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Today: The Atlanta Falcons
Last Year: 4-12 (4th place in NFC South)
Just one year removed from a season that ended in the NFC title game — just a few plays away from reaching the Super Bowl — the Atlanta Falcons’ season in 2013 careened and crashed pretty early on despite some pretty lofty expectations.
Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez elected to come back for one more season to reach the ever elusive Super Bowl. Roddy White and Julio Jones were set to continue their reign as the league’s best wide receiver tandem. Well, that all went to shit.
White and Jones didn’t really have a chance to repeat, as Jones missed all but five games due to injury, and White didn’t exactly perform up to the level we’re accustomed to seeing. And Tony Gonzalez’s Super Bowl aspiration was nothing but a pipe dream in the end.
A year after finishing 13-3, the Falcons nearly flipped that record, finishing the 2013 regular season with a 4-12 record. After five straight seasons of posting a record better than .500, after making the playoffs four out of the past five seasons, the Falcons went back to the bottom of the pile.
Last Year’s Stud: Tony Gonzalez
I’m not sure if he had the best season out of anyone on the team, but it’s worth paying homage to the greatest tight end to ever play the game. In his 17th and final NFL season, Gonzalez still managed to catch 83 passes for 859 yards and eight touchdowns.
Runner-up: Matt Ryan
Last Year’s Surprise: Harry Douglas
When Julio Jones went down injured, and with Roddy White underperforming and missing some time of his own, Harry Douglas was thrust into the starting lineup. Douglas ended up posting 85 catches and more than 1,000 receiving yards. His career highs prior to this past season? 39 catches and 498 yards.
Runner-up: Desmond Trufant
Most thought he would be good, and, in his first season, he was the team’s best defender. Not only did he snag two interceptions, he was also credited with 17 passes defended and 70 total tackles. Pro Football Focus graded him as the team’s best defender, as he brought in a 12.5 overall score.
Last Year’s Disappointment: Steven Jackson
Teams that decide to bring in a running back who has 2,000 carries on his odometer shouldn’t expect to get that much out of that running back. The Falcons signed Steven Jackson to a contract before the 2013 season. Jackson, after trying to carry the Rams to relevance for nine straight seasons, was finally headed to a playoff team.
Well, that didn’t really work for Jackson. And Jackson didn’t really work out for the Falcons either. The veteran averaged only 45 yards per game and averaged 3.5 yards per carry.
Runner-up: Roddy White
The Falcons used the sixth overall pick in the draft by bolstering their offensive line when they selected Jake Matthews out of Texas A&M. Matthews should be a force in both running and passing situations. His technique, for the most part, is clean and he’s a good enough athlete to handle NFL-caliber defensive ends.
Other notable pick: Devonta Freeman
This Year’s Stud: Julio Jones
Don’t forget what Julio Jones can do.
Runner-up: Matt Ryan
This Year’s Surprise: Devonta Freeman
I’m not sure Steven Jackson has much left in his tank, so I could potentially see Freeman getting some touches. Jacquizz Rodgers is still on the roster and might be second in line to receive carries, but this could very well be a running back by committee approach for the Falcons in 2014.
Runner-up: Prince Shembo
This Year’s Disappointment: Harry Douglas
With Julio Jones and Roddy White back and healthy, there will be significantly fewer balls heading in Douglas’ direction.
Runner-up: Steven Jackson
Draft early: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones
Good value in the middle rounds: Roddy White
Don’t draft: The defense, Steven Jackson
What Vegas Is Saying (LVH Sports Book): 8 wins
What We’re Saying: 7-9 (3rd place in AFC South)
They’re not nearly as bad as they were last season — having a healthy Julio Jones pretty much ensures they won’t repeat as a four-win team. But, I’m not sold on the idea of the Falcons being a playoff team. The defense, already without Sean Weatherspoon for the season, worries me.
With the Saints in the division, winning the division crown is out of the question. And playing in the crowded NFC means winning one of the two coveted Wild Card spots will probably require at least 10 wins.
Vegas has them pegged at eight wins. That sounds about right to me.
[genericon icon=twitter] Follow Sean Wagner-McGough on Twitter @seanjwagner