Tuesday, March 6, 2012

NFL Offseason Preview -- Atlanta Falcons

Let me guess...they didn't get the first down?
Though the Super Bowl is over and games don’t begin until next fall, the NFL season never truly ends. In many ways, the “game” that goes on in between the games is just as important, if not more so, than what happens on the field. Here, in the offseason, is where the course of all 32 NFL franchises is determined. To highlight the importance of this period, and to take a peek at what each team is facing, I’ll be embarking on an ambitious series in which I briefly preview each team’s offseason. We’ll examine the major questions each team faces, what type of cap room they have, who they should be targeting in the draft, etc. My goal is to complete this prior to the start of free agency (March 13)…..which will likely not happen. Oh well.

We continue the previews with a team that always goes for it and never gets it, the Atlanta Falcons. In case you missed them, here are links to each of our past previews:

*Cap figures are taken from South Florida Sun-Sentinel.  Estimated cap is $124 million.*

Atlanta Falcons

2011 Record:  10-6
PPG For: 25.1 (7th)
PPG Against:  21.9 (18th)
2012 Cap Number:  $100,227,174
Draft Position:  No First Round Pick

Atlanta entered 2011 as the trendy pick to win the NFC, but quickly showed why many stats-minded people picked them to regress. Their 13 win season in 2010 wasn’t all smoke-and-mirrors, but a ridiculously easy schedule and a terrific record in close games certainly didn’t hurt. Consider 2011 a reality check, Falcons fans, because though your team is definitely playoff quality, it was much more than one talented wide receiver away from winning the Super Bowl. However, with a bit of cap room and a much clearer vision of what to improve, Atlanta could find themselves back in the contending mix in a very short time.

The Good: 

The good is that the team is good. That’s good, right? Specifically, the offense is extremely talented and has the potential to be even better in 2012. I knock on Matt Ryan quite frequently, but only because people seem to think he’s something that he’s not. What he is not, is an elite QB. What he is, is a borderline Pro Bowl caliber QB. That’s still pretty darn good, and there’s every reason to think he’s good enough to be the QB of a Super Bowl winner. After all, is there really that much difference between Matt Ryan and Eli Manning? Honestly, is there? (The answer is no, by the way.) Oh yeah, and there’s also All-Po RB Michael Turner, All-Pro WR Roddy White, and possible future All-Pro WR Julio Jones. By the way, in retrospect, Cleveland was really dumb for trading the Julio Jones pick. Jones was almost as good as A.J. Green last season, and I have a sneaking suspicion that he’ll be as good, if not better, than Roddy White this season. Guy is a touchdown waiting to happen…

The Bad:

It’s been said a million times before; the hardest step to take on the path to greatness is that last step. Right now, Atlanta is a ‘good’ team. They beat the teams they were supposed to beat, but struggled to get the job done against fellow playoff teams. It’s easy to pin those struggles on the defense since they allowed 25.5 PPG in those 6 contests (5 of them losses), but blame must also be put on the offense for scoring just 14.7 PPG in those games. If they aren’t talented enough, then the front office needs to work overtime this offseason to make sure they get the requisite talent. And if they aren’t performing at a high level in those big games, then the coaching staff needs to do a better job of getting the players prepared. I, personally, have a lot of doubts about this group of players, both their across the board talent and their psyche. I have even more doubts about Mike Smith. It’ll be interesting to see how they respond to a second straight disappointing finish.

Key Free Agents:  DE John Abraham, DE Kroy Biermann, WR Harry Douglas, CB Brent Grimes (franchised), LB Curtis Lofton, C Todd McClure, S James Sanders

3 Key Questions:

#1 – Did Roddy White take a step back, and should Julio Jones be the main guy in 2012?

First, let’s compare Roddy White’s 2011 season to his previous seasons:

Catch Rate

Sorry if this rubs Falcons fans the wrong way, but it sure looks like White’s 2011 campaign didn’t mark a decline as much as it marked him an overrated player to begin with. That’s not to say Roddy White is bad or anything. He’s certainly NOT bad. But the catch rates, DYAR totals, and DVOA’s just don’t add up to an elite player. Think about the types of plays that a Calvin Johnson or a Larry Fitzgerald make, and then try to think of a single time Roddy White took over a game like they can. Just doesn’t happen all that much.

This is why I think the Falcons should shift their offense over to Julio Jones. As a rookie, Jones had a higher catch rate than White (57% to 56%), and a higher DVOA than White (10.6% to 3.8%). But more than any number, just watch the two play. Julio Jones is an absolutely incredible physical talent, and his ability to just take over a game and obliterate opponent coverage is breath taking. If he stays healthy, I honestly believe he can be one of the five best WR’s in football, and I don’t see why he can’t be the #1 guy next year. The offense would be more explosive, Jones would develop faster, and Roddy White would likely be far more effective in a possession type role.

#2 – Is this a passing offense or a running offense?

Maybe it was just the sample size of games I watched last year, but it sure seems like Atlanta has an identity crisis on their hands. It’s worth pointing out that Atlanta was 1-6 in games Matt Ryan threw 40 or more times. Obviously, that record is a bit skewed because the Falcons were obviously passing a lot in blowout losses to the Bears, Giants, and Saints; but a quick look at the play-by-play shows that Ryan threw an average of 10.7 passes in the first quarter of those games. Like I said, I like Matt Ryan, I think he’s a good QB. But he’s not Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, and he’s not the type of guy you ask to go out and win a game for you. I won’t necessarily say this should be a running offense, because I believe those types of offenses are doomed to failure, but I will say that Atlanta needs to do a better job of finding balance.

