While the Atlanta Falcons defense received much of the criticism in 2009, the offense shouldn’t have escaped the malignment either. A beacon of bright hope in 2008, the Falcons offense included the 2nd leading rushing offense, Pro Bowler running back Michael Turner, Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White, and Offensive Rookie of the Year Matt Ryan. Adding arguably the best tight end to ever play the game assumed that the offense would be among the most thrilling to watch in 2009. A huge number of injuries throughout the season coupled with a sophomore QB decrease led to the Falcons dropping to the middle of the pack in the NFL in terms of offense.
The offensive players weren’t the only ones to take a step back in the ‘09 campaign. Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey had a rough year as well. At times, the offense looked completely out of sync and if the running game couldn’t get on track, then the offense was done. Mularkey got out-schemed several times throughout the season and the passing game, in particular, became stale and uninspiring (how many play-action roll outs with 2 options and a throw away did we see?). Many fans and the media may continue to focus on the defense, rightly so, but the offense might need some work as well.
A list of the offensive positions in alphabetical order (special thanks to ProFootballFocus.com for stats, the premiere stats website):
A wide chasm exists with some fans on the need of the offensive line going into the 2010 season. Many believe that Matt Ryan never really had enough time to get settled in the pocket with constant pressure from the opposing defense. The O-Line got beat on a regular basis, especially the Tackles, and the fact that they were seemingly dominant in 2008 likely had more to do with the really weak schedule than it did with the Birds boys up front. Sam Baker can’t stay healthy, Justin Blalock has issues with pass protection, McClure is on the verge of retirement, Dahl is a big liability in pass game and goes overboard, and Clabo had a really bad setback. Their argument goes that there is a lack of true top-line talent and the foundation needs some serious work, as in first round draft picks.
The opposite argument goes that Matt Ryan was in the top percentage of quarterbacks with the least amount of sacks and they will only get better with more tutelage under Coach Boudreau and a few tweaks here and there. If Baker can stay healthy he’s a legit NFL Tackle, Blalock and Dahl are road-graders that can continue their improvement in the pass, McClure still has some juice with Brett Romberg ready to take over if need be, and Clabo can regain his form back. Add to the fact that the Falcons are developing their own pick in Garrett Reynolds ready to take over at right tackle in the near future and maybe Will Svitek can compete for a spot. It will be interesting to see what Dimitroff does in regards to Dahl and Clabo, but a good bet would be that the two will be Falcons for another year since they’ll be restricted free agents.
This one’s pretty much a no-brainer. The Falcons have one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL in Matt Ryan. Yes, he did have a slight setback in his sophomore campaign, but he only looks to get better and better as he progresses through his years. If nothing else, more weapons and a superb work ethic will bring him along just fine. The Birds decided to go with John Parker Wilson as the developmental QB over DJ Shockley. Even though Chris Redman is a unrestricted free agent, it would be pretty shocking to not see him brought back as the backup quarterback after playing very well in Ryan’s absence. Doubtful the front office would bring in another veteran QB who doesn’t have the history with the Falcons or know the offense like Redman does.
Yet another very intriguing position to debate. Michael Turner obviously is the feature back and is only one year removed from being the second leading rusher in the league. After starting slow, Turner seemed to get his mojo back in mid-season when he was running with authority and power, going well over 100+ yards in the first half against Carolina before he was injured. It did prove the rule emphatically that the NFL is, at least, a two back league with the pounding they take. Many believed that Norwood would be the one to have the breakout, but it was none other than Jason Snelling. The big bruising fullback turned tailback was a main reason that the Falcons broke the ridiculous back-to-back Curse. Although Snelling is not the speed back to complement Turner’s bruising style, he has great agility for a big man, and is extremely productive in the passing game. Seriously doubt that Snelling will not be locked up for a long while in the Falcons running back stable. Jerious Norwood is a different story altogether, though. His speed, elusiveness, and game-breaking ability is unquestioned, but production can’t be earned on injured reserve. Was that Mularkey’s fault in not game planning for Norwood, the way that Sean Payton strategizes for Reggie Bush? Norwood is due to become a restricted free agent and the front office is reportedly interested in bringing him back, but with a plethora of draft picks, Dimitroff could be selecting his own speed back to develop. At fullback, Ovie Mughelli is still under contract for a couple more years and is an invaluable asset in the running attack.
Tony Gonzalez is definitely coming back for at least one more year, but will this be his last one? Thomas Dimitroff, the front office, and the coaching staff preached “process” from day one and still do, but the trade for arguably the best tight end to play the game certainly accelerated the process. Even the fact that Gonzalez considered retiring this year should lead Dimitroff to want to find his TE of the future and learn from the best in the business. Justin Peele proved to be a vital part of the passing and running game at tight end, but he’s over 30 years of age as well. Keith Zinger has made some progress as a receiving threat, but doesn’t project as more than a backup or situational TE, at least not at this point. Will be surprising if Dimitroff doesn’t snag a tight end in the draft.
Perhaps no bigger change has occurred to any other position than the wide receiving corps. Once thought to be one of the Falcons biggest strengths, the group of wideouts as a whole proved to be one of the thinnest on the the team this year. At one point the Falcon boasted Pro Bowler Roddy White, a seemingly resurgent Michael Jenkins, a breakout rookie in Harry Douglas, promising Laurent Robinson, and 3rd down machine Brian Finneran. Thought to be one of the deepest in the NFL, Dimitroff traded Robinson to the St. Louis Rams to move up in a later round, although Robinson did end up hurt again through the year. But the early injury to Harry Douglas in training camp exposed how truly vulnerable the receiving corps was. Roddy White was of course his normal Pro Bowl strength, but that was where the dominance stopped.
