As we prepare for the 2013 Atlanta Falcons season, we all share in a few concerns. Most of those have to do with young players taking over for stalwart veterans, both because we fear the unknown and the unknown sometimes shows us just enough to have us stumbling over one another in horror.
These Falcons will be good. That's something most all of us can agree on. Yet the difference between an amazing season and a decent-to-good one can swing on a few plays, which is why I've singled out four players who are set to have an outsized impact and who are not named Matt Ryan or Osi Umenyiora.
Here's four players that will prove to be key to the team's success in 2013.
The question with S-Jax isn't one of talent. He's one of the best backs of the last decade, the rare player who can block, catch the ball and run with alacrity. He's finally on a team where he's not the focal point of the offense, which should help him.
The question with Jackson is merely whether he can remain healthy and avoid the weardown that comes with nearly a decade of carries on his legs. If the Falcons do end up keeping five backs on the final roster, it's not merely because they like their special teams value. It's because they're protecting themselves against the possibility that Jackson will be banged up at some point in 2013.
If Jackson is healthy and productive, it helps to solve some of the lingering problems for this offense. A healthy Jackson should be a battering ram in short yardage, and the pass catching aspect of his game adds a wrinkle on third downs that they just didn't have with Michael Turner. He's going to be a key player.
It goes without saying that Holmes is going to have a big impact on this season. He's taking over for Tyson Clabo, he has huge potential and he's been a mixed bag this preseason. The Falcons look like they're going to sink or swim with him, at least early on.
Holmes has an enormous amount of talent. He's got the size you look for in a right tackle, he's ahead of where a relatively raw second-year tackle should be in pass protection and the Falcons clearly thought he improved over the life of the preseason. He's still susceptible to speed rushers off the edge and his run-blocking has been subpar, so
We're all hoping Holmes will be a fixture at right tackle for years to come, but if the Falcons want to have a successful 2013, they'll need the line to step up in a big way. Fairly or not, there's a lot of pressure on Holmes to get the job done.
Jonathan Babineaux is an all-timer for the Falcons, one of the best defensive tackles ever to wear red and black. He's also getting older, and the Falcons have only Peria Jerry (settled in as an average player) and Travian Robertson (potential, but hasn't yet delivered) behind him.
That's why Corey Peters will be so important. He'll play DT and kick out to DE on occasion, and he has a chance to be hugely impactful. Last season was something of a lost one for Peters, who came back from his spring injury looking something less than 100% and never really rounded back into form.
This preseason, however, Peters has looked beastly once more. He's long been an underrated interior presence for this Falcons team, and you can bet Nolan will use him creatively to try to get him after the quarterback. If he's healthy—and I believe he is—Peters is a sneaky pick for 4+ sacks and difference-making run-stopping. I'm bullish on his 2013 outlook.
I couldn't get through this list without mentioning Trufant. The rookie cornerback had an up-and-down preseason and training camp, as you might expect from a rookie cornerback. The Falcons need him to be good right away.
It's impossible to overstate how much pressure Trufant will be under to perform immediately. The Falcons will give him as much as help as they can with Thomas DeCoud and William Moore, who will be asked to jump the occasional route and cheat toward Tru's side of the field, especially against Drew Brees in Week 1. They can't do that all the time, however, and Trufant will have to use his natural athleticism to make plays.
Trufant right now is a quality athlete and a try-hard guy who has shown early on that he'll be a bulldog in coverage and after the catch, but his coverage instincts will need to improve. The Falcons are facing several elite pass offenses this year, and they're all going to try to pick on Trufant. The sooner he can make them pay for it, the better.
Who are you keeping your eye on in 2013?