Atlanta Falcons 2008 Preview Report

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By Andy Benoit, www.NFLTouchdown.com

Predicted: 4th

2007 Record: 4-12 (4th NFC West)

Head Coach: Mike Smith (1st Year)

Roster Quick View

*rookie

**new veteran

Offense

QB: Chris Redman Is Matt Ryan ready yet?

RB: Michael Turner** Excellent combination of power and speed. Should see sixty percent of the carries and be a 1,000-yard back.

FB: Ovie Mughelli Bruising style of play is a much better fit in the new, true power-run offense.

WR: Roddy White Emerged as a 1,200-yard receiver last season. Can still get a little better.

WR Laurent Robinson A potential star, thanks to long frame, field-stretching speed and impeccable quickness. Also capable of playing in traffic. Keep a close eye here.

TE: Ben Hartsock** Blocking specialist being forced into a starting role.

LT: Sam Baker* Must be more consistent than he was as a banged-up senior at USC. Quick, but how’s his strength?

LG: Justin Blalock Gradually improved as a rookie though, right now, nowhere near the run-blocker he could be. His pass protection’s not bad.

C: Todd McClure Veteran cog who has been holding down the fort inside for the better part of the past nine years.

RG: Kynan Forney Hasn’t been the same since 2006 shoulder surgery. Atlanta should ponder a change here.

RT: Todd Weiner Faces uphill battle after serious microfracture surgery on left knee late last fall.

—————

QB: Joey Harrington If he were a robot, he’d be a star. Unfortunately, he’s a deep-thinking human being with a good memory.

RB: Jerious Norwood Has averaged an insane 6.2 yards per carry over the past two seasons. When he gets around the edge, he could be the biggest home run threat in football.

WR: Harry Douglas* Lacks great size (5’11, 170), but scouts love his potential in the slot.

WR: Michael Jenkins Okay, so he hasn’t lived up to first-round billing. Doesn’t mean he’s not a solid blocker and special teams player.

TE: Martrez Milner Shows some positive signs as a blocker when used in motion.

OL: Tyson Clabo Performed admirably off the bench last season. Will probably eek into the starting lineup at RT in 2008.

Defense

LDE: Jamaal Anderson Eighth-overall pick last season who produced zero sacks. He’ll never be a good pass-rusher, but he’s terrific against the run.

NT: Montavious Stanley Deserves some playing time because he can be effective anywhere on the front line. But having him start at NT is a bit much.

UT: Jonathan Babineaux Significantly improved his quickness and mobility last season. Capable of starting but needs better players around him.

RDE: John Abraham Feared pass-rusher who should only be playing third downs. Becomes a cross between the Lion and Tinman when asked to stop the run.

SLB: Michael Boley Would be Atlanta‘s best defensive player if he operated with a greater sense of reckless abandonment.

MLB: Curtis Lofton* Huge undertaking if he indeed starts from Day One. Not oozing with talent, but hard-working and productive. Will that be enough?

WLB: Keith Brooking Pro Bowler and leader who eagerly moves back to natural weakside spot after being stuck in the middle for two years.

CB: Chris Houston Survived as a rookie starter in 11 games last season, but in no way is he a No. 1 CB at this point.

SS: Lawyer Milloy Veteran captain who is almost certain to retire after the season.

FS: Erik Coleman** Couldn’t consistently get on the field in New York. You don’t mind his starting:.when someone in front of him is injured, that is.

CB: Von Hutchins** Brought in to provide depth at all the DB positions. Atlanta‘s scarcity of talent forced him into the first string.

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DL: Chauncey Davis Nowhere near being fast enough to reach the quarterback. Questionable strength makes him an iffy contributor.

LB: Stephen Nicholas The previous coaching staff loved him. Will find a chance to emerge as a starter at some point:.just don’t know where, when or why.

NB: David Irons Second-year player who has performed well on special teams.

