5 Questions Atlanta Falcons Must Answer During Training Camp
5 Questions Atlanta Falcons Need To Answer During Training Camp
The Atlanta Falcons begin training camp as one of the best contenders in the league to make it all the way to MetLife Stadium in New Jersey and win a Super Bowl title this winter.
Built like the prototype NFL team right now, they rely mostly on their top tier passing game to win games. Matt Ryan is getting better every year and Julio Jones is ready to take the next step and put himself into the conversation of the best receivers in the league.
But that alone won't win them a championship. It will win them a lot of games, they've proven that already, but if they want to go all the way in the playoffs, they need to improve in the other facets of the game.
They bring back much of the same roster and coaching staff this year, with only minor additions to the team that won 13 games last year. Former St. Louis Rams workhorse running back Steven Jackson was brought in to improve the running game, and sack master Osi Umenyiora was signed as a free agent to replace John Abraham as the teams go-to pass rusher.
The Falcons have accumulated 36 wins in the past three years, and that gives the Atlanta fans hope that their team could be the one to win the Lombardi trophy this year. They didn’t have many big needs to fill, but it may just be those minor additions that prove to be what the team needs to get over the top and finally win a championship.
Expectations are as high as they can get in Atlanta this year. Whether or not they live up to them will come down to how they answer these five most important questions heading into training camp.
5. Is Steven Jackson Still A Feature Back?
Steven Jackson has been one of the most productive backs in the NFL for the past eight years, eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark every season since 2005.
But NFL running backs age differently from other players; every year for them is worth more on their bodies than any other position. Jackson's past production is a harbinger that his body can't hold up much longer.
The good news for Jackson could be that he has a partner to share the load with in Atlanta. Jacquizz Rodgers is a promising young ball carrier who can spell Jackson in passing situations.
At some point Jackson is going to hit the wall like all NFL runners do. His ability to stay productive for so long makes him one of the best running backs of his generation, but the Falcons hope he's got at least one more big year left in him.
4. Can The Defense Improve?
The good news is they're already on their way to answering this question. Under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the team improved from 18th in scoring defense in 2011 to fifth last year. But that stat could be a little misleading because they were only 23rd in passing defense, 21st against the run and 24th in yards per game.
They did the best they could under their tight salary cap number to solidify their secondary and improve their pass rush. Gone is their sack leader from last year John Abraham, but in his place is Osi Umenyiora. A top end talent, Umenyiora has struggled with injuries the past few years. If he can stay healthy and match his lofty production from 2004 to 2010, Umenyiora could be the spark the Atlanta defense needs to improve in 2013.
Mike Nolan had opportunities to leave the Falcons for a head coaching job elsewhere in the NFL this past offseason, but he stayed in Atlanta because he is determined to see this defense get on the same level as the high flying Falcons offense.
3. Is Julio Jones The Second Best Receiver In The NFL?
I really, really wanted to ask if Julio Jones could be the best receiver in the NFL, but much like all other basketball players not named Lebron James right now, it's just not fair to compare him to Calvin Johnson.
But the good news is the title of second best receiver in the league is totally up for grabs, and Jones is a top candidate for the job. His physical skills are off the chart, but the scary thing for defenses is that heading into his third year in the league, it's his understanding of the pro passing game that can set him apart from the other contenders for the second place throne.
Jones has some work to do to get there, he can struggle sometimes with the easy catches and tends to float through stretches of games sometimes, but those are things that young receivers can correct.
The sky is the limit for him, and 2013 should be his biggest year yet.
2. Do They Have Enough Depth At Tight End?
Tight end is quickly becoming one of the most important offensive positions on winning teams. They create mismatches in the passing game and provide extra muscle on running downs. The key to the good teams is not only having one really good tight end, it's having several.
The Falcons know they have one really good one in future hall of famer Tony Gonzalez. The best tight end of his generation, maybe the best ever, Gonzalez has been productive for as long as we can all remember. Every year the question is whether or not he can still get the job done, and every year he answers it with a resounding yes. At this point, we just have to assume that he's going to be one of the rare ones that stays on top until he decides he just doesn’t want to play anymore.
But it's the lack of depth at the position that could be a problem. After Gonzalez, the Falcons have a long list of players that haven’t shown any proven production. Chase Coffman, a former-third-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, may be the best of the bunch.
If the Falcons are going to go far in the playoffs, they are going to do it on the back of the offense and its passing game, and that could be derailed by the lack of depth at tight end.
1. Is Matt Ryan An Elite Quarterback?
As always in the NFL today, it all comes down to quarterback. The Falcons knew this years ago when they used the third overall selection in the 2008 draft to take their current franchise quarterback Matt Ryan out of Boston College.
But while the results have been good so far, the question still remains whether or not Ryan has hit his ceiling as an NFL passer. He's shown the ability to be very good, but very good won't get the Falcons to where they want to be. If they want to end the 2013 season with a Super Bowl win, then they need Ryan to take that next step and become one of the truly elite quarterbacks in the league.
We've seen talented players do just that right about this point in their career. 2013 will be the year we finally answer the biggest question for the Falcons, whether or not Ryan is the guy to take them all the way to a championship.