In June 2012, in light of some power rankings done on ESPN, I tried my hand at predicting where the Atlanta Falcons would be heading into the 2015 season. Now it’s time to revisit those three-year-old predictions.
I broke up those predictions into position-by-position summaries, and I’ll revisit each one in this article, going through some of the highlights and lowlights of those predictions. But I recommend going back and reading each positional breakdown.
Overall, my predictions were based around the Falcons having a strong 2012 season, winning their first playoff game, followed by a bit of a lull in 2013 and 2014 as the team tried to reload at some critical roster spots. That somewhat came true, although the lull was a lot lower than I had predicted or expected.
Back in 2012, I expected the Falcons and Mike Smith to be poised for one last push to the Super Bowl by 2015, as opposed to starting fresh with a new coaching staff under Dan Quinn.
I think overall, this is a fun and interesting exercise to attempt to predict and map out what is going to happen to this team three years into the future. I will follow this up shortly with my predictions for what the Falcons might look like in 2018, which will be fun to revisit three years down the road.
But let’s get into these positions groups!
Matt Ryan is still the team’s starting quarterback. After leading the Falcons to their first playoff win in 2012, he was able to land a $100 million extension from the Falcons the following off-season. He follows that up with two more winning seasons, making him the second-most winningest quarterback in NFL history through his seventh season, surpassing the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and all but former Cowboy Danny White in terms of all-time regular season wins. Ryan has now posted a 3-6 playoff record, roughly on par with Manning at the same point in his career, yet the Super Bowl remains elusive.
To be honest, I’m not sure where I pulled that stat about White from since it is in no way accurate. But I do know that Ryan ranks fifth all-time in terms of most regular-season wins through his first seven NFL seasons.
Note that Ryan’s playoff record is 3-6 in my prediction, which indicated that I expected the Falcons to go 3-3 in the playoffs from 2012 through 2014. Instead they went 1-1, missing the playoffs in both 2013 and 2014. Basically I expected them to go 1-1 in the playoffs for each of the past three seasons, which was wrong.
I also predicted that the Falcons would use a fifth-round pick on Jeff Tuel in 2013, pegging him to be Ryan’s long-term backup.
The Falcons managed to replace Michael Turner with their 2013 second round pick out of Michigan State Le’Veon Bell. Bell’s combination of size, speed, and ability to be an everydown back made him an attractive option in Koetter’s offense. Bell becomes the Falcons third foray into the Michigan State family at the running back position, having picked up disappointments like T.J. Duckett and DeAndra Cobb in previous drafts. But Bell does not disappoint, rushing for nearly a thousand yards in his first year. He follows that up with a strong 2014 season, finishing among the Top 7 rushers in the league. Most project 2015 to be a potential Pro Bowl season for Bell as he vies with LeSean McCoy, Mark Ingram, Ryan Williams, Marcus Lattimore, David Wilson, DeMarco Murray, and Doug Martin as one of the premier backs in the NFC.
Boy, would things seem a lot different today if this prediction had come true. Bell is one of the premier running backs in the league, a year earlier than I predicted. Notable is that I was completely off on which running backs would form the top tier of the NFC at this point. McCoy and Murray were dead on, but Ingram, Williams, Lattimore, Wilson and Martin were wild misses.
Also worth noting, Bradie Ewing was still the team’s fullback and Jacquizz Rodgers was still Bell’s primary backup in my predictions.
To no one’s surprise, Julio Jones is the leader here. Jones rise to the top comes in 2013, which was the first year where he led the team in both receptions and receiving yards. And he has not looked back since. He has produced thousand-yard seasons in all but his rookie season. He is one of the elite receivers in the league with only Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Dez Bryant, and A.J. Green considered to be in the same stratosphere.
Pretty dead on with this on, with only injury in 2013 keeping it from being completely accurate.
The team did not re-sign a 33-year old Roddy White following the 2014 season. White winds up with a bottom rung AFC team hoping that his veteran presence will uplift their meager passing attack. But White’s exit from Atlanta is not without its own glory. He finishes his Falcon career just shy of 800 career receptions, over 10,000 yards receiving, and 70 receiving touchdowns. It so far outpaces any other Falcon receiver that he is unanimously hailed as the team’s all-time greatest receiver. While White spent 2013 and 2014 as the second fiddle to Jones, he still was a highly productive player for the team and a big reason why the Falcons were able to achieve greater postseason success with one of the best starting pairs of receivers in the league.
