In a season where the Falcons were predicted to contend for the Super Bowl, they finished 4-12.
Many will attribute that to the loss of receiver Julio Jones, but there were more reasons than that. The offensive line was awful and hindered both the run and pass games. The defense couldn't put up much of a fight (the Falcons ranked 29th in sacks with 32 and 29th in interceptions with 10). And close games were not helpful -- of the Falcons' 12 losses, eight were by 7 points or less.
The Falcons reacted accordingly this offseason, revamping the defense to be more reliant on a 3-4 scheme. To that end, two new defensive linemen were signed -- nose tackle Paul Soliai and big defensive end Tyson Jackson -- and drafted Ra'Shede Hageman with a second-round choice. That should help them control the line of scrimmage better, but they made similar enhancements offensively. First-round pick Jake Matthews bulks up an offensive line that added guard Jon Asamoah in free agency.
Such moves are positive steps for a team that still has Super Bowl aspirations, though losing a future Hall of Famer tends to set teams like this back. That's another factor working against the Falcons this year as Tony Gonzalez has called it a career. The legendary tight end, productive down to his final season, has left the Falcons with a bit of a quagmire: They've been a potent offense for the years they had him, but can they do it without him? Mike Smith believes moving to a three-receiver base formation that puts Harry Douglas on the field more often will keep the points coming.
If Douglas works out then he'll be a key part of an offense loaded with names well known in the Fantasy community. Jones' return is on schedule, Roddy White is healthy compared to where he was and Steven Jackson, for all of the concerns about him breaking down, is in good shape heading into camp. Surrounded by this talent and an improved O-line, Matt Ryan is in a position to make people forget about last season. The Falcons seemingly already have.
Don't sleep on ... Roddy White
For many Falcons, 2013 was a wash. That's definitely the case for White, who struggled to play through a high-ankle sprain for most of the season. His receiving average was at a career-worst 11.3 yards, he had under 80 catches for the first time in seven seasons and had just three touchdowns, half as many as his worst year since becoming a full-time starter in 2007.
You should absolutely expect a bounce-back campaign, as White is healthy and should be a regular participant in training camp. Moreover, with Gonzalez retiring, there will be plenty of targets up for grabs. White might not have the speed and quickness to round up close to 20 catches of 20-plus yards, so he'll need to convert his targets into receptions and use that volume to produce Fantasy points like he did to end last season. We think he'll get back to the 1,000-yard, seven-touchdown plateau, so long as he doesn't get banged up again.
Bust ... Steven Jackson
It's painful to call any long-standing, successful Fantasy rusher a bust, but Jackson has all the red flags of a player who shouldn't be counted on in 2014.
He has 2,571 carries over his career (including postseason work), he missed four games last season with an injury, he hasn't had more than six rushing touchdowns in a season since 2008, his rushing and receiving averaged dropped in 2013 and the Falcons added another running back in Devonta Freeman to help ease Jackson's workload. Jacquizz Rodgers also is in the mix.
Maybe we'll be wrong and Jackson will rebound to post exciting numbers in his 11th NFL season behind an improved but still suspect offensive line. But we wouldn't bet on it. Even with a nice finish last season (nine-plus Fantasy points in five of his final six games), Jackson is a risky pick, even if it's in Round 5 or 6 when the running back pool becomes uncomfortably shallow.
Late-rounder/dynasty target ... Devonta Freeman
|Steven Jackson||190 (157 car., 33 rec.)||24.8%|
|Jacquizz Rodgers||148 (96 car., 52 rec.)||19.3%|
|Harry Douglas||85 rec.||11.1%|
|Tony Gonzalez||83 rec.||10.8%|
|Jason Snelling||73 (44 car., 29 rec.)||9.5%|
|Roddy White||63 rec.||8.2%|
|Julio Jones||42 (41 rec., 1 car.)||5.5%|
Maybe one of the reasons why we're not buying Jackson is because we are buying Freeman.
Though he's not as massive as Jackson, the 5-foot-8, 206-pound Freeman can run inside, hit the edges, catch passes and speed away from defenders. Though his pass protection skills were questioned by coach Mike Smith in early June, there's time for him to round into form and be a contributor for the Falcons, especially for when Jackson breaks down or needs some time on the sideline.
At Florida State, Freeman scored 21 total times over 404 carries in three seasons, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and totaling over 2,700 total yards. Freeman is an absolute must in Round 10 or so if you draft Jackson, or even if you don't. He'll go a bit earlier than that in dynasty/keeper leagues. In rookie-only drafts we've come around so much on Freeman that we think he's worth a pick as soon as 15th overall.
If you're wondering where the challenging pass defenses are for the Falcons' offense, you'll be pleased to know that they're not common on the schedule. The Bengals, Bears, Cardinals and maybe the Browns are the only ones that might actually put a challenge into Atlanta's receivers. The Buccaneers and Panthers both finished as Top 10 units against the pass last year, but both lost quality cornerbacks this spring, making them suspect. The catch is, many of the Falcons opponents have good pass rushers, so it will be imperative for their O-line to be ready, including right from the jump against the Saints in Week 1. It kind of stinks that the Falcons will begin the year with three games in their first 11 days, and it doesn't help that their first seven road games are outdoors (two on grass), but overall it's not bad for the offense.
Training camp battles
What's the pecking order at running back? So long as he's able, Jackson will start. How the reps behind him get divided remains to be seen. Jacquizz Rodgers has been a stable -- albeit underwhelming -- backup for the last two seasons. Freeman has potential to either replace Jackson in case of injury or replace Rodgers as the passing downs back. How much Freeman pushes to get work in camp is something worth keeping track of, since he has far more upside than Rodgers at this point.
Is Levine Toilolo going to matter? When asked about the second-year tight end this offseason, head coach Mike Smith referred to Toilolo as an "assist man" rather than a "scorer" for the Falcons. That suggests that while Toilolo could play a lot and maybe get involved near the goal line, chances are he won't be even half as productive as Gonzalez was for the team. Training camp will be Toilolo's time to change that thinking.
Who's rushing the passer? The Falcons might open camp with Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi as their primary outside linebackers. Massaquoi had four sacks last year and Biermann didn't have any -- thanks to a torn Achilles suffered in Week 2 -- but has never had more than five sacks in a season. Can last year's team sack leader Osi Umenyiora (7.5) make the transition to a stand-up rusher?
When Matt Ryan had Julio Jones for five games last season, he averaged 23.2 Fantasy points per game and had at least 22 points in four of those five games (and 19 in the other). Without him he averaged 15.9 Fantasy points per game over 11 games with three matchups resulting in 20-plus points (none with 19).
Jones himself had at least nine Fantasy points in every game he played last year before messing up his foot. This one's simple: Jones will live up to the hype and finish the season as an elite Fantasy receiver, and Ryan will help him do that en route to being a Top 10 quarterback, even without Gonzalez.
Ryan's numbers might have slid last year without Jones but don't lose sight of his accuracy -- an extremely respectable 67.4 pct. with about 200 fewer passing yards. Proof that he wasn't the problem with the team last year. Jones is worth a pick as soon as Round 2 while Ryan will provide insane value as a Round 5 pick.