Who will emerge as breakout players in Atlanta this season?
The top of the Atlanta Falcons depth chart will look remarkably similar in 2012 to last year. There may only be two new starters on defense—corner Asante Samuel and whoever wins the middle linebacker battle—and there could be no new starters on the offensive side of the ball, although rookies Peter Konz on the offensive line and fullback Bradie Ewing could step up.
That said, there are still plenty of Falcons that could emerge this year, some even in the starting lineup.
There’s definitely room to grow on defense. The unit played well against the run, but was porous against the pass. New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s new defensive looks could help a few players pop into the spotlight.
The offense moved the ball well, but injuries took their toll at times. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will open things up vertically, and if the injury bug stays away, there are multiple players who could make their mark in 2012.
Ray Edwards got to the quarterback for just 3.5 sacks in 2011. That total could go up in 2012.
Defensive end Ray Edwards was great against the run last season, but the Falcons signed him to a lucrative contract in hopes that he would apply pressure on the opposite side of John Abraham.
After back-to-back seasons of eight or more sacks in Minnesota, Edwards provided just 3.5 for the Falcons in 2011.
Edwards not only had trouble moving from what he called a vanilla scheme in Minnesota to a more complex structure in Atlanta, but Edwards came in with a hurt knee and played through nagging injuries all season.
He had a procedure on his knee after the season, but heading into the 2012 season the coaching staff believes Edwards will be healthy. If he can get back to that eight-sack level from 2009 and 2010, anyone would consider that a breakout.
The Falcons have already stated that Jacquizz Rodgers will have an expanded role in 2012.
As a rookie, Jacquizz Rodgers carried the ball 57 times and scored a touchdown. He also caught 21 passes and hauled in a touchdown reception.
As he became more comfortable in the offense and picked up protection schemes, Rodgers found himself on the field more often. Head Coach Mike Smith raved as the season progressed about Rodgers’ improvement and even said he felt the young ball-carrier could be an every-down back someday.
Rodgers won’t get a chance to be that every-down back in 2012, but the Falcons will reduce Michael Turner's carries this season and Rodgers will see the brunt of those come his way.
New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter promises to use the screen pass more this year, as well. Rodgers could find himself targeted more in the passing game because of that.
With extra carries coming and the possibility of some screen passes too, Rodgers should continue to show why the Atlanta coaching staff has a lot of faith in the second-year back.
Julio Jones will benefit from a full offseason of working with the Falcons.
Now with the labor situation settled, all teams have their doors open to players. This will be the first time Jones will have the benefit of a full offseason of workouts with the team.
While extra workout reps with players and coaches be beneficial, Jones will greatly improve upon his rookie season by staying healthy.
Jones caught 54 passes and eight touchdown passes last season but missed three entire games with hamstring issues and all but one series of another game. If Jones can stay healthy and accumulate stats for those almost four missed games from 2011, he could find himself close to the league lead in receiving yardage and touchdown catches.
Lawrence Sidbury made the most of his limited time on the field.
According to Pro Football Focus, defensive end Lawrence Sidbury played on just 207 pass-rush snaps in 2011. That was the fewest of the ends on the team where John Abraham had 512, Ray Edwards had 661 and Kroy Biermann had 464.
Even though Sidbury was on the field far less than the other ends, he accumulated four sacks (second best on the team behind Abraham) and was far more efficient with his time on the field with 18 total quarterback pressures.
Sidbury has earned the right to step up the number of snaps he’ll receive in the defensive line rotation. If he can continue to get to the quarterback at the same rate as he did last year, with more pass-rush snaps in 2012, he’ll become a much-needed pressure threat in Atlanta.
Sean Weatherspoon will have to have his eyes everywhere in 2012 as he increases his role in Mike Nolan's defense.
It’s very interesting to say that a guy who notched 115 tackles last year and had four sacks can have a breakout season, but that’s just the case with linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.
With Curtis Lofton leaving via free agency, Weatherspoon will now take over as the play-caller in the defensive huddle. He’s also going to be called on to step up his game in more ways than just his new pre-snap duties.
New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s defense will bring pressure from a number of different places. Weatherspoon has already admitted that he’ll likely be after the quarterback more in 2012.
Weatherspoon will also be on the field in third-down situations, and will be called on to help in coverage.
The third-year linebacker is ready to step up in 2012 and should be all over the field on defense. Weatherspoon will be a name well known in the NFL after the season.