After a 2013 season where the Atlanta Falcons went 4-12, there had to be a moment shortly after season’s end where ownership and the front office sat down and wondered how they would fix their house.
In home improvement, planning a remodeling project is all about knowing how much work there is to do. Is it necessary to just touch up the paint, or does the house need to be gutted?
Fixing a four-win season sounds an awful lot like a gut job, but the foundation is solid on this team. Atlanta has in place a $103.75 million quarterback in Matt Ryan and one of the best duos at the wide receiver position in the NFL in Roddy White and Julio Jones.
Even with some uber-talented pieces (a strong foundation), there was still work to do. This Atlanta team still had a leaky roof (the offensive line) to fix, windows that needed shuttering (the defensive line) and some holes in the walls that needed filling (free safety, running back, tight end).
With all this work that needed to be done, is it possible that the Falcons were able to fix everything? Could they do enough remodeling to rebound in 2014?
That all depends on how much of a rebound is expected.
Did Atlanta do enough to return to 2012 form and grab a spot among the NFC powerhouse teams? No, not even close. Twice in the last four seasons, the Falcons have finished with a 13-3 record. This team won’t sniff that kind of success in 2014.
There’s also little chance this team will suffer through another season mired in the NFC South cellar. The Falcons will be better in 2014. How much? Well, some of the problem areas were fixed, while some might have only had some duct tape applied to the problem. This is why Atlanta should be able to fight for a spot in the playoffs, but don’t expect a high seed, if the team makes it in at all.
Let’s take a look at some of the bigger offseason improvement projects the Falcons took on.
Fixing the Offensive Line
To say Atlanta’s offensive line needed offseason attention is more than a mild understatement. Not only did Atlanta finish last in the league in rushing yards per game (77.9), its offensive line allowed more pressure on Ryan than any other offensive line in the league. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ryan faced 264 total pressures (a combination of sacks, hits and hurries) last season, 22 more than the Arizona Cardinals.
To help with both run blocking and pass protection, the Falcons added two starters in the offseason, right guard Jon Asamoah and right tackle Jake Matthews.
Asamoah was a free-agent acquisition from the Kansas City Chiefs. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the seventh-ranked guard in the NFL in pass protection last season and the 14th-ranked run-blocking right guard. Considering Garrett Reynolds ranked 43rd in pass protection and 18th as a run-blocker, Asamoah is a healthy improvement.
The Falcons also added rookie Jake Matthews with the sixth overall pick in the draft. Matthews will instantly slide in as Atlanta’s right tackle and is expected to greatly bolster Ryan’s time in the pocket while simultaneously reducing the number of times the quarterback is mauled.
Fixing the Defensive Line
Atlanta's defensive line last season was deficient in multiple areas, most specifically in its ability to stop the run and get any kind of pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Opposing teams ran for 135.8 yards per game against the Falcons; only one team was worse. When it came to rushing the passer, Atlanta only mustered 32 sacks in 2013; only two teams had fewer.
The Falcons did a good job of addressing the porous run defense, but it isn’t clear yet if they’ll be able to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
To help stop the run, nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson were added in free agency. Soliai was the second-best stopper of the run on the Miami Dolphins last season. And at 6’4” and 344 pounds, Soliai is a moose of a player in the middle of the defensive line and a great addition as Atlanta looks to play in a 3-4 scheme more in 2014.
Jackson, formerly of Kansas City, was the 10th-ranked 3-4 defensive end against the run in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s going to help Soliai solidify Atlanta’s run defense, a unit whose best agent against the run was defensive tackle Corey Peters.
Peters earned a 7.8 run-stopping score from PFF (Soliai had a 7.9, while Jackson scored 15.5).
The jury is still out on whether or not Atlanta added enough pass-rushers to make a difference.
In the second round of the draft, Atlanta passed on Kyle Van Noy, Stephon Tuitt and Jeremiah Attaochu to take defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman. The Falcons almost immediately announced they would move Hageman outside to the 5-technique.
The Falcons also added former Notre Dame outside linebacker Prince Shembo in the fourth round and outside linebacker Tyler Starr in the seventh round from South Dakota.
Hageman and Shembo have upside galore but were not elite pass-rushers in college. Atlanta is banking on them transitioning into that role and excelling at it rather quickly. Starr has already impressed at rookie minicamp, but he, along with Hageman and Shembo, have a long way to go before any one makes people forget that the Falcons didn’t draft a true edge-rush kind of player.
Adding Missing Pieces
With the departure of Thomas DeCoud, Atlanta needed to find a starting free safety in the draft or via free agency. Dwight Lowery was added in free agency after spending three seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Lowery’s last two seasons have been injury plagued; he’s only played in 12 games since 2011. The 28-year-old will have to prove he can stay healthy and then stave off rookie Dezmen Southward, Atlanta’s third-round draft pick.
Southward is a versatile defensive back, a guy who can play both cornerback and safety. He’s known more as a hard-hitting enforcer over the middle of the field instead of the center-fielding safety the Falcons needed to help in coverage. Southward might need some time to adjust to a starting role in the NFL.
Atlanta was somewhat weak at free safety last season and might not be any better in 2014. One of the two added pieces must step up.
Atlanta did not add a tight end prior to, or during, the draft. If you’re waiting for the next Tony Gonzalez to come walking through the door, stop wasting your time.
The Falcons will continue to use, and develop, second-year tight end Levine Toilolo. But also expect this offense in 2014 to look at the tight end position as a tool for blocking instead of a route-running weapon for Ryan.
At running back, the Falcons added a bigger, more explosive version of Jacquizz Rodgers in the fourth round in running back Devonta Freeman. If rookie minicamp is any indication, Freeman could quickly begin taking touches away from Rodgers.
D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was impressed with Freeman, and he reported that head coach Mike Smith was as well.
FREEMAN’S A KEEPER: Running back Devonta Freeman is a keeper. He caught the ball with his hands and showed a great burst of speed. “Devonta is a fast and quick guy,” Smith said. “He has very good vision and he’s able to stick his foot in the ground and transition into a different direction.”
The Falcons had a decent free-agency period and an average draft that could turn into a great one if Hageman develops into the first-round talent some draft pundits tagged him as. If Atlanta can avoid injuries in 2014, this team could more than double its win total from last season and possibly be in the mix come January for a postseason berth.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.
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