The Atlanta Falcons were in a tough spot entering the 2008 NFL Draft. They brought in a new regime to clean up the mess that their marquee man Michael Vick got himself into; Vick was convicted of a cruel crime and was sentenced to prison, which put the franchise in a state of turmoil. The solution to save face was to identify a quarterback that possessed high character, intelligence, poise and talent; easier said than done. But the Falcons owned the third pick in the draft, and they were fortunate that their savior and top prospect, Matt Ryan, fell into their lap.
From the moment Ryan arrived in Atlanta, there was a sense of comfort. He instantly brought class to the organization with his well spoken, team first attitude and allowed the Falcons organization to have a clean slate. Personally, I wasn’t a believer in Ryan when he was at Boston College, and I thought he was a media driven illusion with his prototypical size and strong arm. Granted, he has those two characteristics, and I’ll never knock his leadership skills, but his decision making has always been questionable in my view. But as a rookie, he did a masterful job leading the offense and showed poise beyond his years. Starting all 16 games, Ryan completed 61.1-percent of his passes for 3,440 yards, 16 touchdowns and 11 touchdowns. He helped lead the Falcons to the Wildcard playoffs as a rookie, but unfortunately they fell short and were narrowly defeated by the Arizona Cardinals, 30 – 24. As good as Ryan was as a rookie, he struggled in the last five games of the year, including the playoff loss. During that five-game stretch, Ryan completed 61-percent of his passes for 1,014 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions. It’s hard to keep a consistent pace during your first year, because defenses have more film on you and they know what you like to do on the field. Ryan experienced that late in the year, and when times got tough he struggled to make things happen. This season is huge for Ryan, and it’s important that he utilizes all of the weapons that surround him on offense. The addition of tight end Tony Gonzalez, to go along with wide receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, and the rushing attack of Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood give Ryan one of the best supporting casts in the league and a favorable situation for continued success.
Not only did the Falcons start a first year quarterback on offense, but they also started a first year quarterback on defense in middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. At 6-foot, 248 pounds, Lofton, the second rated prospect in the organization, started 15 of 16 games and showed his tremendous talent by recording 94 tackles and a sack. A thumper in the middle who possesses great instincts, range and versatility, Lofton was a steal in the second round and is one of the most promising players on defense. A defense that’s in transition after losing linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley, amongst others, Lofton will have to amp up his leadership skills this season and become even more vocal on the field. With the Falcons being one of the rising teams in the NFC, there will be a lot of attention on them this season. The offense will be the focal point and has the chance to be dynamic, but the true success of their team will be based on the way the defense plays, and if Lofton lives up to his lofty expectations, he will be in Miami next year.
The 2008 draft was good to the Falcons, and it has really given them an opportunity to resurrect their franchise. The top two prospects in the organization, Ryan and Lofton, were selected in the first and second rounds respectively, and the third rated prospect, offensive tackle Sam Baker, was the Falcons second selection (21st overall) in the opening frame. A draft that was deep in OT talent, the Falcons joined the party and surprised many by selecting Baker in the first round. Baker made an impression on the coaching staff from day one and assumed the starting left tackle job to start the season. But injuries interfered with Baker’s first year in the league; he suffered a concussion, an injured hip and had back surgery - all of which resulted in him playing in just eight games. He started on the left side in five games last year, but he will have to prove he can stay healthy. With Todd Weiner retiring, it puts a lot of pressure on Baker to stay on the field, because beyond Baker there isn’t much depth.
An area on defense that’s lacked depth and hasn’t been consistent the last couple of years is at defensive tackle. The Falcons brought in a stop-gap last year in Grady Jackson, who added some punch inside, but he was an older player that lacked burst and quickness. The front office noticed that and decided not to bring Jackson back. So adding a young, explosive tackle in the trenches was a priority, and they addressed their need in the first round of the 2009 draft with Peria Jerry. The fourth rated prospect in the organization, Jerry is an explosive interior force that generates a quick first step and creates havoc in the backfield. He has good size, but it’s his quickness that makes him stand out. He uses his hands and speed effectively and is able to gain leverage instantly. He does a nice job with double teams by disengaging and flowing to the ball. That’s an aspect that’s needed on the defensive line. Being able to supply pressure up the middle will make the opposition pay more attention to what’s going on inside and possibly free up John Abraham a little more on the outside to make even more plays in the backfield. The addition of Jerry will also have a positive influence on the sixth rated prospect in the organization, Jamaal Anderson, who’s been criticized for his lackluster play. At 6-foot-2, 299 pounds, Jerry has to play lower and get underneath blockers more consistently. He tends to play a little too upright, which allows the opposition to engulf him at the line. But all and all, the addition of Jerry will pay dividends immediately and give the Falcons what they desperately needed, a playmaker inside.
The Falcons already have a playmaker on the outside on defense in third year cornerback Chris Houston. The fifth rated prospect in the Falcons organization has improved his game in each of the last two years and appears destined to have a breakout year in ’09. At 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, Houston plays a physical game and has the burst to turn defense into offense instantly. The only problem is that he has yet to show consistent ball skills, but his anticipation of a play is outstanding. After an impressive showing as a rookie where he contributed 58 tackles, Houston started all 16 games last year and recorded 61 tackles and two interceptions; one in which he returned for a touchdown. The Falcons are counting on Houston to take his playmaking ability to the next level and become the leader of a young secondary.
Completing the top 10 is the aforementioned Jamaal Anderson, who breaks in at No. 6, talented second year receiver Harry Douglas catches on at No. 7, playmaking first year free safety William Moore punches in at No. 8, durable interior presence Justin Blalock is locked in at No. 9 and up and coming corner Chevis Jackson defends his position at No. 10. Just missing the cut were linebacker Stephen Nicholas, rookie defensive end Lawrence Sidbury and safety Thomas DeCoud.A former first round pick (8th overall) in the 2007 draft, Anderson hasn’t lived up to his potential in his first two years in the league, but he’s proven to be a durable defender. The addition of Jerry and having Abraham on his opposite side should free up Anderson to see a lot of one on one situations and boost his sack total, which for his career is set at two. After a promising rookie campaign where he saw time in the slot and became the primary punt returner, Douglas will see more action at receiver in ’09. He has great quickness, hands and route running ability and is the perfect compliment to White and Jenkins. The Falcons received great value this past April in the second round when they selected Moore. Moore is a playmaking safety who played through injuries as a senior and saw his stock plummet. But now 100-percent healthy, Moore will have to contend with DeCoud and veteran Erik Coleman for one of the starting safety positions. Starting 30 games in his first two years, Blalock has been a durable presence up front and was a major reason why Turner had the success he had last year running the ball. Blalock will only get better and will eventually grow into a Pro Bowl guard. And lastly, Jackson was a situational defender last year, and in limited action, played very well. He has great size and quickness and is an intelligent player. Jackson’s skill set and size makes him a perfect fit as the team’s nickel corner, and this preseason he will have to beat out Brent Grimes, William Middleton and Christopher Owens for that job.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: email@example.com.