WR Marty Booker, WR Robert Ferguson, TE Tony Gonzalez, C Brett Romberg, LB Mike Peterson, OLB Jamie Winborn.
DT Peria Jerry, SS William Moore, CB Christopher Owens, DE Lawrence Sidbury, CB William Middleton, OT Garrett Reynolds, OLB Spencer Adkins, DT Vance Walker.
QB Dog Killer, WR Laurent Robinson, OT Wayne Gandy, C Jeremy Newberry, C Alex Stepanovich, DE/DT Simon Fraser, DT Grady Jackson, DT Rod Coleman, DT Jason Jefferson, OLB Michael Boley, OLB Keith Brooking, CB Domonique Foxworth, CB David Irons, SS Lawyer Milloy.
2009 Atlanta Falcons Offense:
I feel as though I did a fairly decent job with some of my 2008 NFL Season Previews, but I completely botched Atlanta's. Believe it or not, I had the Falcons finishing with the worst record in football. But could you really blame me? They had a rookie quarterback starting behind an offensive line that surrendered 47 sacks in 2007. With a runner who had never started on a full-time basis lining up in the backfield, and virtually nothing across from Roddy White, you can't tell me that doesn't sound like a train wreck waiting to happen.
Whoops. Not only did Matt Ryan not suck, he had one of the best rookie campaigns in NFL history. Ryan started off slow - he had 13 or less completions in each of his first three contests - but he notched 12 touchdowns to just five picks between Weeks 5 and 14. He also eclipsed 240 passing yards six times and fumbled only twice in that span.
Unfortunately, Ryan really struggled in his final four contests. Against the Buccaneers, Vikings, Rams and Cardinals, Ryan had four touchdowns, six interceptions and four fumbles. He was held to 206 passing yards or less in all four of those games.
Ryan apparently hit a rookie wall and defenses seemed to figure him out. That's why the addition of Tony Gonzalez is so important; Ryan will even be more dangerous with one of the top three tight ends in the game at his disposal. Now 33 and dealt for a mere second-round pick, Gonzalez showed no signs of slowing down last season, as he caught 96 balls for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Opposing defenses will have their work cut out with Gonzalez and Roddy White (88 catches, 1,382 yards, 7 TDs) downfield, and both Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood coming out of the backfield. Norwood caught 36 passes, while Turner silenced all critics by compiling 1,699 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns in his first full season as a starter.
However, as I mentioned in my 2009 Fantasy Football Rankings: Running Backs page, there's a good chance Turner will struggle this year. In addition to his workload last year, Turner won't have the luxury of beating up on as many soft stop units. Seven of Turner's eight 100-yard performances last year came against the worst run defenses in the NFL: Detroit, Kansas City, Green Bay, Oakland, Carolina, Tampa Bay and St. Louis. Turner's sole 100-yard performance versus a tough foe came on Week 13 at San Diego, but he needed 31 attempts to reach 120 yards (3.9 YPC). Things won't be so easy this time around, as you'll see below.
Turner won't have any other excuses, as he'll be running behind a very capable offensive line. Left tackle Sam Baker played very well as a rookie, while right tackle Tyson Clabo surrendered only 2.5 sacks. The Falcons are also solid inside with Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl. Meanwhile, there has been speculation that 32-year-old Todd McClure would retire, but the center denied those rumors.
2009 Atlanta Falcons Defense:
The Falcons were either mediocre or terrible in every defensive category last year, and they somehow finished 11th in points allowed (20.3 ppg). They were 24th in yards allowed, 28th versus the run (4.8 YPC) and 21st against the pass (7.1 YPA). They also managed 34 sacks - not a terrible number, but certainly not anything astonishing.
So, how in the world were they 11th in scoring defense? The answer lies in the opponents they played. The Falcons had the luxury of facing Jon Kitna (Week 1), Brian Griese (Week 2), Damon Huard (Week 3), JaMarcus Russell (Week 9), Jeff Garcia (Week 15), Tarvaris Jackson (Week 16) and a beat-up Marc Bulger (Week 17). Your local high school could make the NFL playoffs facing those bums.
As I'll mention below, Atlanta's schedule is much more imposing this season, so the team will need to get better against the run and pass.
The latter will be pretty difficult. Of Atlanta's 34 sacks, John Abraham had 16 of them. That number was a career-high, and now at age 31, it'll be difficult for him to repeat that again. Ten or 11 sacks is much more realistic, so someone else will need to step up. Jamaal Anderson, the eighth-overall selection in the 2007 NFL Draft, has to be that player. Anderson has just two sacks in his career. If it's not him, it'll have to be first-round rookie Peria Jerry. Rookie defensive linemen seldom dominate, so this area of Atlanta's defense looks pretty bleak.
