CB Dunta Robinson.
Early Draft Picks:
OLB Sean Weatherspoon, DT Corey Peters, G Mike Johnson, C Joe Hawley, CB Dominique Franks.
CB Chris Houston, CB Tye Hill, S Jamaal Fudge, S Antoine Harris, S Charlie Peprah.
2010 Atlanta Falcons Offense:
In 2008, Matt Ryan put together an unbelievable rookie campaign. In 2009, he suffered through growing pains (and actual pains; he missed three games with a turf toe injury). This season should be the year that Ryan blossoms into an upper-echelon quarterback and takes the Falcons deep into the playoffs. Or at least that's what should be expected of him. In 13 full contests last year, Ryan threw for 2,916 yards, 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. His completion percentage (58.3) and YPA (6.8) both need to improve in Year 3.
Ryan will have one weapon he didn't possess last year. Slot receiver Harry Douglas, who showed some flashes as a rookie two seasons ago, didn't play at all in 2009 because a torn ACL he suffered last August. Douglas will re-join a receiving corps comprised of the vastly talented Roddy White, pedestrian Michael Jenkins and aging, but still effective tight end Tony Gonzalez. Ryan should be disappointed that his team didn't draft a No. 2 wideout to displace Jenkins, but White, Gonzalez and Douglas are more than enough.
One problem with Atlanta's offense last season was the lack of a running game in the second half of the year. Michael Turner predictably got hurt after leading the NFL in carries in 2008, and was in and out of the lineup starting in Week 10. A fresh Turner should be able to rebound in 2010 and provide the Falcons with a dynamic ground attack to complement Ryan and his receivers. Jerious Norwood, meanwhile, will continue to do a great job as a pass-catcher coming out of the backfield.
Offensive line chemistry is key, which is why it's a good thing that all five Atlanta linemen are returning in 2010. Left tackle Sam Baker struggled at times last season, but that was mainly because he was banged up with numerous injuries. Right tackle Tyson Clabo and right guard Harvey Dahl are both solid. Center Todd McClure played well last year, but turned 33 this offseason. The Falcons drafted Joe Hawley to eventually take over. The only liability up front is left guard Justin Blalock.
2010 Atlanta Falcons Defense:
The Falcons selected weakside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon with the 19th pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. While Weatherspoon projects as a very good, energetic defender, Atlanta's front office was probably disappointed that one of the top pass-rushers wasn't available when they were picking.
Atlanta was 28th versus the pass last season because the team couldn't get to the quarterback, collecting just 28 sacks. After posting 16.5 sacks in 2008, defensive end John Abraham managed only 5.5 last year. Abraham might be able to bounce back just a bit, but he's clearly on the down side of his career at 32. If Abraham can't get to the quarterback consistently, no one else will; left end Jamaal Anderson specializes only against the run, while Kroy Biermann is just a third-down pass-rusher who had only five sacks in 2009 (and only two sacks after Week 5).
The team's leader in sacks was actually defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who collected six of them. With Abraham in decline, Babineaux is easily Atlanta's top defender. Second-year Peria Jerry, expected to start next to Babineaux, played just two games as a rookie in 2009 before tearing his ACL in late September. Unfortunately, Jerry was still limping around in May minicamps, so the Falcons will need him to accelerate his recovery.
As referenced earlier, the defense will be welcoming Weathersoon and his non-stop motor into its linebacking corps. Weatherspoon will join Curtis Lofton, who just had a great season in the middle of Atlanta's stop unit, and strongside linebacker Stephen Nicholas, who plays well against the run.
The secondary will also be better. The only free agent the Falcons acquired was Dunta Robinson, a legitimate No. 1 cornerback who previously played with the Texans. Robinson's only issue is his ability to stay healthy. Prior to the 2009 season, Robinson had missed 12 games in a span of two years.
Robinson will be playing across from corner Christopher Owens, who was decent in six starts as a rookie last season. Free safety Thomas DeCoud is solid in coverage, but strong safety Erik Coleman is a bit of a liability. Either second-year William Moore or corner Brian Williams might be asked to step in if Coleman struggles again.
