Examining Atlanta Falcons' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

Justin OnslowContributor IIJuly 5, 2013

Examining Atlanta Falcons' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

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    The Atlanta Falcons made some big changes this offseason, but if general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s recent history of success is any indication, there’s no reason to expect those changes to be anything but positive for the future of the organization.

    Dimitroff joined the Falcons in 2008 after a successful career in New England as a scout under Bill Belichick’s tutelage, eventually assuming the director of college scouting role for the Patriots. His success resounded, and the Falcons pulled the trigger on bringing him aboard to right the ship.

    Dimitroff has completely transformed the organization since taking the reins in 2008, improving both the culture of the franchise and the on-field talent that has propelled the Falcons to the forefront of the NFC. With another successful offseason under his belt, Atlanta is in no danger of fading from the spotlight in 2013.

    But the offseason didn’t start off on an especially promising note. Dimitroff’s first major moves saw the departures of Michael Turner, Dunta Robinson and John Abraham, all of whom played major roles in the team’s recent success.

    Tight against the cap with long-term sustainability in mind, the Falcons chose to cut all three veterans, eventually replacing them with the likes of Steven Jackson, Osi Umenyiora and 2013 draft choices Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.

    So many NFL general managers get caught up in shortsighted strategies for creating success. Dimitroff, on the other hand, always seems to have a winning blueprint for sustainable success. Those moves highlighted that fact.

    Atlanta also allowed cornerback Brent Grimes to walk in free agency, but Dimitroff went to work in the draft to shore up the position.

    In what was perhaps his least eventful draft since joining the team in 2008, Dimitroff selected a cornerback with each of his first two selections, trading up to No. 22 in the first round to acquire Trufant. He doubled up in the second round with Alford, giving the Falcons two potential starters to replace Grimes and Robinson.

    We’ll take a closer look at the cornerback position in the following slideshow, as well as the rest of the Falcons’ 2013 draft class and other positions to watch as the 2013 season draws near. Read on.

2013 NFL Draft

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    Round 1 (Pick 22): CB Desmond Trufant, Washington

    Round 2 (Pick 60): CB Robert Alford, SE Louisiana

    Round 4 (Pick 127): DE Malliciah Goodman, Clemson

    Round 4 (Pick 133): TE Levine Toilolo, Stanford

    Round 5 (Pick 153): DE Stansly Maponga, TCU

    Round 7 (Pick 243): S Kemal Ishmael, Central Florida

    Round 7 (Pick 244): S Zeke Motta, Notre Dame

    Round 7 (Pick 249): QB Sean Renfree, Duke

     

    Grade: B

     

    The Falcons did exactly what they needed to do in the draft, solidifying a couple positions without being forced to reach for talent.

    Dimitroff is terrific at identifying the players he wants and finding a way to get them, as he did in the first round in moving up for Trufant. Widely regarded as one of the top cover corners in the draft, the Washington product fits a major need for the Falcons, and Dimitroff wasn’t willing to let him come off the board before his first-round selection.

    The GM also found tremendous value in Alford at the end of the second round, adding another young talent to Atlanta’s defensive backfield. With the pair of rookie corners in the fold, Atlanta shouldn’t suffer from the losses of Robinson and Grimes.

    Atlanta also doubled up on defensive ends and safeties in the draft—two positions the team needed to address this offseason, whether through free agency or the draft.

    Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga add considerable depth to the defensive end position following the departure of John Abraham. Neither player will likely be in line for a starting role this season, but both could see some time in a rotational capacity, especially in nickel and sub packages.

    In the fourth round, Dimitroff also targeted a tight end who could potentially replace Tony Gonzalez when his NFL career comes to a close. While many expected the Falcons to key in on one of the top two tight ends in this class in earlier rounds, they did find excellent value in Stanford tight end Levine Toilolo, who will have a year to develop behind the best tight end to ever play the game.

    In all, it was a solid draft class from top to bottom, but Atlanta probably could have opted to use a couple late picks on an offensive lineman and linebacker as opposed to doubling up at three positions. Still, there’s little to not like about what Dimitroff did in late April, and the result should be a tremendous infusion of young talent in the coming years.

Youth Movement

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    Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes are solid NFL cornerbacks, but neither was worth retaining entering the 2013 season.

    Robinson ranked 25th in the league last season in total cornerback rankings, according to AdvancedNFLStats.com. He wasn’t a liability, but Robinson wasn’t the player Atlanta expected him to be in 2012, allowing far too many big plays to feel confident in keeping him in the starting role.

    Grimes is coming off an Achilles tear he sustained in September during the team’s Week 1 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Given the money he ultimately signed for in free agency (one year, $5.5 million with the Miami Dolphins), he too wasn’t worth keeping on the roster going forward.