With a slightly weakened pass rush, the secondary is going to have more of a challenge. That's definitely not good because Domonique Foxworth signed with Baltimore. Starting corner Chris Houston is solid; not great, but the Falcons don't have much across from him. Chevis Jackson has one career start. Brent Grimes played well in the 2008 preseason, but was burnt once the real action started. Christopher Owens and William Middleton, meanwhile, are just mid-round rookies.
The Falcons really needed help at safety with Erik Coleman and Thomas DeCoud slated to start, so they spent a second-round selection on the talented William Moore. Moore, a first-round prospect before the 2008 season, struggled in his final year at Missouri. Given the problems Atlanta has with its pass rush and cornerbacking situation, it'll need Moore to step up immediately.
Run defense also figures to be a problem. The Falcons needed a big body to clog the middle next to under tackle Jonathan Babineaux. Instead, they took the 6-2, 299-pound Jerry. Jerry will provide more of an interior pass rush, but like Babineaux, he'll be a liability versus the run.
The small defensive tackles certainly won't help a troubled linebacking corps. Curtis Lofton is great inside, but there's major concern outside. Mike Peterson was brought in to be the weakside linebacker. He couldn't hold on to his job with the Jaguars last year, and at 33, it's pretty evident that his skills are declining rapidly. The silver lining here is that he has played well in Mike Smith's system before. Meanwhile, the coaching staff likes strongside linebacker Stephen Nicholas, but the fact is that he has no career starts.
2009 Atlanta Falcons Schedule and Intangibles:
Like every other team in the NFC South, the Falcons thrived at home last season, finishing 7-1. The sole loss was a last-second defeat against the Broncos. This was really unexpected, as the Falcons were 47-49 in the Georgia Dome from 1996 to 2007.
Going into the 2008 season, Atlanta hadn't returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown in three years. That all changed when Harry Douglas took a punt return to the house last season. Jerious Norwood didn't score on a kickoff, but he maintained a great 25.7 average and a long return of 92 yards. Better yet, the Falcons didn't surrender a touchdown on special teams.
Despite kicking at 38 years old, Jason Elam thrived in his first season with the Falcons, nailing 29-of-31 attempts, including 10-of-10 from 40 to 49.
In terms of punting average, Michael Koenen was one of the league's worst players at his position; he managed a laughable 40.7 yards per kick. However, that seems a lot better when you consider that he placed 25 of those 63 boots inside the 20. Unfortunately, two of his punts were blocked.
I mentioned I'd get to the schedule, and here it is. Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, John Abraham and Roddy White all played terrifically last season, but it can't be ignored that a major reason Atlanta was able to get to the playoffs was its easy slate. There's really no challenge in beating up crap teams like Detroit, Kansas City, Oakland, Green Bay, St. Louis and a hobbled San Diego squad that could barely beat the Chiefs.
I understand that you take what you can get, but things will be much tougher in 2009. Check out some of these games: Carolina (Week 2), at New England (Week 3), Chicago (Week 6), at Dallas (Week 7), at New Orleans (Week 8), Washington (Week 9), at Carolina (Week 10), at the Giants (Week 11), Philadelphia (Week 13) and New Orleans (Week 14). That's pretty brutal.
2009 Atlanta Falcons Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
2009 Atlanta Falcons Analysis: I'll be the first to admit when I'm wrong, and I'm not ashamed to say that I completely screwed up my 2008 Falcons projection. In my defense, however, it's not every year that a player has one of the best rookie quarterbacking campaigns in NFL history.
Unfortunately, the Falcons have a ton of potential road blocks that could deter their postseason aspirations: Michael Turner wearing down from his workload... Todd McClure possibly retiring (though doubtful)... a weakened pass rush... the back seven really struggling... a much tougher schedule... and the Panthers and Saints, of course.
Don't get me wrong; a second-consecutive playoff appearance is definitely possible for Atlanta; I just think it's going to be pretty difficult for the Falcons to repeat what they did last year.
I bashed Atlanta's draft last year, and I learned my lesson to judge these grades based on needs, as well as positional and draft value. Thomas Dimitroff once again has shown us why he's one of the brightest young general managers in the NFL.
The Falcons had needs on the defensive line, so they used two of their first four selections to improve that area. I'm not sure if Peria Jerry can play the nose, but he's a talented prospect. Lawrence Sidbury, meanwhile, was taken at No. 125 even though he was projected to go in the second round.
William Moore, taken at No. 55, was a first-round prospect in the fall. He should be able to adequately fill Atlanta's need at strong safety.
The only thing I don't get is why Dimitroff didn't address the linebacking corps, which was "destimated" by free agency. Falcon fans will be hoping for Leroy Hill.
