QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Michael Vick. Backups -- Matt Schaub, D.J. Shockley.
No player's improvement, or lack thereof, means more to the Falcons this year than Vick's. The first overall pick of 2001 has made the Pro Bowl in each of the three seasons he's been a full-time starter, but this season he must prove that he can make reads quickly and throw accurate passes to receivers. If Vick can harness his uncanny athleticism and use that strong left arm to Atlanta's advantage, the offense can finally balance the league's best rushing attack over the last two years. Schaub, at 6-5, is tall enough to see past oversized defensive linemen and make reads better than Vick, but everything the Falcons do is tailored around franchise centerpiece No. 7. Atlanta will rise or fall based on Vick's performance in 2006.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Warrick Dunn, FB Justin Griffith. Backups -- RB T.J. Duckett, Jerious Norwood; FB -- Fred McCrary
After two straight career seasons, is it possible that Dunn could become even better at age 31? Don't rule out the possibility. Few players love playing the "underappreciated" role more than the 5-8, 180-pound Dunn, who often says that "nobody remembers" that he's the all-time leading rusher in Florida State history or a three-time Pro Bowl pick. Dunn excels in this offense because he's so adept at hitting holes, cutting instantly in one direction and getting downhill. He's very elusive and has one of the league's better blocking fullbacks in Griffith. Duckett struggled in the final five games last year, but he still has a 3.9 career average per attempt. He complements the offense perfectly because he's hard to bring down in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Though Norwood has more speed than any Atlanta player at this position, the rookie is likely to spend most of 2006 either on special teams or on the game-day inactive list. Re-signing Griffith, who's entering the last year of his contract, is a priority.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Alge Crumpler. Backups -- Eric Beverly, Dwayne Blakley.
No one questions Crumpler's ability to dazzle. He catches difficult balls in traffic and is faster on the field than he looks on film. Many linebackers lack the necessary speed to cover Crumpler, and most defensive backs suffer a mismatch because he's so big. The team believes his offseason shoulder surgery will have no impact on his performance in 2006, and based on how well Crumpler played last year with a knee injury, there's little reason to doubt him as he enters his sixth season. Beverly, a converted guard, serves almost entirely as a blocker. Blakley is underused as a receiver, so the Falcons should try to tap into that resource while Crumpler rehabs over the next month.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Roddy White, Michael Jenkins. Backups -- Brian Finneran, Jerome Pathon, Adam Jennings.
Though both starters added considerable bulk and strength during the offseason, White has made bigger gains than the lean Jenkins. There's no doubt that White's intent, to beat jams more consistently at the line, should pay off, particularly as the season wears on. His route-running is better, and White still needs to improve his concentration, but his ability to stretch the field for Atlanta will depend mostly on Vick's accuracy and touch. Jenkins, like Finneran, has emerged as more of a possession receiver. There's a slight chance that the rookie Jennings, who's blessed with considerable speed, could join White as a legitimate downfield threat, but Atlanta runs the ball so much that the sixth-round pick, as well as Pathon, will have few chances.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Wayne Gandy, LG Matt Lehr, C Todd McClure, RG Kynan Forney, RT Todd Weiner. Backups -- LT Frank Omiyale, G Ben Claxton, G-C Austin King, RT Quinn Ojinnaka.
Nobody questions these guys in their ability to zone block and create space for Dunn, Duckett and Griffith, but pass protection remains a significant sore spot. Pass some of the blame to Vick, though the quarterback did a better job last year of throwing away the ball and taking sacks rather than forcing turnovers or committing fumbles. Gandy is an improvement over predecessor Kevin Shaffer in protection, and the newcomer could give Vick that extra split-second he needs to roll out to his left and create decision-making problems for opponents. Weiner, Forney and Lehr each suffered considerable injuries in the second half of last season. Look for Weiner and McClure, who are both entering the last year of their contracts, to try and prove themselves worthy of another signing bonus.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LDE Patrick Kerney, RDE John Abraham, NT Chad Lavalais, DT Rod Coleman. Backups -- DE Chauncey Davis, DE Paul Carrington, NT Darrell Shropshire, NT Antwan Lake, DT Jonathan Babineaux, DT T.J. Jackson.
