Outlook for the 2011 Atlanta Falcons

Outlook for the 2011 Atlanta Falcons
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Is Julio Jones the final piece to the Atlanta Falcons’ Championship puzzle?
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Can Brent Grimes perform at the same level in 2011?

In 2010, Matt Ryan and Roddy White led the Atlanta Falcons to an NFC best 13-3 record. However, the Falcons were eliminated from the playoffs in the divisional round, losing 48-21 to the Green Bay Packers.

In the 2011 NFL Draft, the Falcons took a huge gamble and traded away their 2011 and 2012 first-round picks, 2011 and 2012 fourth round picks, and 2011 second-round pick to the Cleveland Browns in order to select wide receiver Julio Jones with the sixth overall pick. With Jones’ the Falcons believe that they have added the final piece to their puzzle and are now ready to contend for the Super Bowl.

With the addition of their rookies, let’s take a look at the Falcons’ current roster and see what positions are in need of upgrades.

Quarterbacks (3)

Matt Ryan, Chris Redman, John Parker Wilson

Matt Ryan completed 357 of his 571 pass attempts for 3,705 yards, 28 touchdowns and 9 interceptions last season. Matty Ice is entering his fourth NFL season and could put up even better numbers in 2011, if the rumors are true about the Falcons’ offense switching to a “more aggressive and proactive” passing game. The Falcons realize that a championship offense must run through the quarterback, as evidenced by their drafting of Julio Jones.

Chris Redman completed 4 of his 6 pass attempts for 20 yards in a backup role last season. Redman played at the end of the last game in the regular season and did the best he could considering the Falcons’ were running out the clock and trying avoid injuries heading into the playoffs. Redman is a good backup and his career 21:13 touchdown to interception ratio backs that up.

John Parker Wilson is an exclusive rights free agent that the Falcons will likely keep because they love his intangibles and leadership ability despite his lack of size and arm-strength.

Free Agent Analysis:

Atlanta doesn’t need a quarterback because Matt Ryan is about to join the elite group of quarterbacks and Chris Redman is one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league.

Halfbacks (5)

Michael Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers, Gartrell Johnson, Antone Smith

Michael Turner had 334 carries for 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. However, Turner averaged just 3.58 YPC against a string of mediocre run defenses in the final five games of last season, showing a lack of burst and explosion. Turner surely must have been tired as he has led the NFL in carries in two of the past three seasons. Turner should receive less carries in 2011 and will need to be more involved in the passing game than his 12 reception for 85 yards in 2010.

Jacquizz Rodgers was selected in the fifth round due to his 5-foot-6, 191 pound frame. However, Rodgers was one of the most electrifying players in the NCAA and his aggressiveness and speed (4.47 forty time) should give him a chance to have an impact as Michael Turner’s backup in 2011.

Gartrell Johnson signed with the Falcons after Jerious Norwood tore his ACL, and appeared in nine games where he had 10 carries for 36 yards. Johnson was a legitimate third-string back and received carries whenever Michael Turner and Jason Snelling need a breather

Antone Smith played a role for the Falcons in 2010 as a gunner on special teams, but would’ve been on the practice squad had it not been for Jerious Norwood’s torn ACL in Week 1.

Free Agent Analysis:

Former backup halfbacks Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood are set to test the free agent market. Snelling did a good job in 2010 and deserves a hefty raise and a larger role which might be more than the Falcons are willing to offer, considering that they just drafted Jacquizz Rodgers whom is considered a “change of pace” halfback. However, Norwood likely won’t be back given his injury history. If neither is retained, Atlanta would likely sign a veteran free agent to compete with Gartrell Johnson and Antone Smith. Potential Free Agent Halfbacks that fit their need include: Michael Bennett, Ladell Betts, Julius Jones, Dominic Rhodes and Cadillac Williams

Fullback (1)

Ovie Mughelli

Ovie Mughelli is an above-average receiver and a punishing lead blocker for Michael Turner. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick called Mughelli “excellent at the point of attack” and the best fullback he’s seen in a “long time.”

