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2014 Team Report: Atlanta Falcons
QuarterbacksStarter: Matt Ryan
Backup(s): T.J. Yates, Sean Renfree Starting QB: Matt Ryan improved steadily as a passer from 2010-2012, going from 3,705 yards passing with 28 TDs and just nine interceptions thrown during 2010 to 4,177 yards passing, 29 TDs and 12 interceptions thrown in 2011 and finishing 2012 with 4,719 yards passing, with 32 TDs and 14 interceptions thrown. However, during the 2013 season Ryan hit a plateau in his numbers (even though he attempted a career-high 651 passes and completed a career-high 439 passes) with 439/651 for 4,515 yards passing, 26 TDs and 17 interceptions. His yardage and TD numbers dipped enough to bounce him down to #10 among all fantasy passers last year after finishing sixth among all fantasy quarterbacks during 2012. A major part of Ryan's (and the Falcons') struggles during last year's 4-12 disaster of a season was due to the early loss of #1 wide receiver Julio Jones (lost after week five, 2013 due to injury). Jones had over 100 yards in three of the five games he appeared in last season, and 99 yards receiving in a fourth, before going down to a fractured foot (the second time he's broken the foot in the same place). During the first five games of the season - with Jones in the lineup - Ryan threw for over 300 yards three times, over 400 yards once, and he connected for two TDs per game (10 over the first five contests) with just three total interceptions during that span of time. After Jones went down, Ryan had over 300 yards passing in just three other contests all year, no games over 400, and threw 14 of his 17 interceptions during the final two-thirds of the season. Compounding the woes at wide receiver, veteran Roddy White only managed 93 targets for 63/711/3 receiving over parts of 13 games last season - he was hampered for a long stretch of the season with a high ankle sprain and pulled hamstring and didn't really recover top form until late in the year. With his top two threats at wide receiver absent for long stretches of the season, it is small wonder that Ryan's numbers regressed during 2013. Ryan's been among the top-ten fantasy quarterbacks for four straight seasons, though, playing in all 16 games for the past four years - Ryan's durability hasn't been an issue at all thus far in his pro career. Ryan is just now entering the prime years of his career at 29 years of age. He is the linchpin of the Atlanta offense - Ryan handled 651 of the 659 passes attempted during regular-season by the Falcons last year. With both Jones and White on the mend, the 2014 campaign looks bright for Ryan and his fantasy owners, though his fantasy owners or those considering drafting him will want to monitor Jones' and White's recoveries during training camp. Backup QB: A June 19 trade brought T.J. Yates to the Falcons, and led to Dominique Davis being waived. Yates had appeared in 13 games for the Texans over three previous seasons, with his biggest showing being 82/134 for 949 yards passing, one TD and three interceptions for Houston during six games in 2011. Yates appears to be locked in as the backup to Matt Ryan. Second-year player Sean Renfree (Duke) was NFL Network's Mike Mayock's sleeper QB of the 2013 draft, and the Falcons scooped him up in the seventh round of the draft at pick #43 (249 overall). Renfree is a high-percentage passer, who hit 282/434 (64.9% completion percentage) for 2,891 yards passing, 14 TDs and 11 interceptions for Duke during 2011 and 297/442 (67.2% completion percentage) for 3.113 yards, 19 TDs and 10 interceptions during 2012. Renfree did practice and play during the 2013 training camp, but suffered an undisclosed injury in the final preseason game and landed on IR for 2013. Jeff Matthews, a record-setting quarterback at Cornell, was signed by the Falcons as an undrafted free agent on May 10, 2014. He'll battle Renfree for the #3 spot on the Falcons' quarterback depth chart during training camp.
