In 2011, the Atlanta Falcons were a team on the rise. The franchise had suffered years of futility following the Michael Vick scandal, watching the team collapse without their star, like a poor man’s version of the Indianapolis Colts. But with a new core of young talent starring quarterback Matt Ryan, wide-receiver Roddy White, and running-back Michael Turner, paired with the long-sought after stability brought in by head coach Mike Smith, Atlanta was finally beginning to turn the corner.
Coming off a 13-3 season (best in the NFC), GM Arthur Blank looked for an answer to what was yet another opening round exit from the playoffs. After signing defensive-end Ray Edwards to pair with John Abraham and bringing back linebacker Stephen Nichols, Atlanta looked to put an already dangerous offense and put it over the top.
After failing to strike a deal with Cincinnati to grab WR A.J. Green, they made the move from the 27th pick all the way up to fourth spot, drafting Alabama wide-out Julio Jones. Atlanta threw the kitchen sink at Cleveland, giving up the their first- (27th), second- (59th), and fourth- (124th) round picks, plus their first- and fourth-round picks in 2012.
Jones showed immediately that he’s capable of enjoying great success in the NFL, catching 54 passes for 959 yards and 8 touchdowns. But injuries held him back, and when an organization gives up five draft picks for one player, you bet he’s being held to almost unfair expectations, and he’ll need a strong sophomore showing to keep the world for chanting “bust”.
But, despite Julio Jones’ strong play, at the end of the day the results were the same, getting kicked out of the playoffs in the first-round after scoring only two-points (and that coming from the defense), putting Mike Smith at 0-3 in the postseason.
Now, with no first-round pick, no cap money to even keep arguably their best defensive player (LB Curtis Lofton) or sign decent help, Atlanta is stuck in neutral. It’s said around the league that it isn’t enough to try and stay the same each year, and right now Atlanta can’t even help themselves.
The re-signing of sack-leader DE John Abraham, key backup DE Kroy Biermann, and the free agent signing of LB Lofa Tatupu were big for a defense that has talent but just needs time to sync. Although slapping the franchise tag on corner-back Brent Grimes might become a headache with talks of a hold-out, letting thier pro-bowl CB just walk was not an option.
Atlanta will be relying heavily to hit on contributors in the second- and third- round of the draft; also of importance is putting in a good training camp to allow the defense to mesh and allow last years rookie class to get a taste of the NFL off-season regiments after the lock-out prevented such workouts last year. After going all-in the year before, Atlanta’s only option is to take the pieces they have and try to take that next step.