Key Players Acquired

FS Erik Coleman (NYJ)

K Jason Elam (Den)

DE Simon Fraser (Cle)

TE Ben Hartsock (Ten)

CB Von Hutchins (Hou)

FB Corey McIntyre (FA)

DT Rashad Moore (NE)

DT Kindal Moorehead (Car)

C Alex Stepanovich (Cin)

RB Michael Turner (SD)

Key Players Lost

TE Courtney Anderson (Buf)

TE Dwayne Blakley (Ten)

DT Rod Coleman

S Chris Crocker (Mia)

TE Alge Crumpler (Ten)

RB Warrick Dunn (TB)

OT Wayne Gandy

CB DeAngelo Hall (Oak)

QB Byron Leftwich

S Omare Lowe (Sea)

CB Lewis Sanders (NE)

LB Demorrio Williams (KC)

DB Jimmy Williams

GM Thomas Dimitroff and the new coaching staff came in and cleaned house. Hall, Dunn, Crumpler and Coleman were four of the team’s top veterans. Atlanta only got a second-round pick for Hall (and a fifth-rounder in ’09) because Hall’s public discontent compromised Dimitroff’s leverage. Leftwich was not worth having around. Demorrio Williams and Sanders were solid but, in the spirit of a roster overhaul, expendable. Jimmy Williams, a second-round pick in 2006, was a bust of monumental proportions. Of the players brought in, only Turner is of distinct significance.


2008 Draft

Rd Sel # Player Position School

1 3 Matt Ryan QB Boston College

1 21 Sam Baker T USC

2 37 Curtis Lofton LB Oklahoma

3 68 Chevis Jackson CB Louisiana State

3 84 Harry Douglas WR Louisville

3 98 Thomas DeCoud FS California

5 138 Robert James MLB Arizona State

5 154 Kroy Biermann LB Montana

6 172 Thomas Brown RB Georgia

7 212 Wilrey Fontenot CB Arizona

7 232 Keith Zinger TE Louisiana State

This could prove to be a great draft class. Making six picks in the first three rounds is uncommon. It goes without saying that the Falcons are banking on having a franchise QB in Ryan. They’re paying him an absurd amount ($72 million over six years). They clearly reached on Baker after the run on offensive tackles twisted their arm. Lofton is the latest Oklahoma linebacker to be drafted. The Falcons are hoping he works out better than his Sooner predecessors Rufus Alexander, Rocky Calmus and Teddy Lehman. Jackson will have a chance to compete right away, and they’re excited about Douglas as a slot receiver. DeCoud will likely start in 2009.

Atlanta Falcons 2008 Preview Report

We all know how bad it was. The 2007 Atlanta Falcons endured what might be the most disastrous single season in NFL history. Their 4-12 record paints too rosy a picture. And it’s not like they were prepared for the downfall. The Falcons went 7-9 in 2006–lackluster but not awful. Everything fell apart after that. Their franchise player went to prison. Their supposedly innovative new head coach divided the locker room before screwing them over. The ripple effect of both sucker punchers was torturous. After all was said and done, the Falcons franchise looked like football’s version of a before and after picture in an anti-Meth campaign.

Unlike so many downtrodden organizations, the Falcons weren’t entirely to blame for their problems. They simply made two good investments in what proved to be two bad people. Owner Arthur Blank handled both ordeals with the utmost class. There wasn’t a football fan in America that didn’t feel sorry for the billionaire –

except for maybe the billionaire himself.

Taking it on the chin and in stride, Blank was supportive of Michael Vick as a fellow man, and firm with him as a businessman. Blank went after $22 million of Vick’s original signing bonus, all but severing the last of the quarterback’s ties to the organization. (A judge ruled that Vick could keep the bonus.) Blank took a similar approach with Bobby Petrino. He allowed Petrino to bail on their agreement and bolt for Arkansas--why keep a head coach around if he didn’t want to be there?–but made sure that Petrino would not coach pro football in the immediate future. (Petrino’s dastardly midnight exit probably ensured that he’ll never coach pro football again.)