While White did wind up topping the team’s all-time list among receivers, he didn’t quite reach the 800 catches and 70 touchdowns I predicted up to this point, instead winding up with 765 and 62, respectively. Obviously, Roddy is still alive and kicking in Atlanta, although based off his poor play in 2014, one wonders if the predicted career path would have been more prudent. Especially in light with who I expected the Falcons to select to replace White:
Replacing White in the lineup is 2014 draft pick DeAndre Hopkins out of Clemson. Hopkins blend of speed and size make him a good complement to Jones, bringing many of the same tools to the offense that White once did. Hopkins spent his rookie year as the No. 3 receiver in the offense and his solid production in that role has the team willing and ready to promote him into the starting lineup.
Hopkins is now the de facto lead receiver with the Houston Texans, and was a first-round pick instead of the second-round pick I was expecting him to be way back in 2012.
Behind Hopkins is still the now savvy veteran Harry Douglas, who adds quality depth in the slot for the Falcons. Douglas is entering what is expected to be his last season with the Falcons at age 31, but he’s been a solid third option for the team for the past few years, with Hopkins surpassing him the year before. But he’s back in the driver’s seat for the No. 3 spot. But he’s being pushed by Cody Pearcy, who after spending his rookie season on the Falcons practice squad has developed into a newer version of Tim Dwight. Pearcy’s primary value is on special teams, but they like his speed and potential to stretch defenses and are hoping to mix him more into the offense now that he’s got three years under his belt.
You can’t help but laugh at our asinine this now appears to be.
Tony Gonzalez walked away from the game after 2012, and the Falcons used their top pick the following spring on Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert. While Eifert doesn’t quite measure up to Gonzalez (who does?), he has been a solid starter from Day One giving Ryan a solid pass catcher and chain mover in the middle of the defense. By 2015, he is considered the team’s second-best weapon in the passing game behind Jones.
Things would be looking a lot better offensively if this prediction had come true. Eifert has yet to emerge with the Cincinnati Bengals, but people are excited about his potential.
The Falcons 2015 line consists of the same unit that it started beginning in 2013, which features left tackle Lamar Holmes, left guard Justin Blalock, center Joe Hawley, right guard Peter Konz, and right tackle Tyson Clabo. What begin as a bit of a shaky unit has now blossomed into a strong group up front now that they’ve built some continuity with each other.
This position group might be one of my least accurate predictions. The only thing I seemingly was in the ballpark for was predicting a modest three-year extension for Hawley following the 2013 season. Instead, he got a two-year extension. Besides that, everything else was purely guessing.
Calling Konz the “anchor,” comparing Lamar Holmes to Duane Brown and thinking Andrew Jackson would be groomed to replace Justin Blalock in 2016 were some of my crazier predictions.
Although it’s interesting that I saw Brandon Scherff as a potential replacement for Clabo if the Falcons had used their 2015 second-round pick on him. Instead, Scherff wound up being a top five draft selection this past April.
The anchor of the front is no longer John Abraham, as he and the Falcons parted ways after 2013. They used their top pick the following spring on Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner. Werner’s combination of size and quickness made the team see him as a potential Justin Smith-type of player, capable of playing at a high level in either scheme.
This prediction is crazy in retrospect. The idea of the Mike Smith-led Falcons ever using a first-round pick on a pass-rusher just seems ridiculous today. In reality, Abraham played one less year with the Falcons, and of course the team wouldn’t take his eventual successor until this past spring.
Other “out there” predictions include a combination of Lawrence Sidbury and Jonathan Massaquoi fulfilling the other starting defensive end spot, with the interior of the defensive line being made up of Tyson Alualu, Corey Peters, Travian Robertson and Sylvester Williams.
The idea behind this sort of front was that the Falcons would employ a hybrid 3-4/4-3 front, with Werner being much bigger than the 260 pounds he currently weighs in Indianapolis. Instead, he’d be closer to a 275-pounder that he was back in 2011 while at Florida State and could both play on the edge in a 4-3 as well as the five-technique in a 3-4. Alualu plays the other end spot in their three-man fronts, with Williams and Robertson providing the bulk at nose tackle.
It’s also worth noting that I predicted the Falcons defensive coordinator to be Joe Danna in 2015, having taken over for Mike Nolan after the latter moved on to greener pastures. In reality, Danna left to join Todd Bowles staff with the New York Jets.
Leading the unit is Sean Weatherspoon who has become the leader and anchor of the Falcons defense. Much of their defensive success over the past few seasons has been due to the strong play of Spoon, who has earned two Pro Bowl bids in the past three seasons.
