Let's face it: 2013 has been one of the worst Falcons seasons in recent memory, and is easily the worst since 2008, when Dimitroff, Smith and the team surprised fans with an 11-5 playoff season. Many fans are calling for heads to roll, looking for where to assign the blame for the 3-10 team we have before us. But lost in the commotion of this train wreck - this pain - is something that could pay huge dividends going into next year and beyond.
The Falcons are in a full blown youth movement.
While most of us thought the Falcons would be one of the NFCs top contenders this year, and possibly in line for a SuperBowl berth, some fans also wondered if the "window" on the Falcons would be closing soon. After all, as of 2012, we were one of the oldest overall teams in the league. Players like Todd McClure, Tyson Clabo and John Abraham were all 30 or older and were important pieces in our success.
Without recapping the entirety of 2013, suffice it to say, the Falcons have gone from one of the oldest teams in the league (by starters) to a pretty young team. And make no mistake, the dramatic transition in age is certainly a factor in this season having turned sour.
But this short-term pain may ultimately pay huge dividends as soon as next year and beyond.
Let's take a quick look at the players who are in their first or second year that are now starting (or getting significant snaps) for the Falcons:
* Lamar Holmes (24) - position: LT - 3rd round
* Ryan Schraeder (25) - position: RT - UDFA
* Darius Johnson (22) - position: WR - UDFA
* Levine Toilolo (22) position: TE - 4th round
* Jonathan Massaqoui (25) position: DE - 5th round
* Maliciah Goodman (23) position: DE - 4th round
* Joplo Bartu (24) position: LB - UDFA
* Paul Worrilow (23) position: LB - UDFA
* Desmond Trufant (23) position: CB - 1st round
* Robert Alford (25) position: CB - 2nd round
* Zeke Motta (23) position : S - 7th round
Don't get me wrong - not all of these guys are having a big impact this year, but they're all now getting meaningful snaps in real NFL games (not the vanilla rehearsals we call the pre-season).
However, guys like Trufant, Alford, Worrilow, Massaqoui, Toilolo, Goodman, Holmes and Johnson are all going to go into 2014 as potential starters or key contributors. Meanwhile, guys like Motta and Schraeder will get an opportunity over the next 3 games to see if they will also be pushing for significant playing time in 2014.
Those are 10 guys who could be key contributors on offense and defense next year. And they're all still young.
For many of the guys listed, this has been their first year in the NFL. And while they had a full off-season of OTAs and camp, they also had to work on things outside of football. For many of them, they had to find places to live - get integrated into the community - and settle into a new life. That takes time. But it's also something they won't have to do after the 2013 season.
There's a reason players typically show big improvements in year 2: they have more time in the off-season to focus on football.
Guys like Alford and Trufant will be able to put their heads into the complicated NFL schemes they're being asked to run. Worrilow and Bartu can focus their efforts on getting stronger and learning how to better shed blocks. Toilolo and Johnson can bury their heads in the playbook so that they can contribute at a higher level, and especially in the no-huddle. The amount of focus that these players can put into the 2014 off-season will be critical to their development, and should have them contributing at an even higher level.
Not every one of these players is going to be a starter in 2014. But that doesn't mean they aren't valuable. Fans have rightfully lamented our lack of depth in key positions over the past few years. The reality is that depth is hard to develop when you're winning. It's easier to put guys into games when you're not fighting for playoff position. And ultimately, the best teacher for any player is time on the field, which is exactly what these guys are getting right now.
This season will ensure that if a guy like Schraeder is called upon due to injuries next year, it won't be his first set of NFL snaps. He won't feel overwhelmed or lost - because he's getting those snaps now. Whether or not you think Zeke Motta is the right fit for a free safety position, he's getting snaps this week that will ensure he's even better prepared and comfortable should he be needed coming off the bench.
Likewise, Goodman and Massaqoui will likely be part of a rotation of DEs next year - and will have a very solid understanding of their roles in the scheme and be able to contribute more naturally, instead of having to learn the position while they rotate in and out.
So, as we begin to wind down this dreadful season, there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Our young set of players are getting the kind of reps that help them learn quickly. They'll also go into the 2014 season knowing they've got a shot at getting significant playing time, which should only motivate them to focus even harder in their offseason planning. And at the very least, many of these players will be turn out to be quality depth players with actual playing time in real regular season games.
All of this is setting this Falcons team up very well for the future. While we may not be contending this year, there's every reason to believe that with a good off-season and some key draft picks and free agent signings, this team can be in the playoff talks not only in 2014, but for years to come.