Atlanta Falcons (Last Year: 4-12)
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2014 NFL Season Preview:
QB T.J. Yates, TE Beat Pascoe, G Jon Asamoah, G Gabe Carimi, DE/DT Tyson Jackson, NT Paul Soliai, CB Josh Wilson, CB/KR Javier Arenas, S Dwight Lowery, KR Devin Hester.
Early Draft Picks:
OT Jake Matthews, DE/DT Ra'Shede Hageman, RB Devonta Freeman, DE/OLB Prince Shembo, CB Ricardo Allen. Falcons Rookie Forecast
RB Jason Snelling, FB Bradie Ewing, TE Tony Gonzalez, G Garrett Reynolds, OLB Stephen Nicholas, ILB Akeem Dent, CB Asante Samuel, S Thomas DeCoud.
2014 Atlanta Falcons Offense:
Poor Matt Ryan was so helpless last year. Players around him were going down like flies. Julio Jones, Roddy White and Steven Jackson all missed action this past season. Jackson was out for four contests, but never looked right after he returned. White missed just two games, but he was clearly hobbled in the first half of the year, and he was pretty much just a decoy until December. Jones' absence hurt the most, however, as he was enjoying a dynamic season before he went down. Jones played five games, but was on pace for a ridiculous 1,856 receiving yards.
Jones and White should be back at full strength, but Ryan lost Tony Gonzalez to retirement this offseason. Gonzalez could always come back - he joked that he would return if Atlanta began the year with a 10-0 record - but it's looking like the team will have to move forward with Levine Toilolo as its starting tight end. This means that the Falcons will utilize more three-receiver sets. Harry Douglas proved himself worthy of more playing time when he racked up 85 catches and 1,067 receiving yards when Jones and/or White were out of the lineup.
Jackson, however, is a different story. He turns 31 in late July, so there's a chance that his ineffectiveness last season was the product of his aging body; not the injury that knocked him out for a quarter of the year. Jackson will get another chance to prove himself, but the Falcons spent a fourth-round pick on Devonta Freeman, who was terrific in rookie minicamp.
One area that really hurt Ryan this past season was the offensive line. Ryan took 44 sacks in 2013, the highest total in his career (previous high was 28). Thus, it's no surprise that the Falcons did multiple things this offseason to improve Ryan's protection.
Atlanta began by hiring Mike Tice. The former Bears' offensive line coach was responsible for turning around a very weak front that always had Jay Cutler running for his life. He's capable of working the same magic in Atlanta, especially given that the team used the No. 6 overall selection on Jake Matthews. The Texas A&M product was once considered as a potential choice for the Rams at No. 2 overall, and he's viewed by many as the safest rookie in the class. Matthews will begin his career at right tackle across from Sam Baker, who will be manning the blind side. Baker was atrocious in four games in 2013, but was bothered by a knee injury. He's coming off surgery and should be better with Tice's tutelage, as long as he's healthy.
The Falcons also bolstered the interior of the front by signing Jon Asamoah away from the Chiefs. Asamoah is a solid blocker who figures to start at right guard, joining Justin Blalock and Joe Hawley inside. Blalock was solid at left guard this past season, while Hawley proved to be a massive upgrade at center once the team started him there over the inept Peter Konz.
2014 Atlanta Falcons Defense:
The Falcons didn't just focus on improving their offensive line. They made numerous additions on defense as well, as they mainly focused on bolstering the trenches.
Atlanta signed two key free agents there - Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai - and spent its second-round choice on Ra'Shede Hageman. Jackson and Hageman are ideal fits as 3-4 ends. Hageman is a raw player who has tons of upside. He's not ready to start yet, so he'll play behind Jonathan Babineaux, who is coming off a solid, all-around season. Jackson, meanwhile, doesn't offer anything in terms of a pass rush, but he's a monstrous run-stuffer. The same can be said for Soliai, who will be a big upgrade at nose tackle.
Many figured the Falcons would find a new pass-rushing linebacker, but that never happened. There were rumors about Atlanta moving up for Jadeveon Clowney, and to a lesser extent, Khalil Mack, but nothing ever surfaced. In fact, the Falcons never addressed the position until the fourth round when they selected Prince Shembo out of Notre Dame. Shembo probably won't be ready to play - and if he is, he may even be used at inside linebacker - so he likely won't unseat Kroy Biermann this year. Biermann is an average player who tore his Achilles last September. He almost certainly won't be 100 percent even though Atlanta will ask him to get to the quarterback with Osi Umenyiora, who wasn't as impressive as the 7.5 sacks he accumulated in 2013 indicate he was.