    Asante Samuel is in no danger of losing his No. 1 slot on the cornerback depth chart, but the rest of the list remains up for grabs.

    As it stands, first-rounder Desmond Trufant has the inside track to starting opposite Samuel, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll fail to capitalize on the opportunity.

    At 6’0” and 190 pounds, Trufant has the size, speed and physicality to excel in Mike Nolan’s defense. And as head coach Mike Smith noted, Trufant and Alford have both taken to the system rather quickly, via USA Today:

    We gave them a whole bunch the last three days and I think they handled it extremely well. We wanted to see how they could handle the things mentally and they did a very nice job.

    It comes as no surprise Smith wanted to get them integrated with the system early in the offseason. Considering the turnover at the cornerback position, both should see considerable playing time in 2013.

    At 5’10” and 188 pounds, Alford is a tremendous fit to play in the slot at the team’s nickel corner this season. He ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the combine, and certainly has the speed and quickness to hang with the shiftier slot receivers in the NFL.

    As was the case entering the 2012 season, the Falcons have a trio of cornerbacks with which they should feel fairly confident. And in the modern NFL, it takes three starting-caliber corners to anchor the position effectively.

    Robert McClain and Dominique Franks will also garner some attention for the nickel and sub package roles, but as long as Trufant and Alford remain healthy and take to the system as quickly as expected, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which the rookie duo isn’t tested early and often in 2013.

     

    Projected CB Depth Chart

    CB1 Asante Samuel
    CB2 Desmond Trufant
    Nickel Robert Alford
    Sub Package Robert McClain
    CB5 Dominique Franks

Backfield Shake-Up

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    After back-to-back 1,300-yard seasons and an entire career of 4.1 yards per carry or better, Michael Turner broke down in 2012, averaging just 3.6 yards per tote on 222 carries.

    The 31-year-old tallied 800 yards and 10 touchdowns, but it was clear following his slow 2012 campaign that Turner was no longer the feature back Atlanta needed going forward.

    Following Turner’s release, the Falcons targeted free-agent running back Steven Jackson, who was given an opportunity to opt out of the final year of his deal with the St. Louis Rams to join a championship contender in free agency.

    Jackson signed a three-year, $12 million deal to take over Turner’s role—something he has done as well as any feature back in the league since 2005, topping the 1,000-yard mark in each season since.

    Jackson gives the Falcons an added element to their backfield in 2013. While both he and Turner entered the league in 2004, Jackson has retained his ability to hit the second level without losing much steam, bridging the gap that separated Turner and backup Jacquizz Rodgers.

    Rodgers—Atlanta’s second-leading rusher last season—has shown the ability to be a terrific change-of-pace back in Atlanta’s offense, but the Falcons weren’t willing to hand him the reins with a back like Jackson available on the free-agent market.

    The 23-year-old enters the 2013 season slated for the No. 2 role behind Jackson, though he may not be needed as much in the passing game given Jackson’s ability to make an impact catching the ball out of the backfield. Still, Rodgers stands to see more carries this season as Atlanta looks to extend Jackson’s NFL longevity and keep him fresh as a first- and second-down option.

    With two quality backs in place, third-stringer Jason Snelling probably won’t see much action at tailback in 2013, though he has the versatility to also contribute as a fullback in certain situations, especially with the departure of Ovie Mughelli.

    But unless Jackson or Rodgers run into injury issues, Snelling probably won’t be a major impact player for the Falcons this season, nor will fourth-string running back Antone Smith.

    Smith has tremendous straight-line speed, but he’s never been able to work his way into significant playing time in a crowded backfield. As it stands, the 27-year-old looks to be nothing more than a special teams option at this point, though he could see a little more action on third downs if Rodgers misses any time.

    There’s no positional battle to speak of, but the new running back situation is certainly worth examining given Atlanta’s struggles in the running game last season (29th in the NFL). If the Falcons hope to continue sustaining a potent passing attack, they’ll need a better return from their running backs in 2013.

Defensive Line Outlook

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    Adding Osi Umenyiora through free agency made up for the departure of John Abraham, but the Falcons were already a little thin at the defensive end position. In drafting Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga, Thomas Dimitroff addressed that issue.

    According to Daniel Cox of AtlantaFalcons.com, Dmitiroff was enamored with Goodman’s long arms and physicality and Maponga’s ability to penetrate and get upfield—essential characteristics for a one-gap defensive end:

    [Goodman’s] 275-plus pounds. He could be a 290-pound left defensive end, 5-technique, if we needed him to be. (He) has the versatility both at five-technique or you can move him outside a little bit more. He can rush up the field on the outside and also has the ability to hold the point. We like his versatility. We looked at him as mostly a left defensive end.

