Our 2013 Atlanta Falcons preview continues with a recap of Atlanta's offseason moves on the personnel front, a look some potential changes to the team's offensive and defensive playbooks and a breakdown of how Atlanta's 2013 draft class fared in the preseason.
As is to be expected from a team that came so close to winning the Super Bowl last year, retention appeared to be Atlanta's main focus in the NFL's free-agency period aside from two major exceptions. Indeed, convincing tight end Tony Gonzalez to play one more season and re-signing safety William Moore and left tackle Sam Baker were arguably Atlanta's best moves of the offseason.
Let's begin our review of Atlanta's offseason moves on the offensive side of the ball, where the Falcons will be breaking in four new starters.
Returning Starters: 7
Starters Lost: RT Tyson Clabo (cut, signed by Dolphins); C Todd McClure (retired); FB Mike Cox (UFA); RB Michael Turner (cut)
New Starters: RT Lamar Holmes (projected), C Peter Konz, RG Garrett Reynolds (replacing Konz), FB Bradie Ewing and RB Steven Jackson
New Role Players: TE Chase Coffman
Steven Jackson is the offense's shiny new toy, as the Falcons hope the 30-year-old back's physicality and versatility will be a better fit for the direction the offense is going under second-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter than Michael Turner was last season. The early evidence from the preseason suggests that Jackson still has plenty left to offer this year.
The other story on the offensive side of the ball involves the men who will be blocking for Jackson. Second-year pro Peter Konz slides over to center to replace Todd McClure after starting at right guard last year, while 2009 fifth-round pick Garrett Reynolds and 2012 third-round pick Lamar Holmes fill out the right side of the offensive line at guard and right tackle.
Reynolds has experience at right guard in Koetter's system because he was playing there last season before going down with an injury and giving way to Peter Konz.
Lamar Holmes is the bigger question mark between the two, and don't be surprised if Atlanta adds a veteran camp cut to offer some insurance in case Holmes struggles early on. Undrafted free agent Ryan Schraeder is another name to keep an eye on, assuming he survives the last round of cuts.
In addition to the new starters, backup tight end Chase Coffman and third-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers appear primed to be important members of the offensive rotation this season.
Returning Starters: 9 (base 4-3 defense)
New Starters: DE Osi Umenyiora, CB Desmond Trufant (projected)
New Role Players: DE Jonathan Massaquoi, DT Travian Robertson, CB Robert Alford
Osi Umenyiora replaces 35-year-old John Abraham as the team's primary pass-rusher. The Falcons expect the ex-New York Giant to be the slightly younger upgrade for the defense that Steven Jackson should be for the team's offense. Like Jackson, Umenyiora had a solid preseason and looks to be set to rebound from a six-sack effort in 2012 with New York.
At cornerback, the Falcons released 2010 free-agent signee Dunta Robinson and watched former starter Brent Grimes sign a short-term deal in Miami coming off of the Achilles' injury he suffered in 2012.
The Falcons used their first-round pick on University of Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant before doubling down at cornerback in the second round with Robert Alford out of Southeastern Louisiana. Along with young veteran Robert McClain, both rookie cornerbacks figure to be called on early to produce for defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
Second-year defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi and second-year defensive tackle Travian Robertson appear set to play key roles in the defensive line rotation behind the starters.
*Missed almost all of 2012 season after Week 1 injury
Returning Specialist: K Matt Bryant, P Matt Bosher and LS Josh Harris
Kick Returner: Jacquizz Rodgers
Punt Returner: Dominique Franks
Key Coverage Players Lost: Safety Chris Hope
New Coverage Players to Watch: linebacker Joplo Bartu and linebacker Paul Worrilow (projected)
The Falcons return all of their key specialists, but Harry Douglas and Robert Alford may end up pushing Dominique Franks.
Backup saftey Chris Hope was key member of the team's coverage units last year, but look for undrafted free agents Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow to form the corps of a solid coverage unit this season.
UPDATE: Linebacker Robert James, a key member of last year's coverage unit, has been released.
Dirk Koetter, Mike Nolan and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong were all mentioned in connection with head-coaching vacancies over the offseason, but fortunately for the Falcons, the coaching staff remained intact.
Dirk Koetter used more screen plays than we'd seen from the Falcons under former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, and that probably won't change in 2013 with the addition of Steven Jackson and the return of Jacquizz Rodgers. The Falcons will likely look for more creative ways to get the ball in Julio Jones' hands by moving him around in formations as well.
Mike Nolan lined the Falcons up in a lot of nickel sets last year, and don't expect that to change in spite of Atlanta's youth at cornerback with the quarterback gauntlet that the Falcons will face this season. One new wrinkle for Nolan this season could be the way he uses DE/LB Kroy Biermann, who saw time at linebacker in camp.
Nolan's biggest issue will be finding a way to defend the mobile quarterbacks who caused Atlanta trouble last season. The Falcons hope that improving their perimeter speed and athleticism on defense will help on that front.
First Round: Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
Second Round: Robert Alford, CB, SE Louisiana
Fourth Round: Malliciah Goodman, DE, Clemson; Levine Toilolo, TE, Stanford
Fifth Round: Stansly Maponga, DE, TCU
Seventh Round: Zeke Motta, S, Notre Dame; Kemal Ishmael, S, UCF; Sean Renfree, QB, Duke
Undrafted Free Agents: Joplo Bartu, LB, Texas State; Paul Worrilow, LB, Delaware; Ryan Schraeder, OT, Valdosta State
Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford both experienced their growing pains (particularly against Tennessee in Alford's case), but they each flashed their playmaking ability as well by coming up with a couple of interceptions. All rookie cornerbacks face a difficult adjustment period in the NFL, and Trufant and Alford are no different.
As for the rest of the rookie class, Malliciah Goodman, Stansly Maponga and Levine Toilolo are likely headed to reserve/special teams roles, while Zeke Motta and Kemal Ishmael may be fighting for a single roster spot at this point if Atlanta only keeps three safeties. Sean Renfree has been placed on injured reserve after suffering a shoulder injury against Jacksonville.
Joplo Bartu, Paul Worrilow and Ryan Schraeder all exceeded expectations in the preseason and should earn roster spots.
UPDATE: Undrafted rookie Terren Jones (T, Alabama State) has also made Atlanta's initial 53-man roster along with Bartu, Worrilow and Schraeder. Harland Gunn (G, Miami), an undrafted player from the 2012 draft class, survived the cut as well.