Grade given on 4/27/09: A-
2009 NFL Draft Picks:
24. Peria Jerry, DT, Ole Miss
The Falcons had to address their defensive line, and they're getting a solid talent in Peria Jerry. I thought Evander Hood would make more sense, but I can't argue the pick too much. Thomas Dimitroff clearly has proven that he knows what he's doing. (Pick Grade: B)
55. William Moore, SS, Missouri
I actually had Atlanta drafting William Moore two days before the 2009 NFL Draft. Moore is great value here and fills a position of dire need. Yet another great pick by Dimitroff. (Pick Grade: A)
90. Christopher Owens, CB, San Jose State
Christopher Owens seems like somewhat of a reach to me, but the Falcons had to find some help at corner. (Pick Grade: B)
125. Lawrence Sidbury, DE, Richmond
Amazing value. Lawrence Sidbury, a fringe second-round prospect, fills yet another need on Atlanta's defense. (Pick Grade: A)
138. William Middleton, CB, Furman
This is the first pick of Thomas Dimitroff's that I don't like. William Middleton doesn't provide good draft value here. And I don't know why the linebacker position hasn't been addressed yet. (Pick Grade: D)
156. Garrett Reynolds, OT, North Carolina
Offensive tackle depth had to be addressed. The Falcons are getting solid value here with Garrett Reynolds. (Pick Grade: B)
176. Spencer Adkins, OLB, Miami
The first Hurricane off the board at No. 176. The Falcons needed outside linebacker help, and this happens to be Spencer Adkins' draft range. (Pick Grade: B)
210. Vance Walker, DT, Georgia Tech
Once again, the Falcons landed a player with great positional and draft value. Defensive line depth, as we've seen the past few years, is really important. (Pick Grade: A)
No one expected this. Not even the biggest Falcons homer alive. Maybe some people believed Matt Ryan would evolve into a very good quarterback, but not right away. And don't forget about the offensive line either - it's amazing how a group so maligned a year ago could turn it around so quickly. I received some flak for my awful 2008 Falcons Season Preview - I had them going 4-12 - but no one thought they could even finish .500.
Falcons cut DT Jason Jefferson
Eagles sign QB Dog Killer
Bengals sign C Alex Stepanovich
Falcons sign WR Marty Booker
Falcons sign WR Robert Ferguson
Falcons re-sign OLB Jamie Winborn (make up your damn mind)
Falcons cut OLB Jamie Winborn
Falcons sign OLB Jamie Winborn
Falcons cut CB David Irons
Falcons announce retirement of C Jeremy Newberry
Falcons cut C Alex Stepanovich
Falcons sign C Jeremy Newberry
Falcons cut QB Dog Killer
Falcons re-sign Tyson Clabo
Falcons cut DT/DE Simon Fraser
Falcons acquire TE Tony Gonzalez from Chiefs for 2010 second-round pick
Falcons re-sign G Harvey Dahl
Rams acqure WR Laurent Robinson from Falcons. Teams will swap picks in 5th and 6th rounds
Saints sign DT Rod Coleman
Falcons sign ILB Mike Peterson
Falcons sign C Brett Romberg
Lions sign DT Grady Jackson
Falcons re-sign RB Jason Snelling
Falcons re-sign ILB Tony Gilbert
Falcons re-sign DE Chauncey Davis
Giants sign OLB Michael Boley
Cowboys sign OLB Keith Brooking
Ravens sign CB Domonique Foxworth
Falcons re-sign S Jamaal Fudge
Falcons re-sign C Ben Wilkerson
Falcons re-sign OLB Coy Wire
Falcons re-sign TE Justin Peele
Falcons re-sign DT Jason Jefferson
Falcons re-sign P Michael Koenen
Nose Tackle: The Falcons had major problems against the run because of their gaping hole at nose tackle. A second- or third-round selection could be used to fill this need. Drafted Peria Jerry
Strong Safety: Lawyer Milloy was beaten on two long touchdowns against the Cardinals. He's currently a free agent, so he won't be back with the squad. The Falcons need a play-maker at the safety position. Someone like Patrick Chung or William Moore in Round 2 makes sense. Drafted William Moore
Tight End: What makes Matt Ryan's rookie performance even more amazing is that he did everything without a reliable tight end. Imagine how dangerous Atlanta's offense will be once Ryan has someone like Brandon Pettigrew going over the middle. Traded for Tony Gonzalez
Defensive End: Patience is wearing thin regarding Jamaal Anderson. Owner of just two sacks in his first two NFL seasons, Anderson looks like a bust after being chosen No. 8 overall in the 2007 NFL Draft. The Falcons need another pass-rusher to bolster a defense that had just 18 sacks on the year if you take away John Abraham's total. Drafted Lawrence Sidbury; re-signed Chauncey Davis
Two Linebackers: It looks like Michael Boley will be moving to weakside linebacker (assuming he's re-signed). Once that happens, Atlanta will have to find itself a new strongside linebacker. Signed Mike Peterson and Jamie Winborn; drafted Spencer Adkins
Center: If there's a weak link on Atlanta's offensive line, it's at the center position. The 285-pound Todd McClure turns 32 on Feb. 16. Alex Mack is a slight possibility at No. 24. Re-signed Ben Wilkerson; signed Jeremy Newberry and Brett Romberg
2009 NFL Free Agent Signings:
Mike Peterson, LB, Jaguars. Age: 33. Signed with Falcons (3 years)
Mike Peterson just had the worst season of his NFL career. He was benched for talent and character issues.