Free Agent Analysis:

Atlanta doesn’t need a fullback because Mughelli is regarded as one of the best at his position. However, the Falcons will likely bring in an unrestricted free agent and sign him to their practice squad as insurance.

Wide Receivers (9)

Roddy White,Julio Jones, Harry Douglas, Michael Jenkins, Eric Weems, Kerry Meier, Andy Strickland, Brandyn Harvey, Tim Buckley

Roddy White had his best NFL season in 2010. He led the league with 115 receptions and his 1389 receiving yards ranked second to Brandon Lloyd’s 1448. White’s 10 touchdowns tied for seventh best in the league. It’s safe to say that Roddy White has joined the elite group of wide receivers.

Julio Jones is viewed as the final piece to the Falcons’ ideal championship caliber offense. The Falcons traded away their 2011 and 2012 first-round picks, 2011 and 2012 fourth round picks, and 2011 second-round pick to the Cleveland Browns just to draft Jones, so it’s obvious to say that he’ll have an impact in 2011. Jones is a huge upgrade over Michael Jenkins with his combination of playmaking ability and blocking skills.

Harry Douglas had 22 receptions for 294 yards and a touchdown last season, but Coach Mike Smith expects a “jump in production” for Douglas in 2011. Douglas had an ACL injury back in 2009, but a year of recovery under his belt should allow him to produce more from the slot this year.

Michael Jenkins had 41 receptions for 505 yards and 2 touchdowns in 11 games last season. Jenkins could be traded once the Lockout is lifted though because his $3.5 million salary might be too high for the Falcons, who likely don’t want to pay that money to a fourth-string wide receiver.

Eric Weems wasn’t targeted much as a receiver last season, but Brian Finneran’s departure via free agency could allow Weems to be more active in the passing game in 2011.

Kerry Meier is recovering from last summer’s ACL surgery and should compete for the fourth-string wide receiver position.

Andy Strickland, Brandyn Harvey, and Tim Buckley all signed reserve/future contracts and will likely be battling for practice squad spots once the Lockout is lifted.

Free Agent Analysis:

Atlanta doesn’t need receivers and will likely trade Michael Jenkins now that Julio Jones has that the number 2 receiver title from him.

Tight End (5)

Tony Gonzalez, Justin Peelle, Michael Palmer, Robert Agnone, Marquez Branson

Tony Gonzalez turned 35 in February and finished 2010 with his fewest receptions (70) and yards (656) since 1998. Despite losing speed, Gonzalez is still a capable possession target and should continue to help Matt Ryan grow as a quarterback.

Justin Peelle is a blocking specialist that underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia mid season in 2010. Peelle is one of those players that benefits from the Lockout as it gives him more time to recover.

Michael Palmer was a long shot to make the team as an undrafted free agent last season. As a result, Palmer had a limited role, but registered his first career touchdown in Week 9 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. However, Palmer will have to compete with Robert Agnone for a spot on the 53-man roster this season.

Robert Agnone landed on the injured reserve with a foot injury last season and should compete for the third-string tight end job with Michael Palmer.

Marquez Branson is pass-catching tight end that sustained a significant knee injury in preseason for the Denver Broncos last season. Branson signed a reserve/future contract with the Falcons, but it would be an absolute shocker if he was to make the 53-man roster, but the practice squad isn’t out of the question.

Free Agent Analysis:

Atlanta doesn’t need a tight end right now, but as Tony Gonzalez gets older, the team will eventually have to look for a replacement.

O-Line (9)

Sam Baker,Mike Johnson,Todd McClure,Andrew Jackson,Garrett Reynolds, Will Svitek, Jose Valdez, Joe Hawley, Rob Bruggeman

Sam Baker dealt with several injuries last year and it affected his play to the point that he got benched in favor of Will Svitek. However, when healthy, Baker has been a technician in pass protection and should start at the blind side in 2011.

Mike Johnson was a third round pick in 2010 and should take over the starting left guard position, should the Falcons not retain Justin Blalock, or Harvey Dahl once the Lockout is lifted

Todd McClure turned 33 in February and despite his age; he remains one of the league’s best run-blocking centers.

