Beyond Matty Ice and the Burner: Five Guys Who Must Step Up for the 2009 Falcons
Everyone knows that guys like Matt Ryan, Michael Turner and John Abraham are the key cogs that make the Falcons machine go, but there are a few guys who aren't superstars that could make the difference between playing in January or fishing in January.
For the sake of this article, we're sticking with veteran players only. While some rookies will be counted on to play big snaps, those guys get a one year benefit of the doubt.
5. RB Jerious Norwood
It can't be an Atlanta Falcons off-season without an offensive coordinator talking about getting Norwood more involved in the offense. We heard Greg Knapp say it.
We heard the former head coach who shall not referenced by name say it and now we're hearing Mike Mularkey say it.
Norwood isn't durable enough or good enough of a blocker to be an every down back, but he's got speed to burn and Inspector Gadget (Mularkey) has to come up with a way to accentuate his skills.
He's averaged almost six yards a carry in three NFL seasons and he could be an X factor to make the offense even more lethal.
4. OT Sam Baker
The T-Rex* started five games last year and played pretty well for a rookie Tackle, but injuries derailed a promising rookie season. That's been the book on Baker his whole career. He was injury prone at USC despite playing well through the injuries.
Atlanta was saved by Todd Weiner (still no relation) last year when Baker went down and now the Falcons have no proven depth at the tackle position. If Baker can't play a full 16, or close to it, Atlanta's offensive line could be a liability.
*All we heard during the draft process was how he had short arms, so I pictured him as a T-Rex. I'm seriously trying to make this nickname happen. Short arms, plays tackle (T), and wrecks the opposition. It works.
3. DE Jamaal Anderson
It's the make-or-break year for the third year defensive end. Anderson is a nice kid who works hard and does what's asked of him, but at some point he has to produce. Two sacks in two seasons isn't going to cut it for a former top ten pick.
Atlanta has a few decent options at the defensive end spot with guys like Chauncey Davis, Kroy Biermann and rookie pass rush specialist Lawrence Sidbury, so Anderson's starting spot isn't secure.
He's solid against the run, but he must elevate his game as a pass rusher or else this will be his last year in a Falcons uniform.
2. CB Chris Houston
Gone from the Atlanta secondary are Lawyer Milloy and Dominique Foxworth. At Safety Atlanta will be starting either a second year player (Thomas DeCoud) or a rookie (William Moore). At the Cornerback spot it's possible the job will be won be second year player Brent Grimes.
With so much turnover in the defensive backfield Atlanta needs some stability and while Erik Coleman is solid at Free Safety, the most talented defensive back Atlanta has is the third year corner out of Arkansas.
Houston has had his ups and downs in his first two years, but now is the time for him to step up and shut his half of the field down. If he can do that it will be a huge help for a team expecting growing pains on defense.
1. OLB Stephen Nicholas
There was a time where Michael Boley was a blossoming star in Atlanta's defense as a strong side linebacker, but he was never able to mesh with Mike Smith's defense and lost his starting spot to Coy Wire late in the season.
Boley bolted for the Giants and now Nicholas is penciled in as his replacement. The speedy third year vet from South Florida has served as the principal back up OLB for the past two seasons and registered 20 tackles as a reserve in 2008.
Atlanta enters 2009 with 33 year old Mike Peterson and 30 year old journeyman Coy Wire as the other Outside Linebackers and neither figure to be part of the long term plans of the Falcons organization.
Atlanta did feel comfortable enough with its OLB rotation that it didn't seriously address the position in the draft, but Nicholas is the only member of the group who figures to be in Atlanta long term.
With a defensive line that should be improved with the addition of Peria Jerry and the return of Trey Lewis on the interior, Nicholas is the key cog to Atlanta's biggest defensive question mark.
Nicholas is a gifted player and Atlanta needs him to come up big or else the young defense could struggle big time.