By Derek VanRiper
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Just as many franchises view the New England Patriots' blueprint as a recipe for sustained success in the NFL, the Falcons unwittingly developed a how-to manual for complete disaster. Embattled franchise quarterback Michael Vick was suspended indefinitely by commissioner Roger Goodell before being sentenced to 23 months in federal prison for his involvement in a dogfighting ring, and things spiraled out of control for new head coach Bobby Petrino thereafter, as he clashed with the veterans on his roster and failed to develop good rapport with roster holdovers from the Jim Mora era.
Despite signing a five-year, $24-million deal with the Falcons less than a year earlier, Petrino jumped ship after 13 games and filled the head coaching vacancy at the University of Arkansas in December. His sudden departure drew the ire of the veteran players that he had failed to get along with, and the Falcons were left to figure out who might be kept around for a complete rebuilding project under interim coach Emmitt Thomas during the final three games.
Hoping to infuse the mindset of a winning organization into his front office, owner Arthur Blank's latest overhaul included the hiring of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who had spent the previous six years in New England and was the director of college scouting at the time of his departure. Dimitroff immediately cleaned house, releasing veterans Warrick Dunn, Alge Crumpler and Rod Coleman, before sending maligned cornerback DeAngelo Hall to the Raiders for draft picks. With six of the first 98 picks (led by QB Matt Ryan at No. 3 overall) in April's draft, Dimitroff's ability to evaluate talent will be judged quickly.
Rather than dipping into the college ranks for another flashy head coaching option, the Falcons learned from their mistakes with Petrino and selected Jacksonville defensive coordinator Mike Smith to take the reins. The new staff will be much more hands-on with their players, while they are expected to implement a blue-collar, smash-mouth style on both sides of the ball.
Despite the shattered short-term expectations following a disastrous season, Blank opened his pocketbook and lured former Charger Michael Turner to Atlanta via free agency. After spending his career as a backup to LaDainian Tomlinson, Turner will now spearhead the Falcons' running game as the starter in front of holdover Jerious Norwood.
Even with the personnel overhaul, a trip to the playoffs seems unlikely until at least 2009, while the franchise needs to develop a fresh winning tradition to preserve what's left of its divided fan base in the wake of the Vick fallout. It's going to take some time, but with Blank's support and a new direction from the front office and on the sidelines, the foundation appears to be in place for a turnaround.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (3) Matt Ryan, QB, Boston College
Consensus top quarterback from draft becomes face of the franchise.
1. (21) Sam Baker, OT, USC
Injuries caused stock to tumble, but Falcons want to start him at left tackle.
2. (37) Curtis Lofton, LB, Oklahoma
Tackle machine on track to eventually play in the middle.
3. (68) Chevis Jackson, CB, LSU
Three-year starter against elite competition in mix for starting role.
3. (84) Harry Douglas, WR, Louisville
Talented slot man could put veterans out of work.
3. (98) Thomas DeCoud, S, California
Coverage skills need development, but he'll serve as backup at both safety spots.
5. (138) Robert James, LB, Arizona State
Likely headed for special teams.
5. (154) Kroy Biermann, LB, Montana
'Tweener with long-term potential.
6. (172) Thomas Brown, RB, Georgia
Possible kick returner and third RB.
7. (212) Wilrey Fontenot, CB, Arizona
Small, but has tools to be a nickel specialist.
7. (232) Keith Zinger, TE, LSU
Used infrequently by Tigers, a project for Falcons.
Michael Turner, RB (Chargers)
Career backup becomes primary ground threat in rebuilt offense.
Jason Elam, K (Broncos)
Goes "home" to Atlanta after prolonged success in Denver.
Ben Hartsock, TE (Titans)
Could emerge as the top check-down option for Atlanta passers.
Warrick Dunn, RB (Buccaneers)
Backup for Earnest Graham while finishing career where it began.
Alge Crumpler, TE (Titans)
Potential favorite target for Vince Young in Tennessee.
DeAngelo Hall, CB (Raiders)
Now part of elite corner tandem with Nnamdi Asomugha.
WHO'S AT THE HELM?
Despite going three years without taking an NFL snap, Chris Redman emerged as the Falcons' best option at quarterback last season and posted an impressive 10:5 TD:INT ratio and team-high 90.4 passer efficiency rating in limited duty. Joey Harrington has been retained, but he's not expected to hold more than a backup role to begin the season. D.J. Shockley is coming back from a torn ACL, and he's not expected to compete for a starting role either. The job appears to belong to Redman - at least early on.
Rather than filling a need at defensive tackle with Glenn Dorsey in April's draft, the Falcons made their move for a new franchise quarterback with the selection of Matt Ryan. It's possible that he'll step in and earn the starting job during training camp, but the Falcons may want to hold off on throwing him into the fire if they feel that Ryan can benefit from spending time on the sidelines. Of the early-round quarterbacks selected, Ryan played with less NFL-caliber talent than most and his high number of interceptions (19) could be blamed more on his supporting cast than poor decision-making ability.
REVAMPED RUNNING GAME
Given the state of the team's quarterbacks entering the 2008 season, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is expected to run a conservative offense centered around a solid rushing attack - as he did during his time as offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh from 2001-2003. The results may yield two serviceable fantasy backs in Michael Turner and backup Jerious Norwood. The odometer shows very limited mileage on Turner's wheels, but that could limit how heavily he's used when you consider that he's never recorded more than 80 carries in a season. Norwood continued to show explosive ability in the backfield during his second season, averaging 6.0 yards per carry in a reserve role. Look for Turner to handle 20-25 carries each week, while Norwood should see 10-15 touches to help limit the wear and tear.
RECEIVING CORPS ALSO IN FLUX
Despite the carousel under center last season, Roddy White emerged as the No. 1 receiver the Falcons hoped he'd be when they selected him with their first-round pick in 2005, by hauling in 83 receptions for 1,202 yards and six TDs. With Alge Crumpler limited by injuries, White was the beneficiary of several extra targets and he was the only skill position player who seemed to thrive without Vick at quarterback. To avoid getting extra attention from opposing secondaries, White needs a capable No. 2 receiver to surface and Laurent Robinson may be ready to step into a larger role after showing signs of being an impact player as a rookie. Look for the tight ends to take on more of a blocking role under new offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.
Rising: Michael Turner should see 60-70 percent of the touches as Atlanta's feature back after spending four years as LT's backup.
Declining: Joe Horn struggled with injures and posted his worst numbers since 1998. At 36, he may be playing elsewhere once the regular season begins.
Sleeper: Laurent Robinson was on the field as the starter opposite Roddy White during the team's first spring minicamp and showed flashes of productivity as a rookie.
Supersleeper: Harry Douglas could emerge in the rotation by Week 1 with a big summer. He's drawn comparisons to Wes Welker, given his size, speed, and ability to get open from the slot.
Michael Boley, LB
Would garner much more attention on a better team, but Boley was team's best defender last season.
John Abraham, DE
Tackle numbers were lacking, but had 10 sacks despite ineffective play from Jamaal Anderson.
Keith Brooking, LB
Could be shifted back into the weak-side spot, but still a good bet for 100 tackles
RotoWire Rank: 30
Article first appeared 5/29/08
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