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After an encouraging trip to the NFC Championship game last season, optimism was high for the Atlanta Falcons this season, but defeat to the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night consigned the Falcons to a 2-9 record, and the franchise will now, for the first time under Head Coach Mike Smith, finish the season with a record below .500. So spectacular has been Atlanta’s fall from grace this season, that tentative calls for a rebuild have been emanating from some corners, just a year removed from their close brush with the Super Bowl. But will that be the route General Manager Thomas Dimitroff chooses to take this offseason?
The injury to Julio Jones has understandably been pivotal in their demise this season, but that has in itself raised concerns over the overall health of the franchise, with the loss of a single player, especially one that is not the quarterback, derailing their season in this fashion. This has led to fair criticisms of the Atlanta defense, which is currently ranked 26th in yards allowed per game, and with an offense shorn of Jones, has left Matt Ryan and co. with too much to do to keep pace with their opposition.
The defense does not actually lack the talent that the stats suggest, with a good pair of safeties in Thomas DeCoud and William Moore, an underrated young leader in linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, and talented rookie corners in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. The additions of undrafted rookie linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu have also proven to be inspired additions, with both making valuable contributions so far. A case can be made that outside of the defensive line, the Falcons’ defense is not in as bad health as has been suggested by many. As things stand, the Falcons would be picking third in the 2014 NFL Draft, giving them a very realistic shot at Jadeveon Clowney, a dominant pass rusher, who has the potential to be a difference maker on their defensive line. Factor in the development that Trufant, Alford and the other defensive rookies should all make in their second season, and the Atlanta defense could be a very different proposition in 2014.
Given the success Ryan had with the wide receiver tandem of Jones and Roddy White last season, it is almost counter-intuitive to say that offense is where the Falcons need the most work, but that certainly seems to be the case. Atlanta have their franchise quarterback, they have a dominant receiver in Jones, and with each day that passes, chances of White extending his contract seem more and more likely, giving the Falcons some valuable pieces. That is where the good news ends however, as the offensive line and running game have been poor this season, and with a lack of talent on the line, is not a problem which will rectify itself without heavy investment.
Dimitroff does not have an abundance of cap space to work with in 2014, and although he should still be able to pick up some cheaper veterans in free agency, the offensive line and pass rush are two areas Atlanta will have to swiftly address in the draft. Assuming they can take Clowney in the first round, or a similar pass rusher (Anthony Barr could potentially transition to defensive end in a 4-3 scheme), devoting the entirety of their remaining picks to trying to find both a tackle and a guard, as well as also considering any talented running backs that fall to them, could well be the best way of ensuring a quick turnaround for the franchise next season.
This Atlanta side is not far away from being a Super Bowl contender again, but until they improve their pass rush, and solidify their offensive line, they are unlikely to be able to bridge this gap. If they can at least find a starting defensive end and starting offensive tackle from the 2014 draft, they should be able to add sufficient quality in free agency to once again make them competitive in the NFC South, particularly if Tony Gonzalez goes through with his retirement this year, as he would free up around $7 million in cap space. It must be frightening for Atlanta fans to realize just how much they rely on Jones, and although their form this season has been far below what they should be capable of, resorting to a full-on rebuild would be detrimental to the franchise, and is not required at the current time, as they are perhaps three or four players away from being genuine Super Bowl contenders. That being said, the need to improve the offensive line and pass rush is dire, and all eyes will be on Dimitroff this offseason. It’s an overused cliché, but it truly will be a make or break offseason for the Atlanta Falcons.
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