2010 Atlanta Falcons Schedule and Intangibles:
The Falcons need to stay healthy this season. That may seem like an obvious statement, but they suffered a barrage of injuries last year that really hurt their playoff chances. Matt Ryan missed two games and most of a third. Michael Turner was out for five contests and hobbled for others. Peria Jerry played in just the first two weeks of the season. Brian Williams stood on the sidelines for 11 games. Sam Baker missed a pair of contests. Harry Douglas suffered a season-ending injury in August. And that's not even the entire list.
Ryan was a flawless 6-0 at home last year (the Falcons suffered home defeats when he was out of the lineup). That means in two seasons, Ryan is 13-1 in the Georgia Dome.
Atlanta didn't return a punt or a kickoff for a touchdown in 2009, but that's because Douglas was out the whole year. He scored once on special teams as a rookie in 2008. Making matters worse, the Falcons surrendered a score off a punt return.
Jason Elam really struggled last season, going 12-of-19 before being released. Matt Bryant went 7-of-10 in his place. Bryant returns as the starting kicker, but at 35, his range is compromised (1-of-4 from 40-plus in 2009).
Punter Michael Koenen had a mediocre 2009 campaign, maintaining a 42.6 average with 18-of-61 kicks inside the 20.
Six of Atlanta's first seven opponents (Steelers, Cardinals, Saints, 49ers, Eagles, Bengals) were 8-8 or better last year, though Pittsburgh and Arizona are marginally worse without Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner, respectively. The Falcons have some easy opponents sprinkled into their schedule like the Browns and Rams, but overall they have a tough road ahead of them.
2010 Atlanta Falcons Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
2010 Atlanta Falcons Analysis: Assuming the Falcons don't suffer as many injuries as they incurred last year, they'll be better by default. But how good are they? Now in his third season, Matt Ryan has the talent, experience and weapons around him to take the team deep into the postseason. In fact, the only thing Atlanta is missing right now is a consistent pass rush. Though playing in a division less brutal than the NFC South would help as well.
Atlanta's primary goal entering the 2010 NFL Draft should have been to find players who could help with a pedestrian pass rush that accumulated only 28 sacks in 2009.
Mission failed. I really like Sean Weatherspoon as a prospect, and I know all three prominent pass-rushers - Brandon Graham, Derrick Morgan and Jason Pierre-Paul - went off the board before No. 19, but Atlanta should have done something to ensure themselves of Graham or Morgan. If the Eagles were capable of moving from 23 to 13, then the Falcons could have done so as well.
As I said though, Weatherspoon projects as a very good defender. Guard Mike Johnson could be a starter if he beats out Justin Blalock. And Dominique Franks was a steal at No. 135. But when you're trying to beat Drew Brees, it's paramount that you have a great pass rush. The Falcons still don't.
Overall 2010 NFL Draft Grade given on 4/26/10: C+
2010 NFL Draft Individual Grades:
19. Sean Weatherspoon, OLB, Missouri
Sean Weatherspoon is a talented, blue-collar, high-character guy who had Falcons written all over him. He fills a big position of need. (Pick Grade: A)
83. Corey Peters, DT, Kentucky
I guess Peria Jerry's ACL recovery isn't going along very well? If so, this pick makes a lot of sense. If not, you have to wonder how the Falcons will get to the quarterback. (Pick Grade: C)
98. Mike Johnson, G, Alabama
Not the pick I would have made (hello, defensive end?) but I like Mike Johnson as a Round 3-4 prospect. He could challenge Justin Blalock at left guard; Blalock didn't play particularly well last year. (Pick Grade: B)
117. Joe Hawley, C, UNLV
Joe Hawley? Over Matt Tennant and Eric Olsen? This fills a need at center, but Hawley, a late-round prospect, is a reach. (Pick Grade: C)
135. Dominique Franks, CB, Oklahoma
Dominique Franks is a Round 2-3 prospect. You can never have enough quality corners when you're trying to beat Drew Brees. I really like this pick. (Pick Grade: A)
165. Kerry Meier, WR, Kansas
A big, raw receiver, the Falcons will hope Kerry Meier challenges for the No. 2 receiver position across from Roddy White. I'm not so optimistic. (Pick Grade: C)
171. Shann Schillinger, S, Montana
Someone to push disappointing rookie William Moore. Not a big fan of this selection; still no defensive ends. (Pick Grade: C)
Key Undrafted Free Agents:
Colin Peek, TE, Alabama
Ryan Wolfe, WR, UNLV
The Falcons were everyone's sleeper team going into the 2009 season. After a playoff appearance in 2008, it seemed like all of the talking heads expected Matt Ryan to take the next step. That never happened, and Atlanta finished 9-7 - but it's hard to call last year a failure; in the wake of that 9-7 finish, it marked the first time in franchise history that the Falcons had back-to-back winning seasons.
