Atlanta (13-3, 1-1 postseason) had arguably its second-best season in franchise history, falling just yards short of its second Super Bowl appearance. Head coach Mike Smith has earned a 57-28 record, but he and his quarterback Matt Ryan are just 1-4 in the postseason.
Had Smith and company lost in the Divisional Round to the Seattle Seahawks, (another contest that saw an early big lead for the Falcons vanish) Atlanta owner Arthur Blank would have been pressured to call for changes in upper-management. Thanks to the victory, however, the Falcons continued to display progress and continuity.
For the ring-less franchise, there's no doubt the future is very bright with the current regime in place, but changes must be made for the Falcons to take the next step to becoming a perennial Super Bowl contender.
Here are seven personnel questions the Falcons must answer this offseason.
Is Matt Ryan the Franchise Quarterback?
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Call Matt Ryan a choke artist. Call him Matty Melt. Leave him out of the elite conversation. Anyone who questions the staying power and potential of the Falcons fifth-year quarterback is psychotic.
Ryan was on the doorstep of once again finishing a clutch drive, as is apropos for a quarterback nicknamed Matty Ice. He nearly sent the Falcons to their second Super Bowl appearance ever.
It was also clear in the NFC Championship that Ryan's sprained AC joint was hindering his ability to throw the football at the end of the game (see the fact he couldn't put his arm into final throw of the game).
Yes, Ryan made some mistakes in the playoffs this year, the fumbled snap against the 49ers in particular, but the Falcons would never have made it this far without him. A few mistakes cannot count out the greatness of No. 2.
Ryan broke franchise records for passing yards and passing touchdowns this season with 4,719 and 32, respectively. Save for Steve Bartkowski, Ryan is hands-down the best quarterback to ever suit up in a Falcons uniform. In fact, anyone who would pitch Bartkowski over Ryan would have quite a task at hand.
Ryan has charisma, intelligence, great work ethic and showcased his development of the deep ball this year. He's only going to get better, which is really bad news for 31 NFL defensive coordinators.
Matt Ryan is scheduled to become a free agent in 2014 when his rookie contract runs dry. There is no doubt that general manager Thomas Dimitroff will make locking up Ryan in a long-term deal his number-one priority.
Answer: Yes. In a sport where the quarterback is more important than the head coach, locking up Ryan is a no-brainer.
Will Tony Gonzalez Be on the 2013 Roster?
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So, you're saying there's a chance?
Apparently, there is. Even though Gonzalez isn't even attending the Pro Bowl this year, despite being voted in for the 14th time, teammate Sean Weatherspoon is convinced the best tight end in NFL history will give it one more shot.
Mike Smith will try his hand at wooing Gonzalez back, but if he does officially retire Atlanta will need to shop for a tight end through the draft or free agency.
The remaining tight ends on the roster may not be the answer. Michael Palmer simply won't come close to compensating in the passing game and is a free agent this offseason. Third-stringer Chase Coffman is a talented pass catcher, but is a liability in the run game.
Martellus Bennett, Jared Cook, Dallas Clark, Fred Davis and Dustin Keller are all premiere tight ends who will be available. The Falcons could also address the tight end position in the draft, but drafting defense first could mean Atlanta would need to hope for the top prospects Tyler Eifert (Notre Dame) or Zach Ertz (Stanford) will slip through the cracks to Day 2 or 3.
Answer: Probably not. But, the Falcons should not be worried. Talented tight ends are more of a dime-a-dozen these days.
Who Will Inherit the Starting Tailback Slot?
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After Michael Turner toted the rock 376 times in his first year in Atlanta many argued that the Pro Bowler was going to have a short shelf life.
Turner's carries dropped to just 222 in 2012, and he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, which was nearly a yard shorter than his career average (4.5).
From Week One it was obvious that a larger, slower Turner wasn't functioning well in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's system. Yes, the Falcons struggled with run-blocking the entire season, but backups Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling are tailbacks that can make something out of nothing at the line of scrimmage.
Turner needs to be able to reach the second level to do his damage, and behind Atlanta's lackluster offensive line he was simply receiving hand-offs and falling forward.
In what has evolved into a pass-happy offense, Turner has zero staying power over more versatile tailbacks. He likely kept the starting position all year because of coaching loyalty, but that kind gesture won't continue. There is no doubt that the Falcons will pursue a starting-caliber runner through draft of free agency.
Steven Jackson could be a fit considering the Rams gave him an option to become a free-agent this offseason. The Falcons could also find a steal in the draft if injury-riddled Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina) falls to a spot where they can pick him up. Of course, there are a plethora of other options as well.