Running BacksStarter: Steven Jackson
Backup(s): Jacquizz Rodgers, Devonta Freeman, Antone Smith
Fullback(s): Patrick DiMarco Starting RB: Steven Jackson arrived in Atlanta via free agency on March 14, 2013, signing a three-year contract with the Falcons. He'd had eight straight 1,000+ yards-rushing seasons prior to signing with the Falcons, but his 2013 campaign was derailed by a torn hamstring, suffered during Week two of the 2013 season - he didn't manage a single game of over 100 yards rushing the entire season, even once he finally returned to the field during Week eight of 2013. 'Unfortunately, Steven was injured last year and we didn't really get a chance to see what he was capable of doing until the last four or five games,' head coach Mike Smith said on March 28, 2014. Jackson ended 2013 with 156/542/6 rushing and 33/191/1 receiving over 12 appearances. Jackson will be 31 on July 22nd, 2013. It remains to be seen if Jackson can bounce back to his pre-injury form on the wrong side of 30 - the selection of running back DeVonta Freeman at 4.03 of the 2014 NFL Draft enhanced the depth at running back behind Jackson, and some observers view Freeman as a potential contributor in the Falcons' pass-heavy offense. The Falcons ranked 24th in the NFL in yards-per-carry last season, averaging 3.9 yards per carry - there is definitely room for improvement up front on the offensive line. The selection of OT Jake Matthews at 1.06 in the NFL Draft should help open up some better running lanes for Jackson during 2014, as should the arrival of veteran offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and Jon Asamoah via free agency. Unfortunately for the Falcons, Jackson suffered ANOTHER hamstring injury in practice on Monday, July 28 - this time it is to his other hamstring (not the same one injured last year). The team is saying he'll be ready for week one of regular season, but we all remember how Jackson's last soft tissue injury worked out... Freeman may have a big opportunity here-and-now. Backup RBs: Jacquizz Rodgers has spent his three year career in Atlanta filling the change-of-pace/third-down back duties, at which he is a respectable producer - so far he's accumulated 248/900/4 rushing and 126/931/4 receiving as a Falcon. Last year, serving in Steven Jackson's place for part of the season, Rodgers managed 97/333/2 rushing (career highs in carries and rushing TDs) while also snagging 52/341/2 receiving to set a career high in receiving TDs. The Falcons ranked 24th in the NFL in yards-per-carry last season, averaging 3.9 yards per carry - there is definitely room for improvement up front on the offensive line. The selection of OT Jake Matthews at 1.06 in the NFL Draft should help open up some better running lanes for Rodgers during 2014, as should the arrival of veteran offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and Jon Asamoah via free agency. DeVonta Freeman was selected at 4.03 of the 2014 draft (Florida State). Head coach Mike Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff believe that Freeman can be a feature back at this level - he is an accomplished pass-blocker which is a major hurdle for a lot of young running backs to overcome, and the pass-happy Falcons need a good pass-blocker at the running back position. Footballguy Matt Waldman expects Freeman to compete for touches on the football this season and potentially supplant Jacquizz Rodgers as the #2 in Atlanta for 2014, with the possibility of becoming the lead back if Steven Jackson again goes down to injury, or in the event that Jackson and Atlanta part ways after the 2014 season. Freeman is one of the potential fantasy stars on the horizon entering the 2014 season, but it may take a year or two before he gets his big chance at a headlining role in Atlanta. Steven Jackson's July 28 hamstring injury may have accelerated the opportunity for Freeman, as Jackson is expected to be out until week one of regular season according to the latest information from the Falcons' coaching staff. Antone Smith is a lightly-utilized backup who has seen a total of six rushes during his four-year career in Atlanta. He did post 5/145/2 rushing last year, while seeing three targets for 2/10/0 receiving. Fullback: Bradie Ewing had zero carries and two receptions for 29 yards last season - his first in Atlanta. Falcons' fullbacks are unlikely to produce fantasy-worthy numbers during 2014.