Atlanta planned on using Sean Weatherspoon and Paul Worrilow at inside linebacker. Weatherspoon, a former first-rounder, is yet another player who missed extensive time in 2013. That may have been a blessing in disguise, however, as it helped the coaching staff find Worrilow, who led the team with 127 tackles. Worrilow isn't great or anything, but he definitely proved himself worthy of being a capable starter. Unfortunately, disaster struck this offseason, as Weatherspoon tore his Achilles in June. His absence will once again be huge.
Aside from Weatherspoon, the only real defensive starter the Falcons lost was safety Thomas DeCoud, but his departure isn't a big deal because he may have been the worst regular player on Atlanta's stop unit. Unfortunately for the team, it didn't really find an upgrade for DeCoud, opting instead to sign Dwight Lowery, who was waived by the Jaguars of all teams last year. The Falcons spent a third-round pick on Dezmen Southward to perhaps challenge Lowery, but Southward was considered a reach. Either way, it's not looking good in terms of the spot next to William Moore.
Atlanta at least has the cornerback position figured out. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, chosen in the first and second rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft, respectively, both were effective starters in 2013. That's especially true for Trufant, who performed exceptionally. The Falcons did lose Asante Samuel this offseason, but he was just a depth player at this point in his career. Besides, they more than made up for it by signing Josh Wilson away from the Redskins. With Wilson and Robert McClain on the roster, Atlanta is very deep at corner.
2014 Atlanta Falcons Schedule and Intangibles:
In five seasons, Matt Ryan is 37-12 in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons were 3-5 at home this past season, but they were 4-12 overall.
The Falcons were pretty mediocre in terms of the return game. No touchdowns were scored for or against them for the second straight season.
Matt Bryant has been one of the top kickers in the NFL over the past four years. He was 28-of-31 in 2010, 27-of-29 in 2011, 33-of-38 in 2012 and 24-of-27 last season. He's 10-of-12 from 50-plus in that span. He's also very clutch.
Matt Bosher ranked 11th in net average in 2012, but improved this past season, finishing sixth. He was in the middle of the pack in terms of placing kicks inside the 20.
Atlanta has a somewhat tough schedule. Playing the Saints twice, Packers, Bears, Bengals (road), Ravens (road) and Cardinals will be difficult.
2014 Atlanta Falcons Rookies:
Go here for the Falcons Rookie Forecast
, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.
2014 Atlanta Falcons Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
2014 Atlanta Falcons Analysis:
The Falcons will rebound, and because expectations are down, they'll surprise many of their opponents. They had so many injuries this past season, so as long as they stay mostly healthy - beyond Sean Weatherspoon, of course - they'll compete for a wild card spot, or perhaps even the division title. Remember, they nearly beat the 49ers in the NFC Championship in January 2013, so they could easily bounce back to that level.
9-7 (2nd in NFC South)
2014 Fantasy Football Rankings
More 2014 NFL Season Previews
NFL Draft Team Grade: C+ Grade
Goals Entering the 2014 NFL Draft:
Many seem to forget that the Falcons were in the NFC Championship 16 months ago. They fought through a barrage of injuries this past season and were never able to recover because of their lacking depth. Atlanta essentially just needs to bolster its roster while taking care of a few needs, including rush linebacker, safety and right tackle.
2014 NFL Draft Accomplishments:
I don't think the Falcons are fans of their own draft. They got off to a good start with Jake Matthews, though he was close to being the worst-case scenario pick at No. 6 (Clowney-Robinson-Mack-Matthews-Watkins would have been disastrous for them). Matthews will be a huge upgrade at right tackle, and he'll eventually move over to the blind side, where he'll offer great protection for Matt Ryan.
It all went downhill from there, however. The Falcons were trying desperately to move into the end of the first to secure one of Dee Ford, Jimmie Ward or Deone Bucannon. All of them went off the board rather quickly. That prompted the front office to make a strange choice in Ra'Shede Hageman, who will be stuck behind a bunch of players on the depth chart. Atlanta followed that up with two reaches: Dez Southward and Marquis Spruill.
The Falcons saved themselves with some nice choices like Devonta Freeman and Ricardo Allen, but they didn't have a good draft overall.
NFL Draft Individual Grades:
6. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: A Grade
Would anyone be surprised if Jake Matthews ends up being the best tackle in this draft? No one should be. Jake Matthews doesn't have Greg Robinson's athleticism, but he's still a stud, and he's the best the Falcons could have hoped for without trading up (Khalil Mack was not getting by Oakland). Protecting Matt Ryan is paramount, especially after this past season, and Atlanta has just added a major piece to keep its quarterback off the ground.
