By Mike Wendt
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Falcons have always been successful under head coach Mike Smith, who has accumulated a 33-15 regular season record in three seasons with the team, and 2010 was no different. After dropping their opener in overtime against the Steelers, Atlanta torched the rest of the field to win 13 of their next 15 games en route to a 13-3 record and the top seed in the NFC. Despite their regular season success, the Falcons secondary was picked apart in the Divisional playoffs by the eventual Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers.
While it was the defense that let the Falcons down in the playoffs, it was the offense that carried the team during the regular season. The Falcons averaged 25.9 points per game, trailing only the Eagles in the NFC, and their success was due in large part to third-year quarterback Matt Ryan. Matty Ice had his best statistical season to date, posting a 28-9 TD-INT ratio and throwing for 3,705 yards. Ryan's favorite target was once again Roddy White, who led the league in receptions with 115 and posted an NFC best 1,389 receiving yards. The Falcons were successful through the air in 2010, but they also had one of the league's best rushing attacks. Michael Turner continued to be the workhorse for the Falcons on the ground. His 334 rushing attempts led the league.
On the other side of the ball, the Falcons had mixed results in 2010. They ranked 5th in the league total points allowed, and held their opponents under 20 points in ten of their 16 contests, but their average of 5.6 yards allowed per play tied for sixth-worst in the league. And while the team ranked fourth in the league with 23 interceptions, they ranked in the bottom half of the league in sacks, an area that they'll look to improve upon this season.
The Falcons enter the 2011 season as one of the favorites to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs, but the monkey on the backs of both Matt Ryan and Mike Smith isn't getting any smaller, as both player and coach seek their first career playoff victory. The Falcons could stumble in a highly competitive NFC South, but they added some key playmakers on both sides of the ball to make sure that doesn't happen. Atlanta has a fairly tough non-divisional schedule with visits from the NFC North and the AFC South on tap, but expect this team to make the playoffs for the second year in a row in 2011.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (6) Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
Drawing rave reviews in camp after Falcons paid high price in draft trade.
3. (91) Akeem Dent, LB, Georgia
Homegrown talent looks to break into the starting lineup as a rookie.
5. (145) Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, Oregon State
The team once again traded up, this time securing a backup for Michael Turner.
6. (192) Matt Bosher, P/K, Miami
Will take over the punting duties right away, could place kick down the road.
7. (210) Andrew Jackson, OG, Fresno State
Standout in the WAC looks to test his skills against much harder competition.
7. (230) Cliff Matthews, DE, South Carolina
Athletically limited, but was a high-motor leader for South Carolina.
Ray Edwards DE (Vikings)
Big upgrade to the pass rush which ranked in the bottom half of the league in 2010.
Michael Jenkins, MIN (Vikings)
Moving up to get Julio Jones sealed Jenkins' fate.
Jamaal Anderson, DE (Colts)
Gigantic draft bust got his walking papers after Ray Edwards signed.
Harvey Dahl, OL (Rams)
Standout guard lured away by the Rams.
Jerious Norwood, RB (Rams)
The Falcons hope Jacquizz Rodgers can be their insurance back in Norwood's absence.
John Parker Wilson
WILL JULIO MEET EXPECTATIONS?
Many people thought the Falcons would look to bolster their defense in the first round of the draft after being torched by Aaron Rodgers for 48 points on their own turf in the playoffs, so it was quite a surprise to see Atlanta give up five draft picks to grab Julio Jones at No. 6 overall. In all, the Falcons gave up their first, second and fourth round picks in the 2010 draft, and their first and fourth round picks in the 2011 draft to move up to Cleveland's No. 6 spot. With all the picks the Falcons gave up, one could argue that Jones is the rookie with the most to prove in 2011. He'll line up opposite Roddy White, and each will benefit from the other. Jones should outperform any other rookie wide receiver as he lands in a potent offense with a solid quarterback to catch passes from.
EDWARDS BOLSTERS D-LINE
The addition of Ray Edwards at defensive end could make Atlanta's pass rush a force to be reckoned with this season. The Falcons inked Edwards to a great contract too, as they'll pay him $27 million over five years, great value considering division rival Carolina shelled out $60 to keep defensive end Charles Johnson for the same tenure. The Falcons were ranked 20th in the league in sacks last season with 31, but Edwards got to the quarterback eight times last season and will look to improve on those numbers in Atlanta. He'll join John Abraham, who rebounded from a sub-par 2009 to notch 13 sacks in 2010, and the pair should provide a slew of big plays on the defensive side of the ball this season.
CAN THE KID KICK?
The Falcons selected Matt Bosher in the sixth round of the draft with the intentions of having him handle either the punting or place kicking duties based on whether Michael Koenen or Matt Bryant returned to the team. Matt Bryant re-signed with the team to a four-year deal, so the Falcons decided to cut ties with Michael Koenen, who's 40.7 yards per punt ranked 28th in the league in 2010. What isn't telling about Koenen's yards per punt was the fact that he was one of the best kickers at pinning opposing defenses deep last season. Koenen dropped 29 punts inside the 20-yard line last season, good for eighth in the league, while only registering five touchbacks. Add in the fact that opposing return men only accumulated 49 return yards against Koenen during the entire season (an NFL record), and Atlanta's defense may find themselves with shorter distances to defend this season. Bosher averaged 44.0 yards per punt during his senior season with Miami, so the Falcons can expect a little more distance on punts, but if he struggles with his hangtime the Falcons special teams may be in for a rude wake up call.
Rising: Roddy White will benefit the fact that opposing defenses will need to keep a close eye on Julio Jones, leaving White with a few less double teams.
Declining: Tony Gonzalez is still the top tight end on the team, but his 70 receptions for 656 yards in 2010 were his lowest totals in 12 years, and he's not getting any younger.
Sleeper: Harry Douglas finally feels back to full health after missing the entire 2009 season with an ACL injury, and could see a lot of targets if opposing teams focus solely on Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez.
Supersleeper: Jacquizz Rodgers is a talented rookie who could be fantasy gold if the oft-injured Michael Turner is struck by the injury bug.
Curtis Lofton, MLB
The top returning tackler on the team will once again anchor the team at MLB.
Brent Grimes, CB
Second on the team with 87 total tackles and tied for the team lead with five interceptions in 2010.
John Abraham, DE
Has a great chance to surpass the 13.0 sack total he notched last season.
RotoWire Rank: 17