Obviously, this prediction failed to come true thanks to injuries sidelining Weatherspoon both in 2013 and 2014. I also predicted that Akeem Dent would be playing beside Spoon at inside linebacker by essentially being a two-down role player from 2012 and on. Instead, the full-time role of middle linebacker in 2014 was assumed by Daryl Smith, currently a Baltimore Raven.
Another wildly off prediction was that the Falcons’ top 2015 selection would be Georgia pass-rusher Ray Drew. Drew would be a situational edge-rusher when the team employed their 3-4 looks. In reality, Drew is an undrafted free agent with the Miami Dolphins, and more in line with an undersized defensive tackle than a top edge-rusher.
One of the few names still around is Brent Grimes, who received a long-term extension following another strong 2012 season. In 2015, Grimes at age 32 is not as spry as he once was but has been a consistent force and leader in the Falcons secondary over the years. The Falcons bid farewell to both Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel but the Falcons have replaced them with players that they are optimistic can have similar value.
Starting opposite Grimes is former New York Jet Kyle Wilson. Instead of re-signing a 34-year old Samuel in 2015, the team opted for the 28-year old Wilson. In the years since 2011, Wilson developed into one of the league’s best slot corners with the Jets, and hoping to get sustained production from that spot the Falcons snatched him up in free agency.
Grimes and Wilson as the team’s starting cornerbacks? Just like the offensive line, my predictions for the team’s cornerbacks were way off. Obviously, Grimes’ 2012 Achilles injury “butterflied” away any real possibility that he’d get the extension that I and others wanted him to receive in 2013. And the notion of Wilson developing into one of the league’s premier slot corners seems ridiculous. Wilson is now the nickel corner for the New Orleans Saints, and I suspect we’ll see just how much he’s not one of the “best slot corners” this year.
Dominique Franks, Jordan Poyer and Darrin Walls were their backups. Wrong again.
The team picked up free safety Nickoe Whitley out of Mississippi State in the second round of the 2014 draft. Whitley sat behind Thomas DeCoud for his rookie season, but the team cut DeCoud due to their belief that Whitley is poised for a breakout season in his second year. Whitley’s aggressiveness mirrors that of Moore, but his ball skills and potential as a centerfielder gives him more upside at free safety.
Whitley went undrafted in 2014 thanks largely to character and durability red flags. Outside a couple of tryouts with the Browns and Packers, I’m not sure he’s really gotten many looks in the NFL over the past 18 months.
I did accurately predict that William Moore would still be around, but pegged Charles Mitchell as his still-present backup.
At kicker, the Falcons replaced Matt Bryant following the 2014 season with Nate Kaeding. Bryant gave the Falcons a lot of consistent kicking over the years, but it was time to go with a younger leg. While Kaeding has never been the most reliable kicker, the team is confident that kicking in the reliable indoor environment of the Georgia Dome will make him one of the league’s most accurate long ball kickers. It was the deterioration of Bryant’s leg strength that was the primary reason why the team decided to move on. Kaeding is no spring chicken at age 33 when 2015 rolls around, but given that Bryant was able to produce until he was 39, the team is confident that they can get at least four or five good years from Kaeding.
My prediction of Matt Bosher still being around wasn’t particularly hard, but thinking that Josh Harris would stick long-term as the team’s long snapper seems fairly fortuitous. Although I predicted that Harris wouldn’t take over the spot until 2013 rather than immediately stepping in during 2012 as he did in reality. Pearcy and Poyer were my picks at the return spots, and thankfully Devin Hester is here instead.
In the end, most of these predictions look pretty silly in retrospect but a few stand out as pretty spot on. Only six of the team’s current 25 starters (including specialists) were accurate predictions, with William Moore being the lone starter on defense. In fact, of the 20 defensive players I mentioned in my various write-ups, Moore was the only one that still remains with the team.
A big reason to why those roster positions proved so inaccurate was my mistaken belief that the Falcons would be able to retain the bulk of the players they drafted from 2010 to 2012. Of the 19 players selected in those drafts, I predicted that 15 of those players would still be providing roles with the team in 2015. In reality, that figure is in fact six, which may be an overestimation considering half of those players: Cliff Matthews, Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes are currently on the roster bubble.
It only goes to illustrate the problems that I’ve discussed numerous times over the past several months which is how ineffectual the team’s recent drafts have been. While the team did wind up making some excellent draft selections in 2013 and 2014, they were far from able to compensate from all the misses in the previous years.
Therefore instead of the Falcons being a position where they were able to sustain their pre-2012 success heading in 2015, they’ve now hit somewhat of a reset button with the hiring of Quinn.