We're in a relatively cool portion of the off-season. The Falcons have mostly locked up their own guys and grabbed a couple of bargain basement free agents. There's likely to be depth signings and perhaps even a run at an offensive lineman like Marcus McNeill in the offing, but it's not going to radically change the game for the Falcons.
It's going to be mostly quiet on the Flowery Branch front until the draft, in other words.
Given that likelihood, it's a good time to look at the Falcons are currently constructed and see what we do and do not know about the squad. The draft will bring in some fresh blood, there will be a few free agent surprises and an off-season of jockeying for starter's jobs will shake things up, but what we have in front of us provides a decent baseline.
Gather round as I run it down.
What We Do Know
- The Falcons like their core of talent and will return the majority of their starters from 2011. On the offensive side of the ball, left tackle and guard could be open and fullback might be if Ovie Mughelli gets the axe. On the defensive side of the ball, they'll return everyone but Curtis Lofton, assuming Brent Grimes eventually signs his tender or a long-term deal. That's between 17-20 out of 22 starters.
- They have two new coordinators. Mike Nolan is a known quality quantity who has promised a more aggressive defense in 2012 than we've seen from Brian Van Gorder in the past. That should lead to at least a mild uptick in the number of sacks and hurries for this football team, but past that we get into unknown territory.
- The Falcons were sixth overall in stopping the run in 2012 and Pro Football Focus considered them even better than that. With Lofton leaving the team might take a slight hit in that department, but the personnel on hand is capable of stopping the run. Right now, this is a top 10 run defense again.
- They're also returning their secondary. They're a year older and wiser and in a new scheme that we hope will work out, but all we really know right now is that this is the same group that was in the bottom half of the NFL in 2012. Go ahead and factor in a small improvement for a more aggressive, competent coordinator, but you can't assume more than that.
- This is also the same offense that erupted at times but also found its Waterloo against the New York Giants. We don't know what Dirk Koetter can and will do with this group, so for now we have to assume there won't be a meteoric rise.
- On the other hand, Julio Jones is healthy and the passing game will be a bigger focus point in 2012. You can expect a rise in passing yards and a corresponding drop in rushing yards.
- The Falcons will need a new returner. Eric Weems is gone.
- Matt Bryant and Matt Bosher are both returning alongside long snapper Joe Zelenka. Barring a sudden drop-off from Bryant, this should be a strong unit again.
- These Falcons went 10-6 last year with what most of us would agree were problematic coordinators—especially Mike Mularkey—and were bounced in humiliating fashion by the eventual Super Bowl champions. The Saints have taken small steps forward, ditto the Panthers. The Buccaneers made a splash in free agency but have a brand new coaching staff and the same quarterback as a year ago. The division has not changed incredibly drastically, in other words, and the Falcons have enough talent to be in the mix for a playoff spot again in 2012. We know that.
What We Don't Know
- What can Dirk Koetter do to improve on Mike Mularkey's offense? He's stated his intent to use screen passes more often and Mike Smith has promised fewer carries for The Burner, but ultimately we don't entirely know what he'll do with this personnel group. Koetter was often handicapped by poor talent in Jacksonville, but he never showed mold-breaking thinking while he was there, either. Guessing based on his tenure with the Jaguars wouldn't be prudent at this juncture.
- We don't know how, exactly, Nolan is going to coax a better pass rush and better coverage out of this team. Oh, sure, we can guess that he'll set up more effective blitzes and ask for tighter coverage. I can even say those things are likely. But until we start seeing this team in action or Nolan comes right out and says it, we'll have to live with hearing terms like "aggressive" and "improved" and assume we're heading in the right direction. We hope, anyways.
- We don't know what the young players have to offer up, and how much they'll grow. I believe Akeem Dent will be a quality player, that Spencer Adkins, Lawrence Sidbury and Cliff Matthews will take a step forward and that Jacquizz Rodgers is due for a larger role in the offense. Given how little we've seen them play, it's still conjecture. The fun kind, yes, but conjecture.
- What impact the draft picks will have. We don't know who they are yet, of course.
- We may know that the team has enormous faith in its core players and its new coordinators, but we don't know if that faith is justified. This was still a 10 win team in 2011 with a couple of glaring holes and real struggles when they were forced to catch up. Whether two coordinators and some spackle over those holes will turn this into a 10+ win team capable of playoff success remains to be seen. Those who are predicting huge gains and those who are predicting mighty falls ignore that reality.
So that's the state of the Atlanta Falcons as I see it. If I've forgotten a few things for these lists, add them in the comments!