Wide ReceiversStarters: Roddy White, Julio Jones
Backups: Harry Douglas, Devin Hester, Courtney Roby, Eric Weems Starting WRs: Julio Jones enters the 2014 season as the unquestioned #1 wide receiver in the Falcons' stable of pass catchers. His impact on the team's offense was made clear during 2013 as the Falcons' passing attack struggled in Jones absence - (he was lost after week five, 2013 due to a fractured foot). Jones had over 100 yards in three of the five games he appeared in last season, and 99 yards receiving in a fourth, before going down to the foot injury (the second time he's broken the foot in the same place). During the first five games of the season - with Jones in the lineup - Ryan threw for over 300 yards three times, over 400 yards once, and he connected for two TDs per game (10 over the first five contests) with just three total interceptions during that span of time. Assuming Jones has fully recovered from his foot injury, he should have no problem returning to or surpassing the level we saw from him during 2012 (138 targets for 79/1198/10 receiving over 16 games). He is one of the dominant, young wide receivers in the NFL right now at 25 years of age. With legendary tight end Tony Gonzalez now in retirement, Jones and his compatriots at wide receiver - Roddy White and Harry Douglas - are likely to see even more opportunities to catch the football during the upcoming NFL season as the wide receivers will inherit some of the 120-130 targets and 80-90 receptions that Gonzalez handled annually while with the Falcons. Roddy White is the Falcons' #2 wideout despite entering the 2014 season at 32 years of age. Unfortunately, White only managed 93 targets for 63/711/3 receiving over parts of 13 games last season - he was hampered for a long stretch of the season with a high ankle sprain and pulled hamstring and didn't really recover top form until late in the year. Over the three seasons prior to 2013, White averaged 102 receptions, 1,345 yards receiving, and 8.3 TDs per season, although the reception numbers did decline from 115 to 100 and then 92 during 2010-2012 as Julio Jones came increasingly to the fore as the Falcons' top threat at wide receiver. Together, White and Jones form one of the most-feared tandems of starting wide receivers in the NFL. Backup WRs: Harry Douglas is a solid #3 wide receiver, and proved last season he can step into the starting lineup and produce respectable numbers (132 targets for 85/1,067/2 receiving in relief of Jones and White last year). With legendary tight end Tony Gonzalez now in retirement, Douglas and his compatriots at wide receiver - Roddy White and Julio Jones - are likely to see even more opportunities to catch the football during the upcoming NFL season. Even as Douglas returns to the #3 wide receiver role he's filled when White and Jones are both healthy, he'll likely produce more than he did prior to 2013 (generally around 40 receptions and 400-500 yards receiving with a TD while teamed with Jones and White during 2011 and 2012) as the wide receivers will inherit some of the 120-130 targets and 80-90 receptions that Gonzalez handled annually while with the Falcons. If Roddy White or Julio Jones were again to miss time during 2014 for whatever reason, Douglas would be the player to own or grab off the waiver wire. Drew Davis (17 targets for 12/216/2 receiving last season) and Kevin Cone (one target for 1/12/0 receiving during 2013) are depth players who have little role in the offense when White, Jones and Douglas are healthy. Devin Hester will handle the kick and punt returns for the Falcons during 2014 - it would be a surprise to see him with more than a handful of receptions.
Tight EndsStarters: Levine Toilolo
Backups: Andrew Szczerba, Mickey Shuler Sure-fire Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez has left the Falcons' house, and the NFL, leaving behind super-sized Levine Toilolo to fill Gonzalez's sizable shoes during the upcoming 2014 season. Playing behind Gonzalez last season Toilolo appeared in 15 games and handled 15 targets for 11/55/2 receiving. He is a huge (6' 8", 260 pounds) tight end who showed a knack in the red-zone on limited touches during 2013. Having spent a season playing behind one of the best tight ends in NFL history will have provided valuable lessons to the second-year player, but he is unlikely to see the 120-130 targets and 80-90 receptions that Gonzalez enjoyed during his years in Atlanta. However, if Toilolo proves capable of handling short-to-intermediate routes and moving the chains, he could be more prominent in the offense than many believe - it is interesting to note that the Falcons did not draft a tight end in May and haven't added a significant free agent to compete with Toilolo, indicating the team is satisfied to stand pat with him for the 2014 season. 'Levine is going to be a good football player in this league,' GM Thomas Dimitroff said on January 13, 2014. 'Where he ends up in terms of the depth chart will have a lot to do with how we scheme and play our tight ends in the future.' Andrew Szczerba played college ball at Penn State, while Mickey Shuler also played at Penn State and has bounced around the league since 2010 - Atlanta is his eighth pro team during the past five years.
Place KickerMatt Bryant: Kicker Matt Bryant did well on a reduced workload last year - hitting 24 of 27 (88.9%) field goals, including 3 of 5 from 50+ yards. The specialist trio remains intact for 2013, as long snapper Josh Harris and holder/punter/kickoff-specialist Matt Bosher are also back. After jumping up to 5th place in kicker scoring opportunities in 2012, the Falcons dropped back down last year, ending up in 24th place.
