STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
For the first time in their 44-year history, the Falcons are coming off back-to-back winning seasons. It took a three-game winning streak to close out the season to accomplish that feat, but that finish provides positive momentum for the 2010 campaign.
A year ago, the Falcons were fresh off an 11-5 record and their first playoff appearance since 2004. They started the 2009 season winning four of their first five games, but then the bottom fell out. They lost six of their next eight due in large part to a vulnerable pass defense that ranked 28th in the league. Adding to their struggles, Matt Ryan (toe) and Michael Turner (ankle) missed a combined seven games due to injuries, and the Falcons were eliminated from the playoffs by Week 15.
After last year's “Murphy's Law” type season, the Falcons will now try pick up where they left off in 2008. The secondary welcomes additions like Dunta Robinson and Matt Giordano and gets back cornerback
Brian Williams, who missed the last 11 games with an ACL injury. The defense ranked 27th in the league in sacks, but the team hopes to have Peria Jerry (knee) back healthy and added rookie defensive tackle
Corey Peters in the draft. The linebacking unit received an upgrade with first-round draft pick Sean Weatherspoon. He will rotate with Stephen Nicholas and Mike Peterson on the outside, but the real star is Curtis Lofton, who led the Falcons with 130 tackles.
The offense slipped from sixth in the league in 2008 to 16th in .09, but should return to form with the return of a healthy Ryan, Turner and key pieces of the offensive line. The Falcons drafted two interior offensive linemen (Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley) to help improve a run offense that finished 15th in the league in rushing after a second-place finish in 2008. As long as he is healthy, the bulk of the carries will go to Turner, with capable backups Jerious Norwood and Jason Snelling on hand to provide depth.
Meanwhile, Ryan has plenty of weapons to throw to including Roddy White (back-to-back Pro Bowls) and future Hall of Fame tight end, Tony Gonzalez. The return of wideout Harry Douglas from an ACL injury could provide a speedy deep threat the Falcons have lacked.
Expectations are high in Atlanta thanks to Ryan and his mini-camp prediction that the Falcons could win “12 or more” games. With the Super Bowl winning Saints in their division, it will take a big year to unseat New Orleans as NFC South champs, but anything less than a playoff berth will be a disappointment.
Round, Overall, Player
3. (83) Corey Peters, DT, Kentucky-Adds a big body to the team’s DT mix.
3. (98) Mike Johnson, G, Alabama-Could end up starting by the end of year.
4. (117) Joe Hawley, G, UNLV-Depth for the future, as the Falcons could have four O-line free agents in 2011.
5. (135) Dominique Franks, CB, Oklahoma-Tremendous value. Has great cover skills and could help in the return game.
6. (171) Shann Schillinger, S, Montana-It’s hard to see him making an impact in a crowded secondary.
Dunta Robinson, CB (Texans) Former first-rounder has 13 career interceptions; will start on the left side.
Matt Giordano, S (Packers) Improves a secondary that ranked 27th in the league in 2009.
Dan Klecko, DT (Eagles) Out of football in 2009, but will try to stick as a reserve DT.
Tye Hill, CB (Titans) Former first-rounder was released after one season in Atlanta.
Chris Houston, CB (Lions) Became expendable after the Falcons signed Robinson.
Charlie Peprah, S (Packers) Returns to Green Bay after playing in just two games for the Falcons last year.
KEEPING THE BURNER ON THE FIELD
After a 2009 season that saw five starters miss time with injuries, the Falcons hope their bad luck is behind them. Matt Ryan is fully recovered from a toe injury that sidelined him for two games, and Michael Turner will be back after missing five starts. In fact, Ryan and Turner only started seven games together in 2009 after playing all 16 in the same backfield the year previous. A healthy Turner is the motor that drives this offense. Since he arrived in Atlanta two seasons ago, only two running backs (Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson) have averaged more rushing yards per game than Turner. The Falcons were obviously aware of this fact when they arguably rushed him back from his ankle injury, causing him to miss even more time. Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood are competent backups, but, for the Falcons to be great, Turner has to return to his .08 form.
ROWDY Roddy White’S SIDEKICK
Since 2007, only four players have more receiving yards than Roddy White. That's elite company but you don't always hear White's name mentioned when talking about the NFL's best receivers. His back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances are helping to increase his profile, but he'll need the Falcons' No. 2 receiver to take some of the pressure off him if he's to continue putting up impressive numbers. Michael Jenkins, who has averaged 51 catches the last three seasons, will enter the year as the starter opposite White but his job is not 100 percent secure. If Harry Douglas is fully healthy, his explosiveness will be hard to keep off the field. In addition, rookie Kerry Meier has impressed the coaching staff with his sure hands and precise route-running and could compete for the No. 2 spot if Jenkins struggles.
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS
The formula is simple: Stop your opponent from scoring and your chances of winning improve exponentially. The 2009 Falcons were 9-0 when they allowed 20 points or less, but 0- 7 when they gave up 21 or more. Over the offseason and through the draft, the Falcons made a concentrated effort to shore up their defense. It's something they've tried to do often, but they have finished in the bottom half of the league for five consecutive seasons. First-round draft pick Sean Weatherspoon is Mike Peterson's eventual replacement at outside linebacker and free agent Dunta Robinson gives the Falcons an instant upgrade in the secondary. Curtis Lofton is a Pro-Bowl caliber player and enters his third season as a starter. Pressuring the quarterback is key to the Falcons' success. When the Falcons were 11-5 two seasons ago, they ranked 11th in sacks. Last season, they dropped to 26th and their win total suffered. If their D-line can stay healthy and the new acquisitions can contribute, this unit has the talent to surprise.
RISING: Matt Ryan enters his third season after throwing for 16 and 22 touchdowns in his first two years. If he stays healthy, he could flirt with 30 touchdowns.
SLEEPER: Harry Douglas, who was a popular sleeper pick before a torn ACL ended his 2009 campaign, is back for an encore.
SUPERSLEEPER: Kerry Meier is a former quarterback converted to wide receiver, who has great hands and could be valuable in Wildcat formations.
Curtis Lofton, LB Run-stopper in the middle, he led the Falcons in tackles.
ERIK COLEMAN, S A ball-hawking safety, he forced two fumbles and was third on the team in tackles.
JOHN ABRAHAM, DE The best pass rusher on the team will look for a bounce-back season after recording just 5.5 sacks in 2009.
RotoWire Rank: 25