USA TODAY Sports
After 5 full years, this off-season may be the most important yet.
The Falcons are at a critical juncture. They have firmly established themselves as a consistent playoff contender and with their close, hard fought game with the 49ers, they will likely be considered an NFC favorite next season. All of that only intensifies the glaring light that will be shined on this team. There are holes, and this is one of the oldest ball clubs in the league. The success of the 2013 season - and beyond - will be largely impacted by this off season. Let's take a look at why.
There is no perfect team in the league, but that doesn't mean the Falcons shouldn't target their weaknesses as areas for improvement. Most would agree that our biggest weakness is our inability to generate a meaningful pass rush. When you're not able to pressure the opposing Quarterback, it weakens your entire defense. Our only real pass rush threat is John Abraham, who is already age 34 going into the 2013 season.
Likewise, the lack of a consistent running game shows that we need another dynamic running back to split carries with Rodgers, since most are assuming that Michael Turner won't be back. The likely retirement of Tony Gonzalez also means we will be without one of our best receiving options.
Thankfully, that is about the extent of our holes, though there are areas where more depth would help - such as our linebacking corps and secondary. Some would argue we need help on the offensive line, but Peter Konz finished the season in strong fashion and Garrett Reynolds was looking good at RG before he went on IR. We can probably do fine with those two guys anchoring the middle of the line in 2013.
This is one of the biggest areas of concern for this club. It seems like it happened overnight, but this team is suddenly one of the oldest in the league. We have quite a few starters in the over 30 club: Tyson Clabo (RT - 31), Todd McClure (C - 35), John Abraham (DE - 34), Asante Samuel (CB - 32), Jonathan Babineaux (DT - 31), Roddy White (WR -31), Dunta Robinson (CB - 30).
More than likely, McClure is probably done and I intentionally left Gonzalez off the list assuming he retires. Assuming Konz slides over and replaces McClure, we will need someone to be our new pass catching tight end. While I think Chase Coffman is an option, he has a history of injuries that is hard to ignore.
Babs will be in the last year of his contract, but we have some depth at the DT position with Peters, Walker and Robertson. We need to find the successor to Abraham this year, whether through free agency or the draft. I think we have a year or two before we have to worry about Samuel or Robinson, while Roddy probably still has a 3 to 4 good years left as well.
But by my count, that means having to find 4 potential new starters within the next year - and hoping to not see a huge drop off in performance.
Managing the Cap
Undoubtedly, Matt Ryan is about to get paid. Knowing how Arthur Blank is, he will likely give Ryan a big long-term deal that will lock him up as the QB for the Falcons for the foreseeable future. The question here is how much of a hit that deal will be for 2013 and in the upcoming years. You can expect that Ryan will get a contract somewhere between Romo and Brees. The structure of this contract - and how the signing bonus is spread out - will hugely factor into what this team can do this year and in the future.
Likewise, getting players to come to this team via free agency usually means spending money. It's part of the reason Dunta got such a big contract - we had to attract him with the dollar signs. While many players will be enticed by playing for a consistently winning club, that only offers a slight discount versus other teams. If we do sign any free agents, the price and structure will be a huge factor in our success as well.
Without a doubt, Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith have done a great job of turning around this franchise. With 5 straight winning seasons, a playoff win and being 10 yards short of going to the SuperBowl, this is a franchise that can be relevant for a long time. But much will depend on what is done this off-season. If the Falcons are going to remain a winning club - and be relevant every year - the front office will have to manage a number of moves to make sure we get younger and better while staying within a tight salary cap.