry, who missed last year with a knee injury.  The left end that was inherited by Smith was 2007 first rounder Jamaal Anderson.  He’s still with the team, but clearly was an overdraft at 8th overall by former personnel guy Rich McKay.  He’s been effectively replaced now by Kroy Biermann in passing downs, and could get beaten out by Lawrence Sidbury for his job this year.

Curtis Lofton was the first defensive player selected by the Falcons in 2008, a pick that was available to them because they traded DeAngelo Hall to Oakland that offseason.  Lofton is a rangy tackle-machine who makes mistakes in coverage.  Their first round pick this year, Sean Weatherspoon, should be much better against the pass.  For future variations of the 4-3, defenses need great coverage backers like Weatherspoon.  He’s my early pick for defensive rookie of the year, as his impact will be felt immediately.

The secondary hasn’t been as strong since trading D-Hall to the Raiders, but two “acquisitions” could change that this season.  The first, Dunta Robinson, who was formerly the franchise corner on the Texans.  He should be back from a knee injury suffered in 2008 this year.  The Texans didn’t want to buy that risk, so the Falcons are the team taking the plunge.  The second is safety William Moore, who missed last year as a rookie.  He’s an in-the-box player, in the mold of a more disciplined LaRon Landry.

Brian Williams, a veteran coming off an ACL injury (sort of a trend with the Falcons roster), is slated to start at the other corner, but he’s facing a strong push from Christopher Owens, Brent Grimes, and Chevis Jackson, all of whom want that starting spot.  Thomas DeCoud is at free safety, where Erik Coleman will provide depth for the first time in his career since becoming a starter as a rookie with the Jets.

That’s the Falcons defense in a nutshell.  It’s powerful up front, injured but youthful in the secondary, and there’s speed at every level.  It’s a scheme predicated on it’s speed, so you can imagine just how good these guys will be when things click for them.

The offense is where all the talent is.  Matt Ryan is your quick-triggered quarterback, and his best friend is his running game.  Michael Turner has vision as good as any active runner in football.  He plays in a rushing scheme tailor made to his skill set, as offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey runs man blocking in a way few do: he pulls and traps, and involves everyone.  The Falcons really aren’t a two TE team, but I don’t know if any team is more dangerous out of single wideout sets.  I would argue that, no, a 2 RB, 2 TE Falcons team is a threat to hit long, short, or to run to any gap.  When they execute, they are indefensible from that formation.

One reason that they were so good from those formations is because they had to be.  The Falcons got the token effort from Brian Finneran, who is still around (in case you were wondering), but with Harry Douglas missing the year, they had only two healthy, dependable receivers.  But, unfortunately, both Roddy White and Michael Jenkins were worse than you would have expected going into the season.  Douglas is back to give Matt Ryan a tertiary target on most routes, but White and Jenkins will be relied on to produce.  Both have great histories of productivity, so there is little reason to worry about either this season.  As inevitably as bounceback seasons are for those two, Tony Gonzalez is the greatest receiving TE the game has ever seen.  Even when age does get him, NFL defensive coordinators will be the last to notice.

The Falcons also have great depth at running back for the first time since TJ Duckett was a productive player (so, just 2004).  Jason Snelling, who made the team as a fullback, appears to have passed Jerious Norwood on the depth chart.  Snelling fits the power rushing scheme better than Norwood, who is a poor fit (but an excellent runner otherwise).  The Falcons would be wise to add packages to utilize Norwood’s speed and quickness.

They’ll run behind an offensive line that really, was built on the blocks of unwanted players Harvey Dahl, a right guard picked up in 2007, and Tyson Clabo, the team’s RT added in 2008.  Both were added to the roster by McKay, not Dimitroff, but Mike Smith and Mularkey were the guys who put each in the starting lineup and let them play.  The results speak for themselves.  The team is still a little weak at C and LG , where Todd McClure and Justin Blalock are run blocking players with little pass blocking acumen.  The best pass blocker on the team is Sam Baker, a 3rd year player out of USC who has had some injury troubles.

The only think that can de-rail the Falcons from becoming the NFC South’s first dynasty is if they continue to add players with long and questionable bills of health.  Matt Ryan is too refined, too smart, and too accurate, to allow otherwise.  He will be one of the NFCs more successful playoff QBs in the near-term future.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

Eric Weems has been doing everything special teams for Mike Smith’s Falcons since he’s been there.  He’ll be back again, and probably as the fifth receiver in the offense.  Still, Atlanta is going to find a place for Kerry Meier, and that could take Weems and actually decrease his role a little bit.  And yeah, the Falcons are probably going to divorce themselves from their most tenured player, Brian Finneran, either this week or next.

The Falcons are likely turning over both of their backup guards, adding Joe Hawley and Mike Johnson.  Quinn Ojinaka can play offensive tackle, but in the absence of the Falcons keeping ten linemen, Will Svitek and Garrett Reynolds will battle for the backup tackle job.

The Falcons added Corey Peters as interior depth for Peria Jerry.  Then Vance Walker and Thomas Johnson will battle to start in the first week of the season, when Babineaux must sit in Pittsburgh.  Chauncey Davis will remain John Abraham’s backup on the weakside.  Mike Peterson will battle Stephen Nicholas for the SLB role.  Coy Wire is good depth on the weak side.  I think Spencer Adkins will make the team as well.

Dominique Franks is a long-term developmental pick at corner, and probably is the fifth corner this year.  Matt Giordano seems to play the same role on a different team every year.  He’ll make the Falcons, and probably play some defense in the box.  Shann Schillinger, a safety from Montana, is a bit of a longshot to make the team, but should contribute on special teams in the preseason, and if he tackles well, I like his chances to make the team.

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