Michael Jenkins went back to the issues that have plagued him as a Falcon, dropping easily catchable balls in enormous situations and failing to establish himself as a true complement to Roddy White, even after adding All-World Tight End Gonzalez to the fold. Jenkins is a great blocker and can come up some big plays from time to time, but overall doesn’t appear to be a legit number two receiver, at least not without a big threat in the slot. Many fans also forget that Jenkins was a late first round draft pick as well. Although Jenkins may not be a number two receiver, he does add potency to the overall receiving corps. The same can’t be said of the other receivers. The Falcons tried a number of undrafted free agent receivers and found no gems out of that mix. After Douglas went down, they tried older veterans Robert Ferguson and Marty Booker after finally settling on Booker. The 33 year old receiver added virtually nothing to the passing attack. Brian Finneran adds value as a wideout, but is also 33 years old and extremely injury prone. Eric Weems was the nice surprise of training camp, showing nice speed in space as a kick returner, and the hope was that it would translate in the passing game. Outside of a couple of catches, Weems was basically non-existent in the aerial arsenal. Much of the criticism may be displaced since Offensive Coordinator Mularkey might bear much of the blame, but the lack of talent at wide receiver is obvious.
Use the stats, arguments above, and your own of course to rank which offensive needs are the highest and which are the lowest. My weak attempt:
1) Wide Receiver - Possibly a departure from many fans, but the aerial arsenal just isn’t there at wide receiver. Roddy White is obviously one of the faces of the franchise, a two-time Pro Bowler, and luckily a Falcon pretty much for life. That’s where the threat stops. Michael Jenkins had one touchdown last year and has proven that he simply isn’t on the level as a legitimate number two receiver in the NFL. He drops too many easily catchable balls in huge spots (New Orleans twice, New York Giants among many others) and should be dominating with Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez stretching the field. He definitely can be an excellent asset to the Falcons receiving corps, but likely not as a number two. Harry Douglas is on schedule, but coming back from a major knee injury. Marty Booker showed why he was an available free agent, Brian Finneran is 33 and has had knee injuries in the last 3 out of 4 years, and Eric Weems proved little in the passing attack. Perhaps much of Mularkey’s fault, but compared to other teams, the receivers need a serious upgrade. Would a draft pick and a free agent addition be out of the question? Hopefully no later than the fourth round to upgrade the receiving corps. Much value exists in the later rounds: Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon, Marques Colston, Johnny Knox, and Louis Murphy were all drafted in the fourth round or later.
2) Offensive Line - Many will likely put this one at the top, but this one almost gets a deference for at least another year. After shocking the NFL in 2008, the O-Line took a slight step back in 2009, but they deserve a third year as a whole unit to prove 2008 was no fluke. Sam Baker has been solid when healthy and should get another year to prove he’s a left tackle, before moving over to the right. Blalock is a core member of the line and should be for awhile. McClure will probably be retiring soon, but Brett Romberg showed he can play well in a spot. Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo are the most intriguing since they’re both restricted free agents this year. Barring a team giving up high draft picks, Clabo and Dahl will probably be Falcons for another year. This will give Dimitroff time to see what they have in Garrett Reynolds and Will Svitek, while also drafting another one of “their guys” in the 3rd or 4th round. Could also add some depth via free agency. Next year Dimitroff won’t have the same luxury as he’s being afforded this year.
3) Tight End - Hard to put this one above running back, but the tight end position is much more vulnerable than the running back corps. Tony Gonzalez is definitely coming back for one more year, but anything beyond that will be on borrowed time since he even considered retirement after this season. Unlike running backs, there is no front line depth at tight end. Peele possibly could be a stop-gap, but he’s over 30 years old himself. Zinger adds good depth, but little more. It would be a travesty to not draft a tight end and let them learn from the greatest tight end of all time, at least for a year. There’s good value in this draft. Keep an eye on Colin Peek from Alabama as a steal for somebody, possibly the Falcons. The Birds could easily use one of their fourth round or fifth round picks (likely to have two in each due to compensatory picks).
4) Running Backs - Michael Turner as the feature back, one year removed from the Pro Bowl and is one of the faces of the franchise. Jason Snelling has shown that he is capable of filling in as a good complement and backup to Turner and should be a part of the Falcons running game for a long time. Dimitroff and Co. reportedly want to bring back Snelling and Norwood and he has more leverage since both are restricted free agents, basically delaying the decision and need to draft one for another year. TD may also elect to draft a speed back to develop with his plethora of draft picks (likely 8 total) and has shown a knack for mining talent later in the draft, especially since they carry 5 RB’s on the active roster (4 RB, 1 FB).
5) Quarterback - Seriously doubt that QB will even be close to on the radar. They have their franchise QB in Ryan, likely long term backup in Redman, and their developmental QB in John Parker Wilson. Also still have DJ Shockley on the practice squad. Pay close attention to the Redman signing.
Discuss, analyze, and rank the positions according to need on the offensive side of the ball. How wrong am I in terms of my rankings? Is offensive line the sure-fire biggest need of all positions? Are the receivers better off than mentioned above?
Remember to give YOUR opinion of what you think SHOULD happen, not necessarily what will happen.