Andrew Jackson was selected in the seventh round and would currently start at right guard if the Falcons don’t address the offensive line. However, the Falcons are losing 3 offensive lineman to free agency and it’s likely that they‘ll retain at least one of them back, eliminating Jackson from starting in 2011. Although, it should be noted that Jackson would’ve been taken higher if he hadn’t suffered an ankle injury and missed nine games his senior year.

Garrett Reynolds stands in at 6-foot-7, 317 pounds, which is why it appears as though the Falcons are comfortable with letting Tyson Clabo leave. Reynolds is known as a nasty run blocker, despite having played just 24 career snaps so far.

Former Chief, Will Svitek saw action in all 16 games last season as a reserve lineman and on special teams. Svitek will compete with Garrett Reynolds for the starting right tackle job, but it’s assumed that Reynolds is the frontrunner.

Jose Valdez is a massive offensive lineman at 6-foot-6 324 pounds. Valdez is very athletic and will compete for a spot on the 53-man roster once the Lockout is over.

Joe Hawley is considered the eventual successor to Todd McClure, but could compete for a guard position in the meantime. Hawley has been given comparisons to Logan Mankins because of his nasty side, so maybe he could win the job.

Rob Bruggeman spent last season on the practice squad, and signed a reserve/future contract prior to the Lockout, but likely won’t make the 53-man roster.

Free Agent Analysis:

Atlanta has a lot of young, developing offensive lineman, so the possibility of losing Tyson Clabo, Justin Blalock, and Harvey Dahl shouldn’t hurt the team as much as many would expect. With that said, the Falcons will probably try to find a starting guard in free agency. Potential Free Agent Guards include: Trai Essex, Robert Gallery, Adam Goldberg, Kyle Kosier and Floyd Womack.

D-Line (10)

John Abraham,Jonathan Babineaux,Cory Peters,Kroy Biermann, Jamaal Anderson, Peria Jerry, Chauncey Davis, Trey Lewis, Lawrence Sidbury, Vance Walker

John Abraham had 13 sacks last season which is a big improvement from the 5.5 he had in 2009. If Abraham can stay consistent in 2011, the Falcons could win the NFC South.

Jonathan Babineaux had another good season with 27 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 1 interception. Babineaux is one of the better 4-3 defensive tackles in the NFL, but for some reason has never received Pro Bowl consideration.

Corey Peters played in 16 games and racked up 33 tackles and 1 sack in his rookie season. Peters has room to improve, and needs to hold off Peria Jerry if he’s going to start in 2011.

Kroy Biermann might have a breakout season in 2011. Biermann had 3 sacks last season, but his 48 quarterback disruptions, speed, and motor have many scouts including Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson believing that Biermann is headed for a break out.

Jamaal Anderson lost his starting job to Kroy Biermann last season, but had his best season so far. The Falcons need to decide whether they want to pay Jamaal Anderson $3.6 million to be the guy that gives John Abraham and Biermann a breather.

Peria Jerry had trouble recovering from his ACL tear in 2010 and lost his starting job to Corey Peters as a result. However, 2011 is another year and Jerry has full support from Coach Mike Smith, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can win the starting job.

Chauncey Davis is a rotational end that often comes on the field in run situations. However, Davis had returned an interception for a touchdown last season to go along with his 24 tackles. Davis should have the same role in 2011.

Trey Lewis recorded two tackles in Week 1 after a strong preseason, but was inactive the rest of the year after Jonathan Babineaux came off his suspension.

Lawrence Sidbury has a very high ceiling as a pass rusher, but needs to become more of a complete player before he can threaten for a starting job.

Vance Walker started last season on the practice squad, but joined the active roster, once Peria Jerry head to the injured reserve. In a limit role, Walker had 16 tackles, and could become expendable before the 2011 season.