    We like Maponga's ability to get up the field. He's a very, very strong guy. He’s a 30-rep bench guy. Nice speed, nice ability to turn the corner. He’s your prototypical pass-rushing specialist type. He’s healing up a little bit from an injury and we’re confident he’ll be ready to go as the season begins.

    Cox also noted that Maponga will likely see time on the right side behind Umenyiora and Jonathan Massaquoi, however, and there’s a good chance he isn’t thrown into the fire in his rookie season.

    Goodman could potentially back up left end Kroy Biermann, who led Atlanta’s current group of defensive ends in sacks last season with four. Given Goodman’s size and edge-rushing ability, it wouldn’t be a surprise for the Clemson product to see additional action on third downs this season.

    Cliff Matthews will also be in the mix, but regardless of the depth chart, Atlanta did well to rejuvenate a position that needed an infusion of additional youth. As Cox noted, the average age of the Falcons’ defensive ends will be 24 entering the 2013 campaign.

    At defensive tackle, Atlanta boasts a trio of solid space-eaters in Peria Jerry, Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux, giving the Falcons some rotational possibilities at the position. Dimitorff opted to not address the position this offseason, and he obviously feels confident in that core of defensive tackles going forward.

    That confidence, however, could diminish if Atlanta doesn’t get better at stopping the run this season.

    Last year, the Falcons finished 21st in the league in rushing defense, allowing a putrid 4.8 yards per carry to opposing rushers. While positional changes at defensive end and linebacker should provide an improvement in that area, Jerry, Peters and Babineaux need to step up this season in that facet.

2013 Schedule

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    2013 Atlanta Falcons Schedule
    Week Date Opponent Time (ET) TV
    1 Sept. 8
    at New Orleans Saints  1 p.m. FOX
    2 Sept. 15
    vs. St. Louis Rams  1 p.m. FOX
    3 Sept. 22
    at Miami Dolphins  4:05 p.m. FOX
    4 Sept. 29 vs. New England Patriots  8:30 p.m. NBC
    5 Oct. 7 vs. New York Jets 8:40 p.m. ESPN
    6 Oct. 13 BYE WEEK
    7 Oct. 20 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers  1 p.m. FOX
    8 Oct. 27 at Arizona Cardinals 4:25 p.m. FOX
    9 Nov. 3 at Carolina Panthers 1 p.m. FOX
    10 No. 10 vs. Seattle Seahawks 1 p.m. FOX
    11 Nov. 17 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1 p.m. FOX
    12 Nov. 21 vs. New Orleans Saints 8:25 p.m. TBA
    13 Dec. 1 at Buffalo Bills 4:05 p.m FOX
    14 Dec. 8 at Green Bay Packers

    8:30 p.m.

    NFL Network
    15 Dec. 15 vs. Washington Redskins  1 p.m. FOX
    16 Dec. 23
    at San Francisco 49ers 8:40 p.m. ESPN
    17 Dec. 29
    vs. Carolina Panthers  1 p.m. FOX

     

    *For a complete look at Atlanta's 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.

Season Outlook

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    After a 13-3 2012 campaign and a strong offseason, the Falcons are poised for another title run this season. Just don’t expect it to be easy.

    Atlanta is faced with the 15th-toughest schedule this year according to NFL.com, but it also faces five non-divisional matchups with 2012 playoff squads—among them, the San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots.

    Additionally, the NFC South should be a much-improved division this year as Sean Payton resumes his head coaching duties at the helm of the New Orleans Saints. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also made some tremendous improvements this offseason, and the Carolina Panthers look to be a team on the rise.

    There’s nothing to suggest Atlanta can’t repeat its 2012 success this season, but there will certainly be some obstacles in the way.

     

    Prediction: 12-4, First in NFC South

    Based on strength of schedule alone, Atlanta could win anywhere from 10 to 13 games this season. Realistically, 12 seems to be a pretty accurate number.

    The Falcons boast a tremendous passing attack with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez representing perhaps the best core of skill position players in the league. Factoring in the acquisition of Steven Jackson, Atlanta’s offense should once again thrive in 2013.

    But so many fresh faces on the defensive side of the ball could result in some early struggles this season. The Falcons certainly improved in some key areas, but they need to prove those additions will pay dividends from day one.

    Still, Atlanta has become an elite franchise in recent years, and there aren’t many teams in the NFC as consistent as the Falcons. Look for Ryan and Co. to secure at least 11 wins en route to another NFC South title in 2013.