STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Falcons entered 2011 as one of the favorites to earn a first-round bye in the playoffs, as they were coming off a 13-3 season and had bolstered their offensive attack by moving up in the draft to select wideout Julio Jones. Unfortunately, the Falcons struggled to get in sync early in the year and stumbled to a 3-3 start. Although they couldn't catch the Saints for the division title, the Falcons won three of their final four games to clinch a Wild Card berth. With momentum headed into the postseason, Atlanta backers hoped that it would finally be the year that QB Matt Ryan and coach Mike Smith would add a playoff win to their resumes.
Alas, the Falcons' offense, which ranked seventh in the league in points per game, was outscored by their defense 2-0 in a 24-2 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants. Although the team's offense faltered in the playoffs, Ryan continued to improve in his fourth year in the league. He threw for a career best 4,177 yards and 29 touchdowns, and spread the ball around to young guns and aging veterans alike. Roddy White and Julio Jones each caught eight touchdown passes, while future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez caught seven, leaving him five shy of becoming the first tight end with 100 career touchdown receptions.
Meanwhile, Michael Turner was one of two NFL running backs who carried the ball at least 300 times in 2011, and he ranked in the top 10 in touchdowns (11) and yards per game (83.8). Going forward though, wear and tear is a concern, so perhaps Jason Snelling and/or Jacquizz Rodgers will see more touches in 2012.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Falcons hoped the addition of Ray Edwards would significantly upgrade their defensive line, but he managed only 3.5 sacks in his first year in Atlanta and the team once again ended up ranked in the bottom half of the league in sacks. Although he won't directly contribute to the sack total in 2012, the Falcons are hoping that the addition of four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel makes it harder for opposing quarterbacks to find open receivers. While the Falcons look to juggle a trio of formidable cornerbacks in Samuel, Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes, they'll enter 2012 without one of their defensive centerpieces from a season ago, as Curtis Lofton signed with the division rival Saints as a free agent during the offseason. Lofton was the team's leading tackler and leaves a void that Atlanta hopes to fill with last year's third-round pick, Akeem Dent. With the Saints dealing with the loss of their head coach and defensive captain to "Bounty-Gate," the Falcons look to return to the top of the NFC South in 2012.
Asante Samuel, CB (Eagles)
The playmaking cornerback helps bolster an already talented Atlanta secondary. He'll likely start opposite Dunta Robinson.
Lofa Tatupu, LB (FA)
Tatupu will challenge second-year linebacker Akeem Dent for the starting gig in Curtis Lofton's absence.
Peter Konz, C/G, Wisconsin (Round 2, 55th overall)
He will likely start at guard and be groomed as center Todd McClure's future replacement. His versatility was one of the biggest reasons the Falcons took him with their highest pick in the draft.
Lamar Holmes, OT, Southern Mississipi (Round 3, 91st overall)
Another offensive lineman shows the Falcons commitment to keeping Matt Ryan upright. The QB was sacked 26 times in 2011, and Holmes could be called on early in the season if that trend doesn’t slow down in 2012.
Bradie Ewing, FB, Wisconsin (Round 5, 157th overall)
Ewing will compete with Mike Cox for the starting job at fullback after the team released Ovie Mughelli.
Curtis Lofton, LB (Saints)
The Falcons couldn't match the five-year deal offered by their division rival. Lofton's departure leaves a big void at middle linebacker, where he had started 63 of 64 games since joining the Falcons in 2008.
Kelvin Hayden, CB (Bears)
There wasn't much room for Hayden before the team signed Asante Samuel, and there would have been less had he stayed.
Eric Weems, WR/KR (Bears)
2010 Pro Bowler on special teams was deemed expendable after kickoff rule changes limited his opportunities.
WILL Asante Samuel HELP SLOW POTENT NFC SOUTH OFFENSES?
Once the Eagles landed Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency and received Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the Kevin Kolb trade, Samuel was essentially the odd man out in Philly. The Falcons already have two solid cornerbacks in Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes, but the asking price for Samuel's services (a seventh-round pick) was just too reasonable for the Falcons to pass up on. The Falcons ranked in the bottom half of the league in interceptions last season, and the team hopes that Samuel's addition will help boost those numbers. Samuel has seven career postseason interceptions, which puts him just two interceptions away from joining Ronnie Lott, Charlie Waters and Bill Simpson for the most career playoff interceptions of all-time.
LOSS OF Curtis Lofton LOOMS LARGE AT LINEBACKER
The Falcons didn't have a lot of cap room entering free agency this offseason, and thus couldn't compete for Curtis Lofton's services. Lofton signed a five-year, $30 million deal with the Saints, who were preparing for a possible league-mandated suspension of middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma for his role in the Saints' bounty program. The Falcons counteracted his departure by signing Lofa Tatupu, who last played with the Seahawks. Tatupu will battle with Akeem Dent, last year's highly regarded third-round pick, for the chance to start at middle linebacker. Dent is considered a better run-stopping linebacker, while Tatupu is viewed as a better coverage linebacker, so the two may end up sharing duties early in the year. Whatever happens, it's unlikely that either will be able to fully fill the void left by Lofton's departure.
CAN Matt Ryan CONTINUE TO IMPROVE?
Playoff failures aside, Matt Ryan has been one of the better quarterbacks in the league over the last four years. Ryan eclipsed the 4,000-yard mark for the first time in his career last season, and posted career bests in touchdowns and passer rating. If Ryan is going to continue to flourish in 2012, the Falcons need to make sure they can keep him from taking hits. Ryan was sacked 26 times and hit 84 times last season, which was seventh most in the league. The Falcons attempted to address the issue in the draft, taking Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes with their first two picks. If the offensive line can do its job, Ryan should have plenty of time to find his three big targets in Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. Although White has been Ryan's favorite target over the last four years, Ryan may have given us a glimpse into the future at the end of last season, when he threw six touchdown passes to the promising Jones over the final four games of the season.
RISING: Young speedster Julio Jones could supplant Roddy White as Matt Ryan's favorite target if he can continue to stretch the field.
DECLINING: Michael Turner saw his yards per carry increase last season, but his carries per game dropped as he lost carries to Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers, plus his age (30) needs to be taken into consideration.
SLEEPER: Harry Douglas showed that he's fully recovered from ACL surgery, and could get plenty of targets if defenses focus on stopping Roddy White and Julio Jones.
SUPERSLEEPER: Jacquizz Rodgers is a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield, and an injury to Michael Turner would make Rodgers a hot waiver claim.
Sean Weatherspoon, LB
Notched 115 total tackles in 2011, and will be asked to make more plays in Curtis Lofton's absence.
John Abraham, DE
Abraham has racked up 22.5 sacks and six forced fumbles over the last two seasons.
Thomas Decoud, S
DeCoud could top the 100 total tackle mark if he stays healthy.
RotoWire Rank: 24