Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Last Week – July 21, 2014

(Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)Mike Smith
Josh D. Weiss-USA TODAY Sports

Falcons will be essentially the Julio Jones Show in 2014

The Atlanta Falcons begin training camp later this week, signaling that the NFL offseason is over. While there are still 46 days until the regular season kicks off, it now feels like football is finally right around the corner.

One of the best things about the NFL is the unpredictability of every season. Of the three major American sports, it is the most unpredictable from year to year.

Which brings me to the Falcons and what will happen in 2014. A lot can happen, which again reflects the uncertainty surrounding all 32 NFL teams. While I feel like there is a very large spectrum representing what can happen this year, the 2014 Falcons season could fall anywhere on that spectrum.

The worst-case scenario appears to be a Falcons season similar to the one we just suffered through in 2013. In that scenario, injuries continue to plague the team and/or many of the young players expected to step up this season do not do so.

But the best-case scenario likely sees the Falcons earning a playoff berth, most likely as a wildcard team. While I’d like to believe that the Falcons can win the NFC South, the rest of the division appears too tough for this team to reach that level.

And that’s because, while I think the Falcons can be good, I don’t expect them to be great. This is not a team like that 2012 team that has the potential to be special.

Yes, it’s true this team is stronger in a number of areas than that 2012 team. The offensive line play should be stronger this year with the addition of right guard Jon Asamoah.

While an addition like Jake Matthews will almost certainly upgrade the Falcons front from a year ago, I’m not sure it’s fair to expect Matthews to come in right away and be better than Tyson Clabo was in 2012. That year was by no means the best season Clabo had in a Falcon uniform, but he still played at a fairly high level for a large chunk of the year. That would be a tall order for a rookie tackle like Matthews.

But it’s those types of the things that have me considering what are the biggest keys to success for the Falcons 2014 season.

The aforementioned play of the offensive line is certainly one, but the biggest key has to be the health of Julio Jones.

Jones’ Durability is the Biggest Key to Falcons Success

There is certainly a special quality to Jones. He is the one thing about the Falcons offense that legitimately puts fear in opposing defenses and their coordinators. But that fear is only instilled if he’s healthy enough to play.

Without Jones, the Falcons offense becomes a ho-hum unit. Not one capable of facing a top quality defense and posing a serious threat to them. And that is the sort of special quality that the 2012 team had that this 2014 Falcons team won’t have.

With Jones drawing coverages, it freed up both Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez to take advantage and make their fair share of plays. The 2012 Falcons’ three-headed passing attack was the one thing that was special about their offense, and they rode it all the way to the NFC Championship Game.

The 2012 Falcons offense was one of the league’s most efficient passing attacks. And frankly, any NFL offense that is heavily reliant on Harry Douglas to pull his own weight simply won’t be that efficient. It may be harsh, but it’s true.

This is not to say that an offense reliant upon Douglas can’t be good, but it’s not going to be special. The team that is poised to win the NFC South is going to have to do something special on either side of the ball. The New Orleans Saints have their passing attack. The Carolina Panthers have their defense. And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have their running game. It’s very likely that one of those three units is going to play to their expected levels, and that team will be able to ride them all the way to a division crown this season.

What will be that special group on the Falcons? What area of the roster is going to be playing at an elite level as Michael Turner was in 2008 or Jones and the passing attack was in 2012?

Improved Offensive Line Play Will Also Be Critical

The running game? Certainly not. The offensive line should be much improved, but are they suddenly going to be rivaling the San Francisco 49ers unit as one of the premier units in the league? The Falcons certainly have a chance to get there one day, but it won’t be in 2014. Similar to the issue with Douglas in the passing attack, an elite offensive line won’t have a player as mediocre as Sam Baker anchoring a critical position.

But that doesn’t mean the offensive line won’t be important to the team’s success this season. They will be critical component alongside Jones’ health.

The Falcons offense will function a lot better if they can reliably win in the trenches, something that has not been the case since the 2010 season. When the Falcons have needed to get one yard at any point in the past three season, they almost never did so.

That fact must change if the Falcons offense is going to reach prominent heights. I do not suspect the Falcons rushing attack is going to be anything but below average by league standards. However, based on Falcons standard of recent years, it might be adequate.

Are Falcons Good Enough to Keep Mike Smith Employed?

(Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

Mike Smith

And that’s the big issue surrounding the Falcons. Not whether certain areas will be good, but whether they will be good enough. That is, good enough to get this team back to the winning ways it had prior to 2013 and basically save Mike Smith’s job.

Yes, Smith is on the hot seat. It’s not to say that he’s on the verge of being fired if the Falcons don’t make the playoffs this year. I think such a dismissal is possible, but that is something unknowable at this point in the year. Regardless, it’s in Smith’s best interests to win as many games as possible this year and make the playoffs to keep any wolves at bay.

And with a healthy year from Jones and solid to good play from the offensive line, there’s every reason to believe the Falcons offense is going to be able to revert to the perennial top 10 unit that was able to carry this team in past seasons. A top 10 unit means that the Falcons should be in every game. And given their uncanny ability to win close games under Smith, that should mean more wins than losses.

