The Atlanta Falcons have been perennial playoff contenders over the last few seasons with an offensive attack that includes quarterback Matt Ryan, receiver Roddy White and the aging, yet productive tight end Tony Gonzalez. Their defense hasn't been too shabby either with defensive end John Abraham and cornerback Brent Grimes.
"The Dirty Birds" have made the playoffs in three of the last four seasons, but lost in the first round in each of the three campaigns. Matt Ryan led the team to the playoffs during his rookie season in 2008, but lost to the Cardinals. In 2010 and 2011, the squad lost to the eventual Super Bowl Champions in the first round, the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants.
It is entirely plausible that the Falcons could return to the playoffs this season as well, as they play in the rather weak NFC South. The Buccaneers and Panthers still have some work to do, even though they are considered to be teams on the rise. The Saints seem to be the favorites despite the multiple suspensions and the recent drama that has surrounded them.
The Falcons could win the division in 2012, although the draft didn't help them whatsoever.
Last year, the Falcons managed to trade up to Cleveland's No. 6 spot to select Alabama receiver Julio Jones. In order to make that possible, the Falcons had to give up their first-round pick (No. 26), second-round pick (No. 59) and a fourth-round pick (No. 124). Additionally, the Falcons sent their first-round and fourth-round selections in this year's draft to Cleveland, as well.
What grade would you give the Falcons?
Although Jones showed that he can become a dominant, down-field threat in Atlanta, it remains to be seen if he was actually worth two first-round picks, a second-rounder and two fourth-round selections. Jones participated in just 13 games for the Falcons last season. In his rookie season, Jones accumulated 54 receptions for a healthy 959 yards (17.8 average) and eight touchdowns.
By giving up multiple selections in this year's draft, the Falcons were left with just six picks after trading away a seventh-round selection to Philadelphia in exchange for cornerback Asante Samuel, a fantastic deal.
Last season, the Falcons were one of the better offensive teams in the NFL, as the offense ranked seventh in points and tenth in yards. Unfortunately, the defense turned out to be the their Achilles heel, as they ranked 18th in points allowed and 12th in yards allowed. Although the stats don't appear to be that bad, the Falcons had to address some needs on the defensive side of the ball, whether it be in free agency or through the draft.
During free agency, the Falcons lost Curtis Lofton, perhaps the team's best linebacker, to their division rival, the Saints. They also neglected to re-sign linebacker Mike Peterson, who is still a free agent, and cornerback Kelvin Hayden, who ultimately signed with Jacksonville. However, they were able to fill Hayden's spot in the rotation with Samuel, an awesome consolation prize.
The losses of Lofton and Peterson left a giant gaping hole in the middle of the team's defense. The front office was able to help it a little bit by signing former Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu, but he's not good enough to replace both players. Luckily, the Falcons still have Sean Weatherspoon, their first-round pick in 2010, who turned out to be an utter beast last season. There's also Stephen Nicholas, a quality linebacker who played in just ten games last season.
The Falcons also needed to give help to the aging offensive line. Todd McClure, Will Svitek and Tyson Clabo are over 30 years old and Justin Blalock is closing in on that mark as well. Needless to say, the Falcons needed to do something with the offensive line in the draft.
Of course, the Falcons didn't have a first-round pick due to the Julio Jones trade last year, so they didn't pick until No. 55 overall. Luckily for them, Wisconsin center Peter Konz was on the board and they tabbed him with that selection. Konz was undoubtedly the best center of this year's draft and has drawn comparisons to Jeff Saturday and his now-teammate Todd McClure. This pick vastly helped the Falcons, as McClure is the team's oldest lineman at 35. McClure will be calling it a career sooner or later and it was time for the team to start looking for his replacement.
Even though the selection of Konz was a solid pick, I thought the Falcons would be using their first selection on a tight end, such as Clemson's Dwayne Allen, Georgia's Orson Charles or Stanford's Coby Fleener, if he was still on the board. The Falcons don't have a capable back-up after Gonzalez, as Michael Palmer, Tommy Gallarda and Ryan Winterswyk are currently listed on the depth chart. Since they didn't address the need in the second-round, I thought they would with one of their next few selections.
It didn't happen in the third-round either. The Falcons selected offensive tackle Lamar Holmes from Southern Mississippi. The pick somewhat puzzled me, as I believed there were better offensive linemen still on the board. Possible better options included Washington's Senio Kelemete, Miami's Brandon Washington, Colorado's Ryan Miller, Auburn's Brandon Mosley, Florida State's Andrew Datko and Zebrie Sanders, Ole Miss' Bobby Massie and Boise State's Nate Potter.
