Welcome to the inaugural Rise Up Reader mailbag. This is something that I've been wanting to do for some time, and I'm very glad we were able to make it happen today.
I received some really good questions from you guys via Twitter - questions that were both thought-provoking and could be answered in a variety of different ways.
Without further delay, let's dive in. Zzziiiipppp.
Great question, Tyler. This is a tricky one, because depending on what formation the Falcons' defense aligns in, players like Kroy Biermann and Osi Umenyiora could either be lined up as an outside linebacker or a defensive end. I'll break this answer up into two parts to better respond to your question.
In the Falcons' 4-3 alignments, I think you'll see Joplo Bartu lead the way in sacks. He should easily improve on the decent 3.5 sacks he had last year, and I love his relentlessness once he gets into the backfield. Prince Shembo is a dark-horse candidate to watch that could end up with more sacks than any of the 4-3 linebackers. He primarily rushed the quarterback for Notre Dame and could be a very effective blitzer through the middle for the Falcons.
For the Falcons' 3-4 alignments, a guy like Jonathan Massaquoi has to be licking his chops. He really started to heat up at the end of last season and looks primed for a breakout year. I wouldn't be at all shocked if he finishes the year with double-digit sacks.
I'm one of the many people who think Matt Ryan is poised for big, big things in 2014. The additions of Jake Matthews, Jon Asamoah, and a healthy Sam Baker will make Ryan's life a lot easier when he drops back to pass; not to mention getting back the best wide receiver duo in the NFL in Julio Jones and Roddy White. Losing Tony Gonzalez will hurt - especially on third down - but not so much in the yardage department. Although the Falcons continue to say that they're going to remain balanced, this is clearly an offense that is built to put up points through the air. To answer Anthony's question, yes, I absolutely think Ryan will put up top-five numbers in passing yardage; somewhere around 4,800 yards sounds about right.
Another great question, and one that has concerned me since before the draft. Unless Grady Jackson can time travel back a few years, I don't think the Falcons have a really good option here. Soliai is the only true 3-4 nose tackle the Falcons currently have on their roster. The next closest thing they have is the 320-pound, undrafted free agent rookie Donte Rumph, who is not exactly the person you'd want anchoring the middle of your defense this early in his career. The Falcons could've alleviated this need by drafting Daniel McCullers, Justin Ellis, or Zach Kerr, but apparently they don't see it as a pressing need. If Soliai does go down, the Falcons could try one of Tyson Jackson, Corey Peters, or Ra'Shede Hageman at nose tackle, but none of those players play the position as well as Soliai does.
The Falcons could bring in an aged free agent like Isaac Sopoaga, but I don't see a true upgrade on anyone the Falcons don't already have on the roster out on the open market. I don't think the Falcons would necessarily scrap the 3-4 if they lose Soliai, but I do think we'll see a lot less of it in that scenario.
Make no mistake about it, Matt Ryan is a lethal quarterback when he has all of his premier weapons in place. In 2014, he may end up having the best offensive line of his career protecting him. That, my friends, is a recipe for success. I could definitely see Ryan being in contention for the MVP award if his counterparts can remain healthy for an entire year, and if the Falcons can put together a productive run game to keep defenses from honing in on Ryan.
As far as the Super Bowl goes, it's going to be a very competitive NFC in 2014. Teams like the Seahawks, 49ers, and Packers all look better on paper than the Falcons do right now. But I will say this: this Falcons team is much, much better built to have success in the playoffs than teams of the past. I could easily see the Falcons going something like 10-6, grabbing a wild card spot, and making a deep playoff run. The Falcons should be able to shut down most rushing attacks and force teams to throw on an improved secondary. Add in what should be an improved running game, and the Falcons will be able to control the clock and protect late leads - something they couldn't do in the 2012 playoffs.
Alright, last quest...wait, what is this?..
Falcons fans, GET HIM.