The Atlanta Falcons crash into 2015 with plenty of work to do. That work will be heavily focused on overhauling a roster that has a handful of great pieces, another handful of average-to-good ones and buckets of holes and impending free agents. Could be worse, could be better for Atlanta.
As we kick off the New Year in earnest, this seems like a quality time to review the five biggest weaknesses and strengths on this Falcons roster, with an eye on formulating our own needs lists for the team in the months ahead. We should acknowledge that while there are pressing needs, the Falcons job remains an attractive one for head coaches because of Matt Ryan, Desmond Trufant and the young talent the Falcons are cultivating on the offensive line and (to some extent) on defense.
Stay tuned for our full roster breakdowns by position, beginning later on this month. For now, five strengths and major needs for these Falcons.
5 Biggest Falcons Needs
1) Pass rusher. It can't be anything else. The Falcons have utterly failed to gin up a decent pass rush since John Abraham left, and even before he left it was largely up to Abe and Jonathan Babineaux to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks. If the Falcons could only choose one need to address, this would unquestionably be it.
The best-case scenario is likely that the Falcons add multiple players who can rush the passer, get something out of Jonathan Massaquoi and Stansly Maponga and scheme whatever extra pressure they can.
2) Tight end. On one hand, I thought the Falcons' plan to de-emphasize tight end was intelligent. You can't replace Tony Gonzalez easily, after all, and the team's receivers did look good.
It turned out to be a major liability. Levine Toilolo may develop into a better pass catcher, but he was largely a non-factor in the passing game, and he and Bear Pascoe formed one of the worst tight end tandems in the NFL. It's not critical to get a great tight end, perhaps, but a good one would open up possibilities for the offense again.
3) Linebacker. The Falcons were undone by injuries and limitations at linebacker. Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu and Prince Shembo are all young and have varying degrees of promise, but if that's the three LBs you're putting on the field often, the very core of your defense is likely in trouble.
The Falcons could use an impact player here, potentially a pass rusher (see above) that could take on a full-time role and roll back the snaps available to the rest of the crew. Worrilow's best fit is as a pass rusher and run stopper, and if the Falcons can get him out of obvious coverage situations and let Bartu and Shembo develop and work on special teams, things will likely go better here in 2015.
4) Wide receiver. Our good friend Aaron Freeman at FalcFans has been vocal in recent seasons about his desire for a talented young receiver, and the Falcons are at the point where that has become a glaring need.
Julio Jones gives the Falcons a stud #1 wide receiver and Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester are all useful. The latter three receivers are also all over 30 and either declining or headed for that eventuality, and with the Falcons likely to roll with a bevy of young backs in 2015, anything they can do to add power to the passing game will pay off. A true #2 receiver, a healthier line and an upgrade at tight end would likely result in a much better year for both Matt Ryan and the Falcons.
5) Cornerback. I still like Robert Alford, but there's no point in denying that cornerback is a deeply unsettled position once you get by Desmond Trufant. Alford still had issues with penalties and coverage, Robert McClain had a second-straight mediocre year and both Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas are free agents. While I'm hopeful Ricardo Allen will be a quality player, no one knows whether he will be yet.
What would be your top five list of needs?