Heading into the 2008 season, the Falcons were the epitome of a rebuilding team with modest expectations in the wake of the off-field issues that sent former franchise QB Michael Vick to jail. But instead of enduring the typical two or three mediocre seasons normally required for a team at that stage in its development, the Falcons skipped ahead to the postseason with a surprising 11-5 record. Considering that they had a first-year head coach, a rookie quarterback, a first-time starting running back, and a young but promising defense leading the charge, the Atlanta organization clearly had one of the most inconceivable seasons of any team in the NFL.
Quarterback Matt Ryan - the No. 3 overall pick in last year's draft - brought home the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year award with his ability to manage a game, keeping his mistakes to a minimum. With Ryan's strong play, wideout Roddy White's numbers improved to the point where he was selected to play in his first career Pro Bowl. Michael "The Burner" Turner made the most of his first NFL starting gig, finishing the season second in the league in rushing yards (1,699) and rushing touchdowns (17), while earning a trip to Hawaii in the process. With those three building blocks already in place, the team added another key component to the offense this offseason, acquiring long-time fantasy star Tony Gonzalez from the Chiefs.
After the shellacking the defense took in last year's Wild Card Weekend loss to Arizona, it was clear the team needed to bolster things on that side of the ball. That focus was evident in the Falcons' approach on draft weekend. Adding defensive tackle Peria Jerry provides a perfect complement to the pass-rushing John Abraham, while William Moore, the team's second-round choice, has a chance to be a shut-down safety within the next few seasons. Still, overall, the secondary is inexperienced and unstable at present and is the team's weakest link heading into the upcoming season.
Unfortunately, the team lost a franchise icon in Keith Brooking this past offseason. Seeing No. 56 in a Dallas uniform will be an adjustment for Falcons fans, but, to help ease the pain, the team made a splash by snagging Mike Peterson from the Jaguars. With Brooking gone, the Falcons are now entirely free of any player connection to the 1998 Super Bowl team and can now zero in on the future as they look to continue their ascent in the post-Vick era. With a slew of young talented players led by the QB they call "Matty Ice" and a front office that is willing to pull out all stops to build a winner, the ceiling is high for the Mike Smith-coached Dirty Birds in 2009.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (24) Peria Jerry, DT, Mississippi
Athletic pass-rusher will start this season.
2. (55) William Moore, S, Missouri
Banged up in his senior year, but lack of depth at safety gives him a shot.
3. (90) Christopher Owens, CB, San Jose State
Projected to take over the nickel back spot, but anything is possible with this secondary.
4. (125) Lawerence Sidbury Jr., DE, Richmond
Pass rushing ability, but needs time to mature.
5. (138) William Middleton, CB, Furman
Big hitter who could see some work in sub-packages, but mostly on special teams.
5. (156) Garrett Reynolds, OT, North Carolina
Great size at 6-8, 309 pounds; should compete for starting right tackle job.
6. (176) Spencer Adkins, LB, Miami
Lack of size makes him a special teams-only candidate at present.
7. (210) Vance Walker, DT, Georgia Tech
Injury dropped him in the draft, but provides DT depth.
WHICH RYAN WILL SHOW UP IN 2009?
Overall, the Falcons ran the ball far more than they passed last season, which ultimately led the way to their first playoff appearance since 2003. However, quarterback Matt Ryan exceeded expectations and was getting more and more passing attempts near the midway point of the season, eventually hitting his stride while finding a comfort zone with WR Roddy White. Toward the end of the regular season though, Ryan's command began to falter, forcing the running game to seal the deal in the final weeks of the regular season. A few poor performances early in the season could make some skeptical of his true ability, but he does have all of his weapons intact.
WHO WILL EMERGE AS WHITE'S WINGMAN?
Wide receiver Michael Jenkins established himself as a deep threat in the 2008 season, slot receiver Harry Douglas was successful in gadget plays and screen passes, and Tony Gonzalez is, well, Tony Gonzalez. So, which one of these three players will emerge as Matt Ryan's true No. 2 target after Roddy White? If the Falcons coaching staff feels more comfortable putting the ball in Ryan's hands, he's going to need more than White to move the ball down the field. Any one of these three can get the job done, so this is really one of those good problems for the Falcons to have.
WILL TURNER 'THE BURNER' HAVE ENOUGH GAS FOR 2009?
After seeing limited action in four years backing up LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner led the league in rushing attempts with 376 in his first season as a starting running back in 2008. His bruising rushing style certainly gets results, but the mileage and pounding could take a toll on him if the Falcons aren't careful. Fortunately, the team also has Jerious Norwood around, and to help Turner stay fresh (and on the field for the long haul) it might not be a bad idea to get him more than 95 carries, given his 5.8 career YPC average.
WILL OPPOSING RECEIVERS TORCH THE HOTLANTA SECONDARY?
After losing DeAngelo Hall in 2008, the Falcons tried their hand at using a first-time starter in Brent Grimes to cover the opposing team's No. 1 receiver. After a half-season of lackluster games from Grimes, Domonique Foxworth took over and did a marginal job, but he joined the Ravens this offseason. Grimes will be in a tight race with Von Hutchins to start at left cornerback, though he too has very limited NFL experience. With veteran strong safety Lawyer Milloy also leaving the Falcons this offseason, look for opposing coordinators to key in on this potential weakness on the left side of the field.