I believe that the Falcons offense will have to carry the team to success because of the doubt I have in the defense. While they should improve from a year ago, considering they were among the league’s worst, that’s not saying a lot.

Defensive Downfall Will Be Lack of Pass Rush

The lack of a pass rush is just going to be their Achilles Heel once again. It will be no different than in previous seasons where the Falcons could not get consistent stops against quality offenses.

Those pre-2013 Falcons defenses got by due to turnovers, which served as their stops. A William Moore or Brent Grimes interception here, a John Abraham sack-strip there and voila, the offense is back on the field to get another score.

This year’s defense will have to be the same opportunistic group, but it will be harder without a pass rush. At least prior to 2013, the Falcons could always rely on John Abraham to get pressure from time to time. They don’t have that sort of standout player now. Jonathan Massaquoi is the great hope and should have increased production, but he’s not been that sort of pass-rusher that can take over a game and dominate.

And thus the Falcons will probably be heavily reliant on their secondary to make plays. Cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are going to have to make their fair share of plays, as well as safeties Moore and Dwight Lowery. Robert McClain needs to revert to his 2012 form where he was one of the best nickel cornerbacks in the NFL.

While I think the Falcons secondary is capable of playing at a high level, certainly to a level where they earn the nickname “Legion of Zoom,” that may simply not be enough. The Seattle Seahawks have an outstanding secondary, but it’s also coupled with one of the league’s premier pass rushes. Having one is better than nothing at all but if you’re going to have one, you’d rather have the horses up front, not in the back.

Down the road there is the possibility that the Falcons will finally start to add premier talent to their front seven, but it’s not going to be the case this year. Players like Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson are role players that need guys around them like Cameron Wake and Justin Houston to be that caliber of playmaker.

The hope may be that the Falcons pass rush reaches a point where it’s league average, but even that may be being overly optimistic.

My expectations for 2014 is that it is more of a transition year. Rebuilding would be an apt term if it did not connote a team that was bottoming out in the league standings.

But expectations are virtually meaningless in the NFL. And it never fails that in August, the things you suspect will come true rarely ever do by the time January rolls around.

And that’s why I certainly love football and am looking forward to the start of it Friday in Flowery Branch.

NFL Needs Developmental League

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Brent Grimes is one success story from NFL Europe

87 Falcons are among a total of 2,880 players will be suiting up over the next month in various NFL training camps. Nearly half of them will be jobless in six weeks. By the start of September, a total of 1,184 players will have been handed their pink slips and many of them will have their professional football-playing dreams end.

Only seven of the 87 players the Falcons are bringing to camp were cut by an NFL team last summer. That figure may be low by league standards, but even if the rest of the league averaged bringing twice as many players back for a second chance, that would still amount to less than 500 players total.

That would mean over 700 players that were good enough to get a shot last summer are basically unemployed, waiting for that phone to ring to continue their NFL dreams. That’s enough to field over a dozen 50-man rosters if they were allowed to play in a developmental league. And that doesn’t include the same number of players from previous summers that also could play in a league.

It is an outright failure of the National Football League to not get a developmental league up and running. I suspect the reason why they haven’t done it since NFL Europa folded in 2007 is due to financial reasons.

NFL Europa (formerly NFL Europe) was the league’s attempts to grow the game abroad and it sucked millions of dollars of revenue out of the owners’ pockets thanks largely to the cost of overseas and international travel.

However, I’m not sure a spring league based stateside would bleed money like the European league did. The league could moreeasily broker a lucrative television deal with some network to broadcast games which should be a substantial increase in revenue. Attendance numbers should also be up from NFL Europe’s numbers, depending on the size of the respective market.

Not to suggest it would be a huge revenue generator for owners, but it should not be a big sap on their pockets like previous developmental leagues. And the fact that the benefits of being able to develop more talent should be reaped in the end at the NFL level should also entice owners.

There are a hundred different ways that the NFL could institute such a developmental league, many of them outlined in this piece by Ross Jones on FOX Sports.

My preferred version, at least at the outset, is one that is an eight-team league with each NFL division represented by a different team. For example, each of the NFC South teams would allocate up to a dozen players for one regional team.

I’d also like to see a league that was a healthy mix of players that NFL teams would send to the league, but also guys off the street trying to make their way.

I have no beliefs that the developmental league would be sending a steady pipeline of talented players to the NFL. The vast majority of them wouldn’t fare much better than they currently do in NFL training camps. But every now and then they will be a Kurt Warner, Fred Jackson, Damon Huard, Antonio Smith, Brian Finneran, Aubrayo Franklin, Brent Grimes, Shaun Hill, Jake Delhomme, Kelly Gregg or Tyson Clabo that rises above the rest, as all of them played in NFL Europe before finding success in the NFL.

As that list points out, the league could be greatly beneficial to quarterbacks potentially more than any position. And often because several teams’ seasons can be tied to the play of their backup quarterbacks, it would behoove owners to try and improve the overall standard of play at that position.

I think eventually the NFL will get a developmental league off the ground. Whether that is of their own fruition, or some upstart league finding some success and eventually getting bought out by the NFL remains to be seen.

But that may be several years off, leading unfortunately to several players like Grimes and Clabo slipping through the cracks in the meantime.

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Aaron Freeman
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