To say that there are many Falcons who will be facing critical seasons in 2012 would be an understatement. There's a lot of proving to be done.
So I've created a list, albeit an incomplete one, of Falcons who I believe will definitely be back this season. Every one of these guys has something important to do, whether it be stepping up over a disappointing 2011, taking the next step in their development or earning one more big payday.
Truncated list available after the jump.
QB Matt Ryan: The objective is simply this: Win a playoff game and get a horde of journalistic monkeys off your back. Ryan's done great work for the Falcons for the last four seasons and is one of the better young quarterbacks in the NFL today, but there's a lot of pundits and fans that need that playoff win to give him the props he's deserved for a while now.
Put together another quality season—one even better than last year would be welcome!—and take that step in the post-season. That ought to do it.
RB Michael Turner: Despite the speculation—I've done my fair share of it—I think he's a Falcon in 2012. Turner will be a free agent in 2013 and needs a big year to grab one last contract as a starter, either in Atlanta or elsewhere. With a different offensive line and a fresh set of legs, he'll hopefully get it.
RB Jacquizz Rodgers: Mike Smith says he believes Rodgers can be a three-down back. With a more Jacquizz-friendly system in place, let's see what the new year brings.
T Will Svitek: Svitek parlayed a Sam Baker injury into a starting gig and was a pretty decent left tackle for much of the season. The Falcons are sure to bring in competition or thrust Baker back into the spotlight, but Svitek has a chance to earn himself a starter's contract by playing well again in 2012.
DE Ray Edwards: An elite run-stopper in 2011 for a team that desperately wanted a pass rush upgrade, Edwards may not be long for the Falcons and new DC Mike Nolan if he can't step it up in that department. The team will want to see signs of pass rushing life from RE and will hopefully get them.
DE Lawrence Sidbury: Rarely used under Brian Van Gorder, Sidbury has five sacks in three years as a situational pass rusher. Last season he got four of those, giving me some hope for his future.
The Falcons may not re-sign John Abraham, Kroy Biermann or both, opening up a starting spot for Sidbury. If he can thrive in Nolan's blitz-happy schemes, he may be able to land a long-term deal with the Falcons and help solve the team's pass-rushing woes. I'd love to see it happen.
DT Peria Jerry: Jerry will be 28 by the time the season starts and will have logged time in 34 games in three seasons for the Falcons. What does he have to show for that? Looks like 20 tackles, two sacks and two pass deflections.
You could make an airtight case that Jerry has been a bust thus far, thanks to injury, ineffectiveness and probably a host of other factors. If he wants to make a name for himself, prove he's not a bust and get another contract worth a damn down the line, he'll have to step it up in 2012. Hopefully he can thrive under Nolan.
OLB Sean Weatherspoon: Not that 'Spoon needs to prove anything, but you can bet he'll be playing with a chip on his shoulder after being passed over for a Pro Bowl berth in a huge breakout year. 'Spoon will be hungry for accolades and wins and should help the team get both as one of the NFL's most dominant outside 'backers.
CBs Chris Owens/Dominque Franks: Both young cornerbacks with promise who should improve in Nolan's tighter coverage schemes. Owens has been around longer and has to prove he can push past Franks for a starting job, while Franks will just look to deliver on his considerable potential. If they both can do well, the position suddenly looks a lot better in 2012.
S William Moore: He has elite ability but has been nagged by injuries his entire career. Hopefully he can put together a 16 game season of awesome this year.
P Matt Bosher: After struggling mightily to start his rookie season, Bosher was one of the best punters in the NFL down the stretch. He'll have to prove it was the first half that was the fluke, not the second.
So that's my list. Add more players as you see fit.