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Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Taking a Look at the NFL Coaching Vacancies: Atlanta Falcons

2014 Record: 6-10 3rd in NFC South

General Manager: Thomas Dimitroff

Last Winning Season: 2012

Last Playoff Birth: 2012 13-3 NFC South Champions

Last Head Coach: Mike Smith

Super Bowl Record: 0-1

Quarterback(s): Matt Ryan

Top Building Blocks: Julio Jones WR, Jake Matthews OT, Paul Worrilow ILB, Desmond Trufant CB

2015 Notable Free Agents: Jacquizz Rodgers RB, Antone Smith RB, Gabe Carimi OL, Kroy Biermann DE/OLB, Osi Umenyiora DE/OLB, Corey Peters DT, Sean Weatherspoon LB, Robert McClain CB, Josh Wilson CB, Javier Arenas CB/RS, Dwight Lowery S, Charles Godfrey S, Matt Bryant K

Offense: Matt Ryan is still fairly young at 29 years of age after finishing his seventh season in the league.  Ryan has been the face of the franchise since being drafted in the first round by the Falcons in 2008 and in that time he's led the team to four playoff births, two division titles and was on the doorstep of a Super Bowl birth before blowing a 17-0 lead in the Georgia Dome to the 49ers in the 2012 NFC title game.  Ryan has clearly shown an ability to get it done in the regular season, but "Matty Ice" has been anything but cool in big games with a 1-4 career playoff record and an ugly week 17 defeat at home to the Panthers with the NFC South division title on the line that ultimately may have cost his last head coach Mike Smith his job.  Ryan is still among the best pure passers in the game, despite  getting little to no help from his ground game, Ryan still managed to complete over 66% of his passes in 2014 for 4,694 yards and 28 touchdowns, accumulating a passer rating of 93.9 which was good for ninth among all quarterbacks in the NFL with 350 or more pass attempts.  The running back by committee approach of the Falcons in 2014 featured four different backs, veteran banger Steven Jackson, versatile Jacquizz Rodgers, rookie Devonta Freeman, and speedster Antone Smith.  Other than Smith, who only accumulated 23 carries before being lost to injury the other three backs only managed to average 3.7 yards per carry.  Freeman will likely play the biggest role for whoever takes the coaching reins in 2015, the fourth round pick out of Florida State lacks ideal size at 5'8 206 pounds but he displayed impressive acceleration and an ability to make plays in the passing game out of the backfield. If Steven Jackson isn't brought back, Freeman will likely be given the first shot at the starting job depending on what happens in the draft, either way it will probably be another runner by committee approach which has pretty much become the standard in today's NFL.  At wide receiver, the Falcons have one of the very best in the game in emerging superstar Julio Jones, the teams first round pick back in 2011.  When healthy, Jones is one of the most explosive offensive weapons in football, leading the NFC in receptions (104) and receiving yards (1,593) despite being hobbled by a hip injury late in the year which forced him to miss week 16 and play at far less than 100 percent in the week 17 debacle against the Panthers.  Jones also missed all but a handful of games in 2013 due to a season ending foot injury in week five.  Opposite Jones is Roddy White, another former first round pick who has also battled numerous injuries the past couple seasons, but also like Jones, when he's healthy he's a force to be reckoned with.  White racked up 80 receptions for 921 yards and seven touchdowns in 2014.  When the duo is healthy they are as good as any wide receiver twosome in football, but those healthy moments have become fewer and more far between the last two seasons.  Harry Douglas and Devin Hester are effective complimentary pieces, Hester is still capable of scoring any time he touches the football and Douglas is good enough to start for at least a third of the teams in the league, but the Falcons were unable to replace future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez in 2014, Ryan's security blanket over the middle throughout his NFL career.  Levine Toilolo, in his second year out of Stanford passes the eye test at 6'8 265 pounds, but he proved to be terribly inconsistent catching the football and needs to take a big step forward to hold on to the job and be a factor for the Falcons in 2015.  On the offensive line, first round pick Jake Matthews had his ups and downs in his first season, but he's a fundamentally sound solid athlete with an impressive NFL pedigree and should improve dramatically in 2015.

Defense: The Falcons desperately need to improve their pass rush to take any kind of significant step forward in 2015.  Kroy Biermann led the team in sacks with a shockingly low total of four and a half, and he's a free agent whose return is not guaranteed.  Paul Worrilow was a revelation as an undrafted rookie in 2013 and once again led the Falcons in tackles in 2014 with an impressive 143.  The Falcons were the worst team in football at defending against the pass last season, allowing an average of nearly 280 yards passing per game.  Despite those numbers, the Falcons cornerback play actually wasn't that bad, former first round pick Desmond Trufant is a particularly promising young performer, but you can't expect your DB's to cover forever and opposing quarterbacks had an unacceptable amount of time to throw the football in 2014.

Offseason Needs: Pass rush, pass rush, and pass rush.  The Falcons need to bolster their defensive front seven through free agency and the draft no matter who takes over as head coach and what defensive system that coach decides to bring with him.  Offensively, it may be a bit soon to give up on tight end Levine Toilolo completely, but the production from that position needs to get better.  A bigger and more physical running back to compliment Devonta Freeman would be nice as well as it appears to be at or near the end of the line for the 31 year old Steven Jackson after 11 punishing seasons with the Rams and Falcons.  Jackson has squashed rumors of retirement, but he's taking a pounding playing for lackluster offenses over the years and lacks the explosion he had even two seasons ago.

Who Would Fit Best: Bringing in a defensive mind such as Rex Ryan, Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, or Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin could immediately make the defense at least somewhat better purely through their ability to innovate and make chicken salad out of chicken doo-doo.  This is a team that not only needs to improve defensively, they need a coach who will bring an edge and an ability to motivate a team that at times appeared to be sleep walking at the most inopportune of times.  Matt Ryan would far and away be the best quarterback Rex Ryan has ever had to work with as an NFL head coach.  Both of these Ryan's have been at the cusp of a Super Bowl birth but haven't been able to take that next step, perhaps they can be the piece each needs to finally reach the promised land and finally bring a championship to Atlanta.

Best candidates: Rex Ryan and Todd Bowles


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