With the flurry of NFL offseason action nearly in the books, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar take stock of every team’s offseason.
The last season that the Atlanta Falcons played without Tony Gonzalez, 2008, was the first of Mike Smith's career as head coach. It also marked the debut of Matt Ryan, following his selection at No. 3 overall in that year's draft.
The previous year had been utter chaos. Then-first year head coach Bobby Petrino resigned 13 games into the 2007 campaign to take the Arkansas job, and Atlanta limped home to a 4-12 finish. Together, Smith and Ryan helped orchestrate a remarkable turnaround to 11-5 -- and a wild-card berth -- in their first go-round. The Falcons dipped to 9-7 in Gonzalez's first season with the club (2009) before embarking on a three-year stretch that saw them win 36 regular-season games and challenge for the Super Bowl consistently.
Everything came crashing down in 2013. Atlanta dropped into a last-place tie in the NFC South with Tampa Bay at 4-12. Gonzalez was released in March, his retirement imminent (though still not official), and the Falcons dove headfirst into rebuilding on the fly.
The process began up front, on both lines. With the No. 6 pick in this year's draft, they nabbed Texas A&M star offensive tackle Jake Matthews. One round later, Atlanta selected Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman, adding him to earlier free-agent signings Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai. A few other potential contributors also arrived: WR/PR Devin Hester, CBs Javier Arenas and Josh Wilson, and G Jon Asamoah.
Subtractions from the roster were relatively limited and contained, Gonzalez's absence looming as the most troublesome of all.
Things should be better in 2014, if only because it would be hard for them to be worse. But that whole rebuilding-on-the-fly thing is harder than it looks.
Best acquisition: Jake Matthews, OT.
The 2013 Falcons' offensive line could not run block and struggled in pass protection -- and that's pretty much all an offensive line is asked to do. Matthews may not fix all that ailed the Atlanta front in his first NFL season, but he absolutely qualifies as a step in the right direction.
Emphasis on "right" -- that's the side of the line Matthews will be asked to lock down from his tackle spot, at least for now. Eventually, he may slide over to Matt Ryan's blindside, where Sam Baker currently resides. That is the same move Matthews made in college, locking down RT when 2013 No. 2 pick Luke Joeckel was at LT and then replacing Joeckel in front of Johnny Manziel for the 2013 season.
Either way, Matthews should be up for the challenge, even if he requires the customary rookie adjustment period. He was arguably the most polished O-line prospect in this year's draft class.
"We’ve got a really good football player," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith, "that is not only going to be able to protect our quarterback but is also going to be able to win the line of scrimmage in the running game."
Atlanta finished dead last in yards rushing last season, failing to average even 80 yards per game. Ryan also took 44 sacks, his career-high by a substantial margin and more than every QB in the league save for Ryan Tannehill (58) and Joe Flacco (48).
Improving the run game is a must. Considering how focused this team's build around Ryan has been, though, the No. 1 goal for 2014 is to provide him with far more protection. While Matthews cannot save the offense by his lonesome, he was a must-have draft pick at a spot of desperate need.
Biggest loss (non-Tony Gonzalez category): Sean Weatherspoon, LB.
Bending the rules here since Weatherspoon is still under contract in Atlanta through the 2014 season. He won't suit up for the Falcons this year, however, after tearing his Achilles during a June workout. It was the latest in a growing line of setbacks for Weatherspoon, who began 2013 on IR (with a designation to return) and missed nine games.
For all that, the Falcons were counting on him to play a key role this season as they transitioned from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4. Even before Weatherspoon fell, there were legitimate questions regarding if Atlanta had the linebacker depth for such a move.
Any ability to overcome the loss will hinge on the play of Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow, a pair of 2013 undrafted free agents who stormed into the lineup during Atlanta's disappointing '13 campaign. Incoming rookies Prince Shembo (Round 4) and Yawin Smallwood (Round 7) may wind up seeing more time than initially planned as well, if only out of necessity.
Underrated draft pick: Devonta Freeman, RB
Smith talked earlier this offseason about the importance of having a "big back" for short-yardage and red-zone opportunities. Freeman, at 5-foot-9 and 209 pounds, hardly fits that role, at least in comparison to the 240-pound Steven Jackson. That said, given the Falcons' preposterously poor run game last season, the Florida State product could push both Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers for playing time.
Rodgers, in particular, ought to be looking over his shoulder. Freeman never really held a No. 1 RB job by his lonesome with the Seminoles, but he did prove useful on all three downs; he finished his three-year college career with a 5.6 yards-per-carry average, 47 receptions and 31 touchdowns. His ability to stand his ground as a blocker should come in hand given Atlanta's pass-protection problems discussed above.
"I think if you look at his size, the first thing that comes to your mind is he may be a change-of-pace back. That is not the case," Smith said. "He's a very strong runner. He is shorter in stature, but he has great strength. If you really study him, he's probably more effective running with the ball between tackles then he is outside."
Jackson and Rodgers managed just 875 yards rushing between them in 2013, and neither had a reception of more than 25 yards. If Freeman handles his business as a blocker and flashes the potential for some big plays, the Falcons will have a hard time keeping him on the sideline.
Looming question for training camp: How will the Falcons replace Tony Gonzalez?
Well, they won't. The future Hall of Famer was a generational talent at tight end. Even in his final season before retirement, Gonzalez hauled in 83 passes and scored eight touchdowns, the latter number tops on the team. (Only Harry Douglas, with 85 catches, finished above Gonzalez in that category.)
The plan, at least publicly, is to de-emphasize tight end as a lead receiving option in favor of an old-school approach there: blocking being first and foremost among the responsibilities.
The emergence of one of the remaining TEs as a receiving threat could alter those plans -- 6-8 second-year man Levine Toilolo being most likely to take on a Gonzalez-like role in the offense.
Bear Pascoe, Mickey Shuler and undrafted free agent Jake Pederson also are in the mix at the position. Pascoe is entering his sixth NFL season, all of which have seen him serve as a block-first role player. Meanwhile, Pederson comes from a Wisconsin program that places high emphasis on its tight ends helping to pave the way for the ground game.
How this all shakes out on the depth chart may not be determined for some time.