By Brandon Daniel @Brandon_Rant on May 22, 2014
The Atlanta Falcons entered the offseason with one priority: get bigger and tougher in the trenches. They were able to do that through free agency and the draft by adding some key pieces along both lines of scrimmage. The 2014 depth chart will look much different at many positions. Here's what their starters figure to look like in the upcoming season.
No battle and no controversy here. Matt Ryan will be the starter in 2014, and he will try to lead his Falcons on a rebound campaign that ends in the playoffs. With a much better offensive line in front of him, his top two weapons healthy and the bad taste of the 2013 season in his mouth, Ryan should have a huge year.
There may be a camp battle with Devonta Freeman, but Steven Jackson should begin the fall as the feature back in Atlanta. His experience and paycheck will be the difference between he and Freeman. However, Jackson will be 31 and was banged up most of the year, so Freeman will probably get his chances throughout the season to show what he can do.
Julio Jones and Roddy White make for one of the top two or three WR duos in the game. Both should be healthy and back to form in 2014. With the departure of Tony Gonzalez, you can consider Harry Douglas a starter this season as the Falcons will probably use a lot of three receiver sets. But Jones and White will get the bulk of the catches and should put up big numbers if they can stay healthy all season.
Hall-of-Famer to be Tony Gonzalez is retired, and the Falcons didn’t address this position in the draft. Therefore the starting position is Levine Toilolo’s to lose. He will be used mostly as an in-line tight end and probably get some looks in the red zone, but don’t expect him to catch 80 balls like Gonzalez did last season. He will be a solid blocker and fourth or fifth option in the passing game.
Sam Baker and Jake Matthews will be the starters at tackle this season. Baker will begin as the starter on the left side and Matthews on the right. However, given Baker’s unreliability it’s reasonable to believe Matthews could end up protecting Ryan’s blind side by the end of the season. Baker may eventually find himself out of a job unless he can stay healthy.
Justin Blalock, who has been the Falcons' most consistent starter on the OL the past few years, will start at left guard and newly signed Jon Asamoah will hold down the position on the right. Asamoah will be a huge upgrade over the failed rotation at right guard from a year ago and should help stabilize the line. Ryan and the Falcons should feel much better about this position than they did last season.
There will be a camp battle between Joe Hawley and Peter Konz for this position, but Hawley is going to win and be the starter. Thus far Konz, a second-round pick, looks to be a bust as he has not proved he can handle life in the NFL. Hawley has developed into a decent option, and he should hold Konz off for the job in the fall.
This position will depend on which look the Falcons are in as they have said they will run multiple defensive sets. In the 4-3 the starters will probably be Tyson Jackson and Jonathan Massaquoi, with Osi Umenyora as the designated pass rush specialist subbed for Jackson. In 3-4 looks like Jackson and massive second-round pick Ra’Shede Hageman will man the end spots. Many players will rotate due to depth built this offseason.
Big man Paul Soliai was signed to start at DT this offseason, and he will probably do so in either the 3-4 or 4-3 look. Hageman will slide alongside Soliai at the other DT spot when the Falcons are in the 4-3. Look for Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux to play a lot of snaps as well, especially in passing situations.
In a 3-4 look, expect to see Jonathan Massaquoi and fourth-round pick Prince Shembo to be manning the outside linebacker positions. The Falcons seem to really believe in Massaquoi’s ability to get to the quarterback, and Shembo has a lot of upside that could make him a solid edge rusher in Mike Nolan’s defense. In a 4-3 look, expect to see Sean Weatherspoon and Joplo Bartu manning the OLB positions.
Paul Worrilow will be at inside linebacker regardless of which look the Falcons are in. The undrafted free agent came in and proved himself as a starter last season in Weatherspoon’s absence and should continue to improve. In the 3-4 look, Weatherspoon will slide inside along with Worrilow to form an effective tandem up the middle.
Desmond Trufant lived up to expectations last season and was one of the top rookies in the NFL. He should be the premier corner in Atlanta for years to come. Fellow second-year man Robert Alford should start alongside Trufant, giving Atlanta one of the best young CB pairs in the league. Being that the Falcons will be in the nickel much of the time, Robert McClain should hold off camp challengers for the nickel back spot and play a lot of snaps.
The much-maligned Thomas DeCoud was cut this offseason, leaving a hole in the secondary. The Falcons signed veteran Dwight Lowery and drafted Wisconsin’s Dez Southward to compete for the starting position. While most scouts consider Southward to be a raw prospect, the Falcons love his physical ability and didn’t use a third-round pick for him to ride the bench. Look for Southward to line up at FS when the Falcons kickoff against the Saints.
William Moore is back and will be manning his strong safety position again this season. The hard-hitting Moore has developed into a really solid player for the Falcons and has proven himself to have a knack for coming up with the big interception. The Falcons will lean heavily on Moore to help get the rookie Southward up to speed and be a team leader on the defense.
The Falcons brought in some camp legs from the undrafted free agent pool, but the starting gigs are going to Matt Bryant at placekicker and Matt Bosher at punter. They are as solid a tandem as there is in the league. Atlanta signed return specialist Devin Hester to take over on kickoff and punt returns, which will give them the most dynamic option they’ve had in the return game since Allen Rossum.
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