Free Agent Analysis:

Atlanta is rumored to be targeting defensive ends in free agency even though John Abraham made the Pro Bowl and Kroy Biermann is a break out candidate. Clearly Atlanta is concerned with Abraham’s expiring contract and age. Potential Free Agent Defensive Ends include: Jason Babin, Ray Edwards, Charles Johnson, Cullen Jenkins, and Bobby McCray

Linebackers (8)

Sean Weatherspoon,Curtis Lofton,Akeem Dent, Coy Wire, Spencer Adkins, Robert James, Bear Woods

Sean Weatherspoon battled a knee injury after making a huge impact in the beginning of the season last year. However, Weatherspoon returned in Week 11 after missing 5 games, but he only played in the nickel defense for the remainder of the season.

Curtis Lofton has never missed a game in his three-year career and has averaged 115 tackles in that span. However, Lofton had dual knee surgeries in the offseason, but the good news is that the procedures were mere scopes and his rehab is going well.

Akeem Dent, the Falcon’s third-round rookie, could potentially start at the strong side linebacker position should Stephen Nicholas and/or Mike Peterson leave in free agency. Dent is a run-stopping linebacker, but isn’t the pass rushing linebacker that the Falcons need.

Coy Wire was the Falcon’s special teams’ captain last season and figures to have the same role in 2011, since he is too small to be starting linebacker.

Spencer Adkins didn’t play much in his rookie season and is still a project. Adkins will have to fight for a spot on the 53-man roster in 2011. Adkins has the speed, but has underachieved since before college. Adkins needs to prove that he deserves more than a practice squad spot.

Robert James signed a reserve/future contract with the Falcons prior to the Lockout, but their patience has to be wearing thin. James served a four-game suspension at the beginning of last season for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy and was added to the practice squad soon after. As a 2008 fifth-round pick, James hasn’t even register a tackle yet, so if he doesn’t have a strong preseason, he might be shown the door.

Bear Woods spent last season on the practice squad, but signed a reserve/future contract and could make the 2011 53-man roster if he has a strong preseason.

Free Agent Analysis:

Atlanta reportedly wants to resign Mike Peterson and Stephen Nicholas, but Nicholas has too many suitors and the Falcons will have to settle for Peterson. The Falcons need to find a pass rushing linebacker though and will need to look in free agency. Potential Free Agent Linebackers include: Danny Clark, Thomas Davis, LeRoy Hill, Ben Leber, Matt Roth, Scott Shanle, and Sam Williams.

Cornerbacks (5)

Dunta Robinson,Brent Grimes, Chris Owens, Dominique Franks, Rafael Priest

Dunta Robinson was the Falcon’s top cover cornerback heading into 2010, but knee and concussion issues affected his game and Robinson finished the season with 55 tackles, but only 1 interception.

Brent Grimes was the Falcons top cornerback last season as he allowed only three touchdowns on a league-high 124 passing targets. Grimes also had 5 interceptions and as a result the Falcons gave him a first-round tender back in March.

Chris Owens started in Week 1 last season, but injured his back fell down the depth chart as the Falcon’s number four cornerback. However, Brian Williams is headed to free agency and Coach Mike Smith has confirmed that Owens will reclaim the nickel back job.

Dominique Franks didn’t play much last year, but that should change in 2011 with Brian Williams headed to free agency. Franks should also get a chance to return kicks in preseason, though Eric Weems will likely be the starter

Rafael Priest was signed to a reserve/future contract prior to the Lockout and will likely make the team as the number five cornerback as his abilities to play both corner and safety make him valuable to their depth.

Free Agent Analysis:

Atlanta doesn’t need any big name free agents, just depth here. More than likely, Atlanta will bring in a couple of undrafted free agents to fill the roster out.

Safeties (4)

Thomas DeCoud,William Moore, Shann Schillinger, Rafael Bush

Thomas DeCoud is solid in both run support and coverage and is locked in as a starter. DeCoud is an underrated safety and should get more attention this year as the Falcons make a run for the Super Bowl.

William Moore took over for Erik Coleman in the second game of last season and never looked back. Moore had 71 tackles, five interceptions and a forced fumble last year should continue to get even better and eventually be a Pro Bowler down the road.

