Draft Picks: T Jake Matthews, DE/DT Ra'Shede Hageman, S Dezmen Southward, RB Devonta Freeman, OLB Prince Shembo, CB Ricardo Allen, ILB Marquis Spruill, ILB Yawin Smallwood, DE/OLB Tyler Starr
Veteran Additions: QB T.J. Yates, G Jon Asamoah, DT Paul Soliai, DE/DT Tyson Jackson, CB Josh Wilson, KR Devin Hester, CB Javier Arenas, G Gabe Carimi, TE Bear Pascoe
Veteran Losses: TE Tony Gonzalez, LB Stephen Nicholas, CB Asante Samuel, G Garrett Reynolds, TE Chase Coffman, FB Bradie Ewing, CB Dominique Franks
The Falcons entered last season as a Super Bowl frontrunner after a heartbreaking NFC Championship loss to the San Francisco 49ers, but they didn't come close to making the playoffs. Injuries took a toll on the team. This included a season-ending foot injury to Julio Jones, and Roddy White played through an injury that affected his play negatively. This caused the Falcons to finish with a 4-12 record.
Starting quarterback Matt Ryan felt the effect of losing his top weapons and had a forgettable season in 2013, throwing 26 touchdown passes against 17 interceptions. However, he continued to show great accuracy by completing 67 percent of his passes. He signed a five-year, $104 million contract extension before last season. He will look to bounce back as Jones and White return to the lineup.
Backing him up will be T.J. Yates, who was recently acquired in a trade with the Houston Texans for linebacker Akeem Dent. Yates has flashed his ability as a backup quarterback by winning a playoff game with the Texans in the 2011 playoffs after Matt Schaub went down with an injury. Undrafted free agent Jeff Matthews becomes the odd man out, but he may stick around on the practice squad.
Running back turned out to be a crucial problem for the Falcons as they finished last in the NFL in rushing with 77.9 yards per game. Steven Jackson signed a three-year contract with the Falcons, and he struggled while missing four games with a hamstring injury. He finished with 543 rushing yards on a mere 3.5 yards per carry.
Jacquizz Rodgers will continue to be the change-of-pace back for the Falcons, but rookie Devonta Freeman may steal touches from him. He might even unseat Jackson as the starter. Freeman showed a knack for the end zone by scoring 14 rushing touchdowns in his junior season at Florida State. Antone Smith will likely make the roster as a special teams contributor again, but he made his carries count last season by rushing for 150 yards on only five carries.
The Falcons' depth at wide receiver was severely tested last season, but their backups showed promise as they were forced to step up in Jones' and White's absences. Jones will look to make his mark as an elite receiver once again after finishing 2012 with 1,198 receiving yards and 10 touchdown receptions. He also shined in the NFC Championship with 11 catches, 182 yards and two touchdowns.
White was a model of consistency before dealing with ankle and hamstring injuries. He finished with at least 1,100 receiving yards for six consecutive seasons before 2013. He will continue to endure obstacles though as he deals with his brother's death, but he will return to practice when training camp begins.
Harry Douglas became a primary weapon for Ryan last season, and he impressed by catching 85 passes for 1,067 yards. He was only able to find the end zone twice though. Drew Davis saw his role expand as well beyond special teams, but he will likely resume his play there. Devin Hester signed a three-year contract with the Falcons after the Chicago Bears released him, and he is expected to take on the kick returner role. However, the Falcons have stated that they want to use him creatively, so this could mean targets for him at receiver.
Tight end has a big hole that was left by Tony Gonzalez's retirement, but the Falcons drafted Levine Toilolo in anticipation of Gonzalez's departure. Gonzalez finished his career respectably with 83 receptions, 859 receiving yards and eight touchdown catches. Toilolo will need to make a big jump from his rookie season since he had a limited role in the offense. He found the end zone twice in his 11 catches though, so he has great potential as a red-zone threat.
Bear Pascoe was signed to be a blocking tight end for the Falcons, and he can be a serviceable receiving option in the few times the ball is thrown to him.
Blocking is in need of a major upgrade after last season's disastrous performance by the offensive line, whch also greatly contributed to the Falcons' disappointing season. The unit ranked 30th in Pro Football Focus. Matters became worse after left tackle Sam Baker went down with a season-ending knee injury. Lamar Holmes filled in and performed horribly. Left guard Justin Blalock was the only reliable lineman for the Falcons.
Peter Konz struggled mightily at center, and he was moved to right guard midway through the season in favor of Joe Hawley. Hawley signed a two-year extension, and he is expected to be the Falcons' permanent starting center despite his ability to play guard. Jon Asamoah was signed to a five-year contract, and he is expected to take over at right guard. This will be a huge upgrade over Konz. First-round draft pick Jake Matthews is projected to start at right tackle.
Mike Johnson will return from a dislocated left ankle. He was projected to be the starting right tackle, and he may have been able to fill in for Baker if he stayed healthy. He will provide quality depth with his versatility at tackle and guard. Holmes will also stick around as a reserve tackle for the Falcons. Gabe Carimi and Ryan Schraeder will look to make the team as well. Carimi has disappointed since being drafted in the first round by the Bears, but he will reunite with Mike Tice, who will be the Falcons' new offensive line coach.
The Falcons struggled mightily on defense, finishing 31st against the run. They dipped into free agency and signed defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai.
