The Atlanta Falcons have had one of the most upsetting off-seasons in NFL history. The face of the organization, Michael Vick, is in the battle of his life to clear his name, they lost DE Patrick Kerney in free agency to the Seahawks, RB Warrick Dunn is sidelined recovering from an injury, their best defensive tackle -- Rod Coleman -- may not be ready to play until late September, WR Brian Finneran went on IR and they have a new head coach. As an organization, that's a lot to face. And there is a community divided about the Vick situation.
Let's start this look at the Falcons by focusing on their new coach, Bobby Petrino. He's a tough disciplinarian and a realist. If any new head coach has a chance to judge the character of his football team quickly, it's Petrino. He has a solid staff with Mike Zimmer (former Dallas defensive coordinator) trying to assemble a solid unit and Hue Jackson (former Bengal coach) trying to figure out just what an offense minus Vick can do which is not going to be easy. The Falcons have seen their amount of wins steadily decline over the past three years (10 wins in 2004, eight in 2005 and seven in 2006).
The Falcons were 3-3 in the NFC South last year, even with Vick playing every snap. He rushed 46 times for 435 yards in those NFC South games; that dimension of the Falcon offense can't be replaced. On the other hand, he only threw for 736 yards (122.6 yards per game), just three touchdowns, and five interceptions. That is an area the Falcons could improve.
1. Michael Vick - From a football perspective, the starting quarterback isn't in uniform and Joey Harrington is the new starter. In some ways Harrington may fit the Petrino system better than Vick would, but it's hard to figure out if the Falcons are trying to talk themselves into that concept or if it is true. The crowds of protestors outside the Flowery Branch facility are gone for now, but the Vick situation is going to leave the Falcon front office looking for another QB to compete for a roster spot and he doesn't appear to be on the roster right now. A trade or a late pick up is a necessity.
2. Rookie starters - It appears that at least four or five rookies are going to find their way into the starting lineup. They may not all get the call on opening day, but as I left camp I got the impression a youth movement is under way. After watching practice tapes, Justin Blaylock looks like the best offensive lineman on the team. DE Jamaal Anderson is farther along than I thought he would be at this point. WR Laurent Robinson has special skills to get open and catch the ball. CB Chris Houston can play man coverage on the wide receivers and linebacker Stephen Nicholas is getting lots of reps with the first group.
3. Jimmy Williams has moved to safety - Williams was drafted last year as a cornerback but he has now moved to safety. He has the size and desire to play that position, but he needs a lot of work. On one pass play he couldn't get over the top of a deep ball in time to make a play and it resulted in a touchdown from Harrington to Joe Horn. His angle was bad and his closing speed was off because he didn't key and diagnose the play quickly enough.
1. Joey Harrington- The hopes and dreams of the 2007 season rest on the shoulders of Harrington. While watching tape of him I noticed he had some good moments and some bad ones. His play-action fakes don't hold the backers, he still doesn't like pressure in his face, and his passes seem late more than they should be at this point. On a good note he is relaxed out there, not carrying the past around with him and as one coach said to me, "He's getting better everyday as he learns this offense."
2. Joe Horn- Much credit has to go to the personnel department for signing Horn and Harrington. This team would be doomed if neither one was on the roster right now. Horn can still bring a vertical threat on the field and he has clearly relieved the team of counting on both Michael Jenkins and Roddy White to make plays. I will say that White looked very good on the tapes I watched and should be a much improved player.
3. Jamaal Anderson- Anderson, the first-round draft pick of the Falcons, has a wealth of talent to play left defensive end. He has the size and speed for every situation. He plays fast when he knows the situation but when it's vague -- like second down and five -- his ability to key and diagnose needs work. A number of times he showed exceptional ability to chase plays down from behind. When it comes to the pass rush he should have to beat a single team block as long as John Abraham is on the other side of the defense.
Offense - The 2007 offense will be built on a running game with a vertical passing attack off play action. It's traditional pro football and probably the best way to go without Vick. The offensive line is in transition from a Denver scheme which called for lighter quicker players to a bigger, more powerful group. As I said earlier, Justin Blaylock fits the bill but it will take a few years to get this group up to par for the Petrino offense.
|Mike Zarrilli / Getty Images|
|The Falcons are hoping Joe Horn can provide some leadership and some production.|
Alge Crumpler, the "go-to tight end" of years past, does not look ready to go. His weight appears up and he will not be able to practice every day because of his knees, which compounds his weight issues. Jenkins caught more passes (39) last year than Roddy White (30) but at this point White looks like a new man and is ahead of Jenkins.
The Falcons did sign running back Arlen Harris while I was at camp to help out as Warrick Dunn is on the sidelines. Dunn is already running sprints on the sidelines and should be ready. In the meantime, Jerious Norwood is the feature back. Norwood looked excellent on the I-lead plays and the draw but without the magic of Dunn something is missing.
Defense - What troubles me most about the Falcon defense is the depth on the defensive line, especially at tackle. Grady Jackson can still flash a great play, but really can't sustain excellence over a long period of time, which is understandable for an 11-year vet. At this point he needs to be in a rotation and the backups don't look capable of spelling him. The three-technique tackle is critical to this defense and without Rod Coleman the responsibility falls to Jonathan Babineaux. Jonathan tries hard and has some quickness but the situation inside is a concern.
The defensive ends can get up field and rush the passer but unless they stop the run it could be a moot point. As I watched the four man pass rush Anderson and Abraham would look even better if there was some inside push.
The linebackers are going to be a good group if Demorrio Williams recovers fully from his injuries. If not, then rookie Stephen Nicholas plays. He's a playmaker and a solid tackler but he's not real fast and some formations could put him out in space where he could become a liability.
In the secondary, corner DeAngelo Hall is fast and talented but still guesses too much. He amazes me when I see him let a single receiver go deep while he jumps up to the line of scrimmage and there's no second receiver threat to his side. Backup corner Allen Rossum could be fighting for a roster spot as Chris Houston and David Irons are starting to impress the coaches.
Special teams - The youth movement is good, and bad for the special teams. Lots of young players have very little experience but have the speed and desire to cover. The kicking/punting game needs improvement. The gross punting average was 30th last year and the field goal percentage was 31st.
1. The quarterback situation is obviously a big question mark but the defensive line depth may be a bigger problem as the season rolls on.
2. The tight end position doesn't look like a weapon. It looks like there will be reasons to search the waiver wire for some help even though they have Dwayne Blakley and Martrez Milner on the roster.
The NFC South is tough and the Falcons are up against it. Coach Petrino will get this team turned around but 2007 will be a rebuilding season. I was very impressed with the draft class of 2007 and they will be the core of the future, but I see opponents blitzing Harrington and disrupting the offense.
The offense only scored 11.6 points per game in their division last year and they may be less effective in 2007. The defense only gave up 13 points per game in the division last year and that appears hard to duplicate. The Falcons look like a team headed for seven wins with an eye on 2008.