There's only one place to begin with the Atlanta Falcons. Tony Gonzalez. How can any team recover from a loss like that? The all time NFL leader for touchdowns (111) and total yardage (15,127) as a tight-end. That's hard enough for any team to get over. Even harder when the team went 4-12 with him during his final season.
It appears one of Levine Toilolo or Bear Pascoe will step - or be forced - into his shoes. Toilolo was a fourth round draft pick last year, and it would be unfair to completely write him off before the season starts. However, he caught just 11 passes all season - Tony Gonzalez caught over 7 times more, with 83. While Toilolo has the chance to become a solid starter for the Falcons, not even his biggest fans are hoping that he'll have anywhere near the impact Gonzalez did.
Throwing passes to his TE will be Matt Ryan. No-one is denying that Ryan is a good starter in the NFL - but can he really lead his team to a playoff push?
It's an interesting question. Last year, Ryan had 4,515 yards on the season. He also had an excellent completion rate at 67.4%, as well as throwing 26 TDs to 17 interceptions. While the first two stats are undeniably impressive, the TD to interception ratio is less so. By no means is it awful, but it's just not good enough to take a team far in the league. By comparison, Philip Rivers had a ratio of 32/11. Russell Wilson had 26/9.
Ryan could be excused for the amount of turnovers, as he lost both his star WRs during the season. Make no mistake about it - if the Falcons are to have any hope of glory this year, it's this position which will have to provide it.
Julio Jones is widely regarded as one of the finest young wideouts in the league. In his second season in the league, he was able to grab 79 passes while notching up 1,198 yards and 10 TDs. The WR position is viewed as one of the hardest to adapt to from college, and it's generally agreed that their third season is usually when they make their breakthrough. In the 5 games he was able to play in before his injury, Jones had already managed to get 580 yards. If he's fully healthy this year who knows what he can do - not only is a Pro Bowl appearance realistic, it would be more of a surprise were he not to get it.
A double team on him? Say hello to Roddy White. His critics claim his play has hit a wall in recent years. If 92 passes caught for 1,351 yards and 7 TDs is a wall, how good must he have been before? It's true that he only managed to pick up 711 yards last season in the 13 games he was healthy for. However, with Jones back to draw some attention away from opposing defences 1,000 yards should be the minimum he's capable of getting - that's a rather impressive one-two punch.
Remember how I said the third season was when WR's tend to break out? It took Harry Douglas until his 5th season to do so - but break out he did. Despite never being able to reach more than 500 yards in a season, Douglas more than doubled his seasonal best, with 1067 yards. He also did better than double his record for catches in a season - 85, compared to 39 beforehand. That's 3 WRs capable of getting over 1,000 yards. Surely their running game can't be as threatening?
If this was a few years back, then I'd say yes it actually could be. Unfortunately for Falcons fans, this isn't the same Steven Jackson. While taking into account the fact he missed 4 games, he still had his lowest ever totals in rushing yards (543) and average yards per carry (3.5). Now in his 11th season, he's not getting any younger. There's still a chance he can have another good year, but this rushing game simply doesn't strike the same fear into opponents the passing game does.
Now, the offensive line - will it help or hinder the team?
Quite simply, we don't know. It all depends on Jake Mathews. The rookie was drafted 6th overall and has extremely high expectations on his shoulders. If he can perform at the level he's expected to, then he can transform an above average line into a great one. If he can't, the Falcons offense is in deep, deep trouble.
Tony Gonzalez won't be the only Falcon missing this season. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon looks set to be out for the entire season due to tearing his achilles. Unfortunately for the Falcons, there's little doubt that the defence is the achilles heel of the team.
Nose tackle Paul Soliai is the anchor of this defensive line. After moving from the Dolphins this offseason, defensive ends Tyson Jackson and Jonathan Babineaux will be relying on him to take up blockers and allow them to manoeuvre with more freedom.
Looking at his stats, that's about all they can expect from him.
Last year, Soliai managed just 34 combined tackles and 1 sack. That's not an off year - it's actually his second most productive season yet. Soliai may be able to improve this defensive line, but he won't be able to win games alone.
The linebackers won't be much help on this front - we don't even know who'll be starting in most places. Osi Umenyiora seems set to have the ROLB position locked down. He won two rings with the New York Giants, and aside from his rookie season has never had less than 6 sacks.
The rest of the linebackers?
Kroy Biermann is the favourite to start at LOLB. He's now in his 7th season but you'd be pushing it just to call him a reasonable starter. 38 solo tackles and 5 sacks is his best year to date, and seeing as that was 5 seasons ago I wouldn't be rushing out to put money on him matching it.
Inside, the situation isn't much better. Weatherspoon's loss would have meant that Paul Worrilow, Akeem Dent and Joplo Bartu will battle it out for the two open spots. However, Dent was recently traded to the Texans for T.J. Yates, leaving it open for the other two.
Being fair to him, Worrilow could be in for a big year. As an undrafted free agent last year he quickly impressed, and was able to notch up 127 combined tackles. To put that into perspective, hugely impressive rookie Kiko Alonso had 159. Manti Te'o had just 61.
Yes, you did read that right. Worrilow had over double the tackles that Te'o (a former Heisman finalist) could manage.
Dent's trade means Joplo Bartu should see the field as a starter. He was also an undrafted free agent last year. He too had a solid level of production with 85 combined tackles and 3.5 sacks.
Promising numbers, right?
The problem is their age. Both were rookies last year - and undrafted free agents to top it off. They have next to no experience and have only had one good season in the league; it's hard to imagine that they can produce at the necessary level this year.
Desmond Trufant was a first round draft pick last year and had a fine rookie season, grabbing a pair of interceptions and 70 tackles - as well as 1 forced fumble and 2 fumble recoveries. He had such a good year that PFF ranked him 7th among all cornerbacks in the league.
The rest of the secondary doesn't jump out at you as anything besides average. That's a big problem. As good as Trufant was last year, he was still a rookie. He's still got lots to achieve.
He needs to be learning about how to play the game, not teaching it.
Verdict: No. The Falcons passing game is undoubtably one of the best in the league. The rest of the team just can't back that up. This defence was already shaky at best before Weatherspoon got hurt. Now it's got more holes in it than a crater. I honestly can't see the Falcons being able to post anything better than an 8-8 record. Can they take heart from the fact no team in that division's ever won it twice? No. Unfortunately for them, the New Orleans Saints are one of the best teams around, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren't exactly pushovers. One more injury to a key player and it could be the second year in a row we see the Falcons pick in the top 10.
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