Soon after, Blank made his most critical move of all: the demolition. He tore down the Falcons and started anew. Team president Rich McKay, a former candidate for the commissioner job, was relieved of his player personnel duties in order to focus more on the franchise’s business aspects. Patriots director of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff was hired to take over as the general manager. Blank then stood back and watched his front office swing the wrecking balls.

To no one’s surprise, the first wrecking ball collapsed the deteriorated coaching staff. Only four assistants were retained (one of them was last season’s interim head coach Emmitt Thomas). Once the rubble was bulldozed, Dimitroff and McKay hired Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith to be the 14th head coach in club history. The low-profile, defensive-oriented Smith is the antithesis of Bobby Petrino. After constructing a new coaching staff, Smith quickly joined the front office in the demolition efforts.

Over a seven-week period, the Falcons axed disenchanted tight end Alge Crumpler (a four-time Pro Bowler), granted the release of august running back Warrick Dunn, cut ties with December-added quarterback Byron Leftwich, terminated the tenures of veterans Rod Coleman, Wayne Gandy and Lewis Sanders, said goodbye to safety Chris Crocker, traded cornerback DeAngelo Hall (a superstar but proverbial malcontent) and booted out mega-bust defensive back Jimmy Williams. Following many of the veterans out the door was the tension and strife that had polluted the locker room.

Blank’s crew didn’t focus only on razing the roster–they broke ground on what figures to be at least a two-year construction project. The Falcons addressed some immediate needs in free agency, most notably at running back where they signed 26-year-old Michael Turner, long known as LaDainian Tomlinson’s backup. Most importantly, they dialed in on the draft.

Thanks to the DeAngelo Hall trade, as well as the previous year’s trade of Matt Schaub (which came to be viewed as cruel irony after Vick’s imprisonment), Dimitroff had four second-round picks at his disposal, along with the No. 3 overall selection and a pair of third-round choices. After some draft day bartering, the Falcons came away with six rookies whom they think can one day start. Included in the six are a franchise quarterback (Matt Ryan), a left tackle (Sam Baker) and a middle linebacker (Curtis Lofton). That’s three players at three keynote positions.

The construction of Atlanta‘s foundation has not been without debate. Some have pointed out that the team did not follow its blueprints of building from the middle up front. (The Falcons have explained that the talent in this draft was too thin at the interior positions. )

Many have questioned whether Ryan is the right man to lead this franchise into tomorrow. Detractors argue that he had just one good season at Boston College. Backers counter that, when healthy, he’s been prolific in big moments. (And also that he has no dog fighting record.)

Atlanta traded two second-round picks to move up and snatch Baker at No. 21. Everyone agrees that this was a reach; Baker himself was even surprised to go so early. But with Dimitroff seeing five offensive tackles drafted in the first 19 slots, and shuddering at thoughts of guys like Renardo Foster and Quinn Ojinnaka protecting his new franchise quarterback’s blindside, he pulled the trigger on the quick but inconsistent ex-Trojan.

Lofton has not received nearly the amount of scrutiny as the two men picked ahead of him, but his selection was perhaps the most puzzling. The Falcons already had an upper-tier middle linebacker in Keith Brooking. And defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was the linebackers coach on a staff that raved about rookie weakside linebacker Stephen Nicholas a year ago. Dimitroff and company, however, were taken by Lofton’s passion and overachievement at Oklahoma. They drafted him to, they hope, be their immediate starting middle linebacker (Brookings moves back to his natural weakside position, Nicholas comes off the bench).

As usual, only time will tell with everything. Blank’s Falcons have embraced their rebuilding project and put the 2007 season forever behind them. They won’t win a lot of games in 2008–not with a lineup that, on quick-glance, features only six rock-solid contributors between both sides of the ball. But the Falcons are doing what they can. And really, what more can you ask for?

