For a team that had a reliable passer in Matt Ryan and a potent receiving corps, the Atlanta Falcons underperformed last season when they compiled an abysmal record of 4-12. Granted, the disappointing Falcons suffered a myriad of injuries that all but snuffed out their chances of being a competitive offensive juggernaut.
Fortunately, as is the case with all teams that fail to live up to the hype initially, the Falcons have bided their time to allow their offensive weapons to recover while beefing up their paper thin defense that relinquished 135.8 rushing yards (31st in NFL) and 243.6 passing yards per game (21st in NFL).
The only successful constant on the Falcons banged up roster last season was the stoic and efficient quarterback Matt Ryan. Although Ryan threw for 17 interception last season (most of his career) he still managed to complete 67.4% of his passes for over 4,500 yards. As the numbers indicate, no matter how proficient a passer Matt Ryan may be, without a competent offensive line and a veteran receiving corps, it becomes unrealistic to expect any passer to flourish successfully. Once Roddy White, Julio Jones and Steven Jackson return to form, Matt Ryan’s underwhelming performances of yesteryear will seem like an irrelevant discrepancy of the past.
However, in order for the Falcons to return to their former dominant ways, they need to be supremely competitive on both sides of the ball. Luckily, the Falcons took the initiative in the NFL draft when they used seven of their nine draft picks to acquire defensive components to make both their defensive front and secondary more well rounded.
In the second round of the draft, the Falcons immediately sought out a hefty defensive tackle that had the strength and explosive capabilities to battle forcefully in the trenches. An elite defensive tackle from Minnesota, Ra’Shede Hageman is a massive yet tenaciously quick defensive athlete that can overpower offensive lineman to halt an impending rush. Although his pass rushing skills are still raw and need some fine-tuning to be successful at the next level, he has the sheer power and instincts to locate the quarterback even if he has a guard right in his face. If Hageman can develop a consistent degree of persistence and vigilance as a pass rusher, he’ll be a welcome addition to a defensive front that needs all the help it can get.
While the Falcons secondary wasn’t nearly as susceptible to frustrating mishaps as the their incapable defensive line, it definitely added insult to injury especially when they encountered pass heavy offenses. Although there were a plethora of defensive backs to choose from in the draft, the Falcons went with an inexperienced albeit athletically dominant safety in Dez Southward. Despite his greenness as a well-developed football player (didn’t play organized football until his senior year of high school), Southward is a hard working and quiet athlete whose quickness and versatility was essential to the Wisconsin Badgers defensive success. Not only is Southward’s durability impressive (played through the majority of the 2013 season with a broken wrist), his tackling skills and awareness in man coverage make him the complete defensive back that needs to hone his instincts to become an elite safety in the NFL.
It will take time for Southward to properly acclimate himself to the unforgiving nature of the pros, his tenacity in coverage and overall persistence make him a intriguing defensive component that could flourish if he continues to develop his football acumen.
Although it will be an uphill battle initially, given how competitive the NFC South has become in the last year, the Falcons have a confident passer in Matt Ryan and one of the best wide out pairs in the game to propel themselves to win valiantly where they have come up short before.