The arrival of Abraham is huge, not only for the pass rush and the run defense, but also for teammates who now will face fewer double teams in their attempts to harass the quarterback. Coleman, in particular, is a beast to block. His upper-body strength is tough for most guards to handle on their own. Kerney should find his path to the passer clearer, too, and his exceptional conditioning has usually allowed him to take advantage of opponents' fatigue as the game wears on. With Abraham holding down the right side, Kerney and Coleman both should have double-digit sack totals. Lavalais was a huge disappointment last year, and his inability or unwillingness to shed fat has made him a marked man for coaches who favor hard workers like Shropshire and Lake. Look for Shropshire, in particular, to replace Lavalais early in preseason. If the starters stay healthy, Babineaux and Davis will be afforded the chance they missed on last year to work as backups. Both shared most of the snaps in 2005 as the starting right end, and both struggled badly. With Coleman locked up contractually over the next four years and Abraham for the next six, the immediate focus needs to be on re-signing Kerney to another long-term deal in August.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Keith Brooking, MLB Ed Hartwell, SLB Michael Boley. Backups -- WLB Demorrio Williams, MLB Jordan Beck, SLB Ike Reese.
Hartwell's return from an Achilles injury that ended his first Atlanta season in Week 5 affected the entire defense, but Brooking, a five-time Pro Bowl pick, did an excellent job in moving inside, and Boley emerged as a competent starter. The wildcard this year is Beck, whose speed is exceptional and better than every player at his position besides Brooking. Beck missed all of his rookie season with a foot injury, but he's strong and fast enough to hold down either the middle or maybe even the strong side. Hartwell was hired to stuff the run, so the job is his outright. If he struggles, though, don't be surprised if Beck steps forward and seizes the chance. Williams was the odd man out among starters after Hartwell's successful rehab, but coaches believe he still could win the job alongside Brooking in nickel packages.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB DeAngelo Hall, RCB Jason Webster, SS Lawyer Milloy, FS Chris Crocker. Backups -- RCB Jimmy Williams, CB Chris Cash, CB Leigh Torrence, S Kevin Mathis, S Omare Lowe, S Cam Newton.
Hall is a star, and Williams has a chance to become one by next year. Mathis' rehab from a potentially career-threatening knee injury means a great deal to the unit's depth. He's played corner most of his career, but the team hopes he can back up Milloy successfully. Head coach Jim Mora loves Mathis' nasty edge. Cash is a nickel candidate, as Webster will be once Williams wins the right-side job. Hall's speed, quickness and stunning vertical abilities give him a chance to become a younger version of Champ Bailey, who's renowned for shutting down his side of the field. Hall held his own against Steve Smith, Terrell Owens and Joey Galloway last year. Crocker and Milloy, both veteran newcomers, should immediately upgrade run support and take away the vacuous holes that existed last year with departed starting safeties Bryan Scott and Keion Carpenter.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Michael Koenen, P Michael Koenen, PR Allen Rossum, KR Allen Rossum.
It's unlikely that president-general manager Rich McKay will wait too long before re-signing field-goal kicker Todd Peterson or someone closely equivalent. Peterson, who went 23-for-25 last year, lacks range outside 45 yards, but he's solid otherwise. Koenen does a great job handling kickoffs and creating booming balls into the end zone for touchbacks. Coverage units are traditionally among the league's best under coordinator Joe DeCamillis. Rossum suffered through a disappointing, injury-plagued season, but he promises to return to his Pro Bowl caliber if healthy. Norwood and Jennings are respectively ready to take Rossum's dual jobs at kickoff and punt returner if the veteran's body breaks down.
Unit by Unit: Atlanta Falcons
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