Kick and Punt ReturnersKick Returners: Devin Hester, Eric Weems, Robert Alford Devin Hester showed no signs of being slowed by age as the 31-year old led the league in kickoff return yards in 2014. Hester should again dominate the return game for the Falcons again this season. The offseason departure of Jacquizz Rodgers to Chicago leaves an opening for Hester's backup. Defensive backs Eric Weems and Robert Alford both have return experience and could be called upon in a pinch. Punt Returners: Devin Hester, Robert Alford, Phillip Adams, Eric Weems The punt and kick return situations in Atlanta are similar both in that Devin Hester will be the primary returner, and that the backup positions were affected by offseason roster churn. Robert Alford remains a candidate, though the team might also look at cornerback Phillip Adams who comes to the team from Oakland. Adams has 37 career punt returns for the 49ers and Raiders, though only maintained a 6.1 yard average.
Offensive LineProjected Starters: LT Sam Baker, LG Justin Blalock, C Joe Hawley, RG Jon Asamoah, RT Jake Matthews [R]
Key Backups: T Lamar Holmes, G/C Peter Konz, T Ryan Schraeder, G Harland Gunn, G/T Mike Johnson, T Gabe Carimi The Falcons were among the league’s worst units last season, but are on the road to respectability with two major moves this offseason: drafting Jake Matthews and signing Jon Asamoah. Asamoah is a polarizing player among Chiefs fans, as many see their line performing better when he left the lineup. Still, Asamoah is a huge upgrade over Garrett Reynolds and Peter Konz, both of whom floundered last season at the position. Matthews, taken with the sixth overall pick of the NFL draft, should start immediately as a rookie, playing the same right tackle position he manned at Texas A&M before Luke Joeckel graduated. Some scouts say Matthews’ right tackle film is more impressive than his left tackle film, and there are concerns about his arm length. Still, Matthews is a technician who will eventually take over for the much beleaguered Sam Baker on the left side. Baker can be relied upon for average left tackle play when healthy but that is an increasingly rare status for him. Baker ended the season on the injured reserve with knee surgery and will be looking for a bounce back season. Left guard Justin Blalock was clearly the team’s best lineman last season, the only regular starter who did not get benched. Center Joe Hawley received a new contract this offseason, as a reward for his play as a starter after the team decided to demote Konz to the second team. Hawley is a solid player and keeping him around helps their cohesion. As for depth, the team is high on Ryan Schraeder in the long term but Lamar Holmes will also compete for the swing tackle role. Konz will make the team as a backup center but Mike Johnson is in serious danger of being cut. Gabe Carimi could actually make this team as a backup guard but there are rumors that his knee never fully recovered from injuries suffered during the rookie year. Overall this unit is still below average but their trend line is pointed upwards; they could actually be good should their new additions pan out well.
Team DefenseThe Falcons made some curious moves in the offseason and it's easy to wonder how much they improved on defense. They'll count on the aging Osi Umemyiora to generate a pass rush from the outside and the oft-injured Sean Weatherspoon to control the inside at ILB. Weatherspoon could be a star if he could stay healthy, but if doesn't this defense could be really bad against the run. In the secondary William Moore is a very solid safety but the team still has question marks around him. They'll be counting on more improvement from Trufant in his second year as they really need him to be a shutdown corner.
