2011 Atlanta Falcons: Contenders or Pretenders?
The 2010 Atlanta Falcons enjoyed a magical regular season that saw the team finish 13-3, winning games in every imaginable way and earning the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. Some in the media, including Trent Dilfer and Skip Bayless, implied the Falcons were lucky, and many in the media never considered Atlanta a serious Super Bowl contender in 2010.
The Falcons earned those 13 wins in 2010 because of efficient and opportunistic play, but the opinions dismissing the Falcons as Super Bowl contenders were painfully validated when the Green Bay Packers embarrassed Atlanta in their own building last January.
Following the season, general manager Thomas Dimitroff navigated the draft and free-agency period with purpose and precision, but did he do enough to get the Falcons to the next level?
Here are five questions that will shape the Atlanta Falcons 2011 campaign.
Will Julio Jones Provide the Offensive Explosiveness the Falcons Need?
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The Falcons averaged an anemic 6.5 yards per pass play in 2010, 25th in the league, despite a roster that includes a Pro Bowl QB, a Pro Bowl WR and a Pro Bowl TE. Opponents rolled coverage to Roddy White because they did not fear Michael Jenkins on the other side of the field.
The Falcons paid a ransom to move up to the 6th position in order to draft Jones; two 1st round picks, a 2nd round pick and two 4th round picks. Because the Falcons gave up so much for Jones, and he is one of only two major additions to the Falcons roster, the Falcons expect him to immediately put the pressure on opposing defenses that Michael Jenkins was unable to provide.
Julio Jones possesses two qualities that will serve the Falcons well from day one. He has the ability to go up for the football over defensive backs, and the ability to overpower defensive backs on short routes and pick up yards after the catch.
The learning curve for wide receivers in the NFL is traditionally steep, but there are guys who step in and make major contributions right away. Julio Jones is not going to put up rookie numbers that rival those of Randy Moss, but that’s not really what the Falcons need to get the offense to the next level. A rookie year like that of Tory Holt (52 catches, 788 yards, 6 TDs) will work plenty well enough if he takes some of the defensive attention away from Roddy White along the way.
Super Bowl contenders rarely count on rookies to step up in big ways, but if the Falcons are going to be a contender, they probably need this rookie to do so.
Is Ray Edwards the Answer at Left Defensive End?
At times in 2010, the Falcons pass rush virtually disappeared, putting great stress on the Falcons secondary. Kroy Biermann has not blossomed into a force at LDE the way the Falcons thought he might, so the Falcons addressed the issue by signing free-agent Ray Edwards to a five-year contract.
Critics of Ray Edwards will say that he prospered from playing with a great defensive line in Minnesota, and they will point out that he has never amassed double-digit sacks in a season. I have also heard the argument that Ray Edwards is going to face double-teams in Atlanta, something that has not happened in Minnesota.
Frankly, I find those arguments silly. Regardless of the excellence of the Vikings line, I am certain that teams have not neglected to block Ray Edwards over the last five years. He has been heads up against right tackles every week, just like every other LDE in the league. As far as production, his numbers and age indicate Edwards has not peaked.
2006 - 3 sacks in 15 games
2007 – 5 sacks in 12 games
2008 – 5 sacks in 15 games
2009 – 8.5 sacks in 16 games
2010 – 8.0 sacks in 14 games
Ray Edwards is only 26 years old, and the .57 sacks per game he averaged in 2010 reflect the best performance of his career.
Will the addition of Edwards take the Falcons pass rush to the next level? That is to be determined, but Thomas Dimitroff deserves credit for grabbing a young player on the up-slope of his career for an affordable price at a position where the Falcons were in obvious need of an upgrade.
Will the Loss of Michael Koenen Matter?
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Michael Koenen recently became the highest-paid punter in NFL history when he signed a $19.5 million, six-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The reaction of the Falcons fanbase to losing the punter can best be described as a collective yawn.
Michael Koenen has been near the bottom of the league in gross yards and net yards during the last three seasons, but that is a reflection of the Falcons special teams’ philosophy, not Koenen’s leg strength. The philosophy, simply stated, is to avoid game changing plays on the punt team, and the Falcons have done an excellent job of that with Koenen kicking the ball. In 2008, the Falcons covered punts better than any team in NFL history, when the team allowed only 49 punt return yards all season.
Since 2007, Michael Koenen has placed 102 punts inside the 20-yard line and allowed only 17 touchbacks, a remarkable ratio of six to one. By comparison, last year’s Pro Bowl punters, Shane Lechler and Brian McBriar, each have ratios of less than four to one over the same period. Most punters have ratios of three to one or less.
In addition to his precision punting, Michael Koenen has finished in the top there in kickoff touchbacks over the last two seasons, and he has never finished out of the top 10 in this category in his NFL career.
Will losing Michael Koenen in free agency costs the Falcons football games? Who knows, but I have a feeling the Falcons fanbase might find a new appreciation for Koenen if the Falcons routinely give up big returns this season.
Was Harvey Dahl Really That Good?
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The Falcons managed to re-sign two of three free-agents on the offensive line this offseason, with Harvey Dahl the one that got away. After Dahl signed with the St. Louis Rams, I was surprised to learn the gurus over at PFF ranked Harvey as the third best right guard in the NFL in 2010.
I think the perception of Dahl, and other Falcons linemen for that matter, is enhanced by Matt Ryan’s ability to rid himself of the ball quickly and the overwhelming ratio of short passes thrown by the Falcons during the last two seasons.
Nonetheless, his replacement, be it Garrett Reynolds or Mike Johnson, is an unknown commodity. If the Falcons struggle to find a serviceable replacement, it could disrupt the rhythm of the offense and limit what the Falcons can do.
In the end, the Falcons line probably will not miss a beat, and besides, when was the last team derailed by the loss of a guard anyway?
Will Lack of Depth Doom the Atlanta Secondary?
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Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson are the best pair of starting cornerbacks the Falcons have had in at least a decade, and maybe much longer than that. Deeper on the depth chart, the Falcons have question marks.
Dominique Franks and Chris Owens are currently third and fourth on the depth chart. Franks is a second-year player that only saw action in two games last season. Chris Owens lost his job as nickelback during the season to Brian Williams, and performed horribly when pressed into action in the playoffs by a Williams injury.
At both safety positions the Falcons have backups with almost no game experience behind starters William Moore and Thomas DeCoud.
With a run of bad injury luck, the Falcons could run out a starting secondary of Chris Owens, Dominique Franks, Rafael Bush and Shann Schillinger.
Do not be surprised to see the Falcons make a move late in the preseason for secondary help. It seems unlikely that the Falcons would enter the season with the group this thin, and past history indicates they will not.
The Final Analysis
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The Falcons status as Super Bowl contenders will likely be determined by health, as is the case with many teams. The Falcons’ starters are as good as any in the league, but the drop off in talent between the first team and second team may be the largest in the league at the skill positions.
Then again, maybe Shann Schillinger is a star in waiting that only needs a few starts to show he is the next John Lynch.
My guess is that Thomas Dimitroff has no desire to figure that out this season.