It’s finally here Bird Cage Falcon Fanatics: Atlanta Falcon Football is here at last! Well, at least pre-season anyway. But hey, football’s football and our beloved Falcons are taking the field knowing that the real deal lies right around the corner. Six searing questions as the Birds ready for the Dolphins in the first pre-season battle:
Like peering deep into the mysteries of the universe, will fans finally start to see a more aggressive, “explosive” offense from Coach Smith and OC Mularkey? This debate has been ongoing since Smith took over in 2008. The offense has never hurt for weapons, but the offense has been a conservative, methodical approach that has lacked big plays and rare aggressive throws down field. That gameplan has served them well in helping lead them to a 33-15 regular season record, but as the Debacle in the Dome taught us, when it doesn’t work, it REALLY doesn’t work.
The Falcons got arguably the most explosive offensive playmaker in the draft and its almost insane to think that this offense and Matt Ryan will be handcuffed anymore. On paper, the Falcons boast one of the best and most balanced offense in the NFL. Roddy, Julio, HD, Gonzo, Turner, Snelling, Meier, Weems, and new draft pick Jacquizz Rodgers. All the weapons in the world won’t make one bit of difference if the results don’t happen on the field. Open the playbook, give Matt Ryan the keys, and get AGGRESSIVE on offense dagnabbit! Certainly no more excuses.
In terms of coordinator heat, Mike Mularkey has burdened the vast majority of the criticism Fans have been clamoring for him to get aggressive, stop being so conservative and open up the playbook (see #1), but DC Brian Van Gorder might be overtaking him in terms of fans urgency. There’s always been an excuse that the defense was undergoing a major overhaul. It was a pretty valid excuse considering that only a handful of players are still starters on defense from the 2008 team (Abe, Lofton, and Babs). Some argued that he was only being conservative because he didn’t have the players in place. Others argued that it wasn’t really his defense and that Coach Smith had his hands entirely too far in the cookie jar. Ultimately, it no longer matters.
The players are in place and when Ray Edwards suits up, the Falcons will have one of the most athletic, fastest, and deepest rosters they’ve ever had in franchise history. Van Gorder was known for his tough, physical, and aggressive defenses at UGA, but he’s yet to prove that to be the case in the NFL. As with the offense….no more excuses.
Obviously, this question is ridiculous to be asked this early in the season, but it certainly does have some merit, at least on paper anyway. With major credit to Thomas Dimitroff, this Falcons roster is one of the most complete this early on in the season with there being not only very few position battles, but also very few backend roster spots. It will be a dogfight for rookies and undrafted free agents to even make the practice squad. There are only three position battles that are even up for debate: the nickel back duel between Chris Owens and Dominique Franks, the clash for right guard between Garrett Reynolds and Mike Johnson, and the fight for punter between rookie Matt Bosher and Ken Parrish.
Even the battle for the last few roster spots are extremely limited this year. Special teams mavens Spencer Adkins and Robert James may be pushed out this year due to the re-signing of Peterson and the drafting of Akeem Dent. There may always be surprises, but you’re looking at much different picture than the one that took the field in 2008 when Smith and Dimitroff took over this team.
Thomas Dimitroff has proven that he’s an amazing scout when it comes to finding gems later in the draft and even the undrafted free agent pool. Vance Walker is a roster regular and is rotation stalwart after being taken in the 7th round in 2008. John Parker Wilson beat out hometown favorite DJ Shockley for the 3rd string QB role coming in as an undrafted free agent. Michael Palmer beat former draft pick Keith Zinger for the 3rd tight end spot last year, and showed some nice flashes as a rookie in limited action. Who will be the shocker this year?
As mentioned before, any undrafted free agent coming in this year will have an insanely tough task on top of an already difficult feat. Even draft picks Andrew Jackson, Matt Bosher, and Cliff Matthews will be in a fight for their professional life when cut day comes down. Can Ryan Wynterswyck nudge out Michael Palmer or Justin Peele at tight end? Any chance CB Darrin Walls makes TD forget about looking for a veteran cornerback? Can Phillip Sylvester knock Antone Smith and/or Gartrell Johnson out of their #5 RB hole? Can practice squad favorites Emmanuel Stephens or Brandyn Harvey make the jump the same way that Eric Weems did a few years back? On the surface, you’d have to say no, but these pre-season games will go a long way to deciding it.
One of the best (and only) position battles under way up in Flowery Branch is the combat between Chris Owens and Dominique Franks for nickel cornerback. Chris Owens has had his ups and downs in the two short years he’s been an Atlanta Falcon. He took over for an injured Brian Williams at the end of the 2009 season and showed excellent flashes of even being a possible starting cornerback. Those hopes than came crashing down on the Georgia Dome floor when Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers sliced and diced the nickel back in the “Debacle in the Dome.” Granted, Owens takes unfair heat for an overall terrible defensive day and an even worse coaching performance, but he was the scapegoat for many fans cringing at the thought of him being the nickel back.
Dominique Franks was considered by many to be steal of the 2010 NFL Draft when Dimitroff jumped up and snagged him in the fifth round, after he was considered by many draft scouts to go as early as the 3rd round or possibly even the 2nd. Franks had great size and hailed as the tallest of the Falcons CB’s @ 6’0 and seemed to have a very bright future after getting his first NFL pick in the second game of the season against the Arizona Cardinals. And since then………..he was never heard from again last year, unless you were discussing the inactive player lists. Can either one of these players make TD keep the phone on the hook when the player cuts come along?
Like several others, Lawrence Sidbury came in as one of the potential steals in the 2009 NFL Draft, after being taken in the 4th round from Richmond. Sidbury was definitely labeled a project at defensive end, but he came in with raw speed and pass-rushing skills that are difficult to teach. Sidbury got off to a pretty fast start and even came away with a sack as a rookie against Buffalo, which also included a defensive touchdown. Some believed that Sidbury would be the heir apparent to Abraham as he was nearing retirement. High hopes surrounded Sidbury last year only to see him be a complete non-factor in the 2010 season. He rarely, if ever, got onto the field for a defensive snap and was a part of the inactive list for the majority of the season.
Some thought that he was just paying his dues the same way that William Moore and Thomas De Coud did, but then the Falcons went out and signed one of the best free agent defensive ends in Ray Edwards and drafted a potential sleeper in Cliff Matthews out of South Carolina. All of sudden, Lawrence Sidbury may be going from the next great pass-rushing hope to out of a Falcons uniform. 3 of the 5 DE spots are already etched in stone with Abraham, Ray Edwards, and Kroy Biermann making up the major portion of snaps to come at DE. The next two spots pit Sidbury against coach favorite, and extremely versatile, Chauncey Davis and rookie Cliff Matthews. Davis obviously is pretty much a lock when they decided to cut Jamaal Anderson over Davis, when he’s owed $3 million this year and $3.4 million next year. That leaves Sidbury in a fight against Matthews. Hard to imagine that if it’s even close at all that they won’t go with the rookie to develop instead of the 3rd year guy who maybe couldn’t turn the corner. This preseason might be Sidbury’s last chance to finally “bust out.”