Defensive LineStarters: NT Paul Soliai, DT Jonathan Babineaux, DE Tyson Jackson, DE Kroy Biermann
Backups: DE Vic Beasley, DT/DE Ra’Shede Hageman, DE Cliff Matthews, DE Adrian Clayborn, DE O’Brien Schofield, DE Malliciah Goodman, DE Stansly Maponga, DT Grady Jarrett Starting DL: Former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has taken the reins in Atlanta and with his arrival heralds a scheme change. Reports this offseason – and indeed quotes from the man himself – have indicated that he won’t necessarily scrap the 4-3 that Atlanta had been using in 2014, but rather incorporate new elements into it. It is widely speculated that Quinn will adopt 3-4 elements and have a designated ‘Leo’ defensive end as in Seattle. If the Falcons line up in a 4-3 front, Paul Soliai and Jonathan Babineaux are likely to get the nod on the inside. Babineaux has been a Falcon his entire career and still has plenty to offer as a pass rusher, even at the age of 33. Soliai, the free agent acquisition from last year, disappointed in his first season in Georgia, and will be expected to improve as a stout run defender in 2015. Tyson Jackson will more than likely be moved all over the line, but if required he could line up at left defensive end and be a stout presence against the run, albeit not a pass rusher extraordinaire. After originally being released by Atlanta this offseason, Kroy Biermann was re-signed and should fit in well as the ‘Otto’ defensive end in Quinn’s scheme. In this role, he will be afforded the opportunity to rush the passer first and play the run second. Biermann led the team in sacks (4.5) and tackles (75) last season and should be a nice chess piece for this new scheme. Backup DL: The Falcons invested their first round pick in speedy edge rusher Vic Beasley. With some refinement to his technique, the young stud should see the field early as a designated pass rusher, gradually transitioning into the full-time 'Leo' role. The team certainly doesn't lack options in depth along the defensive line, but overall quality may be lacking. Second-year pro Ra’Shede Hageman is the most talented of the group. Hageman, a star of last year’s ‘Hard Knocks’, has lost a bit of weight this offseason and appears leaner and stronger. If he can translate it to the field, he could secure a starting berth or at the very least be a strong rotational option. Veteran Adrian Clayborn was signed after he and the Bucs parted ways. Clayborn is more of a run stopper than a pass rusher and could be a nice interchangeable piece along the front seven. O’Brien Schofield saw only limited snaps in Seattle last season but as a player who is familiar with the scheme, could have a leg up on his teammates to see early snaps. Fifth round pick Grady Jarrett could earn a primary backup role within a year and see meaningful snaps as a rotational gap-plugger in year one.
LinebackersStarters: MLB Paul Worrilow, SLB Brooks Reed, WLB Justin Durant
Backups: LB Allen Bradford, LB Nathan Stupar, LB Prince Shembo, LB Joplo Bartu, LB Marquis Spruill, LB Tyler Starr Starting LBs: Not the fastest or the prettiest making plays, Paul Worrilow nonetheless gets the job done for the Falcons at middle linebacker. The plucky linebacker has led the team in tackles the past two seasons and projects as the only ‘sure fire’ every-down linebacker the Falcons currently have on the roster. Recent signing Justin Durant may have something to say about that, however. Durant, a veteran who has bounced around from team to team, should slot in at weakside linebacker. Not the player he used to be, Durant can still contribute and will be a strong presence on the second level. Brooks Reed rounds out the presumed starting trio after he was signed from Houston on a five-year deal. He offers great versatility, having played both inside and outside linebacker in his career. Reed could be a nice ‘Joker’ for the Falcons defense to play around with; he could see time as the ‘Leo’. Backup LBs: The most interesting and noteworthy talent among the backups is Prince Shembo, who new head coach Dan Quinn went out of his way to praise this offseason. Quinn wants to work Shembo ‘back outside’ in 2014, eschewing the weakside role he occasionally filled last season. Joplo Bartu will provide nice veteran depth.
Defensive BacksStarters: CB Desmond Trufant, CB Robert Alford, SS William Moore, FS Kemal Ishmael
Backups: CB Jalen Collins, CB Ricardo Allen, CB Phillip Adams, S Dezmen Southward, S Charles Godfrey Starting DBs: Desmond Trufant has made his case with his play as one of the finest young cornerbacks in the game. To use a Seahawks comparison, he will be the Richard Sherman of the defense, athletic enough to stay stride for stride with receivers and expected to put his nose in and make tackles on the perimeter. The same will be asked of Robert Alford, who disappointed in his second season. With little competition for the starting jobs at this point, however, he should get the first crack. At safety, veteran William Moore returns at strong safety. He could be given more of an in-the-box role if the Falcons can find their Earl Thomas. If the season started today, Kemal Ishmael would start at free safety. Ishmael totalled 77 tackles and 22 assists as he moved between free and strong safety last year, but lacks ideal speed (4.63) and could be ousted for a better option. Backup DBs: The Falcons bolstered their depth at defensive back with the addition of former LSU cornerback Jalen Collins in the second round of the draft. Collins, who only made 10 starts in college, reminded draft analyst Mike Mayock of Antonio Cromartie. Collins' length will be an asset in a division with many big-bodied receivers. Otherwise, the Falcons have little in the way of quality depth at the defensive back position. Former Jet Phillip Adams was signed as veteran depth, but is a liability in coverage. Charles Godfrey was released by the Panthers last season and would be the primary backup at safety. Last modified: 2015-05-06 09:03:13