As the sun sets on the 2012-13 NFL season, most Falcons fans are still grappling with “what could have been” before divulging and immersing into the off-season. For some, it’s therapeutic to jump right back into what the Birds need to fix, but for others a sabbatical from the Falcons and football in general will be needed. Either way, for 31 teams it will be months and months filled with how to reach the ultimate prize, including our Atlanta Falcons. Last off-season provided plenty of excitement with the former coordinators “finding new jobs” and the hiring of Dirk Koetter, Mike Nolan, and Pat Hill. This off-season may not have as many big changes as 2012, but it looks to be the most important one to date since the arrival of Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff. How do you go about changing and fixing a team that was only 10 yards away from the Super Bowl and was even up 17-0 early in the game? So with that in mind, The Cage offers a preview of what may need to occur on every facet of the Atlanta Falcons football franchise, starting with offense first: firecrackers (small), dynamite tosses (medium), or implosion (major):
Obviously, this one is pretty easy to assess. Matt Ryan has become one of the best quarterbacks in the league, had a record setting year, and was likely in the top 3 of MVP candidates in 2012. The Falcons franchise quarterback has taken his game to a new level, won a playoff game, and came within yards of taking his team to the Super Bowl. He does, however, need to cut down on his turnovers, especially in the playoffs. He had two interceptions vs. Seattle (one was an enormously terrible decision and two turnovers that very well cost the Falcons the game vs. the 49ers. Roddy White slipping wasn’t his fault, but the fumbled snap was just mind-numbing. Ryan is the best chance the Falcons have ever had to win the Super Bowl, but has to cut out the turnovers in the big spots.
The backup QB situation, more specifically how the coaches handle the backup situation, needs an implosion. Dominique Davis looked like the real deal and even a potential starter one day when he was lighting it up in preseason. It was a no-brainer the Falcons would find a way to keep him, but instead of just promoting him to the #2 QB outright, they cut Chris Redman only to bring in washed-up and bounced around journeyman Luke McCown. And why is that exactly? They chose to keep an extra QB on the precious 53 man roster instead of just going with Davis as the backup? A perfect example of the Witness Protection Program that needs to be cast away for eternity. If the kid can play, put him in as the backup…….period. Assessment — Firecrackers
Everyone in the world knows it. Does Mike Smith? Michael Turner will go down as arguably the best Falcons running back in franchise history in barely 5 years of service. His value is simply immeasurable in what he’s done for this franchise, the team, and the city. But the NFL is a business and it’s time for the Falcons and Turner to part ways. Some feel that Turner may have even outrun his effectiveness, at least for this new offensive scheme, by a year.
Regardless, the Falcons have to get faster, quicker, and, most importantly, more effective at the running back position in 2013. The offensive line isn’t the best in the league, but they have shown some improvement and can’t be the only culprit in the Falcons lack of a running game. Many feel that Jacquizz Rodgers and, particularly, Jason Snelling were heavily underused last year at the expense of force-feeding Turner in the run game.
It seems the Falcons are set in terms of depth with Snelling and Rodgers, but a new running back needs to be added. There’s not a ton out there worth much in terms of free agent running backs and the needs to look in free agency has been rendered fairly moot with the advent of rookie backs having immediate success. Most think it’s a matter of what round the back will be drafted, but some even feel that Turner might be brought back in some capacity, and if Turner’s on the roster there’s a good chance that Smith will use him. Rodgers and Snelling make this position very stable going forward, but as mentioned earlier, the coaches have to find the best mix to improve the running back position. There are plenty of high impact running backs in the draft and getting one sooner rather than later will likely be more effective. Assessment — Dynamite Toss
One of the strongest areas of the Falcons is their receiving force. Julio Jones and Roddy White make up one of the very best receiver tandems in the entire league. They along with Tony Gonzalez have made up an almost unstoppable trio this past year. It will be interesting to what whether Gonzalez will come back or retire and what the Falcons will do if he does retire. Regardless of what happens at the tight end position, Atlanta is set at the top two spots. Roddy will be turning 32 in November, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down.
The other spots are less settled. As much as everyone loves and is pulling for the hometown kid Harry Douglas, a question needs to be asked if he is the answer as the slot receiver. He’s a had a few bright spots here and there, but has definitely not been the boom we all thought after his rookie season. He does catch the ball very well, but rarely gets a ton of yardage after the catch and just hasn’t taken off as many thought. Fans will have nightmares for the next many months replaying “the trip,” where Douglas fell down on a perfect play call with a perfect throw that would have likely seen him walk into the endzone and put the Falcons ahead late.
Drew Davis and Kevin Cone have shown very good talent and should start getting more looks next season and it wouldn’t be the worst thing to take a chance on a receiver later in the draft since they look to have several compensatory picks in this year’s draft. Since Julio and Roddy are so dominant at the top, it’s obviously not going to need much work, but this year should decide whether Douglas is really the answer at slot receiver. Assessment — Firecrackers
Clearly this one can’t be assessed until Tony Gonzalez decides whether he’s hanging up his cleats or coming back for one more year. It seems that the longer he waits to decide, the more likely it is for him to come back for one more go. If he was going to retire, wouldn’t we probably have heard it by now? If Gonzalez comes back for another year, the Falcons are definitely set and ready to go with Gonzo leading the way and Michael Palmer and Chase Coffman continuing to develop under him. Palmer and Coffman look to be a part of the TE rotation for some time to come. Palmer is a great blocking tight end with reliable hands and a chain mover and Coffman appears to be getting back the potential he had in college as a vertical threat in the passing game. It’s questionable whether either can take over full-time for Gonzalez, but they offer an excellent, complimentary tight end rotation.