Offense

So should they throw the rookie to the wolves in Week 1? For years, the answer to this question has been dripping with pros and cons. There is a litany of case studies on the topic. And, like snowflakes, no two are alike. Troy Aikman started, struggled, then flourished. David Carr started, struggled, then floundered. Carson Palmer sat and later excelled. Jim Druckenmiller sat and never did anything.

Determining whether Matt Ryan is ready will be up to Mike Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. If they feel their $72 million ace is mentally prepared to handle the weight of an NFL playbook and onslaught of faster defenses, they’ll put him under center in September. If, however, they think that doing so raises the risk of scarring Ryan’s psyche and creating the next Joey Harrington, they’ll give the nod to placeholder Chris Redman. The 31-year-old Redman performed admirably in his four starts last season, registering a rating of 90.4 overall. Still, it is highly unlikely that the Falcons will soon have a Drew Brees-Philip Rivers situation on their hands. Redman, accurate as he may be, is neither athletic enough nor savvy enough to be a star.

The fact that Atlanta brought back Harrington suggests they may be inclined to wait patiently on Ryan. Harrington has proven incapable of starting, but he’s too good to be a No. 3. Essentially, he’s around to back up Redman.

A lot of times, the decision to start a rookie quarterback hinges on the coaching staff’s trust in the offensive line. Ryan has solid pocket mobility and showed strong poise throughout his senior season, but he can’t run for his life like the franchise quarterback here before him. Questions abound across Atlanta‘s front five. For starters, it’s still unclear how this team will handle Mularkey’s power-blocking approach. Center Todd McClure, right guard Kynan Forney and right tackle Todd Weiner were all here during the Alex Gibbs’s zone-blocking era. Last season, most of the O-linemen struggled with the transition from finesse to brute force under Petrino’s system. But, of course, that could have been a product of the system’s flaws.

The questions don’t stop at the scheme. Weiner is coming off microfracture surgery on his left knee. Few players recover from the operation. If Weiner becomes another statistic, then third-year pro Tyson Clabo will reoccupy the position he manned so well in Weiner’s absence last year. There’s also an outside chance that second-year guard Justin Blalock would move to right tackle. Blalock (6’4″, 329) has more than enough size, but he’s still developing his run-blocking range and awareness on the inside. Plus, moving him would likely put former left tackle Quinn Ojinnaka in the lineup at guard. Ojinnaka’s lack of lower-body strength would cause serious problems there.

Forney comes with questions as well–the main one being, Can he still play? He hasn’t been the same since his ’06 shoulder surgery. The Falcons, in fact, may want to consider using backup center Alex Stepanovich in this spot. Every team Stepanovich plays for seems to vacillate between starting the fifth-year pro or using him in an auxiliary role off the bench. If Atlanta starts Stepanovich, it likely wouldn’t be at center. Todd McClure is only 31 and still effective.

The questions about left tackle Sam Baker are relevant. Baker is already with the first unit (more experienced tackle Renardo Foster is big, but that’s about it). The issue for Baker will be how much tight end help he’ll require. Mularkey loves to utilize ace formations, so the template is there. But the personnel might not be.

Starter Ben Hartsock was a blocking specialist with Tennessee. Martrez Milner, a fourth-round pick a year ago, has shown positive signs blocking out of an H-back position. Fullback Ovie Mughelli is another presence, though most of his impact will come between the tackles.

In stark contrast to the Alge Crumpler years, none of Atlanta’s tight ends are receiving threats. Look for Mularkey to compensate for this by incorporating running backs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood more in the passing game. The 237-pound Turner established an identity as somewhat of a bruising back during his time in San Diego, but in fact, scouts give high grades to his abilities as a receiver. Norwood, raw as he remains, is also a reliable outlet. Prioritizing him in the passing game would be a wise move. There aren’t a lot of players who are more dangerous in space (for proof, YouTube some of the highlights behind Norwood’s absurd 6.2 career yards per carry average).

