A vigorous thank you to Rob Weintraub of Football Outsiders for answering three burning questions about Julio Jones, Steven Jackson and the pass rush.
Dave Choate: What can we expect from Julio Jones in his third season? Do you think, looking at his first two seasons and his role in this offense, that he's going to bust out in spectacular fashion or continue to deliver consistently excellent results?
Rob Weintraub: He's already busted out, as far as we're concerned, and this year he should surpass Roddy White as the team's number one wideout, assuming no injury and Roddy doesn't let his, shall we say, extroverted personality get in the way. One would think a 32-year old receiver would make way for a 24-year old supernova like Jones, but with Roddy, that's a dangerous assumption. Last season Roddy was fifth in the NFL in DYAR, Julio ninth--we wouldn't be surprised if they swapped spots this season. Julio's targets, receptions, and yards should increase; his play-by-play efficiency may drop slightly as a result, but the overall effect will be one of the top receivers in football.
Dave Choate: The Falcons have, charitably, an average run-blocking line. Do you think Steven Jackson will excel, nonetheless?
Rob Weintraub: "Excel" is a word that will be purely contextual. It would be a surprise if he gets much more than 200 carries, or 1,000 yards, and the combination of his age (30) and the plethora of other weapons on hand, including Jacquizz Rodgers, means Jackson will be asked to do more with less. If he can reliably convert first downs, continue to be a strong receiver out of the backfield, and keep his efficiency on the positive side (his DVOA was 5.3% last season), he will have given Atlanta all they ask for. Obviously, Jax is highly motivated, playing on a good team for the first time since he was a pup. Whether that's enough to overcome the loss of sturdy run blockers like Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo is questionable. Obviously, the team will be better served if Lamar Holmes, Peter Konz, and/or Mike Johnson "excel," rather than Jackson. Jackson declined in performance significantly last season in the second half of games. Don't be surprised if he is sparingly used early in games in Atlanta to allow him to be fresh when they need him to kill clock later.
Dave Choate: The Falcons have struggled to generate a consistent pass rush in recent years, but they've added Osi Umenyiora and two promising rookies in Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga. How do you see this team improving the pass rush, and will these new pieces help?
Rob Weintraub: It's hard to see Osi significantly bettering the production the Falcons lost with John Abraham (who still might come back to the red and black). He's two years younger, yes, but he's injury-prone, and the Giants were as sick of him and his act as the Falcs apparently are tired of Abe. As for the rookies, it's asking a lot to expect much from them. We're not talking first round talent, here. Goodman has a tremendous body, with a long wingspan, but badly needs to develop pass rush skills. Once he learns some hand fighting technique and some moves to defeat opposing linemen, he could be a factor, but he's a ways from that yet. Maponga is coming off foot surgery and will be a 10-15 snap guy at best while he learns the league. He has the potential to be a versatile piece in Mike Nolan's system, but that's in the future.
The pass rush (or lack of it) is going to be a crucial portion of the team's success (or lack of it) in 2013. The young secondary is going to need reliable pressure while the unit learns on the fly. And Nolan's schematic magic can only do so much for so long. The Falcons have placed in the mid-twenties in the league standings in Adjusted Sack Rate over the last three seasons, and it's hard to see that improving this year.
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