When the Atlanta Falcons traded away a handful of draft picks last year to grab Julio Jones in the first round, I questioned the move. I knew then that it was not only going to severely affect last year’s draft, but the 2012 draft as well. The question is, can Julio Jones play defense in the secondary, or protect Matt Ryan on the offensive line, or return punts and kickoffs? Because those are all areas where the Falcons are severely hurting, and if Jones can’t do those jobs then Atlanta is going to have a tough time filling some of those gaps given the limited draft picks they have available this year. While Jones was a good acquisition and is an impact player, the Falcons may have overplayed their hand and left themselves in a rather precarious position.
Now that the free agent frenzy has ended, and teams are now preparing for the draft, the Falcons may be starting to see the domino effect last year’s big move is having. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has taken a “stand pat” position this off-season it would seem, and given the history of the last two Super Bowl champions, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However with the departure of receiver/kick returner Eric Weems and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, the shortcomings of the Falcons have not only been left unfilled, but have now been amplified. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Falcons can’t take a step forward, but it does mean that they’ll have to be very judicious in their draft picks this season. With so many positions that need to be either be upgraded or completely replaced, Atlanta finds themselves with more leaking holes in the dyke than they have fingers to plug them.
The problem I have with the entire situation is, why go after a player like Julio Jones after a 13-3 season and a first round playoff exit? I know Thomas Dimitroff had to see more issues on the field than lack of production from the receivers during that loss to the Green Bay Packers in the 2010 playoffs, so why were those not addressed first? When watching tapes of that Green Bay game, and the 2011 playoff loss to the New York Giants, the issues I saw weren’t with the inability of receivers to get open, but more with the lack of time for Matt Ryan to get set and throw the ball. The failings of the offensive line, and of the defensive secondary were the biggest culprits in Atlanta’s embarrassing playoff losses in the last two years.
Now you’ve leveraged the draft for two seasons, and still have yet to truly address the problems that were holding you back. If Atlanta is banking on the two new coordinators being able to coach the existing personnel into playing better, history shows that’s a difficult path to follow. Changing coordinators can disrupt the consistency and rhythm that a team has developed on either side of the ball, and the Falcons have just shaken things up on both sides. You are not only asking newly tapped coordinators Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan to try to get blood from a stone, but to keep those stones from tumbling downhill as they rearrange them. All of this without adding any significant players via free agency, and without a first round draft choice to have an impact. Tough sledding indeed.
The good news is that last year’s Super Bowl champion New York Giants followed a similar path. When they let starting receiver Steve Smith leave town for the rival Philadelphia Eagles, and popular tight end Kevin Boss to the Oakland Raiders, the fans were calling for blood from Giants front office. They also had a quarterback who’s ability was being questioned in Eli Manning after his sub-par 2010 season. (Sound familiar Atlanta fans?) But the Giants started clicking late in the season, and emerging stars Victor Cruz and Jake Ballard proved to be huge difference makers, helping to carry them to a Super Bowl victory. The Falcons have some young talent on defense that will have to step up and take over games if they hope to repeat the Giants late season run from last year – either that or Julio Jones is going to have to become the greatest 3-way player in team history.