The key to the passing game will still be the wide receivers. Veteran Joe Horn remains Atlanta’s most recognized name on offense, but the 36-year-old isn’t happy about playing behind No. 4 wideout Michael Jenkins. Considering that Horn makes $2.5 million and isn’t much better than Adam Jennings, Atlanta probably isn’t too thrilled with the situation either. Don’t be surprised if, by the time you read this, Horn has already been released.

After seemingly dropping every ball he touched his first three years, Roddy White blossomed into a genuine weapon in 2007. Even with the Falcons’ unstable quarterback situation, White notched 83 receptions for 1,202 yards. He’s not much of a presence over the middle–he has concentration lapses in traffic and inadequate strength–but he can stretch the field and run nice routes.

White’s days as Atlanta’s premier receiver could actually be numbered if second-year pro Laurent Robinson harnesses all of his talent. Robinson has stunning quickness in and out of his breaks and will surprise not only by burning opponents with speed, but also by making plays in the short-range as well. If third-round rookie Harry Douglas can zip around from the slot as expected, the Falcons will present a lot of receiving speed for defenses to deal with.

Defense

If Mike Smith had to verbalize it, his words could be mistaken for dry humor. Okay Coach, you want to build your Cover 2 around a strong interior presence up front. I gotcha. So who are your tackles?…..Montavious Stanley and Jonathan Babineaux?……..Oh! I get it! Ha-ha. Good one, Coach.

He’s serious. As the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, Smith decided that he rather liked having Marcus Stroud and John Henderson regulating the trenches. But in Stanley and Babineaux, he has two decent-moving tackles who are by no means destructive enough to jointly control the line of scrimmage. Smith could even line up Tim Anderson, Kindal Moorehead and Rashad Moore directly behind the starters, play 14 on 11, and still not match the force he had in Stroud and Henderson.

Smith will tweak his mantra for the time being (if his Cover 2 was utterly dependent on having dominant tackles, the Falcons would have drafted Glenn Dorsey and signed Grady Jackson). Smith’s bigger issues could be at defensive end anyway. Last year’s first-round pick Jamaal Anderson started 16 games as a rookie and recorded the same number of sacks as Jimmy Carter. Anderson was unable to be explosive while processing NFL reads. When he finally settled down later in the season, he proved to be an immovable object against the run. Comfortable or not, Anderson will never be a big time pass-rusher, which is why the Falcons will slide him inside on third downs.

John Abraham is the other starting end. On the surface, you see a former Pro Bowler who led the team with 10 sacks last season. However, those 10 sacks don’t overwrite the vast number of plays that the fragile veteran gave up in the run game. Or the number of plays that he gave up on. If Chauncey Davis were a better player, Abraham would be coming off the bench as a pass-rushing specialist.

Strongside linebacker Michael Boley will have that role in 2008. Boley offers fluid speed and a good first-step–two traits that could also make him the team’s best linebacker if he plays with more aggression. Boley is not timid or lazy, he just doesn’t show the chipped shoulder needed to dominate.

Keith Brooking–the co-defensive captain with Lawyer Milloy–had his wish granted and will move back to his natural weakside position. Brooking prefers to operate in space, where he can use his speed to chase the ball. Triple-digit tackle totals are a given with him. What he must do is be a leader and help rookie Curtis Lofton handle his starting middle linebacker duties (assuming Loften can take the job from undrafted second-year guy Tony Taylor). Up-and-comer Stephen Nicholas, a fourth-round pick a year ago, will become an up-and-stayer in a reserve role.

