The third surprise team of the 2008 season was the Atlanta Falcons. They had not been anything since the suspension of Michael Vick, but after the rookie season that first round pick Matt Ryan had people were saying, “Michael Who?” as he was spectacular.
Ryan earned Rookie of the Year honors as he led the Falcons to an 11-5 record a playoff berth.
Matt Ryan instantly became the right choice for the Falcons.
In his first game as a Falcon, Ryan threw a 62 yard pass to Michael Jenkins for a touchdown. That was just the beginning as he eventually became Offensive Rookie of the Year.
He has good leadership, a very strong arm, and pretty good decision making skills as well. He will get a shot to disprove anyone who claims he had “beginner’s luck” as he has a tough schedule ahead.
Ryan was not the only surprise on the Falcons team as Michael Turner also turned heads with the monster year he had, including a four touchdown night against the Panthers in Atlanta.
These two together should have the Falcons ranked once again in the top five in rushing in the NFL.
Yet another surprise on the Atlanta team was the receiving corps, which finally learned how to catch the ball. Roddy White emerged as one of the league’s best and earned his first Pro Bowl selection.
Also, Michael Jenkins earned the No. 2 role as he has become a decent deep threat and showed why with his 62-yard touchdown reception on the first pass of the 2008 season. These two are very durable and they’ll need to be as there is little depth at receiver, especially now that Harry Douglas is done for the year.
Matt Ryan does have one new target to help the receivers—seven-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Gonzalez is a sure Hall of Famer and is still in great shape. He has great size and might be what Ryan needs to take the offense to the next level. At the very least he will provide a threat in the middle of the field and provide guidance.
The big reason why Ryan and Turner had such big years was because the offensive line made it happen. This is a pretty big group of guys who just pushed people out of the way for Turner and acted like the Safety Lock program when it came to protecting Matt Ryan.
Sam Baker is turning into the tackle the Falcons needed and Tyson Clabo is a personal favorite because of his nastiness. This line should be ready for the brutal schedule they will face in 2009.
The defense was good last season, but this season it could really hamper the team, which is a common theme for the NFC South this year.
The defensive line lost tackle Grady Jackson, who was the meat of the line, but they did draft Peria Jerry to be more of a pass rusher and help fill the void.
Plus, John Abraham is not getting any younger. And former first round pick Jamaal Anderson has disappointed as a pass rusher who was supposed to relieve Abraham of some of the pressure.
The Falcons also are weaker at linebacker as starters Michael Boley and Keith Brooking both left for the NFC East. It will be up to Curtis Loften and newly acquired Mike Peterson to run the defense. Peterson is reunited with his old defensive coordinator in Mike Smith, who is now the Falcons head coach.
The secondary seems to be holding open try outs this year.
If this group of youngsters do not learn and learn fast, their on-the-job training will not be a pleasant one.
The defense is bad, but that schedule for every team in the NFC South is just ugly.
It is hard enough competing in the NFC South, but now they have to face the NFC East and the AFC East. Plus, they are away at New England, at the Giants, and at Dallas which makes the job a whole lot harder.
Matt Ryan is now a top 10 quarterback. He has a huge arm and a now great compilation of receivers, but will the schedule affect him? I do not think so.
Michael Turner finished in the top three in rushing last season in a mammoth first year as a starter. Some are even taking him as the No. 1 overall player in the draft.
Roddy White earned his Pro Bowl selection last season, and I think that confidence will only make him better this season.
Tony Gonzalez is the No. 1 tight end in the NFL and Ryan has the arm to keep him there.
Kicker Jason Elam is still around and still going strong. The Falcons have a powerful offensive attack, which means a lot of extra points or at least easy field goal tries.
The sleeper is receiver Michael Jenkins. White will get two guys, Gonzalez will get two guys, and Jenkins will see nothing but open field more often than not.
Second place (It will be a good fight with the Saints to get into the playoffs.)