Shann Schillinger was limited to special teams in his rookie season and suffered a fractured ankle in Week 15. Schillinger still had a noticeable limp during recent players-only workouts and could end up on the PUP list if he doesn’t get healthy soon.

Rafael Bush was promoted from the practice squad in time for the last game of the 2010 season. Bush played on special teams last season and his 4.44 forty time could allow him to have a bigger role in 2011.

Free Agent Analysis:

Atlanta is going to look at undrafted free agents to fill out their roster. Shan Schillinger’s injury might open the door for a free agent backup. Potential Free Agent Safeties include: C.C. Brown, Josh Bullocks, Tyrone Carter, Matt Giordano, Donnie Nickey, Brodney Pool, Nick Sorenson, and Matt Ware

Kicker (0)

The Falcons don’t have a kicker on their current roster.

Free Agent Analysis:

Atlanta and Matt Bryant both want to reach a deal, but will have to wait until the Lockout is lifted.

Punter (2)

Matt Bosher, Kenneth Parrish

Matt Bosher figures to handle kickoffs and punting duties in 2011, despite being a rookie.

Kenneth Parrish is a former police officer and is expected to be the camp leg for the Falcons. Unless he shocks the Falcons, Parrish will mostly likely be cut before the regular season.

Free Agent Analysis:

Atlanta chose to let Michael Koenen walk and drafted Matt Bosher in the sixth round.

Long Snapper (1)

Joe Zelenka

Joe Zelenka has been a long snapper in the NFL since 2001.

Free Agent Analysis:

With his experience, the Falcons don’t need to find a new long snapper.

Kick/Punt Returners (1)

Eric Weems

Eric Weems averaged 27.5 yards per kick return and 12.8 yards per punt return to go along with 2 touchdowns last season and figures to have the same duties in 2011.

Free Agent Analysis:

The Cardinals have one of the best returners in the game in Eric Weems and don’t need to look to free agency for an upgrade. If Weems were to get injured, Dominique Franks would likely take over the responsibilities

Falcons Unrestricted Free Agents (14)

Justin Blalock, Matt Bryant, Tyson Clabo, Harvey Dahl, Brian Finneran, Michael Koenen, Stephen Nicholas, Jerious Norwood, Mike Peterson, Jason Snelling, Brian Williams

Justin Blalock will probably be back next year with the Falcons, considering his age (27) and he won’t command top dollar.

Matt Bryant has said he wants to resign with the Falcons and Falcons want him back as well

Tyson Clabo is going to command top-notch right tackle cash and the Falcons don’t need to give it to him. Especially with Garrett Reynolds on the roster

Harvey Dahl is a strong run blocker, but may command too much money in free agency. The Falcons have the depth to handle his departure.

Brian Finneran may have played his last down in the NFL. At age 35, not many teams are going to come looking for a slow fifth-receiver.

Michael Koenen was one of the highest paid punters last year, and the Falcons don’t want to give that much money to a punter, so they drafted one instead in the sixth round.

Stephen Nicholas wants to test the free agent market, but says that there is a “big” chance that he’ll end up resigning with the Falcons. Nicholas is a great 4-3 coverage linebacker, and the Falcons don’t want to see him leave. However, the Broncos, Lions, and Jaguars are said to be interested in him.

Jerious Norwood tore his right ACL last September and the Falcons aren’t likely to bring him back given their injury concerns about him.

Mike Peterson confirmed that the Falcons have expressed interest in resigning him this year and as a result has joined Matt Ryan in leading the informal workouts.

Jason Snelling had 87 carries for 324 yards and 2 touchdowns last season as a backup to Michael Turner. However, Snelling was more active in the passing game than Turner as Snelling had 44 receptions for 303 yards and 3 touchdowns. Snelling wants more money and a larger role and will explore his options in the free agent market, but don’t rule out his possible return to the Falcons.

Brian Williams is getting older and the Falcons want to get younger, so both sides will go their own way. Williams should be able to find a new home though as NFL teams are always looking for experienced cornerbacks