4 Bold (and Slightly Less Bold) Predictions for the 2014 Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons are going to the playoffs. Bold enough for you?
No? That's perfectly OK. Atlanta had to make some fixes before they could go to the playoffs, but they look like a much better team now. Even though they lost Sean Weatherspoon for the season, there's still hope for a playoff-caliber team.
However, some of these bold predictions will have to happen for the team to make the playoffs. Otherwise, the Falcons could be looking at yet another 4-12 season and a new general manager to go along with a bright, shiny new head coach.
Bold: Levine Toilolo Breaks out and Gets over 700 Yards and 10 Touchdowns
For a guy who never started in college, the Falcons are expecting Levine Toilolo to provide more than he ever did there. The Falcons need him to come along quickly in the passing game.
He's a great route-runner and learns very quickly on what to do and what not to do in the passing game. Atlanta is likely expecting him to get just around 35-40 catches for around 400-450 yards and maybe four or five touchdowns on the season.
He has great hands and understands how to be effective in the red zone. Atlanta could easily turn to him as the third-down target similar to what Brian Finneran was in 2008 and a red-zone target like what Tony Gonzalez had been for the past five seasons.
If Matt Ryan trusts Toilolo, he's going to be a perfect fit for this role and could end up with around 65 catches easily. If he gets into that range, he'll easily have the 700 yards and 10 touchdowns predicted here.
Slightly Less Bold: Julio Jones Breaks 1,200 Yards and 10 Touchdowns
Totals of 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns for Julio Jones in one season? This doesn't sound ridiculously bold until you factor in that the Falcons don't even know right now if he will even be playing until they get closer to the first game of the season versus the Saints.
Then again, the Falcons should be getting someone who had almost 600 yards in just five games during the 2013 failed season. He's an explosive threat who can't be stopped when he's on. If he's 100 percent healthy, he could break these numbers by the time Atlanta comes back from Carolina in the middle of November.
However, this seems like a semirealistic set of goals for Jones if he's healthy. The Falcons need him to look like the No. 1 receiver that he is. As long as he's fully healed by midseason, these numbers should be a cakewalk.
Bold: The Falcons Will Have a Top-10 Scoring Defense Again
In 2012 the Falcons had a top-five scoring defense, allowing just 18.7 points per game for the entire season. But 2013 was a different story when they started allowing another nine points per game, which brought them to 27.7 points per game.
A lot changed from 2012 to 2013. The Falcons had a slew of injuries that forced them to play four rookies and an inexperienced first-year player. Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu, Jonathan Massaquoi, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford played more than they initially intended.
The inexperience was evident with missed assignments and poor play all around. The once reliable Thomas DeCoud severely declined, and free-agent signing Osi Umenyiora was unable to properly emulate John Abraham's role effectively.
So the Falcons had to go back to the drawing board. They beefed up the defensive line. They replaced a weak link in DeCoud. They gained a ton of experience that will help the now second-year players mature into the personnel they need to be.
On top of all of that, the addition of more 3-4 sets to Mike Nolan's multiple defense will only help the Falcons create more pressure and have the best 11 on the field at all times. This should result in a better scoring defense due to more turnovers and a better run defense.
Slightly Less Bold: The Falcons Will Have a Top-10 Run Defense
Atlanta had the second-worst run defense in 2013. It allowed 4.8 yards per carry and more than 135.8 yards per game. It wasn't much better in 2012.
The Falcons finally went out and addressed the issue with the signings of Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson and the drafting of Ra'Shede Hageman.
Bulking up the defensive line should help Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu take on less offensive linemen. They should be able to shed smaller blockers more easily than the massive linemen they had to take on the past year.
The Falcons need to focus on their run fits, but allowing less than 4.0 yards per carry should be a top priority. If the Falcons can hold teams under that mark, Atlanta should easily have a top-10 run defense in 2014.
Bold: The Offensive Line Allows Less Than 20 Sacks All Season
Yes, the offensive line will look competent in 2014. The O-line will be completely different than what the 2013 iteration looked like. There will be at least three different starters.
At left guard, Justin Blalock is pretty much locked in stone as the starter and was above-average. At center, Peter Konz and Joe Hawley will battle for the starting role. If Hawley wins, center should be much better than it was in 2013.
Jon Asamoah will be an instant upgrade over the turnstile that occupied the right guard role in 2013. Jake Matthews will help stabilize the right side of the line at right tackle and should be better than Jeremy Trueblood.
However, if Sam Baker gets hurt at left tackle, Matthews will have to replace him on that side, while Lamar Holmes should be able to take over at right tackle in that scenario. This is a much better situation than the 2013 debacle that led to 44 sacks allowed.
Overall, with added talent and experience in pass blocking, the Falcons should be able to keep Matt Ryan more upright. This was priority No. 1 this offseason, and with the addition of a high draft pick and a top free agent, it will be tough to bet against this offensive line.
Slightly Less Bold: Steven Jackson Finishes with More Than 1,000 Yards Rushing
After he posted just 540 rushing yards in 2013, the Falcons need to get a lot more from Steven Jackson. As it sits right now, he will need to stay healthy, and the offensive line will have to perform much better than it did in run blocking in 2013.
The Falcons did upgrade the offensive line a ton this offseason after bringing in Jon Asamoah and Jake Matthews. The best move for the run game this offseason was bringing in Mike Tice to be the offensive line coach and firing Pat Hill from the role.
Tice is all about adding the toughness that the line was lacking in 2013. The upgraded offensive line should allow a healthy Jackson to surpass the 1,000-yard mark this season. He should even be able to surpass it if he misses two to three games this year.
Bold: Jonathan Massaquoi Becomes an Elite Pass-Rusher and Gets 15 or More Sacks
Jonathan Massaquoi is the guy who's going to give the Falcons a pass rush in 2014. During the last four games of the 2013 season, he had three sacks and looked like a legitimate talent at weak-side defensive end and outside linebacker.
The Falcons have asked him to play a bit further back this year as the primary weak-side linebacker in base packages and expect a big year to come from him. He has all the tools to be an effective pass-rusher in a Mike Nolan defense.
The concerns about his game are all about hand usage and technique. Atlanta brought in Bryan Cox to be the new defensive line coach, and he should bring the crazy attitude that he instilled into Cameron Wake. The Falcons hope that Massaquoi can make the same kind of jump that Wake did in his second season.
Going from four sacks in a season to 15 is a big jump, but it's been done before. With bigger defensive linemen to draw double-teams away from him, Massaquoi should be able to get more one-on-one matchups than he had last season.
Slightly Less Bold: Osi Umenyiora Thrives in His Reduced Role and Gets 10 Sacks
Osi Umenyiora needs to accept and thrive in his new designated pass-rusher role. He is more of a leader than a playmaker right now. However, after losing weight this offseason to get faster, he should fit in better with Nolan's manufactured pass-rushing scheme.
With his 7.5 sacks in 2013, he was the leading pass-rusher for Atlanta. The reduced role will allow him to come in only when he can pin his ears back and go after quarterbacks. This should allow him to be more efficient than he was in 2013, because he won't be focusing on the run game.
Ten sacks aren't out of the question for a guy who has done it three times already in his career. But after a mediocre 2013, the Falcons need him be the secondary pass-rusher instead of the best one on the team. It's a better role for his skill set and should produce better results.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required), ESPN.com, CFBStats or NFL.com. All combine and pro day info is courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac and Rotoworld.