Could I be more ready for some football? With the season just over a month removed I'm already getting all "antsy in my pantsy" waiting for fall to arrive. The Atlanta Falcons fans are relieved that the Birds finally broke the curse of never having back-to-back winning seasons, however we are all hoping that a title run will be possible in 2010. 2009 was a slump season, despite finishing with a 9-7 record, which is sadly top tier when it comes to the Falcons' past success. GM Thomas Dimitroff and the rest of the gang are clearly locked in to making sure every piece of this team improves before the NFL season kicks off.
The recent signing of Dunta Robinson was a signing I wanted to happen last season, and I was going to be upset if we let the Athens native get away again. The addition of Dunta at cornerback, along with the resigning of veteran Brian Williams solidifies the cornerback position, which was the Falcons' weakest area last year.
Atlanta's is sure to keep it's eyes on defense when the draft rolls around, however some extra fire power on offense won't hurt either. So, I'm going to give my best shot at setting up an agenda for what Dimitroff and head coach, Mike Smith need to iron out before training camp.
Let's run down the list of recent news that should have us sighing in relief.
Matt Ryan's turf toe injury, which hampered him during a huge chunk of last season, is completely healed. Turf toe doesn't sound that bad, but it has cost a few players more than a years worth of pain before.
Either way, many claim the sophomore slump definitely hit Ryan last year. We have to think about how much of the struggles of the team were to blame on him, or others. Chris Redman actually did a decent job mopping up for Ryan last year.
Matt Ryan was on the field for five of the seven losses, and Chris Redman had a stellar game vs. Tampa in a winning effort, and an even better game in the loss at home to the Saints.
I think it's safe to say the lack of a powerful running attack did take a toll on Ryan's performance. But, even with a few games missing, Ryan threw 22 touchdown strikes. I feel like a healthy running game will have Matt Ryan looking like Mr. Untouchable again.
As for that running game, Michael Turner's presence needs to be a consistent element next year. Turner was M.I.A. even more than Matt Ryan was last year, and even though Jason Snelling had a breakthrough season there is no doubt Turner's absence hurt.
And, Jason Snelling's breakout year has our running back situation in quite a pickle. Do we want the second coming of T.J. Duckett in Jason Snelling, or will fans have faith that the nimble Jerious Norwood will stay bruise free and turn the after-burners (after-Turner the Burner; get it?) back on?
Norwood brought the "oohs" and "ahs" reminiscent of the Vick era (am I allowed to say that name?) back in 2008, and his home run ability has quickly been forgotten. Norwood's injuries last season somehow have turned him from the Falcon's secret weapon to a questionable second-string tailback.
But, it would help if Mike Mularkey could use this offseason to address the fact that using Norwood in regular set formations makes way more sense than sending him in specifically for gadget plays.
As a matter of fact, Mike Mularkey seriously needs to reevaluate himself. At times he looks like an offensive mastermind. His playcalling ability was pivotal to our success back in 2008. However last year it almost appeared that the playbook was dumbed down, and the offense thus became less versatile and less potent. It seemed like Norwood and Eric Weems would make rather untimely entrances to the field that tipped off the defense to what was coming.
If my father calls the play before it happens, we've got issues. And, that happened alot last year. It's time to kiss the wildcat goodbye.
Some good news is that Tony Gonzalez will be back in uniform. But, Matt Ryan appeared to zero in on Gonzo a little too often last year. The Falcons focus this offseason needs to be to find ways to spread out the offensive attack. Gonzalez and Roddy White can't be the only two options out there, can they?
Harry Douglas would second my statement. Douglas, who missed all of last year with a busted knee, was an outstanding slot receiver and punt returner during his rookie year in 2008. Douglas, if back and as quick as before, should bolster up a passing attack that relied on the hands of two heavy footed veterans in Marty Booker and Brian Finneran last year.
Michael Jenkins also needs to step up. Despite his production drastically improving over the past two years, Jenkins was a hit or miss receiver in 2009. His hands are responsible for most of those misses, and a few interceptions that went right through the mittens. Jenk has the frame and ability to be a perfect compliment to Roddy White; which he needs to become before the Falcons go shopping for another receiver.
The defensive side of the ball seems to be where most of the attention has focused. Dunta Robinson and his 57 million dollars should give the Falcons their first playmaking corner since DeAngelo Hall. Hate him or not, more often than not DeAngelo was a difference maker. Hopefully Robinson can be that, minus the drop off year of giving up huge pass plays and picking fights.
I'm actually kind of bummed that Chris Houston got dealed away, however. Houston, despite looking absolutely lost at most times in the past, seemed to have more upside than any corner we've had. He was always a great downhill player, handling run pursuit and smoke screens really well.
I feel like Houston was a "turn your head around" away from being a pretty good compliment to Robinson, but just hours after the Robinson signing Atlanta traded him away.
Brent Grimes definitely earned a spot with six interceptions a year ago, however his pint size frame makes him an immediate target. Grimes may have recorded six interceptions, but he cannot keep up with the likes of Randy Moss, Marques Colston, Andre Johnson, or any of those big receivers. Sure, we don't have to face those guys, but teams are going to put their tallest flanker out there and give Grimes fits.
My only confidence is in Brian Williams' ability to show he is more youthful than his age. Williams, who played safety in Jacksonville, is not a proven corner, is coming off injury, and is an older guy. I always have been complaining for a veteran cornerback to come in and help, though.
Dominique Foxworth, despite being a little old himself, did a good job for us in 2008. I hope Williams can be our next "Foxworth."
The safety position is definitely interesting. Thomas DeCoud came on very strong last year, making big hits and key picks. I don't think any Falcon fan wants to see the undersized safety move from his position.
