For some Atlanta Falcons fans, San Francisco's heartbreaking loss to Baltimore was a bit of poetic justice. Yes, misery does love company. Even though Baltimore's win spared the Falcons from having to see the team that ended their season go on to win the Super Bowl again, the official conclusion of the 2012 NFL season left Atlanta in the unenviable position of going into next season as the NFC's runner-up.
San Francisco was the exception. You have to go back to the 2004 Philadelphia Eagles (who coincidentally beat the Falcons) before you find another team who returned to the NFC Championship Game after falling short in the same game the previous year. Atlanta certainly faces a tall task if they want to repeat their 2012 success in 2013.
However, there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the team's future. Atlanta was able to retain both of its coordinators after a frenzied NFL hiring season, Julio Jones is only going to get better in his third year, and most of the key pieces of a team that has won 56 games over the past five seasons should be back.
Let's take a look at Atlanta's top offseason priorities heading into the NFL Scouting Combine in two weeks.
Jared Cook, Zach Ertz and Tyler Eifert all may look great in Falcons uniforms, but no tight end that the Falcons acquire in the draft or via free agency is going to replace Tony Gonzalez's production alone. While Gonzalez still appears likely to retire, he has yet to announce an official decision. The Falcons should employ Roddy White's "Brett Favre strategy" and do everything they can to entice Gonzalez to return for one more season.
If Gonzalez does retire, the Falcons should make sure that they don't have a serviceable replacement on their roster such as Chase Coffman or Michael Palmer before they spend a high draft pick on a tight end. Jared Cook provides an intriguing option in free agency, but it should be noted that the numbers he put up last year did come in a contract year. Retaining a soon to be 37-year-old Tony Gonzalez clearly remains the best option for this team at tight end.
Before pursuing free agents from other teams, Atlanta needs to be sure to take care of a few of their own players whose contracts have now expired.
Important decisions loom regarding the futures of William Moore, Sam Baker and Brent Grimes. Moore went the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career, and the defense certainly suffered without him this past season when he missed a couple of games with a hip injury (see Week 14 at Carolina). The Falcons should secure a long-term deal with Moore as soon as possible.
Baker was far from elite, but he showed tremendous improvement in 2012 after an injury-plagued 2011 campaign. If he can be retained for a reasonable price, he should remain in a Falcons uniform.
Brent Grimes is a tougher call. An Achilles injury is not easy for any cornerback to bounce back from, but the injury is of particular concern to Grimes because his leaping ability was his calling card. In addition, Robert McClain proved to be dependable in Grimes' absence. Will Atlanta have to make a choice between Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson for cap reasons?
San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio clearly articulated the difference between the Ravens offense and Falcons offense when he talked about the fact that the Ravens ran the ball better than San Francisco's previous two playoff opponents (Green Bay and Atlanta) in a pre-Super Bowl radio interview with KNBR in San Francisco:
These guys run the ball better than the teams we’ve been playing lately, both playoff games. These guys run the ball much better. They block it better and they have better running backs that they’re handing it off to. And it’s a challenge that I’m sure they’re gonna put us through here, because they like to be a balanced offense. But if we do stop it and get it under control, then it could be like we saw against New England where they just come out and throw it a lot. So they’ve got the ability to adjust and be a heavy-throwing team or stick with their balance.
Balance should be the watch word for the Falcons on the offensive side of the ball this offseason. The Falcons may have been able to keep both of their large playoff leads if they had a reliable ground game.
Jacquizz Rodgers is clearly a keeper, but the team needs to make a quick decision on Michael Turner. If he's coming back, then they need to figure out how integrate him into Koetter's offense. If he's not coming back (probably more likely), then Atlanta needs to acquire an every-down back who can share the load with Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling.
The team also needs to figure out its issues up front on the offensive line. Peter Konz was respectable at guard, but it's probably not his best position. If Konz moves inside to his natural position at center, then who plays at right guard?
Speaking of improving the ground game, last year Atlanta traded back seven picks in the third round of the draft and selected Lamar Holmes. Baltimore, the team that traded up into Atlanta's slot, chose Temple running back Bernard Pierce with the pick they acquired from Atlanta.
Pierce was a key part of Baltimore's Super Bowl run, and he is just the kind of running back that Atlanta could use now. Meanwhile, Lamar Holmes hasn't played much at all in Atlanta. Could Holmes be the solution at right guard, or will he get the chance to push an aging Tyson Clabo at right tackle? Either way, Holmes' "redshirt" year is over.
Third-round picks are expected to contribute in the NFL, and Holmes' time is now.
We touched on Atlanta's need to become more balanced on offense, but the team also needs to address the talent disparity between its offense and defense. Atlanta has plenty of elite offensive playmakers, but other than Sean Weatherspoon, the defense (especially the defensive front seven) is lacking the kind of "explosive" players it needs to get off of the field consistently and win on third down when it has to.
John Abraham and Asante Samuel are good veteran pieces, and the team has solid talent on the back end with Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. However, it's time for the Falcons to invest in their pass rush and upgrade their linebacking core through the draft and free agency.
Mike Nolan may not be able to duplicate last season's success if Atlanta doesn't add more speed, athleticism and size to their defensive front.