2014 Preview - The Quarterbacks

Can Matt Ryan have an even better season in 2014 than his impressive season last year?

Matt Ryan is in year seven as a NFL quarterback. He’s getting in that period a player enters when a legacy is becoming more of a reality than something way down the road. Ryan is in the wheelhouse, if you will, of his career.

The Falcons’ chances for a rebound from a dismal 4-12 season rests mainly on Ryan’s right shoulder. While the other positions around him are the bigger questions, Ryan’s success will ultimately tell the story of how the Falcons respond to their first bump in the road during his tenure.

Last year the offensive line was abysmal. There was a revolving door due to injuries and ineffectiveness. Ryan was sacked 44 times and was lucky to survive the season without a serious injury. Despite Ryan continually running for his life and injuries to his key receivers, he passed for 4,515 yards – the second-most in his career.

Atlanta believes it has fixed the offensive line. Jon Asamoah was signed from Kansas City to play right guard, and then in May Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews was taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. Matthews was penciled in at right tackle, but the season-ending injury to Sam Baker has the rookie protecting Ryan’s blind side.

Joe Hawley was re-signed to play center, and one revelation from HBO’s Hard Knocks program is the trust the entire team has in Hawley to lead the offensive line. Steady veteran Justin Blalock is back at left guard, while Lamar Holmes will be pressed into a starting role for the second year in a row due to Baker’s injury.

So if the offensive line is better, and if Ryan’s receivers stay healthy, the sky is the limit on what the offense can do this season. Sure, Tony Gonzalez is now on CBS instead of lining up at tight end, but the Falcons brought in special teams star Devin Hester to join Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas as the most talented group of receivers in the NFL.

Ryan might surpass the 4,719 yards he threw for in 2012 when the Falcons made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game. He now has the protection and the necessary skill players in place to make Atlanta’s offense one of the best in the NFL.

Of course, any offense needs balance, and it will take time to discover what the running game can do to compliment Ryan’s passing attack. Steven Jackson missed the preseason with a hamstring injury, but the Falcons believe he’s ready to start the season. Rookie Devonta Freeman showed in the exhibition season that he can also be a threat out of the backfield to catch passes from Ryan.

The situation at backup is better. When any team has a star like Ryan, there may not be much need for a savior. Who can you bring in that will even equal what a player like Ryan brings to the table. But the Falcons feel better about their situation with the acquisition of T.J. Yates, who has a playoff victory under his belt from his time in Houston.

Yates won the job over second-year player Sean Renfree, who had a great early camp. Yates saved his position with a strong performance against Jacksonville in the last exhibition game.

But Ryan is the star. He’s the best quarterback to ever play for this franchise. The only thing really missing from his resume is a Super Bowl victory, and his play this season will go a long way in determining how quickly the Falcons can even get back into the conversation as a team capable of making a run at a championship.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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