ILB Lofa Tatupu, CB Asante Samuel.
Early Draft Picks:
C Peter Konz, OT Lamar Holmes, FB Bradie Ewing, DE Jonathan Massaquoi.
FB Ovie Mughelli, OLB Mike Peterson, ILB Curtis Lofton, SS James Sanders, KR Eric Weems.
2012 Atlanta Falcons Offense:
The Falcons thought they were one player away from Super Bowl contention when they traded a barrage of picks for Julio Jones in the 2011 NFL Draft. They clearly misevaluated their talent, as they discovered when the Giants essentially blanked them on the scoreboard in January.
That's not to say that Jones didn't help their offense. Matt Ryan threw for career-highs in both passing yards (4,177) and touchdowns (29) even though he attempted five fewer passes than he did in 2010. Jones was a big help, especially down the stretch once he returned from his hamstring injury. He registered 31 catches, 525 yards and six touchdowns in his final half-dozen games. This includes a game-high seven receptions for 64 yards in the aforementioned defeat against New York.
Jones will emerge as Ryan's No. 1 target in 2012. His sheer talent isn't the only reason; the decline of Roddy White is also a factor. White is still a receptions machine - he has 215 catches the past two years - but he's lost some of his explosiveness, which is hardly a surprise because he'll turn 31 in November. White also has unreliable hands; no one in the NFL had more drops than White last season (15).
Elsewhere in Ryan's receiving corps, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez have returned despite being a free agent and a retirement candidate, respectively. Douglas is an underrated slot receiver, while Gonzalez, 36, rebounded last year from a dismal 2010 campaign in which he looked unbelievably slow. Unfortunately, the future Hall-of-Famer is playing on his last legs, and his talent could completely erode by September. Atlanta did not draft his successor, so it'll have to do so next April.
One of the reasons why the Falcons were criticized for giving up too much for Jones was because they depleted their depth and prevented themselves from addressing a very important position of need. That would be left tackle, where Sam Baker and Will Svitek took turns embarrassing themselves last season. Atlanta could have chosen Riley Reiff with the No. 22 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but instead had to settle for Lamar Holmes in the third round. Holmes has some athleticism at 6-5, 325, but he's raw and won't be able to contribute immediately.
The rest of the offensive line is looking pretty solid. The Falcons spent their second-round selection on Wisconsin's Peter Konz, a borderline first-round prospect. Konz will start at right guard this season but will eventually move to center to succeed Todd McClure, who played well at 34 last year. Left guard Justin Blalock and right tackle Tyson Clabo are both excellent in pass protection, though the latter needs to cut down on his penalties (eight in 2011).
Another position the Falcons couldn't address because of a lack of resources was running back. Michael Turner had a solid 2011 campaign overall, but really looked like he was running on fumes down the stretch. He averaged more than 3.6 yards per carry in only one of his final seven games, and that came against a Buccaneer team that quit. Head coach Mike Smith told the media that Turner will be featured less this year; some of his touches will go to Jacquizz Rodgers, a very small (5-6, 196) but speedy running back whom the Falcons acquired in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Rodgers cannot carry a full workload, however, so Atlanta will have to find a complementary player next April.
2012 Atlanta Falcons Defense:
The Falcons have obtained exactly one big-name free agent in each of the previous two offseasons. They'll be hoping that this year's acquisition, Asante Samuel, is better than 2011's Ray Edwards.
Samuel was a steal for a late-round pick. He was disgruntled and highly paid in Philadelphia, so Andy Reid was more than happy to part ways with him. Samuel turned 31 in January, but still played extremely well last year, surrendering a sterling completion percentage of 47.5. That's almost as good as Brent Grimes' unbelievable figure (44.3), so the two should form an incredible cornerback tandem. Grimes was missed at the end of last season when he went down with a knee injury. Meanwhile, Dunta Robinson, who really struggled in 2011, will move to a more comfortable slot corner position.
The one weakness in Atlanta's secondary in the wake of the Samuel trade is free safety Thomas DeCoud, who was often picked on by opposing quarterbacks last season. Strong safety William Moore made up for it, but he needs to stay healthy. He's missed 18 games in his 3-year career, which does not include the aforementioned loss to the Giants; he barely played in that contest because of a groin injury he suffered in the first quarter.
