March 28, 2012; Palm Beach, FL, USA; Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith listens to a reporters question during the NFC head coaches media breakfast at the Breakers Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE
The Falcons gave up their first and fourth-round picks for Julio Jones last year. They stayed quiet in free agency, re-signing an aging John Abraham and losing Curtis Lofton to the Saints. Both offensive and defensive lines still have question marks. Does Thomas Dimitroff have any more tricks up his sleeve?
After suffering an embarrassing postseason loss to the New York Giants last year, Falcon brass was mad. Three trips to the playoffs, three subsequent losses, and one disappointed fan base. The ghosts that haunted all those '90s Braves teams must have migrated to the Georgia Dome. Perhaps Atlanta should've used the old Mickey Loomis trick.
But neither integrity nor gloom and doom is my focus. Remember that the Colts, the great Peyton Manning, also went 0-for-3 in the playoffs before finally finding their playoff feet. In fact, they won the Superbowl in a year where they saw stalwart veterans Edgerrin James and David Thornton leave Indy as free agents. So where did they find the talent to compensate for a terrible offseason? Two impact rookies in Joseph Addai and Antoine Bethea.
Remember the 2009 draft? None of those players really made a difference as rookies, something that affected the team as a whole as they regressed to a 9-7 record. The Falcons must avoid that fate, and while they don't have a first-round pick, they can still find one or two players who can make a big-time impact this year. It's not impossible.
In 2010, the Bengals took Carlos Dunlap at No. 54. He would record 9.5 sacks in his rookie year. The Ravens found wideout Torrey Smith last year, who totaled 847 receiving yards and seven TDs as a rookie. There's talent aplenty.
The real question: can the front office finally prove that they are capable of finding a top-end lineman in the draft? Because I think it's clear the top need has to be...
#1- Offensive Line
It's hard to really quantify an offensive line or individual members because, well, there are no statistics. So I'll rely on the eye test, and I'm sure you all can agree it wasn't pretty.
Even though Matt Ryan was only sacked 26 times on the year, he was hit 84 times and probably hurried even more than that. The O-line was inconsistent in the running game, struggled to win battles in short yardage situations, and looked completely outclassed against the Giants.
Thomas Dimitroff has stood by Sam Baker- probably because, you know, we traded up for him- but he was a magnificent disappointment last year. Will Svitek isn't anything special, Vince Manuwai didn't play football last year, and Todd McClure is 35 years old.
And besides, we need Ryan to be upright so we can actually use guys like Julio Jones and Roddy White. They don't need to be fantastic, either. Just better than Garrett Reynolds.
#2- Defensive Tackle
If we don't see the Falcons take a defensive tackle or end before the sixth, I'll be very surprised. Though the team managed to keep John Abraham around for another three years, they still have depth issues at defensive tackle.
Jonathan Babineaux had a sub-par 2011, and while I think he'll bounce back I'm also not sure of how well he'll fit into Mike Nolan's new system. And if their scouting of Alabama nose tackle Josh Chapman means anything, it's that the Falcons will try adding players that could find a place on the field in some 3-4 style formations.
Oh yeah, and don't forget Peria Jerry, who hasn't done anything memorable since... ever. Unless everything magically clicks for him out of the blue, the Falcons could use some depth at D-tackle. That is, assuming they don't sign Aubrayo Franklin first.
The Falcons lost James Sanders to free agency, and came very close to signing Madieu Williams a couple of weeks ago. Schann Schillinger, while a capable special teamer, would be a liability in coverage.
And let's not forget the big nickel formation that Nolan apparently favors so much. The team could definitely use a competent safety to improve a third-down defense that was agonizingly bad last season. Someone like Trumaine Johnson out of Montana would certainly fit the bill.
#4- Tight End
Right now, Tony Gonzalez's primary backup is Michael Palmer. Like every other team, I want to see the Falcons copy New England and have two pass-catching tight ends.
They'll also need to find a starting option for the future once Gonzalez retires (he's already said this will be his last season), and it never hurts to have your eventual starter learn from the best to ever play the game. Ladarius Green could be perfect here.
#5- Outside Linebacker
Sean Weatherspoon is obviously locked in as a starter, but I wouldn't be so sure about Stephen Nicholas. He'll probably see less time in Nolan's defense, and the team may opt to draft a backup with more pass-rushing potential, someone to help out on third downs.
There's also the need for a backup after Mike Peterson's departure. Someone like Mychal Kendricks (yes, I know he's listed as an inside LB) or an Andre Branch-type linebacker (Branch will be off the board well before Atlanta picks) is just what the doctor ordered.
Honorable Mention- Backup Quarterback
The Falcons re-signed Chris Redman to a one-year deal. But Redman is old and fairly ineffective, and John Parker Wilson has been thoroughly unimpressive in his limited preseason action. Can I get a Dominique Davis shoutout?