We sometimes talk about respect for the Falcons here, and often we come to the conclusion that there isn't a whole lot out there. Depending on the season and even the day, that can be warranted or baseless.
Besides Saints fans, no one is more consistently skeptical of this team than outlets like Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders, with FO in particular projecting the Falcons to fall for a couple of years before they finally imploded in 2013.
Let me be clear about where I stand on both of these outlets: They have considerable value. FO, in particular, is great at slicing data in a way that helps you understand how effective teams have been in a variety of situations, i.e. running outside, converting power running plays, rushing the passer, etc. PFF gives you a quick and dirty guide to player performance according to people who are watching a ton of game film, and while there's been a sharp backlash against them here and across the wider Internet of late, I think they're useful and thoughtful in their breakdowns. Neither is infalliable—despite how popular watching tape is, there are very few people who can do so and come away with a 100% accurate breakdown of a given play—and as with anything we should all use them to complement our own knowledge, analysis and eyeballing of games. Obviously, they bring less bias to the table than we do by virtue of not being Falcons fans.
As always, I encourage you to go check out the full article, but here's what Pro Football Focus had to say about the Falcons' roster.
30. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons, I would say pretty emphatically, are not the third worst roster in the NFL. The argument here is that the offensive line hasn't really improved, there are major depth questions the bulk up front isn't going to help the pass rush and Ryan and Julio aren't enough to drag this roster up. I can see the argument here—you'd be hard pressed to say the Falcons are a top ten, at the very least, and I share every one of these concerns—and Khaled Elsayed at PFF was kind enough to talk to me a bit about his reasoning, as well as the high variability with the Falcons in general.
@TheFalcoholic It wouldn't surprise me if they 12-4 though. That kind of team, have been for past few years. Lot of close games.— Khaled Elsayed (@PFF_Khaled) June 6, 2014
All of this is fair, and I don't have a problem with the identified weaknesses, just the team's position on the rankings. It was written after the Falcons added Jake Matthews, Ra'Shede Hageman and a few intriguing young linebackers, well after they picked up Jon Asamoah to shore up the weakest position on the line in 2013 and months and months after writers like our own Murf Baldwin pointed out that a 3-4 switch was coming, giving the Falcons tremendous bulk up front that they've lacked for years. This team is still top heavy, but they're better than they were a year ago, when they were the sixth-worst team in the NFL.
Many of us are skeptical whether that'll translate into immediate success, but I think suggesting that this roster is poor enough to repeat 2013's 4-12 mark—and when you're ranking a roster as third-worst in the NFL, you're flirting with suggesting that—is going to wind up looking off in 2014. Reader SteveinBrooklyn had a nice point that if you were to give each position equal weight, #30 looks more sound.
@TheFalcoholic I could see it if you weigh all positions equally. Lots of question marks up and down the roster if we're being objective.— Steve (@SteveInBrooklyn) June 6, 2014
Obviously I bring my own biases to the table, and you should keep that in mind as you're reading this, but I don't weigh each position equally, and neither should you. I tend to think injuries probably cost the Falcons a pair of games in 2013, and I think the simple, modest upgrades the Falcons have made along the line could be worth another couple of games, bringing the Falcons to, at worst, 7-9. I would tell you that I would rank this roster in the teens, while PFF has them at #30. That's chiefly due to Matt Ryan being a top ten quarterback, QB being undeniably important, and the presence of a talented secondary, improved run-stopping, upgraded offensive line and the strength of this passing game assuming Julio Jones is healthy. I just can't see the team repeating their abysmal 2013.
Your mileage may vary considerably, but somewhere in the middle of these two would probably be fair. I hope we can have a thoughtful dialogue about these rankings, because I know the bulk of us have been quite optimistic about this team, and this is bracing even if you don't agree with it.