But what about Erik Coleman? Coleman, despite not being as much of a playmaker last year as he was the year prior, does not get beat on pass plays. He holds his own very very well, and has quietly been a staple in an otherwise floppy secondary. With prized safety William Moore coming back from injury, who is going to be the odd man out? Does Moore even stand a chance?
I know which redshirt rookie, if you will, will be an instant impact, though. Peria Jerry, the Falcons' first round pick from last year, will certainly help out a defensive line that ran with no-name players at tackle all of last year. Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux in the middle should make things easier for John Abraham, who fell off the fact of the galaxy last year.
The Falcons will need a more stout rotation in the middle, and on the outside. Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury, both former FCS (Div. I-AA) players, should make life very difficult for former first round pick Jamaal Anderson. Add Chauncey Davis to that mix, and Anderson could easily be on his way out of here.
The linebacking corpse is set in my book with Stephen Nicholas, Curtis Lofton, and Mike Peterson, however many mock drafts have the Falcons selecting Sean Weatherspoon from Missouri. I'm actually not too set on that idea.
With all of that said, here is a list of notable unrestricted and restricted free agents the Falcons have as of now. Restricted means that if any team offers a contract to the player, the Falcons have a timetable to match it. If the player is unrestricted he is free to sign with whoever he wants whenever he wants, on his and his agent's terms.
Jerious Norwood (restricted)
Jason Snelling (restricted)
Marty Booker (unrestricted)
Michael Koenen (restricted)
Harvey Dahl (restricted)
Tyson Clabo (restricted)
Off of this list, Harvey Dahl is hands down the number one priority. He should be back in Atlanta. Clabo might be the second priority on this list, to help keep that offensive line as nasty as it was last season. Michael Koenen has been a solid punter here, but any punter could do.
The real pickle is whether or not Norwood, Snelling, or both will be back in a Falcons uniform in 2010. Who is more valuable? Both guys have had equal success with the team in separate seasons.
I'm going to go with my gut and take Norwood and his lightning and versatility over Snelling.
So, now, it's time to look at what the depth should look like, and see where holes need to be filled with draft and free agency. (Player name underlined signifies a projected new role)
Quarterback- Matt Ryan
Tailback- Michael Turner, Jerious Norwood
Fullback- Ovie Mughelli
Tight End- Tony Gonzelez
Receiver- Roddy White, Michael Jenkins
Tackle- Sam Baker, Tyson Clabo
Guard- Harvey Dahl, Justin Blalock
Center- Todd McClure
Defensive End- John Abraham, Chauncey Davis
Defensive Tackle- Peria Jerry, Jonathan Babineaux
Outside Linebacker- Mike Peterson, Stephen Nicholas
Middle Linebacker- Curtis Lofton
Safety- Thomas DeCoud, Erik Coleman
Cornerback- Dunta Robinson, Brian Williams
Guys left on the plank: Jamaal Anderson, Brent Grimes, and William Moore.
Jamaal Anderson and William Moore, both high draft picks in recent years, are in trouble of being thrown under the bus. Anderson, despite being somewhat versatile as an end or tackle, will have to fight through some studs to find playing time. Biermann, Sidbury, and Davis make the end position a battle Anderson probably cannot win. The tackle spot seems even less likely.
Moore will have to fight out Erik Coleman, who hasn't shown any signs of weakness. I doubt William Moore starts opening day in the fall, but he should stick around considering Erik Coleman's age.
Brent Grimes will be fine as a nickel-back, but his interceptions totals might drop. I also have a sneaking suspicion that Grimes could win over the heart of the coaches and take the starting spot back away from Williams. Grimes can win over as many hearts as he wants, but he won't win over a 6 foot 4 receiver.
As for free agents who could come in aid, here are a few I have in mind:
WR Chris Chambers- Chambers has shown flashes of brilliance at select times in his career. He became known in Miami for making one handed snags. But, the veteran has had trouble finding a home in the past few years. Chambers could be a viable option for the Falcons as a bigger threat in the slot, or as a fourth receiver, if Harry Douglas struggles on that knee.
DE Charles Grant- I guess you can classify Charles Grant's steroid mishap a "character issue", but honestly Atlanta could use a proven defensive end to help out the pass rush and run plugging.
CB Carlos Rogers- This might be a long shot, but what if Atlanta brought in another staple cornerback? Ka-ching! Rogers is currently restricted with Washington, and would be a tough pickup, but he's the only other defensive back who really stands out to me.
CB Lito Sheppard- Probably even more of a long shot, but Lito was released by the Jets and is the most proven free agent cornerback on the market.
A few things coaches should hear/say:
Mike Mularkey: "Execution over Trickeration"
Secondary coach, Tim Lewis: "Turn your head around"
Mike Smith: "Be even more intense. Maybe the most intense coach in sports. We like that"
And finally, here are a few novelties to take note of.
- the Georgia World Congress Center has continued the hotel/motel tax agreement with Fulton County, which means money will be available to renovate or even build a new stadium on the Georgia Dome site in the near future (but, explain to me why this bill passed amongst the deficits facing state wide budget cuts? I've done a recent article on that, if you are interested)
- "Back in Black": the Falcons have confirmed the throwback uniforms from the 1966 season will be back. This means that the Falcons will again, for the second year in a row, keep the new-school black jerseys in the closet. Atlanta did not wear black pants last season either. The NFL rules state that an alternate jersey can only be worn twice a season, and now that the AFL anniversary is over they are going to crack down on those rules again (a lot of teams like Denver got away with wearing more than one alternate last year). Atlanta has confirmed the throwbacks will be worn for the next four years. Now if we can just get a red helmet and a "red-er" road uniform, we would be set.