After experiencing a 4-12 season, any reasonable Falcons fan has every right to be skeptical about the upcoming season. The nature in which the team collapsed in 2013 has expectedly left a sour taste in the mouth of many fans - and analysts. But I don't agree. I believe the team in 2014 will look more like the 13-3 2012 team than the dumpster-fire that was the 2013 team.
Specifically, I believe the offense is set to bounce back in a big way in 2014. Let's not forget, this is a team that's been in the top 10 in scoring since Matt Ryan took over. Below are some of the key reasons why I believe this offense is going to be in the top 10 yet again for the upcoming season.
A Dramatically Improved Offensive Line
During the off-season, the talk around free agency and the draft centered around just two things: improving the offensive line and improving the pass rush. All other needs seemed to be secondary in nature, while fans justly argued over these two areas being properly slotted as either #1 or #2 to address.
Well, according to how the off-season and draft went, it's clear that Dimitroff and Smith felt that improving the offensive line was priority #1 - and how could you disagree? After having just secured our franchise QB to a long-term contract, many fans wondered how the team could put a poor OL in front of him. In fairness, a perfect storm of failure lead to that point - with the season ending injury to Mike Johnson taking out our starting RT and Sam Baker being ... well, injured again. Additionally, Peter Konz looked overwhelmed in his first season at Center and Right Guard became a porous position.
But going into 2014, the story is far different. The RG spot was shored up with top free agent Jon Asamoah. While Asamoah grades out about average in run blocking, he is absolutely great as a pass blocker. He's easily a huge upgrade to what we fielded in 2013.
Likewise, the leaky hole at RT (Trueblood, Schraeder, Grandma Moses) was fixed in dramatic fashion with the drafting of Jake Matthews with our #6 pick. While he will be a rookie, there's no denying he has huge upside and his prior experience playing RT in college will help ease the transition to the NFL some.
As it stands, the offensive line looks much better now with a projected starting line of Baker, Blalock, Hawley, Asamoah, Matthews. Even more, with other players having gotten quality time in 2013, the depth of our OL has never been better. Guys like Schraeder and Gunn saw significant snaps, and even Konz has put in the effort to improve and compete for the 2014 starting spot. While it would be painful to see injuries on this line, there's reason to believe this unit will be better suited to withstand one or two. Matthews could easily slide over to LT if Baker is injured, while Schraeder or Holmes takes over RT (where he played much better in 2013).
In my eyes, the OL is clearly better and may be even better than the line that helped Ryan set record career marks in 2012.
Julio and Roddy Healthy Again
We can talk all we want about overcoming injuries and "next man up," but the reality is you don't just replace players like Roddy White and Julio Jones. Even though Roddy played, he was not healthy for the majority of the season. And before he went down with his injury, Julio was nearly unstoppable - putting up numbers that were Calvin Johnson-esque. When you lose weapons of that caliber, your team is just not going to be the same.
While there's always the possibility that these guys go down again - it is football after all - there's reason to believe they've both cleared a hump. Roddy had a very long streak of consecutive games played until 2013, and there's no reason to believe he won't be able to withstand a 16 game schedule in 2014.
As for Julio, I know some fans are concerned that he has an injury history, and there's some merit to it. But the earlier injuries in his career (lacerated hand, tight hamstring) were not recurring this year. The broken foot is concerning, but it's been repaired and the hope is that with more money, Julio will have finally gotten it repaired in a way that will prevent a future injury. At least, one can hope.
But if these two guys stay healthy for most of 2014, there are few defenses that will be able to stop them. Combined with Ryan having more time in the pocket due to an improved line, this could be the deadliest the Falcons passing offense has been in a long, long time.
Improved WR Depth
While losing Roddy and Julio for long portions of 2013 was painful to watch, 2014 may be the year where we see the positive side of that loss. As the 2013 season progressed, Matt Ryan was forced to rely on receivers other than Julio and Roddy. He leaned heavily on Harry Douglas and Tony G during 2013, but he was also forced to find other receivers as teams justifiably doubled Tony and Harry whenever possible.
Guys like Drew Davis saw an increase in his number of snaps, while Darius Johnson came on strong in the second half of the season. These are guys who will now compete for the WR4 and WR5 spots, but who also got significant experience during 2013. That was meaningful, real-world experience against first string defenses (and some very good ones at that). No matter how much time these guys get in practice or in the pre-season, those 2013 snaps heavily outweighs them all. And it will likely pay dividends as we go into 2014.
Refocus on the Running Game
Don't be fooled - the Falcons will not be returning to the run-first mentality that dominated the team between 2008 and 2011. This is Matt Ryan's offense and it will continue to be focused on succeeding with the pass. But, there will be a renewed emphasis on the running game, and improving the dreadful performance we saw in that area in 2013.
To be fair, the injury bug bit newly signed free agent Steven Jackson in 2013 (that damned bug was everywhere it seems) which limited his effectiveness. However, when he was healthy, Jackson did show glimpses of his physical running style that Falcons fans were looking forward to.
The drafting of Devonta Freeman in the fourth round is a move for beyond 2014, but there's reason to believe he can also help in 2014. He's a well rounded running back who is not particularly great at any one thing, but is very well rounded and can likely be a true three down back.
And let's not forget that the offensive line will be revamped as well. While Asamoah is a better pass blocker than run blocker, he's still an upgrade in the run game over what we had. Likewise, Matthews has good experience as a lead run blocker from the right side, so there's reason to believe he can help improve the performance over what we got in 2013. All of this adds up to a reasonable expectation that the running game will improve. It's not likely to be a top-10 unit in 2014, but if it can improve to near league average, that alone would be more than enough.
As hard as it has been to put 2013 behind us, the promise of 2014 will surely help. So long as our guys can stay healthy and some of our new guys perform to their potential, there are lots of reasons to be optimistic about the Falcons 2014 offense.