Answer: Who knows? But, it won't be Turner.
What Position Should Be Addressed with First-Round Pick?
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The Atlanta Falcons have serious defensive line problems. John Abraham is locked up until 2015, but he might his career may not make it that far. Kroy Biermann is a very good off-the-bench pass rusher but isn't starting caliber. Ray Edwards was released in the middle of the year, leaving depth issues.
And while Corey Peters has played extremely well, the Falcons could use an upgrade at defensive tackle to play alongside the tenured and vastly underrated Jonathan Babineaux.
Adding depth and youthful talent to the defensive line will solve the biggest problem the Falcons had in the playoffs, which was a putrid pass rush.
The Falcons also had problems stopping the run all season, ranking 21st in the league, mainly in part to not plugging holes in the first line of defense.
Atlanta should go after a defensive end with the first-round pick. A plug like Kwame Geathers, who entered the draft as a junior out of nowhere after starting in the Capital One Bowl, could fall into a later round and be a bargain pick.
Answer: Expect the Falcons to draft a defensive end or defensive tackle with their first-round pick.
Are There Actually Real Problems at Linebacker?
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Linebacker Stephen Nicholas caught a ton of heat after failing to cover Vernon Davis in the NFC Championship.
The truth is, though, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan didn't have an answer for defending the tight end in the pistol-option offense the 49ers used to get all the way to the Super Bowl with a first-year starting quarterback.
Nolan had the same problem with Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his tight end Zach Miller. Nicholas might have been the guy that seemingly couldn't cover in the playoffs, but fans need to remember no NFL defense has found a true solution to defending this new attack.
The tight end's overwhelming success in the playoffs was more of a scheme problem than a personnel problem. Let's remember how great of a season Nicholas had.
The sixth year linebacker led the team in tackles with 97 (72 solo). Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon make up a very good linebacking corp.
Answer: No. The position can be upgraded with depth, especially considering Mike Peterson has likely played his last game as a Falcon, but Nicholas has earned a starting role. A beefier defensive line will make the current linebackers look even better.
Should They Let Brent Grimes Walk?
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Brent Grimes received the franchise tag from the Falcons before the 2012 season and, before he hit the field in the regular season, he went down with a season-ending achilles injury.
Turns out Atlanta didn't really miss him. Dunta Robinson moved over to the starting corner position alongside the newly acquired Asante Samuel.
Samuel had a wonderful season as the new marquee starter in the defensive backfield, registering five interceptions and a very impressive 19 pass breakups.
Robinson is a thumper, but has not stood out as a cover corner during his tenure with the Falcons. We all know Grimes can cover and make amazing plays on the ball that Robinson can't even dream of doing.
But, Grimes is also not the most physically imposing defender and doesn't have the same tackling validity that Robinson does. So the question is: is Grimes still the franchise cornerback?
Grimes will be a free agent and has a resume that could land him a fat contract with another team. The Falcons fielded one of the most feared secondaries in the league in 2012 and saw increased depth with the emergence of Robert McClain, which means the rotation looks much stronger without Grimes than anyone would have anticipated a season ago.
There is a possibility, however, that the Falcons actually release Robinson because he hasn't justified his contract (6-years, $57 million). If he is released, the Falcons could bring Grimes back.
Answer: It won't hurt. Grimes is a great player, but he could drag down the Falcons salary cap with his asking power. Essentially, the Falcons will choose between Robinson or Grimes. It's more likely that Grimes signs a contract with a new team.
Which Other Free Agents Should Be Signed?
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The two most valuable free agents left from the Falcons 2012 roster are safety William Moore and left tackle Sam Baker.
Man, it feels weird saying that Baker is a priority in free agency, but he had a statement year in protecting Ryan's blindside after being criticized for being a waste of space in his first four years as a Falcon.
Baker and Moore are very likely going to get locked up as Falcons. Moore earned a Pro Bowl spot despite missing the final four games of the year with a hamstring injury.
Remaining free agents from the 2012 roster are: fullback Mike Cox, cornerback Chris Hope, center Todd McClure, quarterback Luke McCown, cornerback Chris Owens, guard Garrett Reynolds, defensive end Lawrence Sidbury and defensive tackle Vance Walker.
The Falcons will likely move second-year lineman Peter Konz to center to replace the "Mud Duck," Todd McClure, who is expected to retire. This means Reynolds, who's position was filled by Konz, is a priority as well to stay at guard.
Answer: William Moore, Sam Baker and Garrett Reynolds are all priority.