As for Edwards, the former Viking really disappointed. He could barely generate any pressure on the quarterback, notching just 3.5 sacks despite playing across from John Abraham and his 9.5 sacks. Both players were very good in run support, but Edwards really has to pick up the slack in 2012, especially considering that Abraham, at 34, is past his prime and could be in for a major decline any season. The Falcons spent a fifth-round selection on Jonathan Massaquoi, but he probably won't contribute very much this year.
The interior of the defensive front is pretty solid. Jonathan Babineaux is a very well-rounded player; he can apply some pressure on the quarterback and hold his own against the run. Corey Peters, meanwhile, did an OK job in run support last year, but hardly ever rattled opposing signal-callers. Atlanta will want 2009 first-round pick Peria Jerry to push Peters, but it appears as though that ship has sailed. Jerry hasn't been the same since shredding his knee during his rookie campaign.
The Falcons had one major loss this offseason, and that was Curtis Lofton, the team's leading tackler (147 tackles), who signed with arch rival New Orleans. They added Lofa Tatupu as a possible replacement. He'll battle it out with 2011 third-rounder Akeem Dent to see who lands the starting gig. Tatupu was out of the league last year, so it's tough to speculate what he could possibly contribute. Dent, meanwhile, barely played as a rookie, so he's just as much of an unknown.
Surrounding the winner of the Tatupu-Dent competition are Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas. Weatherspoon didn't play very well as a rookie in 2010, but really stepped up last year, becoming one of the top linebackers in the NFL. Nicholas is a pretty decent two-down run-defender.
2012 Atlanta Falcons Schedule and Intangibles:
In four seasons, Matt Ryan is 26-5 in the Georgia Dome. That's an impressive record on paper, but it didn't seem to matter much when the Packers waltzed into the Falcons' house and slaughtered them, 48-21, last January.
Eric Weems, now with the Bears, was a very good punt returner. He didn't score last year, but maintained a 9.8 average, while the Falcons restricted the opposition to 4.8. Weems was outgained on kickoffs, however. No touchdowns there either, for or against.
Matt Bryant has been one of the top kickers in the NFL over the past two years. He was 28-of-31 in 2010 and 27-of-29 last season. He's 3-of-3 from 50-plus in that span. He just turned 37.
Matt Bosher didn't have a successful rookie campaign as Atlanta's new punter. He averaged 42.7 yards per attempt with 27-of-70 tries inside the 20.
Atlanta's second-place schedule is pretty difficult. The team has to deal with the Chiefs (road), Broncos (home), Chargers (road), Eagles (road), Cowboys (home), Giants (home), Lions (road), as well as the Saints and Panthers twice.
2012 Atlanta Falcons Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
2012 Atlanta Falcons Analysis: The Falcons have to love what the Saints have gone through this offseason. That makes their quest to re-claim the NFC South so much easier. But the regular season can't be very important to the fan base, given that they've seen Atlanta blow homefield advantage throughout the playoffs to the Packers in January 2011. The 2012 campaign will be all about finally living up to expectations in the postseason.
Goals Entering the 2012 NFL Draft: The offensive line is the greatest area of concern. Left tackle and right guard are major problem areas. A successor for Todd McClure is also needed at center. Unfortunately, Atlanta doesn't have a first-round pick.
2012 NFL Draft Accomplishments: This is a tough grade because the Falcons didn't pick until No. 55 and had only two selections in the top 150. I loved what they did with their first choice in picking Peter Konz. The Wisconsin lineman fell because of injury concerns, which were overblown. He'll be a force on Atlanta's front, starting out at guard and then taking over for McClure in a year or two.
The rest of Atlanta's picks were decent, save for Lamar Holmes, who was not in the top 225 of many major big board. He was a big reach at No. 91, but maybe the Falcons, who didn't pick until No. 157, thought there would be a good chance he wouldn't be available in the fifth round.