37. Ra'Shede Hageman, DE/DT, Minnesota: C Grade
How many defensive linemen do the Falcons need? They signed so many this offseason, and they had so many other needs. There's decent value with Ra'Shede Hageman, so this pick isn't terrible, but Hageman is blocked with all of the talent ahead of him on the depth chart. He's also basically a height-weight-speed guy, so he has a high bust rate. I feel like Atlanta panicked a bit because all of the players it was considering went off the board (Deone Bucannon, Dee Ford).
68. Dez Southward, S, Wisconsin: C- Grade
The Falcons started off well with Jake Matthews, but they've headed southward since. Get it, southward? Meh. Dez Southward is a reach; I had him in the sixth round of my mock, and I haven't heard any team that had him much higher. I get that Atlanta is desperate for safety help, but it could have waited for Southward.
103. Devonta Freeman, RB, Florida State: A- Grade
There were some less-talented running backs chosen before Devonta Freeman, so I really like this value for Atlanta. Steven Jackson was a major disappointment this past year, so the Falcons need to find a long-term solution who could perhaps step in this season if Jackson struggles again. Freeman has Rookie of the Year potential if Jackson gets hurt.
139. Prince Shembo, DE/OLB, Notre Dame: B- Grade
The Falcons finally get their pass-rushing linebacker. They showed a ton of interest in Prince Shembo throughout the pre-draft process, so it's no surprise that they're picking him a little earlier than he was projected to go.
147. Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue: B+ Grade
Ricardo Allen could have been chosen a bit earlier than this, so I like this selection. The Falcons had to address their cornerback depth, so this is a pretty solid choice.
168. Marquis Spruill, ILB, Syracuse: C Grade
The Falcons had to find some linebacker depth, so picking a player at the position in the fifth round makes sense. However, they chose a seventh-round prospect; they could have obtained him later and chosen a better prospect here instead.
253. Yawin Smallwood, ILB, Connecticut: A Grade
I thought Yawin Smallwood would go much earlier than this. There was a ton of interest in him during the pre-draft process, so seeing him fall to the seventh round is surprising. The Falcons are doing a good job of adding depth to their linebacking corps, and I like Smallwood as a prospect better than the other linebacker they chose.
255. Tyler Starr, DE/OLB, South Dakota: B Grade
Another linebacker, but this one can get after the quarterback. The value is right for Tyler Starr, and considering the lack of talent at pass-rushing linebacker, the South Dakota prospect could definitely make the roster.
Excluding the Texans, there was no more disappointing team in the NFL this year than the Falcons. At least they can use injuries as an excuse. Five starters landed on injured reserve, and this does not include the likes of Roddy White, Steven Jackson, Asante Samuel and Sean Weatherspoon, who were out for a period of time with various maladies.
Falcons sign TE Bear Pascoe
Panthers sign S Thomas DeCoud
Falcons sign CB Josh Wilson
Falcons waive FB Bradie Ewing
Falcons sign KR Devin Hester
Falcons re-sign DT Peria Jerry
Falcons sign CB/KR Javier Arenas
Falcons sign G Jon Asamoah
Falcons cut TE Tony Gonzalez
Falcons sign NT Paul Soliai
Falcons cut S Thomas DeCoud
Falcons sign DE/DT Tyson Jackson
Falcons re-sign C Joe Hawley
Falcons re-sign DT Jonathan Babineaux
Falcons re-sign OT Mike Johnson
Falcons re-sign DT Corey Peters
Falcons announce retirement of RB Jason Snelling
Falcons cut G Garrett Reynolds
Falcons sign G Gabe Carimi
Falcons cut CB Asante Samuel
Falcons cut OLB Stephen Nicholas
- Two Offensive Tackles: The Falcons aren't going to give up on Sam Baker after one failed season of his 6-year, $41 million contract, but perhaps they should because he appears to be a sunk cost. The right tackle position could be upgraded if the Falcons don't believe in Mike Johnson's ability to stay healthy. Perhaps Tyson Clabo can be re-signed. I don't expect Atlanta to use the No. 6 overall pick on a tackle. Re-signed Mike Johnson
- Two Defensive Tackles: Jonathan Babineaux is a free agent, while Corey Peters is coming off an Achilles injury. The Falcons will probably spend a second-day selection on an interior defensive lineman. Signed Paul Soliai; re-signed Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry
- Right Guard: The Falcons need to repair their entire offensive line, and their most pressing need is perhaps at right guard. Luckily, there will be plenty of talented guard prospects to choose from at the beginning of Day 2. Signed Jon Asamoah and Gabe Carimi
- Defensive End: Osi Umenyiora did an OK job in replacing John Abraham, but Atlanta has to find someone on the other side to take Kroy Biermann's role. There will be tons of pass-rushing options available with the sixth pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Signed Tyson Jackson
- Center: Todd McClure was really missed at center, but Joe Hawley showed some promise. He's a free agent. Re-signed Joe Hawley
- Tight End: Tony Gonzalez announced his retirement, which means there's a chance he'll be back next year. If not, Atlanta will obviously have to find someone to replace his production.