#3 – Where is the pass rush coming from?

Even if Atlanta is able to bring back John Abraham, there’s no guarantee that the 34 year old can single handedly sustain the team’s pass rush again. With 9.5 of the team’s 33 sacks, that’s pretty much what he did last year! Ray Edwards was supposed to be that secondary weapon opposite him, but he really didn’t live up to the free agent contract they gave him. There are rumors circulating that they may go after Mario Williams, and that signing would, in theory, at least sustain the pass rush that they already have. Still, in the middle to bottom of the league in sacks on an annual basis is not gonna cut it. Signing Williams and taking a flier or two on some guys in the draft is about all they can do right now, unless Edwards can rebound and get back to his usual 8-8.5 sack self.

Draft Thoughts: 

They gave up a lot for Julio Jones, but he’s totally worth it.

Summary Thoughts:

Anything is possible in the NFL, so I’m not going to rule out the Falcons. I mean, what would they look like if they struck gold and landed the next Reggie White with their fourth round pick? But assuming nothing insane happens, I’m not sure the Falcons have the means to climb the ladder in the NFC. After all, I think we’ve all figured out who Matt Ryan is by now, and he certainly isn’t Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. But like I said, the NFL is crazy. If Julio Jones blows up and Mario Williams signs on and has a huge year, then Atlanta could definitely make a run.  


  1. I want to simultaneously agree and disagree with you about the Cle/Atl pick last year. I think it was a good deal for both teams, and here's why. Put Julio Jones, great talent that he is, on the 2011 Browns...They might beat Cincy twice, and eek out a couple more wins...where does that leave them? No Phil Taylor, who seems to be developing quite nicely on the defensive line, and only one pick in this year's first round, plus if Jones beats Cincy for them, they potentially drop down in the draft...I think the Browns enter this draft with options out the wazoo (technical term)...they can spring for RG3, or they can sit on #4 and take Blackmon or Richardson, maybe even packaging the late 1st rounder with other picks to come back up and take BOTH...I know I'm being a little starry-eyed with that last bit, but I still see possibilities that making that trade last year created. Also, Julio Jones is a beast.

  2. 1. There is no possibility that they land both Griffin AND Blackmon. None. Don't even consider it.

    2. Not to be mean, but you sound like a typical Browns fan. All any Browns fan ever talks about is the "possibilities" that their draft position affords them. In hindsight, Julio Jones turned out to be much more than a possibility. As good as Phil Taylor is, it's going to be hard for a space eating DT to replicate the value of a franchise WR.

  3. You're right about that, but at the same time, mediocrity doesn't help anybody get to the super bowl. Again, if you add Jones to the 2011 Browns, where does that leave them? For all we know, Julio Jones is the next Larry Fitzgerald and Blackmon is the next Calvin Johnson. Also, my other comment meant Blackmon and Richardson, not Griffin and Blackmon. It's still not going to happen, but not as crazy as trading up twice in the same first round.

  4. What do you mean 'where does that leave them?' It leaves them with an absolute stud, and a real building block for an offense that has been starved for a playmaker like him! If you're argument is that Blackmon "could" be the next Julio Jones...well, why not just have Julio Jones? That doesn't mean the Browns aren't in a decent spot going forward (they are), but the opportunity to land a player like Julio Jones doesn't come around often.

  5. I mean, do I really need to go back and recount all the Browns draft busts? To say make that Jones=Fitzgerald and Blackmon=Johnson statement makes no sense. We can all pretend like we know a lot about Justin Blackmon, or anybody in this draft for that matter, but we really don't know anything. What I do know is that Julio Jones can play in this league, and play well. In retrospect, it would have been better to have him. No doubt.

  6. see that's the thing about retrospect versus planning...imagine that they take blackmon, and he turns into something better than anybody anticipated...then next year, we have this same discussion and say "in hindsight, the julio jones trade was the best deal the browns ever made." It's all speculation until we see what happens.


  8. That's what I was trying to point out! You're closing the book on that trade by say the Browns made a bad deal, but the whole thing hasn't played out!

  9. You're right, the Browns were smart to not get a good player. How could I not see this? I mean, what good is a franchise WR when you can keep rolling with Masspoaisgopjonadfjkl and company?!

    Unless the Browns land an All-Pro at #22, which is statistically very unlikely, then they lost the trade. No question. They will have received, at most, .75 cents worth of change in exchange for the $1 bill they sent to Atlanta.

  10. 1, they got more than one pick for last year's trade. 2, the browns CLEARLY have more than one hole to fill, and as done with Colt as you are, how is one elite WR going to help them going forward if they have neither someone to throw to him, nor the draft picks to get one? Having Julio Jones would be just enough to propel the Browns into mediocrity for a least a few more seasons. You've been one of the biggest advocates that I've known of the ideology that you have to be bad to rebuild and get better. Suddenly because good player came around, that's no longer true? It's the same concept with you wanting Boston to trade Rondo...he's a GREAT player, but they need to get bad in order to rebuild, and what they can get for him will ultimately be better for the franchise.

  11. Nothing in your comment is even remotely true. I should've known better than to get involved with this...