2012 NFL Draft Individual Grades:
55. Peter Konz, C/G, Wisconsin: A+ Grade
Medical issues affect draft statuses, but they are usually overblown. Peter Konz fell because of the medical. If he happened to be healthy, he would have been drafted in the final stages of the first round. The Falcons are getting incredible value here. Konz also fills a huge need; he can play at guard until center Todd McClure retires.
91. Lamar Holmes, OT, Southern Miss Matt Millen Telemarketer Kielbasa Salesman Grade
I didn't have Lamar Holmes being drafted. No major big board ranked him in the top 225. The Falcons probably could have obtained him in Round 6 or 7. Maybe they know something no one else does.
157. Bradie Ewing, FB, Wisconsin B- Grade
Ovie Mughelli is coming off a torn MCL, so it's understandable why the Falcons would draft a fullback. I think this is a bit early for Bradie Ewing, but it's not much of a reach.
164. Jonathan Massaquoi, DE, Troy A Grade
This is a really good value pick. Jonathan Massaquoi was ranked No. 84 on Mike Mayock's big board, and he was No. 116 on the consensus rankings. The Falcons had to find a young pass-rusher to perhaps eventually take over for John Abraham.
192. Charles Mitchell, SS, Mississippi State B Grade
Safety depth had to be addressed, so this pick makes sense. Charles Mitchell could have gone a bit later than this, but given that this is Atlanta's penultimate pick, it's not a big deal.
249. Travian Robertson, DT, South Carolina B Grade
The Falcons don't have much depth at defensive tackle, so this pick makes sense. Travian Robertson probably should have been selected at this spot.
The Falcons thought they were one player away from becoming one of the Super Bowl favorites, which is why they traded the farm for Julio Jones in the 2011 NFL Draft. Jones didn't disappoint, but pretty much everyone else did. The Falcons have some glaring holes on their roster, but with no first-round pick to fill any of them, it'll be difficult for them to improve.
Falcons cut FB Ovie Mughelli
Falcons acquire CB Asante Samuel from Eagles for late-round pick
Bears sign CB Kelvin Hayden
Falcons sign SS James Sanders
Falcons re-sign C Todd McClure
Saints sign ILB Curtis Lofton
Falcons re-sign LS Joe Zelenka
Falcons re-sign DE John Abraham
Bears sign WR/KR Eric Weems
Falcons re-sign WR Harry Douglas
Falcons re-sign QB Chris Redman
Falcons re-sign DT Vance Walker
Falcons sign ILB Lofa Tatupu
Falcons re-sign RB Jason Snelling
Falcons re-sign S Thomas DeCoud
Falcons re-sign DE Kroy Biermann
Falcons franchise CB Brent Grimes
Left Tackle: The Giants manhandled Atlanta's offensive line in the playoffs. One of the issues was at left tackle, where Sam Baker was benched during the year. Will Svitek was solid in relief early, but really struggled down the stretch. Acquiring a left tackle without a first-round pick will be difficult, unfortunately. Drafted Lamar Holmes
Cornerback: It doesn't appear as though Brent Grimes will be back in Atlanta next year in the wake of speculation that he sat out the playoff game to avoid injury (per Pro Football Weekly). Franchised Brent Grimes; traded for Asante Samuel
Center: Todd McClure is a 35-year-old free agent. If he's not retained, the Falcons will obviously need a replacement. A Day 2 selection could suffice. Re-signed Todd McClure; drafted Peter Konz
Defensive End: Ray Edwards was a disappointment as a free-agent acquisition. John Abraham is a 34-year-old free agent who frequently disappears in big games. Kroy Biermann is due to hit the market as well. Re-signed John Abraham and Kroy Biermann; drafted JOnathan Massaquoi
Running Back: Michael Turner is pretty much done. He averaged 3.6 YPC or worse in six of his final seven games, losing any sort of burst he once had. Jacquizz Rodgers is just a third-down scat back, so the Falcons need a new starter. Re-signed Jason Snelling
Inside Linebacker: Stud inside linebacker Curtis Lofton is a free agent who must be re-signed. Signed Lofa Tatupu
Right Guard: It's unclear if last year's fourth-round pick, Joe Hawley, is the answer at right guard. He was brutal in the postseason loss, but he'll be better next season.