The Falcons could have done much better with their No. 91 selection, even though Holmes has solid potential. The tackle stands at 6'5" and weighs 323 pounds, but that doesn't translate into greatness. Holmes is a raw talent who will need some time to reach his ceiling. He has all the potential in the world, but it will take awhile to crack his new team's rotation.
The Falcons wouldn't pick for another 66 selections. Although a number of prospects that were rated higher, the team took Wisconsin fullback Bradie Ewing with the No. 157 pick. The selection was considerably puzzling, as the team already has Mike Cox and Ovie Mughelli, who is thought to be one of the best players at his respective position. Injuries may be a concern for Mughelli since he played in just seven games last season. But before that, the fullback had played in at least thirteen games in the six seasons prior.
Seven selections later, the Falcons picked Troy's Jonathan Massaquoi, a player that can play both defensive end and outside linebacker. The Falcons did exceedingly well with the selection of Massaquoi. He can become a tremendous threat on the outside. Simply put, he just knows how to get to the quarterback. There's no doubt that he won't be a starter this season and he will likely see time as a situational pass-rusher. His presence will vastly help alleviate pressure off of John Abraham, Ray Edwards and Kroy Biermann. At 6'2" and 264 pounds, Massaquoi has the length and quickness to give offensive linemen fits.
The front office did an extraordinary job with the selection of Massaquoi.
Their final two picks stayed on the defensive side of the ball. The Falcons selected a pair of former SEC players. They tabbed strong safety Charles Mitchell from Mississippi State in the sixth-round and South Carolina defensive tackle Travian Robertson in the seventh.
The Falcons seem to be set in the secondary with cornerbacks Brent Grimes, Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson and with safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. The selection of Mitchell is no more than a depth selection, but it remains unclear if he will become a significant threat to make the final 53-man roster.
Like the secondary, the Falcons seem to be set at defensive tackle. They already have Peria Jerry, Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux on the roster, as well as Vance Walker. With three quality players and a decent tackle, Robertson doesn't seem like a threat to make the roster unless he plays stupendously during training camp and in the preseason.
Even with the No. 249 selection, there were still some decent players on the board. Talented players such as Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict, Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris, Iowa linebacker Tyler Nielsen, Arkansas linebacker Jerry Franklin, Pittsburgh linebacker Brandon Lindsey, UCLA safety Tony Dye, among others were there to be drafted.
The Falcons seemed to hurt themselves more than help them during the draft. They struck gold with selecting Konz in the second-round, but I believe they reached for Holmes. The selection of Ewing made no sense, whatsoever. They did a phenomenal job by selecting Massaquoi and their final two picks seem to be players that will have a very tough time making the 53-man cut.
Although they addressed the offensive line during the draft, they neglected to add a quality linebacker to somewhat replace the recently-departed Curtis Lofton. Massaquoi could eventually fill that role, but he won't be able to come in and do it right away. They also failed to acquire a tight end to eventually supplant the aging Tony Gonzalez. The Falcons have no second threat on the depth chart, which could hurt them if Gonzalez were to get injured at some point.
The front office also decided to not add a "true" defensive end in the draft to eventually replace the 33-year-old John Abraham. Biermann could end up being his replacement at some point in the near future, but it would have helped if they had drafted a defensive end with copious amounts of potential. Outside of Abraham, Biermann and Edwards, the Falcons currently list Cliff Matthews and Lawrence Sidbury as the only other defensive ends. Both of those players may turn out to be solid back-ups, but neither will ever develop into full-fledged starters in the NFL. The Falcons could have substantially benefited by taking a defensive end in one of their first couple of selections. However, they could likely address that need next year.
The Falcons didn't have a good 2012 draft and it all follows back to last year's decision to trade a multitude of picks to land Julio Jones. The Falcons would have likely still gotten a quality player at the 25th overall selection, but they felt Jones would be that down-field threat that gives them a potent offensive attack.
If the team had decided not to make the trade for Jones last year, they would have held the No. 22 pick in this year's festivities. At No. 22, the Falcons could have drafted a linebacker such as Dont'a Hightower, Whitney Mercilus or Courtney Upshaw. They also would have had the opportunity to tab Coby Fleener or an offensive lineman such as David DeCastro, Jonathan Martin or Riley Reiff.
If the Falcons would have had a stellar draft like the Steelers, Eagles or Bengals, it would be a different story. Instead, they made a few puzzling decisions that could hurt them. I believe the additions of Holmes, Ewing, Mitchell and Robertson outweighs the additions of Konz and Massaquoi. In each of the four instances listed in the previous sentence, there were a number of players that would have satisfied bigger needs on the team.
The Falcons were supposed to get better in the draft, while keeping up with the Saints in the process. But instead the Saints distanced themselves from the Falcons. However, anything can happen in football. Atlanta is undoubtedly a playoff contender this season and a possible division winner, but the draft did not help their cause.