Apr 1, 2011
The NFC South continues to get stronger, with two teams (Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints) making it back to the playoffs and one that played well enough to qualify as well (Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Of course, the division also sports the worst team in football last season in the Carolina Panthers, who own the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. There is hope for them however, as the story of this division has been its rise from the depths of mediocrity based mostly on development of its young players. Not too long ago the Falcons and Saints were some of the league’s worst teams while the Buccaneers were 3-13 just one year ago. These clubs were able to build on young talent and good coaching, and if the Panthers can follow suit, the NFC South will be one of the strongest divisions in 2011.
The Atlanta Falcons were arguably the league’s most well-rounded team last season, ranking No. 15 in total passing yards and No. 12 in rushing while sporting major weapons at a variety of the skill positions. They also fielded a top-five defense in points allowed, which combined with the balanced offensive attack lead them to an NFC South crown. All of this went to waste, however, when they were blown out by the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. With no major holes to fill the Falcons will simply be looking to shake off the crushing defeat and make another run at a title in 2011.
1. Roddy White — Arguably the team’s best offensive weapon, White had another stellar season, catching 115 passes for 1,389 yards and 10 touchdowns. He now has surpassed 80 receptions and 1,150 receiving yards in four consecutive seasons. Entering his seventh season White remains one of the NFL’s elite receivers going into 2011.
2. Matt Ryan — The young Boston College product continues to make strides in his development, posting career bests in yards, completion percentage, touchdowns, and interceptions in 2010. Ryan’s 28 touchdown passes ranked tied for sixth at the position and he was the only quarterback with at least 500 attempts to throw less than 10 interceptions (nine total). Ryan is the cornerstone of the franchise and will continue to progress as one of the NFC’s best signal callers.
3. Brent Grimes — A bit of a curveball here, Grimes was supposed to be a weak-link in the Falcons secondary. He ended up being a Pro Bowl replacement for Charles Woodson after batting down an impressive 23 passes as teams tried to throw away from Dunta Robinson. A repeat performance will be huge for a Falcons secondary that ranked just No. 22 against the pass in 2010.
1. Young Defensive Players Stepping Up — The Atlanta Falcons last two Round 1 picks, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon have not been playing up to par. Jerry spent most of 2010 as a situational player as he continued to recover from a knee injury he sustained his rookie year, while Weatherspoon battled similar problems this year and couldn’t break into the starting lineup. Both of these players getting healthy and living up to their draft stock will be key to this defense remaining competitive.
2. Team Speed — If there is any one glaring problem you could point to for the offense, it’s the lack of big plays. With Roddy White as the only real speed threat on the roster, the team recorded just one play of 40 yards or more the entire season. If they want to continue to develop as an offense they will have to find a way to get more speed in the attack. Whether it’s through the NFL Draft or free agency you can expect the Falcons to grab a home run hitter to compliment White on the offense.
3. Improve the Rushing Attack — Yes, the Falcons have workhorse running back Michael Turner, however this was a serious issue last season. The team averaged under four yards per carry for the first time since the turn of the century (a fancy way of saying since 2000) and couldn’t gain large chunks of yardage in the rushing game. Turner will be 29 this year and has been accumulating some serious mileage. The team needs to bring in a change-of-pace speed back to keep defenses guessing and Turner fresh to grind down opposing defenses.