Atlanta Falcons fans are looking forward to the 2009 season with hope and optimism.
The woes of the 2007 season were quickly forgotten when the team greatly exceeded all expectations and went to the playoffs last season. Right now many power rankings have the Falcons in the top 10.
The Falcons will have to build upon their stellar play from last season for their success to continue.
The team faces the fourth toughest strength of schedule in the league. The NFC South has to play the AFC and NFC East, two of the toughest divisions in football in the upcoming season. They also face the tough foes in their own division had no teams with a losing record last year.
The Falcons have a very tough road ahead of them this season but there is plenty of room for optimism.
Last season, the Falcons had the sixth ranked offense in the league and had the number two rushing attack.
The acquisition of TE Tony Gonzalez should only help to make the Falcons offense even more potent. Last season opponents didn't have to worry too much about the Falcons tight ends. This year every defense will keep an eye on Mr. Gonzalez.
Another key to the Falcons offense flying high again will be the play of the offensive line. The line, other than center Todd McClure is very young, but very scrappy.
With attitude and hard work the unit only gave up seventeen sacks and paved the way for RB Michael Turner to have a wonderful season. With OT Sam Baker returning healthy and depth being added to the line it looks like they are primed for another good season. The addition of Gonzalez will further solidify the line in pass protection and run blocking.
Another way the team will look to stay successful on offense will be having a more potent passing attack.
The passing game has already seen a drastic turnaround with the emergence of Roddy White as one of the league's best receivers. White has had back to back thousand yard seasons receiving and will look to keep consistent with another this year.
Michael Jenkins also emerged as a viable receiving threat by putting up solid numbers in the '08 campaign.
Tight end Tony G will definitely be another weapon for Matt Ryan to throw to and should help the pass attack to be more potent. Rookie wideout Harry Douglas showed he could be a passing threat last year as a slot/3rd wide receiver. Veteran WR Bryan Finneran also made some nice grabs last year as well.
The main cog in the offensive machine though is Matt Ryan.
The rookie quarterback played very well in the middle of the season but faded in the last three games. His play will be a major factor in the success of the Falcons this season.
If he can fight off any "sophomore jinxes" and plays solid the Falcons offense will soar!
The main obstacle the Falcons will face is how well their re-vamped defense plays. On paper the unit looks to be upgraded—except at the linebacker position.
During mini-camps and training camp all eyes will be on the defense.
Last year the defense made plays but wasn't consistent enough (ranked 24th in total defense). Poor play from the linebacking corps plagued the team all season.
The safeties were among the leading tacklers on the team, showing that the linebackers and defensive line weren't doing their job well enough.
This offseason the Falcons didn't resign the following starters: Grady Jackson DT, LB Keith Brooking and Michael Boley, CB Dominique Foxworth, and S Lawyer Milloy.
The team picked up a number of players in the draft who may become starters or get significant playing time.
First round selection DT Peria Jerry is likely to start but the other draftees will have to win jobs through competition. S William Moore will battle Thomas DeCoud for a starting safety position.
LB Mike Peterson was picked up in free agency and in all probability will start at one OLB position. The other position will be won by either Stephen Nicholas or Coy Wire.
This position worries me because neither one of those players has seen significant playing time. The linebackers jobs should be easier this season if the defensive line plays better. With DT's Trey Lewis (returning from injury) and Jerry up front, the line should be much stronger.
Both starting corner positions may be up for grabs.
Two-year incumbent starter Chris Houston played well at times last season but was inconsistent. He is in good position most of the time but needs to look for the ball instead of focusing on the receiver. If he can do this he will turn into a very good corner for Atlanta.
Houston will likely keep his job but the other corner position could be won by anyone. The Falcons are getting CB Von Hutchins back from injury and also drafted two corners (3rd round-Chris Owens and William Middleton in the fifth round).
Brent Grimes started the season last year opposite Chris Houston as the starter but got injured mid-way through the season. Dominique Foxworth stepped in and was the starter for the rest of the season. Chevis Jackson could also be in the mix as he was the nickel back and played well last year. This job is totally up for grabs and the competition will likely be tough.
The other position that may be up for grabs is the defensive end position opposite John Abraham.
Jamaal Anderson, the eighth overall pick in the '07 draft, has been the starter the last two years and has not lived up to expectations.
Reserves Chauncey Davis and Kroy Biermann both had superior numbers to Anderson while in backup roles. Atlanta also drafted DE Lawerence Sidbury in the fourth round out of Richmond. The competition for this starting slot also looks to be a fierce one.
Atlanta's success this season will depend on how much their defense has improved. If it has improved slightly to moderately then they will be a hard team to beat.
The linebacker position is the biggest question mark of the offseason. The team has little depth at linebacker and the open spot may be won by a player who may lack starter ability. However, even if this is so the Falcons defense has less holes than it did last year and should be able to perform better.
The Falcons may look to a veteran free agent linebacker before training camp starts.
One unknown is LB Robert James who was drafted in the fifth round last year. He was out all season with complications from a concussion but is healthy and back with the team now. He also could be a sleeper to contend for a starting position.
My expectations of this team are high.
I believe they will contend for the NFC South crown and have a good chance of winning it. Due to the really tough schedules the teams in the NFC South face, one could see a team with nine wins taking the division crown.
My expectation is nine to 11 wins and another trip to the playoffs.