The question really centers around what they will do if Gonzalez does in fact retire. There’s a possibility that the Falcons could try and use both Palmer and Coffman to both try and pick up the slack, but it’s hard to conceive that even both of them combined could match Gonzalez’s almost insane production last season. If they go with just Palmer and Coffman, they would need a lot more help from the likes of Harry Douglas, Drew Davis, Kevin Cone, and all of the running backs.
Another option is to use an early pick in the draft on a tight end, but history has shown that you don’t need to use an early pick to get an excellent tight end (Jimmy Graham – 3rd rd; Aaron Hernandez – 4th rd) and that many taken in the first round haven’t necessarily lived up to their pick status (Jermaine Gresham, Brandon Pettigrew to name a few). With so many holes on the defensive side of the ball, tight end shouldn’t be a priority in the first few picks. The final option is to look into free agency. There’s not a ton available in free agency, but one target to keep an eye on is Jared Cook. Cook is from North Gwinnett High School and played well at South Carolina. He had a good year and could really take off with a quarterback like Matt Ryan. Assessment — Gonzalez Comes Back: Firecrackers; Gonzalez retires – Dynamite Toss
The bane of many fans existence managed to pull itself together pretty well towards the end of the season, especially in the playoffs. They got much better in terms of pass protection, but have a ways to go in terms of run blocking. They aren’t the sole culprit for the lack of running game success, but they are a major reason. Much like the defensive line, it’s a knock against both Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff. How can there be issues every single year at virtually every position on the offensive line year in and year out? The only spot that’s been somewhat stable is left guard with Justin Blalock. Tyson Clabo was seemingly set at right tackle, but had a very sub-par year in 2012. Sam Baker was a pleasant surprise at left tackle, having one of his best years there.
Center and right guard are definitely in flux and, like Turner, the Falcons must let McClure ride off into the sunset as he will turn 36 in a few weeks. He may want to come back, but his play has definitely slipped as he’s gotten older and represented one of the weakest areas of the OL. It will be interesting to see what the Falcons do with Peter Konz. He was the best center in the draft, but played admirably at right guard only after Garrett Reynolds got hurt. Many believe that Konz should slide over to his natural position of center, adding both youth and beef in front of Matt Ryan. The biggest name to keep an eye on is Lamar Holmes in 2013. If he’s not starting in some capacity this season, than the pick has to be considered a bust. He showed great flashes in preseason and was predictably never heard from again. A thought that Holmes could either take over for Sam Baker at left tackle and have Baker move to right tackle. Another scenario would have Holmes starting at right tackle and move Tyson Clabo inside to guard, adding some much needed beef, muscle, and strength to an overall underwhelming offensive line.
A few final scenarios could see Joe Hawley take over at center, thus keeping Konz at right guard and still another, which is a fan favorite’s of The Cage, is to use one of the early picks on the best available guard and plug him in next to Konz. While the offensive line did show some glimpses and did improve, they won’t be mistaken for the best OL in the league anytime soon. While not needing a completely overhaul, some serious decisions will need to be made in 2013 if the Falcons want to reach their ultimate goals in 2013. Assessment — Dynamite Toss
It’s hard to argue with what the Falcons did this year on offense. Matt Ryan not only set career highs for himself, but also broke a handful of franchise records as well. Roddy White and Julio Jones both went over 1,000 yards receiving and Tony Gonzalez was very close. The running game wasn’t always pretty, but Jacquizz Rodgers showed that he will definitely be a part of the Falcons backfield for some time to come. There’s really not much to complain about overall. The only thing that needs fixing is when the Falcons would just go on major cold streaks on offense, be it quarters or even sometimes entire halfs at a time. They picked a bad time to get cold on offense in the playoffs and it nearly cost them the Seattle game (4th quarter) and did cost them the Niners game (no points in second half). Adding some speed in the backfield and shoring up the offensive line should make this offense even more dangerous. Assessment — Firecrackers
1) Quick Pitch — What’s your overall thoughts on the Falcons offense going forward in 2013?
2) What are the most pressing changes the Falcons need to make on offense?
3) What should Matt Ryan work on this off-season?
4) Your feelings about the backup QB spot: should Davis be #2?
5) Running Back: keep Turner, cut Turner but bring him back in a reduced role, draft a running back, or get one in free agency?
6) What round should the Falcons be looking to draft an RB?
7) Wide Receiver: Is Harry Douglas the answer at slot?
8.) Are Kevin Cone and Drew Davis keepers?
9) Should the Falcons take a WR in the draft?
10) What should Atlanta do if Gonzalez does retire: Coffman/Palmer, draft, or free agency?
11) What should the starting OL look like in 2013?
12) Will Holmes get in the lineup? What about Clabo and Baker? Where should Konz start?
13) Should the Falcons take an OL in the draft, if so when?
14) What changes should be made in terms of offensive scheme and / or philosophy?