STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
After a 2012 campaign that wound up with the Falcons falling to the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, there was reason to be excited about the team's prospects heading into 2013. That sentiment was short-lived, however, as the Falcons stumbled out of the gate, dropping four of their first five games, capped by a devastating home loss to the Jets on Monday Night Football. The team lost more than the game that night, as Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones suffered a foot fracture that kept him out for the remainder of the season. At the time of the injury, Jones led the league in receptions and was second in targets and yards. While the rest of Atlanta's receivers tried to pick up the slack in his absence, the team could never find a groove, especially with Roddy White dealing with nagging injuries for much of the season and a run game that sputtered. The Falcons ended up 4-12, failing to win consecutive games for the first time since 2000.
Nobody will be happier to see Jones back on the field than Matt Ryan, but the quarterback will have to get used to life without future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, who retired following the conclusion of the team's 2013 slate. Gonzalez was Ryan's favorite red-zone target last season, hauling in eight touchdown passes to lead all Atlanta pass-catchers. In preparation for Gonzalez's departure, the team spent a fourth-round pick in the 2013 draft on Stanford tight end Levine Toilolo, who is expected to step into the starting role this season. Gonzalez averaged over 800 yards and seven touchdowns a season over his five years with the Falcons, though fantasy owners will want to temper their expectations for his replacements, who will likely see more work as blockers.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Falcons were one of six teams to give up more than 6,000 yards worth of total offense to opposing teams, finishing 27th in the league in points allowed per game (27.7). Much of the problem stemmed from the fact that the defense couldn't stop the run. Atlanta gave up 2,173 yards on the ground, which was the second-worst mark in the league behind the Bears. The Falcons attempted to address their run defense issues through free agency, handing out a pair of five-year contracts to defensive end Tyson Jackson and defensive tackle Paul Soliai.
In hopes of shoring up the rest of the unit, the Falcons used seven of their nine draft picks to select players on the defensive side of the ball. Second-round pick Ra'Shede Hageman will rotate in on the defensive line, and four rookie linebackers will attempt to rise through the ranks the same way Paul Worrilow did last season. If the defense improves and the offense avoids key injuries, the Falcons are certainly capable of a turnaround similar to the 2013 Chiefs, but it won't be easy in a division that boasted two playoff teams last year.
Jake Matthews - OT, Texas A&M (Round 1, 6th Overall)
His presence should bolster an offensive line that allowed the second-most sacks in 2013.
Devonta Freeman - RB, Florida State (Round 4, 103rd Overall)
A versatile runner with upside if he can earn the team's No. 2 running back role.
Devin Hester - WR, Bears
A return specialist who should provide a special teams boost.
Tyson Jackson - DE, Chiefs
His addition should improve a defensive line that only tallied 32 sacks in 2013.
Tony Gonzalez - TE, Retired
The future first ballot Hall of Famer hung up his cleats during the offseason.
Asante Samuel - CB, FA
The writing was on the wall after the team drafted Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in 2013.
Stephen Nicholas - LB, FA
The emergence of Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu rendered Nicholas expendable.
Thomas DeCoud - FS, Panthers
A financial move made after a subpar statistical season from the veteran safety.
GONE GONZALEZ GONE
By all accounts, it appears that Tony Gonzalez has played his last down in the NFL. Although he had yet to officially file his retirement papers at press time, the Falcons released the veteran tight end in mid-May to avoid a roster bonus that was written into the final year of his contract. Gonzalez spent the final five years of his 17-year career in Atlanta, tallying 35 touchdowns over 80 games. His production will likely go unmatched, and the Falcons will also have a tough time finding such a durable tight end, as Gonzalez never missed a game with Atlanta and sat out only two regular season games over his entire career. Levine Toilolo has the inside track to win the starting role in Gonzalez's absence, while the team also signed Bear Pascoe in the offseason. Note that coach Mike Smith has already indicated that the Falcons plan to use their tight ends in a more traditional blocking role, a scenario that figures to cap their fantasy upside.
After ranking in the bottom half of the league in passing yards allowed per game, the Falcons decided to part ways with veterans Asante Samuel and Thomas DeCoud in the offseason. The pair were due more than $7 million in 2014, so while the move provided the Falcons with more cap room, they'll also need to rely on some young players to fill the gaps left in the secondary. The Falcons presumably hoped that Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford would anchor the cornerback position for years to come when they selected the pair with their first two selections in last year's draft, but the young duo will have to prove they are up to the task early in their careers. Five-year veteran safety William Moore will likely have more experience than the rest of the Falcons' starting secondary combined, assuming the team slots third-round pick Dezmen Southward into the role vacated by DeCoud.
REVAMPED RUN GAME?
After selecting offensive tackle Jake Matthews with the sixth overall choice in this year's draft, the Falcons made it clear that protecting the quarterback and improving their run game is a priority. Their only other draft pick on the offensive side of the ball was running back Devonta Freeman, who should help improve an offense that averaged the fewest carries and yards per game last season. The Falcons were the only team in the league that averaged more than twice as many pass attempts per game than rushing attempts in 2013, and while Atlanta is clearly more dangerous moving the ball through the air, don't expect another 2:1 ratio this year.
Rising: Matt Ryan managed to throw for more than 4,500 yards last season despite losing Julio Jones after only five games. A healthier wideout corps in 2014 should help his cause.
Declining: After averaging a career-low 3.5 yards per carry last season, Steven Jackson, who turns 31 in July, now must contend with the presence of rookie Devonta Freeman.
Sleeper: Though Julio Jones is back, Harry Douglas shouldn't be written off, given that the departure of TE Tony Gonzalez could lead to more three-wideout sets.
Supersleeper: Devonta Freeman will challenge Jacquizz Rodgers for backup duties, and the rookie could be in the mix for significant carries if Steven Jackson struggles or gets injured.
Paul Worrilow - LB
After injuries hit the team's linebacking corps last season, the undrafted rookie stepped up to the tune of 127 tackles.
William Moore - S
Moore has a nose for the ball and can tackle with the best of them.
Osi Umenyiora - DE
More 3-4 defensive fronts could limit the pass-rushing specialist's ceiling.
RotoWire Rank: 32