Jamie Winborn, OLB, Falcons. Age: 30. - Re-signed with Falcons
Marty Booker, WR, Bears. Age: 33. - Signed with Falcons
Jeremy Newberry, C, Chargers. Age: 33. - Signed with Falcons (1 year)
Robert Ferguson, WR, Vikings. Age: 29. - Signed with Falcons
Brett Romberg, C, Rams. Age: 29. - Signed with Falcons
Atlanta Falcons Free Agents:
Salary Cap (As of Feb. 10): $20 million
Domonique Foxworth, CB. Age: 26. Signed with Ravens (4 years, $28 million)
Acquired from the Broncos, Domonique Foxworth played extremely well for the Falcons. Let's see if performs just as well when he's not in his contract year.
Harvey Dahl (RFA), G. Age: 28. Re-signed with Falcons (1 year, $1.545 million)
A monstrous run-blocker. Michael Turner should buy Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo new homes for the lanes they opened up this season.
Tyson Clabo really stepped up and emerged as a solid right tackle for the Falcons this year.
Michael Boley, OLB. Age: 27. Signed with Giants (5 years, $25 million; $11 million guaranteed)
What happened!? A year ago, Michael Boley was one of the most promising young linebackers in the NFL, and was consequently listed as a 4-star player on this chart. In 2008, Boley was benched. I'm listing him this high because he's just too talented not to rebound.
Chauncey Davis, DE. Age: 26. Re-signed with Falcons (4 years, $14 million)
Chauncey Davis had four sacks in 2008. He's a solid reserve in the 4-3.
Keith Brooking, OLB. Age: 33. Signed with Cowboys (3 years)
Once a great player, Keith Brooking's skills have diminished; he's nothing more than a veteran leader in the locker room.
Coy Wire, OLB. Age: 30. Re-signed with Falcons (2 years)
Stepped in for a struggling Michael Boley and did well against the run. Still, a reserve linebacker at best.
Simon Fraser, DT/DE. Age: 26.
At 6-6, 300, Simon Fraser can play in any scheme as a solid depth guy.
Lawyer Milloy, SS. Age: 35.
Like Rodney Harrison, Lawyer Milloy could be useful as a veteran backup.
Grady Jackson, DT. Age: 36. Signed with Lions (3 years, $8 million)
Grady Jackson started at nose tackle all year for the Falcons. It's safe to say that Atlanta will be looking to upgrade this position pretty soon.
Michael Koenen, P. Age: 27. - Re-signed with Falcons (1 year, $2.48 million)
Jason Jefferson, DT. Age: 27.
Jason Snelling, RB. Age: 25. - Re-signed with Falcons
Jamie Winborn, Falcons. Age: 30.
Ben Wilkerson (ERFA), C. Age: 26. - Re-signed with Falcons
Justin Peelle, TE. Age: 30. - Re-signed with Falcons
Rod Coleman, DT. Age: 33. - Signed with Saints
Jamaal Fudge (RFA), S. Age: 26. - Re-signed with Falcons (1 year)
Tony Gilbert, ILB. Age: 29. - Re-signed with Falcons
Alex Stepanovich, C. Age: 27. - Signed with Steelers
David Irons, CB. Age: 26.
Wayne Gandy, OT. Age: 38.
Marcus Pollard, TE. Age: 37.
Joe Horn, WR. Age: 37.
Dog Killer, Falcons. Age: 29. Signed with Eagles
Being out of football for two years is never good for any player, especially a quarterback. On the bright side, if opposing defensive coordinators use dogs as their defensive ends, QB Dog Killer will know how to dispose of them.
Divisional Rival History: Carolina Panthers: Though the visitor claimed the past five going into the 2008 season, both home teams were victorious last year. New Orleans Saints: The Saints have won five of six in this rivalry. The lone exception came on Nov. 9, when the Falcons beat New Orleans, 34-20, at the Georgia Dome. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Michael Vick could never solve the Buccaneers. Matt Ryan lost his first meeting against them, but had better luck the second time around. The Falcons won the re-match at home, 13-10.
Features to be Posted This Offseason:
2009 NFL Draft Grades (Pick-by-Pick NFL Draft Grades as well - Live on Draft Day!)