Tight End: Tony Gonzalez just rebounded with a great year, but he'll be 36 in February. He could decline next season, and if he doesn't, it's likely that the 2012 campaign will be his last. A successor will need to be acquired.
Free Safety: Thomas DeCoud is another free agent I'm sure Atlanta would like to retain. Re-signed Thomas DeCoud
Wide Receiver Depth: Help is needed behind the starters and free agent Harry Douglas. Re-signed Harry Douglas
Linebacker Depth: The Falcons will be thin here if Mike Peterson walks.
2012 NFL Free Agent Signings:
Lofa Tatupu, ILB, Seahawks. Age: 29. Signed with Falcons (2 years, $5.75 million)
Lofa Tatupu (or Taptua) oddly received no interest in 2011. Maybe a year off was what he needed to recover from all of his injuries.
Atlanta Falcons Free Agents:
Salary Cap: TBA.
Curtis Lofton, ILB, Falcons. Age: 26. Signed with Saints (5 years)
Curtis Lofton is a Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker. Re-signing him is Atlanta's No. 1 priority this offseason because he's the soul of the defense.
Brent Grimes, CB, Falcons. Age: 29. Franchised by Falcons
Despite size and speed limitations, Brent Grimes is a very talented cornerback. The only question is his dedication. There is speculation via a Pro Football Weekly report that he sat out the playoff game so he wouldn't risk a big pay day by getting hurt. If so, Grimes might be one of those take-the-money-and-run bust free agents. Caveat emptor.
John Abraham, DE, Falcons. Age: 34. Re-signed with Falcons (3 years)
John Abraham is pretty overrated because he comes up small in big games, usually racking up his high sack totals against poor opponents like Blaine Gabbert and the Jaguars. He'll be 34 in May, so his best days are far behind him.
Todd McClure turns 35 in February, but he still gets the job done. His skills could erode without warning, however, which is why I'm listing him at just three stars.
Eric Weems, WR/KR, Falcons. Age: 27. Signed with Bears (3 years)
Eric Weems scored two special-teams touchdowns in 2010, but couldn't find the end zone this past season. However, he was still effective on returns, maintaining solid averages in both punt and kick returns.
Kroy Biermann, DE, Falcons. Age: 26. Re-signed with Falcons (3 years)
Kroy Biermann had a very solid 2010 campaign, but struggled this past season, notching only 2.5 sacks despite playing about 35 snaps every week. He was invisible against the Giants.
Thomas DeCoud, FS, Falcons. Age: 27. Re-signed with Falcons (5 years, $17.5 million; $4 million guaranteed)
Thomas DeCoud is good in run support, but tends to get lost in coverage. He performed poorly in the beginning of the year, but picked up his play late.
Ovie Mughelli, FB, Falcons. Age: 32.
Ovie Mughelli is coming off a torn MCL. He needs to prove that he can still be an effective blocker.
Harry Douglas, WR, Falcons. Age: 27. -- Re-signed with Falcons
Jason Snelling, RB, Falcons. Age: 28. -- Re-signed with Falcons (3 years)
Mike Peterson, OLB, Falcons. Age: 36.
James Sanders, SS, Falcons. Age: 28. -- Signed with Cardinals
Reggie Kelly, TE, Falcons. Age: 35.
Kelvin Hayden, CB, Falcons. Age: 29. -- Signed with Bears
Chris Redman, QB, Falcons. Age: 35. -- Re-signed with Falcons
Brett Romberg, C, Falcons. Age: 32.
Kirk Chambers, OT, Falcons. Age: 33.
2012 NFL Free Agent Rankings Coming Soon
Divisional Rival History: Carolina Panthers: The host has won six of the past eight meetings. The Falcons had a fluky comeback at Carolina in 2011 though. New Orleans Saints: The Saints have won 10 of 12 in this rivalry. New Orleans can thank Garrett Hartley for missing an overtime field goal during one of those two losses. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Matt Ryan is 6-2 against the Buccaneers. There's no need to explain that record.
Features to be Posted This Offseason:
2012 NFL Draft Grades (Pick-by-Pick NFL Draft Grades as well - Live on Draft Day!)