This article is part of our Team Previews series.
By Derek VanRiper
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Fresh off the disappointment of a second straight season without a trip to playoffs,
Falcons owner Arthur Blank decided to clean house. Former head coach Jim L.
Mora began packing his bags during a radio interview in December, during which
he expressed a desire to coach at his alma mater – the University of Washington
– even if it required him to leave the Falcons during a playoff run. Mora later insisted that
he was simply joking, but the team's mediocre finish to the past two seasons, paired with
an irritated fan base, were enough for Blank to seek his replacement.
In a move designed to maximize the potential of franchise quarterback Michael Vick,
Blank chose Louisville's Bobby Petrino to be the team's new head coach. Super Bowl aspirations
in Atlanta are now riding heavily
on Petrino's reputation for being an outstanding
play caller and a coach with the
ability to fully utilize his quarterback's
unique skill set; a pair of traits that
the team lacked under former offensive
coordinator Gregg Knapp and his spin
on the West Coast Offense.
With a new head coach and a pair of
new coordinators, expect plenty of position
battles during training camp on both
sides of the ball. The Falcons signed veteran
receiver Joe Horn in March to add
experience and reliability to a receiving
corps that frequently killed potential
scoring drives with untimely drops last
season. With Horn leading the way, pressure
on former first-round picks Michael
Jenkins and Roddy White should be
lessened, although they'll be pushed for
playing time if rookie Laurent Robinson impresses during training camp. Pro Bowl tight
end Alge Crumpler had arthroscopic knee surgery in April, but he should be ready for
the start of camp. Even with Petrino's use of three- and four-receiver sets, Crumpler is
expected to be a featured pass-catcher again in 2007.
When all is said and done, the Falcons figure to be starting at least six new players on
the defensive side of the ball in Week 1, including three rookies. Growing pains are inevitable
with youth being mixed in at each level of the defense, so it will be crucial for the
veterans to step up and help the youngsters ease into their new surroundings. Opposing
teams often had the luxury of avoiding DeAngelo Hall in the passing game last season,
focusing primarily on veterans Jason Webster and Allen Rossum, as well as rookie Jimmy
Williams. Expect changes at free safety and one of the cornerback spots this summer.
Petrino is inheriting a team that was considered a Super Bowl contender just one year
ago, but he'll need find ways to make Vick successful in his offense while getting his
youngsters on defense up to speed quickly if the Falcons are to stay competitive in the
tough NFC South.
Round, Overall, Player
2. (39) Justin Blalock, G, Texas
Should step in as an immediate starter at left guard.
2. (41) Chris Houston, CB, Arkansas
Small (5-9, 185), but showed good speed and
strength at the Combine and will compete for
3. (75) Laurent Robinson, WR, Illinois State
Great speed after the catch, body control and
awareness, but played against I-AA competition.
4. (109) Stephen Nicholas, LB, South Florida
Can fi ll in at the weakside while Demorrio
Williams recovers from injury.
4. (133) Martrez Milner, TE, Georgia
Upgrades depth at tight end.
6. (185) Trey Lewis, DT, Washburn
Nose tackle depth guy.
6. (194) David Irons, CB, Auburn
Has quickness, but durability has been an issue.
6. (198) Doug Datish, C, Ohio State
Versatility could help him stick.
6. (203) Daren Stone, S, Maine
7. (244) Jason Snelling, RB, Virginia
3. Joey Harrington, QB (Dolphins)
1. Patrick Kerney, DE (Seahawks)
Pass rusher moves on to Seattle for a big payday.
2. Matt Schaub, QB (Texans)
Promising former backup to Vick becomes a
starter in Houston.
3. Ed Hartwell, LB (Bengals)
Never stayed healthy enough in Atlanta to
make an impact.
1. CAN VICK TAKE THE NEXT STEP ON AND OFF THE FIELD?
With a new head coach calling the shots, Vick will once again be pushed to make
adjustments to his playing style. Bobby Petrino is optimistic that his offensive schemes and
methods for running practices (to make them more quarterback-oriented) will help Vick to
improve his accuracy and be less reliant on his feet to make plays. That said, Vick is fresh
off of a 1,000-yard rushing campaign and attempts to change his game in the past have
come at the expense of coaches' jobs.
Already regarded as one of the league's most exciting players, Vick has spent a great deal
of time in the spotlight during his career. Recently, his off-the-field issues have garnered
him some unneeded negative attention, while punching his ticket for a seat squarely under
the microscope of NFL commissioner Roger Godell. After now the infamous water bottle
incident at the Miami airport, things things took a turn for the worse when reports surfaced
in April that Vick was involved in organized dog fighting, after a drug raid of a Virginia
property he owned (but did not reside at) revealed evidence of the felony activity taking
place. At press time, further investigation was in progress and it's unclear if Vick will be
face any disciplinary action from the league.
2. WHAT WILL BE LEFT OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE?
A lawsuit filed by defensive tackle Grady Jackson, an injury to Rod Coleman sustained
during a watercraft accident in April and the loss of veteran defensive end Patrick Kerney
in free agency have left a number of question marks on the defensive line. John Abraham
returns for a second season in Atlanta, after his first was marred with injuries. First-round
pick Jamaal Anderson will try to replace Kerney at the other end spot, while Darrell
Shropshire, Jonathan Babineaux and a slew of others will compete for time at the other
two tackle spots. After adding Jackson prior to the 2006 season, the Atlanta run defense
improved from 26th (128.9 yards per game) in 2005 to 9th (103.6), so his significance to
this unit cannot be underestimated.
3. CHANGES IN LINEBACKER AND SECONDARY CORPS
There are questions surrounding the linebacker corps and the secondary as well.
Weakside starter Demorrio Williams is potentially out for part of the regular season with a
torn pectoral muscle, leaving fourth-round draft pick Stephen Nicholas as the likely starter.
Keith Brooking has permanently made the move back to middle linebacker, following the
release of the oft-injured Ed Hartwell. After struggling to adjust to the NFL at cornerback,
the new coaching staff appears set on moving Jimmy Williams to free safety, where his
physical play can be an asset, rather than a liability.
Rising:Jerious Norwood averaged 6.4
yards per carry as a rookie and he'll continue
to receive more touches as the Falcons begin
to reduce the role of veteran Warrick Dunn.
Falling:Roddy White fizzled as a deep
threat last season and is likely to be the
odd man out of the rotation at receiver if he
doesn't impress the new coaching staff.
Sleeper:Laurent Robinson may prove to be
an excellent value pick with the Falcons shifting
to more multiple-receiver sets and with Brian
Finneran's availability once again in doubt.
Supersleeper: If Michael Vick's off-the-field
issues end up putting him on the sideline,
Joey Harrington could be the beneficiary of
Petrino's quarterback-friendly system.
John Abraham, DE
Working with a specialist to combat his groin
and abdomen injuries during the offseason,
Abraham is taking extra steps to stay healthy
after missing eight games in 2006.
Jimmy Williams, S
With move back to safety, a high-risk, highreward
option for big tackle numbers.
Article first appeared 6/13/07