- Running Back: Steven Jackson was a disappointment in his first year with the Falcons. He was banged up, so they'll give him another chance. Still, a long-term solution at this position is needed.
- Safety: Thomas DeCoud has struggled lately, so Atlanta could think about upgrading him.
- Wide Receiver: Roddy White will turn 33 in November, so Atlanta will have to find a long-term solution across from Julio Jones sometime soon.
- Cornerback Depth: Asante Samuel was released, so the Falcons will need to do something about their cornerback depth. Signed Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas
- Linebacker Depth: The Falcons must get deeper at linebacker.
Follow me @walterfootball for updates.
2014 NFL Free Agent Signings:
Paul Soliai, DT, Dolphins. Age: 30.
Signed with Falcons (5 years, $33 million)
Paul Soliai is a big-time run-stuffer who can also get to the quarterback. He can play in either the 3-4 or 4-3, so teams that run multiple fronts will love his versatility.
Tyson Jackson, DE/DT, Chiefs. Age: 28.
Signed with Falcons (5 years, $25 million)
Tyson Jackson has turned his career around with Andy Reid. He still doesn't offer anything as a pass-rusher, but he put the clamps on the run rather well in 2013.
Jon Asamoah, G, Chiefs. Age: 26.
Signed with Falcons
Jon Asamoah was benched in the second half of the season, but he had actually blocked rather well when he was in the lineup. His replacement, Geoff Schwartz, was just better.
Devin Hester, KR, Bears. Age: 31.
Signed with Falcons (3 years)
The greatest return specialist in NFL history, Devin Hester proved that he's still dangerous by taking back a punt for a touchdown in 2013. He'll be 32 in November though, so it remains to be seen how much longer he'll be effective.
Josh Wilson, CB, Redskins. Age: 30.
Signed with Falcons
Josh Wilson is one of the few Redskin defenders who didn't play terribly this past season. He's a mediocre starting cornerback.
- Javier Arenas, CB/KR, Cardinals. Age: 26. -- Signed with Falcons (1 year)
- Gabe Carimi, G, Buccaneers. Age: 26. -- Signed with Falcons
- Bear Pascoe, TE, Giants. Age: 28. -- Signed with Falcons
Atlanta Falcons Free Agents:
Salary Cap: TBA.
Jonathan Babineaux, DT, Falcons. Age: 32.
Re-signed with Falcons (3 years)
Jonathan Babineaux has been a force in terms of stuffing the run and getting to the quarterback, but he just turned 32, so his best days are behind him.
Tony Gonzalez, TE, Falcons. Age: 38.
Tony Gonzalez, now 38, signed on with CBS to be one of their analysts, but there's a good chance he'll come out of retirement to play for a contender late in the year (Cris Carter did this with the Dolphins back in 2002). Despite his age, Gonzalez is still a threat over the middle and a strong end-zone target.
Joe Hawley, C, Falcons. Age: 25.
Re-signed with Falcons (3 years)
Joe Hawley didn't start the first half of the 2013 season, but he took over the job in November and never looked back. He was solid, but unspectacular. Still, he's only 25, so there's plenty of room for improvement.
Robert McClain (RFA), CB, Falcons. Age: 26.
Re-signed with Falcons (1 year, $1.43 million)
Robert McClain is a solid nickel corner. He'll only be 26 in July.
Asante Samuel, CB, Falcons. Age: 33.
Asante Samuel was very limited in 2013 because of a lingering thigh injury. Perhaps he'll play better when healthy next season, but his best days are obviously behind him; he turned 33 in January.
Mike Johnson, OT, Falcons. Age: 27.
Re-signed with Falcons (1 year)
Mike Johnson was set to be the starting right tackle this season, but he was lost for the year in training camp with a fractured fibula.
- Cory Peters, DT, Falcons. Age: 26. -- Re-signed with Falcons
- Thomas DeCoud, S, Falcons. Age: 29. -- Signed with Panthers (2 years)
- Peria Jerry, DT, Falcons. Age: 30. -- Re-signed with Falcons
- Stephen Nicholas, OLB, Falcons. Age: 31.
- Garrett Reynolds, G, Falcons. Age: 27.
- Bradie Ewing, FB, Falcons. Age: 24.
- Chase Coffman, TE, Falcons. Age: 27.
- Dominique Franks, CB, Falcons. Age: 26. -- Signed with Ravens
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