All the pieces are in place for the Atlanta Falcons to make a deep playoff run this year: What looks to be a relatively easy schedule, the addition of Mike Nolan to the coaching staff and star power all over the roster are just a few of these.
But the Falcons' chances of winning the Super Bowl this season may ultimately rest upon the improvement of a few key players at various positions.
Here’s a look at four players whose 2012 performances may be deciding factors in whether the Atlanta Falcons are holding the Lombardi Trophy in February or come out of the playoffs empty-handed once again.
If the Atlanta Falcons hope to be true contenders this year, they’ll have to see great improvement on defense, and that starts on the defensive line with Ray Edwards.
When the Falcons signed Edwards to a five-year, $30 million contract in 2011, they were expecting a dominant run-stuffer who could be an equally threatening pass-rusher.
While Edwards adequately fulfilled the first criterion, collecting over 30 tackles, his handling of the second was quite the opposite: He managed just 3.5 sacks as a Falcon last season.
Quite the drop-off from the eight-sack mark he reached with the Minnesota Vikings in both 2009 and 2010.
Some were opposed to the Edwards signing from the beginning, arguing he wasn’t the elite player he appeared to be with Pat and Kevin Williams and Jared Allen on the line with him in Minnesota.
There’s no better time than now for Edwards to prove those skeptics wrong—for both the team’s sake and his own.
Pass-rushing isn’t achieved solely off the edge. Pressure up the middle is a key asset as well, and it’s something the Falcons lacked heavily last season.
In Atlanta, no player’s performance in 2012 will be of greater importance at the defensive tackle position than that of Jonathan Babineaux.
After missing three games to a knee injury, Babineaux managed just one sack last season, although he recorded 10 from 2009 to 2010.
On a personal level, the five-year starter likely won’t have to worry about losing his job, regardless of how he does this season, considering that Atlanta’s only other proven defensive tackle at the moment is fellow starter Cory Peters.
As for the team, however, success this season will heavily depend on Babineaux’s ability to get back to consistently collapsing the pocket, especially with the list of quarterbacks he’ll be lining up against.
The Atlanta Falcons didn't give up much either financially or draft-wise when they traded just a seventh-round pick for Asante Samuel this year.
But they’re taking a big risk on the field, seeing as he’ll be taking on a starting cornerback role opposite Brent Grimes in 2012.
That's a big promotion for a guy who was relegated to third on the Philadelphia Eagles depth chart last season.
Samuel managed just three picks playing behind Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie last year, after recording 16 total interceptions from 2009 to 2010, causing him to miss the Pro Bowl for the first time in five years.
The Falcons hope that Samuel is able to get back to Pro Bowl form this season, but the fact remains that Samuel is a 31-year-old coming off a down year.
Bouncing back at his age isn’t always easy, but the Falcons pass defense will be sure to see a big jump in the rankings by the season’s end if Samuel does.
Jacquizz Rodgers had just 78 total touches and two touchdowns as a rookie last year, but he could see the ball coming his way a lot more often in 2012.
“He’s a guy we feel like we can integrate more into our offense,’’ head coach Mike Smith told ESPN’s Pat Yasinskas in March.
With the Falcons' planning on reducing Michael Turner’s carries this season and new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's looking to use a lot more of the screen pass, Rodgers is a prime candidate to step into a premier role on offense this year, in both the running and passing games.
Might the Falcons be trying to turn Rodgers into their very own version of the New Orleans Saints' jack-of-all-trades running back, Darren Sproles?
Either way, it looks as though this season will give Rodgers a big chance to show he can be an every-down back.
The Falcons are giving Rodgers that opportunity, but it'll be up to him to make the most if it.