Atlanta’s wild card will be the defensive backfield. There is a gaping hole to fill at left cornerback where DeAngelo Hall and his supersized ego once resided. Elite cornerbacks are hard to come by in pro football, and the Falcons may soon regret dealing the one they had. Former Texan Von Hutchins is slated to start in Hall’s place. Hutchins is underrated in pure coverage. He has very fluid technique and can stay with the quickest of receivers, despite not being physical. He’s not much of a tackler, which is why it would be foolish for Atlanta to follow through on the idea of playing him at safety.

Chris Houston is the right cornerback. He survives with acceptable athleticism and okay open-field abilities, but he’s not ready to handle the responsibilities of being the No. 1 guy. Chevis Jackson was drafted in the third round because his game is tailored for a Cover 2 scheme. If he progresses quicker than expected, he’ll take the nickel back job from David Irons. There’s also an outside chance that former undrafted free agent Brent Grimes–a Shippensburg product–could work his way into the mix.

Thirty-four-year-old strong safety Lawyer Milloy is approaching his post-football life, but don’t assume that he can’t still be a factor in run support. Milloy lacks range in coverage, and it’s suspect how effective newcomer Erik Coleman will be in this sense. Coleman plays at an accelerated pace, but he never showed playmaking capabilities as a Jet. Coaches are high on third-round pick Thomas DeCoud after seeing the amount of ground he covers when the ball’s in the air. DeCoud has picked up the Cover 2 scheme in a hurry, but his inexperience will leave him in a reserve role for at least the first half of the season.

Special Teams

What? No Morten Andersen? Not yet anyway. The ancient kicker usually makes his way onto the roster sometime around Halloween, though the Falcons are hoping that the addition of Jason Elam will stop that. Elam is 10 years younger than Andersen but still close to 40. His range will decrease now that he’s left the elevation in Denver, but Atlanta is confident in his power.

In all likelihood, they’ll still continue to refer to Michael Koenen on kickoffs. Koenen’s main responsibilities are punting, which he did well last season (30 balls inside the 20-yard-line versus five touchbacks).

Jerious Norwood is the kick returner, though you wonder if this will remain the case should his role in the offense increase. Punt returner Adam Jennings ran back a few kicks last season. He is ho-hum with the ball in his hands.

Bottom Line

Right now, just about anything is possible in the NFL. If the Atlanta Falcons somehow reach the postseason, you can change that to read “just about anything is possible in the NFL.” The offense is being pieced together but, like the defense, still has a long ways to go. The morale of this team shouldn’t be an issue; Arthur Blank has done a wonderful job of moving his organization forward after the catastrophe that was the 2007 season.

Myth Buster

Wide Receiver Joe Horn is a leader.

This is a tough one to write. You can’t forget the role Horn played in New Orleans‘s post-Katrina efforts two years ago. His dignity that season was nothing short of honorable.

Unfortunately for the Falcons, Horn’s leadership never followed him across the Georgia border. This was evident last season when, on Monday night, he engaged in Roddy White’s senseless touchdown mafficking by pointing out White’s “Free Mike Vick” shirt under his jersey (Vick had just been sentenced to 23 months in prison that day).

Imagine what Arthur Blank and Falcon officials felt when they saw their players–and supposed leader–glorifying the circumstances that had humiliated and doomed the organization. The Vick story was the blaze that burned the Falcons. And on a nationally televised stage, the veteran leader Horn poured gasoline on it.

This occurred roughly five months before Horn would request a trade after realizing he was on the brink of falling out of the receiver rotation. Horn did not make a bunch of noise like so many receivers seem to do, but he certainly forgot that he was brought in to help teach the young guys.

Open Thought

The Falcons once played in what many considered the finest stadium in football. In the early 90’s, the Georgia Dome was a glistening venue. Although Arthur Blank has spent more than $150 million in renovations–mainly adding club seating–the general look and feel of the place has fallen out of date in this era of retractable roof stadiums.

Watching games in old domes is depressing–especially during the daytime. It’s Sunday afternoon and you’re already indoors, glued to the television. Seeing a game that is also indoors just amplifies the lethargy you feel yourself wallowing in.


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