Falcons waive QB D.J. Shockley
Packers sign S Charlie Peprah
Falcons re-sign P Michael Koenen
Falcons re-sign RB Jerious Norwood
Falcons re-sign G Harvey Dahl
Falcons re-sign OT Tyson Clabo
Falcons re-sign G Quinn Ojinnaka
Falcons re-sign RB Jason Snelling
Titans sign CB Tye Hill
Falcons cut CB Tye Hill
Falcons re-sign CB Brent Grimes
Lions acquire CB Chris Houston from Falcons for 2010 6th-rounder and exchange of 2010 5th-rounders
Falcons sign CB Dunta Robinson
Falcons re-sign QB Chris Redman
Falcons re-sign CB Brian Williams
Falcons tender G Harvey Dahl
Falcons tender OT Tyson Clabo
Falcons tender G Quinn Ojinnaka
Falcons re-sign WR Brian Finneran
Defensive End: Jamaal Anderson is a bust. The Falcons need help up front to generate more of a consistent pass rush; they had just 28 sacks in 2009. Brandon Graham could be an option in the first round. If not, Atlanta will look for an end in Round 3.
Cornerback: Rookie Chris Owens and Brent Grimes played well down the stretch, but one of Atlanta's goals this offseason must be to obtain a No. 1 corner. Donovan Warren could be a first-round option in the 2010 NFL Draft. There will also be plenty of depth at the position in the middle rounds. Signed Dunta Robinson; drafted Dominique Franks
Outside Linebacker: Mike Peterson was effective early on, but his age really showed when he struggled toward the end of the year. The Falcons will look into adding a weakside linebacker to replace Peterson, or a strongside linebacker, which would allow them to move Stephen Nicholas over to the weak side. Sean Weatherspoon will be heavily considered in the first round this April. Drafted Sean Weatherspoon
Nose Tackle: I'm not sure what Atlanta was thinking when it drafted Peria Jerry in the first round to be its nose tackle. At 6-2, 299, Jerry was destroyed in run support before suffering a season-ending knee injury in September. Drafted Corey Peters
No. 2 Wide Receiver: How many years can the Falcons keep going with Michael Jenkins as their No. 2 receiver? They'll obtain a wideout they like in the middle of the 2010 NFL Draft if they don't go after Antonio Bryant or Derrick Mason. Drafted Kerry Meier
Offensive Tackle Depth: Sam Baker struggled in his sophomore campaign, but he'll probably bounce back. However, there isn't much depth behind Baker and Tyson Clabo on the edges.
Center: Todd McClure won't be arounud forever. Drafted Joe Hawley
Kicker: Jason Elam was just 12-of-19 in 2009, leading to his release. Matt Bryant wasn't any better.
2010 NFL Free Agent Signings:
Dunta Robinson, CB, Texans. Age: 28. Signed with Falcons (6 years, $57 million; $25.5 million guaranteed)
Dunta Robinson is a solid No. 1 corner, but has an extensive injury history. Signing him to a long-term deal would be risky.
What I wrote last year: "A monstrous run-blocker. Michael Turner should buy Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo new homes for the lanes they opened up this season." Unfortunately, Dahl suffered an Achilles injury in the middle of the season.
Jason Snelling (RFA), RB, Falcons. Age: 26. Re-signed with Falcons (1 year, $1.6 million)
A tough runner who can catch the ball out of the backfield. Jason Snelling lacks any sort of breakaway speed, but he's a quality physical back.
Divisional Rival History: Carolina Panthers: The host has won the past four meetings. All four games have been decided by at least eight points. New Orleans Saints: The Saints have won seven of eight in this rivalry. The lone exception came in 2008, when the Falcons beat New Orleans, 34-20, at the Georgia Dome. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Michael Vick could never solve the Buccaneers. Matt Ryan is 3-1 against them. Of course, it helps that Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch are no longer around.
Features to be Posted This Offseason:
2010 NFL Draft Grades (Pick-by-Pick NFL Draft Grades as well - Live on Draft Day!)