Jackson did not live up to his billing as the third overall pick with the Chiefs, but he registered four sacks last season. He also excelled at stuffing the run.
Soliai also did well at stuffing the run for the Miami Dolphins, and he was rewarded with a five-year, $33 million contract. He is expected to start at nose tackle for the Falcons. Starting opposite Jackson will likely be rookie Ra'Shede Hageman, who has impressed so far in minicamp practices.
Jonathan Babineaux may start as a 3-4 defensive end though, and he also has great run-stopping abilities. Malliciah Goodman will also provide depth at defensive end, and Corey Peters will provide depth for Soliai. Peters is more capable of pass rushing than Soliai, so he will make an ideal rotational defensive lineman.
Despite having players suited for a 3-4 scheme, head coach Mike Smith has stated that the Falcons will not permanently switch to the 3-4. They will instead employ a hybrid defense. Defensive end Kroy Biermann tore his Achilles tendon last season, and he is expected to start at defensive end, but he is also capable of playing linebacker.
The linebacker corps took a hit as Sean Weatherspoon will have to miss the season with a torn Achilles tendon. Paul Worrilow is expected to start at inside linebacker, and he has proven to be a mostly reliable tackler as he led the Falcons with 127 tackles last season.
Joplo Bartu is the favorite to fill the hole that Weatherspoon left. He was signed as an undrafted free agent last season, and he showed promise by registering 3.5 sacks and stuffing the run well. He will need to improve his coverage skills, but he also flashed his tackling abilities.
Rookies Marquis Spruill and Yawin Smallwood will also look to make the roster and push for playing time. Smallwood finished his last season at UConn with 118 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Spruill also flashed pass-rushing ability with 5.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in his last season at Syracuse.
Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Massaquoi are expected to start at outside linebacker. Umenyiora is not the same pass rusher he was with the New York Giants, but he still has some juice left in the tank. He finished with 7.5 sacks last season, and he will resume his role as a 3-4 linebacker and 4-3 end.
Massaquoi took on a bigger role after Biermann went down, and he performed well as a pass rusher. He notched four sacks, and he will look to make the most of his opportunities in the coming season.
In addition to inside linebacker, the Falcons doubled down on outside linebacker in the draft by selecting Prince Shembo and Tyler Starr. Shembo will be moving to inside linebacker though, so the position may become a logjam. Starr has already impressed the Falcons' coaching staff, and he is expected to possibly be a draft steal.
Cornerback figures to be a promising position for the Falcons with Desmond Trufant entering his second year. Trufant had an incredible rookie season and will look to prove himself as one of the best corners in the NFL.
Robert Alford also received significant playing time as a rookie last season. While he didn't adjust to NFL life as well as Trufant, he showed great promise. This caused the Falcons' decision to move on from Asante Samuel. Trufant and Alford have the potential to be one of the top corner duos in the NFL.
Robert McClain and Josh Wilson will compete for the nickel corner job. McClain struggled there last season, allowing more than 75 percent of passes thrown toward him to be completed. Wilson also struggled when he was forced to be a starting corner for the Washington Redskins, but he should thrive as he returns to his natural position.
The Falcons released free safety Thomas DeCoud after a poor showing in 2013, and they drafted Dezmen Southward in the third round to fill the hole left by DeCoud. He is expected to compete with Dwight Lowery for the starting free safety job.
William Moore will return as the starting strong safety, and he continued to be a key component to the Falcons' defense by intercepting three passes. However, he struggled last season with his tackling by missing 17 of them. Kemal Ishmael will likely stick around as a special teams contributor.
Matt Bryant will return as the Falcons' kicker, and he has been a model of consistency for the last four seasons. He has made at least 86 percent of his field goals in those seasons and has not missed an extra point in that span. He is also capable of making long field goals. He demonstrated this ability last season by making five field goals of 50 yards or longer.
Matt Bosher will resume the punting job for the Falcons. He ranked ninth in the NFL with a 46.6 yards-per-punt average, but his power was still underwhelming as he only had two touchbacks.
The Falcons' offense is expected to be one of the elite units in the NFL once again, assuming everybody returns healthy. Ryan is still on a mission to win a Super Bowl and prove himself as an elite quarterback.
Jones and White make up arguably the top receiving duo in the league, but the running game has a lot of concerns to address. Jackson isn't getting any younger, but Freeman may be a diamond in the rough.
The offensive line will also need to make great strides or Ryan may be in for another rough season.
Despite their struggles last season, the Falcons defense is expected to improve with a promising starting cornerback tandem. The linebacking unit also has great potential even with Weatherspoon out for the season.
The defensive line will need to put last season behind them though. Jackson and Soliai are both solid run stoppers, so it's inevitable that the Falcons will finish better than 31st against the run.
Head coach Mike Smith may feel his seat getting warm after last season, and it will heat up if the Falcons miss the playoffs. Since he is 1-4 in the playoffs, he still leaves doubt among fans.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff has done a solid job in providing him talent though, including his gutsy decision to trade up for Jones in the 2011 draft.
The Falcons have a moderately difficult schedule with the NFC North and AFC North on their schedule, but they have healthy veterans returning with promising rookies on the horizon. For these reasons, the Falcons are in prime position to be this year's version of the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs.
Projected Record: 10-6