A lot of people expected big things from Matt Ryan in 2009.
Perhaps their wants came a year too soon -- while his touchdown production was much improved, Ryan's completion percentage, passing yardage and yards per attempt average slid. He also didn't complete nearly as many deep balls as he had as a rookie and struggled through a chunk of the season with a toe injury.
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Ryan's numbers reflected a disappointing season for the Falcons; while they expected another playoff appearance, they finished 9-7 and missed the postseason. Tight end Tony Gonzalez started hot for the team in his first year outside of Kansas City but struggled to the finish line. Running back Michael Turner suffered a high-ankle sprain just after the midseason and couldn't get healthy, costing Fantasy owners dearly. It seemed like only Roddy White came through for Fantasy owners for all of last season.
The year might be different, but the expectations remain the same for the Falcons: Playoffs or bust. Everyone from Ryan to Gonzalez to owner Arthur Blank knows that opportunities to make a Super Bowl run don't come every year. Though the Falcons have a lot of young components to their personnel, they also can't let the best years of their quality players slip by. Watching the division-rival Saints hoist the Lombardi Trophy surely doesn't take any pressure off either.
The good news is that the Falcons have instilled a culture of everyone dedicating themselves to the team. Ryan, Turner and other Falcons have spent much of their offseason together in hopes of building chemistry and putting together that title run. Not many teams can say they've done that. Time will tell if it results in bigger numbers for them.
Late-round flier ... Harry Douglas, WR
We were bummed when Douglas tore his ACL last August. He didn't play a snap in 2009 but has had the benefit of a calendar year to rehab, get ready for 2010 and study the Falcons offense. Though he's not completely 100 percent as of late June, he is expected to contribute for the Falcons, and the team is expected to utilize the shifty receiver in the slot. The truth is that there aren't many sleepers in Atlanta, but anyone who could pick up a few yards easy on every short-area catch should get put under the microscope. If you're in a deep league, Douglas is worth a late-round pick. Otherwise, keep his name on your scout list and be ready to pounce if he starts to take targets away from the likes of Michael Jenkins (and maybe even Gonzalez) this season.
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Breakout ... Matt Ryan, QB
Too obvious? Probably, but we think Ryan's decline in his second season is a huge part of his motivation to play well in 2010. Ryan has continued to take on the traits of quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, studying their game film as well as his own. Moreover, the Falcons are reportedly opening up the playbook more this season, the likes of which should give Ryan better opportunities to post stats. He's got some great natural skills, has got a very good receiving corps to throw to and a staunch offensive line protecting him. How far off is he from being the next Manning or Brees? That's a little wild to suggest, but if he's a notch or even two notches lower in 2010 then he's a steal as a low-end No. 1 starter (or amazing backup) with a mid-round pick.
Bust ... Jason Snelling, RB
Again, an obvious choice, but he's really the only notable Falcons player who isn't expected to match 2009 totals in 2010. Snelling had five total touchdowns and over 850 total yards last season, most of which came while replacing Michael Turner in the team's final seven games. Turner is healthy this season, and even though the Falcons say they're going to lop off some of his workload, which presumably would go to Snelling, the smart money is on Turner having plenty of big games and a stranglehold on the goal-line job. Snelling will only come into play if Turner's ankle acts up on him again like it did last year.
This is a better schedule than what the Falcons had to deal with last season -- and that's saying something since they open in Pittsburgh! They have a really great slate for late in the season when Fantasy titles will be on the line, and even the home game against the Ravens isn't so bad since Baltimore will be playing on a short week. If you weren't in love with taking Michael Turner in drafts before, perhaps you should be, and the passing offense has just as nice of a schedule, complete with a three-game homestand with a bye in-between (they have a three-game road trek too, but it's not so bad).
Training camp topics
Turner's health and day-to-day maintenance is something to watch out for. As we noted last season as it was happening, the Falcons seemingly botched their stud workhorse's recovery from his high-ankle sprain, costing Fantasy owners dearly. But he's taken good care of it this offseason and should be fine. Don't be surprised if they rest him a couple times a week, though.
There has also been talk of this being Tony Gonzalez's final NFL season. The future Hall of Famer told CBSSports.com in February that he's contemplating retirement after this year, and he's really jonesing for a ring. Expecting him to go all out in what might be his final season isn't a stretch, though he has put in a great effort every year since entering the league in 1997. He's still the best tight end among the second tier at the position, not quite good enough to draft ahead of guys like Antonio Gates and Dallas Clark but better than Owen Daniels, Chris Cooley and Kellen Winslow.
And in case you needed any more proof that the Falcons are trying to get their run together now, they made moves to improve their defense by signing free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson to a huge deal in March and drafting linebacker Sean Witherspoon and defensive lineman Corey Peters in April. They'll also get back beefy run-stuffer Peria Jerry, helping their run defense even further. If John Abraham can squeeze out one more season as a quality pass rusher, head coach Mike Smith's defense could raise some eyebrows.
Michael Turner (ankle; probable for the start of training camp) ... Jerious Norwood (hip; probable for the start of training camp) ... Harry Douglas (knee; questionable for the start of training camp) ... Peria Jerry (leg; probable for the start of training camp) ... Kerry Meier (hamstring; questionable for the start of training camp).
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