The Atlanta Falcons are coming off a 4-12 season. They're projected to have anywhere from nine-to-eleven draft picks and $20-plus million in cap space, with clearly identifiable needs. They've also failed to solve some of those needs for years.
It's tough to get a strong read on how quickly the Falcons can return to relevance in what promises to be a tough NFC South. The Buccaneers have a strong new coaching staff, cap space and intriguing young talent. The Panthers have a stellar defense and Cam Newton, but a rough cap situation. The Saints have an aging roster they're busy purging to carve out some semblance of cap space to address their off-season needs. There's probably two potential 10+ win teams in that grouping, and the Falcons have work ahead of them.
So how quickly can the Falcons rebound? I've prepared two arguments.
The One-Year Plan
The Falcons were decimated by injuries and poor decision-making last off-season. They entrusted their line to young players like Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes who weren't ready, suffered major injuries to Sam Baker, Kroy Biermann, Julio Jones and more and simply didn't have the talent on hand to win.
The good news is, all of those players are coming back. The Falcons can add competition for Konz and Holmes and address right guard without breaking the bank, upgrading their line in quick fashion. They'll have an opportunity to add both talent and depth to the defensive through free agency and the draft, with picks left over to take care of depth concerns. Add in a major free agent at defensive end (Michael Johnson?), linebacker (Brian Orakpo), or free safety (Jairus Byrd?) and the defense should be tangibly upgraded from a year ago. It can hardly be worse.
A healthy, high-powered offense with something resembling a league average offensive line will deliver much better results. A league average pass rush paired with promising young linebackers and an intriguing young secondary should mean the Falcons aren't scrambling to play catch-up all game.
The Falcons still have a top quarterback, dynamic receivers and enough talent on both sides of the ball outside of those guys to earn 10 wins even in a crowded NFC playoff picture. As long as they hit on their draft picks and expend their free agent dollars on 2-3 major upgrades on what they've got, there's no reason to rule out a return to relevance in 2014.
The Multi-Year Plan
The injuries provided a convenient excuse for a team that has been trending toward this outcome for some time. The Falcons have too much money tied up in known mediocrities (Sam Baker, Osi Umenyiora) and too many draft picks who haven't yet panned out or are delivering diminishing results (Peter Konz, Akeem Dent, Thomas DeCoud), and even with cuts and cap space, they can't solve those woes in one off-season.
The Falcons can add a right guard, but they can't afford to invest in every position except left guard, which is where they could really stand to deliver results. The line has run-blocking issues that stunt a healthy rushing attack and, if they return 3-4 of the same starters, it's an open question whether they'll improve enough to give Matt Ryan the time he needs to deliver on the promise of a stellar passing attack.
On the other side of the ball, the Falcons haven't had a great pass rush in years. Adding Michael Johnson and Jadeveon Clowney would help, sure, but what's the plan at defensive tackle in that scenario? Are they going to count on major steps forward from a pair of UDFA linebackers on the outside? Will Kroy Biermann be healthy and helpful? Can the Falcons afford to replace Thomas DeCoud, and will Robert Alford take the step forward we all expect him to? That's an awful lot of questions for any defense to answer, much less one that hasn't been truly stellar in a long, long time.
Then there's the draft. The Falcons need to hit on well over half their picks to address some major concerns they won't be able to through free agency, and that's a tall order for the average general manager. Failing that, they need Jonathan Massaquoi to step up, tangible growth from Lamar Holmes and Peter Konz and some pleasant surprises elsewhere on the roster.
Given the competitive nature of the NFC, the question marks on this team and the feasibility of addressing multiple major concerns in one off-season, the Falcons should improve but will likely be on the outside of the playoff picture in 2014.
Which of these arguments to you agree with, and why?