It was a precipitous fall from grace in 2013 for the Atlanta Falcons, who had been among the top teams in the NFC for years and harbored Super Bowl ambitions.
Much like the Eagles in 2012, the Falcons encountered a Murphy's Law type season where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. There were four close losses by seven points or fewer in the first five games, the last of which also resulted in superstar wide receiver Julio Jones fracturing his foot and being placed on Injured Reserve. A win following the bye week briefly kept hopes afloat, but five straight losses left the Falcons at 2-9 and just playing out the string en route to a 4-12 finish.
The Falcons have issues to address on both sides of the ball. The defense was one of the league's oldest and worst, ranking 27th in points allowed (27.7) and total yards allowed (379.4), 31st in rush yards allowed (135.8), 21st in pass yards allowed (243.6), 29th in sacks (32) and tied for 24th in takeaways (21). A lack of hits in recent drafts forced undrafted free-agent signees Paul Worrilow and Joplu Bartu – who, it should be noted, exceeded expectations – into the starting lineup at middle linebacker and weakside linebacker, respectively. Osi Umenyiora, who recorded just 7.5 sacks in 2013 and will turn 33 this season, is the defense's top returning pass rusher. The team did address its porous run defense, however, by signing former Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Soliai as a free agent.
The offense, meanwhile, was rendered one-dimensional in 2013 because of a rushing attack that ranked last in the NFL in attempts per game (20.1) and yards per game (77.9). Steven Jackson, the team's prized offseason acquisition, sustained a hamstring injury in the second game of the season and missed a month. He played in 12 games total but never broke 100 yards rushing in any, and, despite six touchdowns, he had the fewest rushing yards (543) and yards per carry (3.5) of any season in his career. Jackson has a lot of miles on his odometer and turns 31 in July, which usually marks the end of a running back's time as a starter.
Because the Falcons' draft hauls in recent years have not panned out as hoped, the franchise finds itself at a pivotal crossroads in the tenure of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith. Luckily, however, the Falcons have the most important and elusive position, quarterback, filled with a franchise cornerstone player who is in the midst of his prime: Matt Ryan. Now they just have to continue to surround him with protection up front and dynamic playmakers at the skill positions.
Tony Gonzalez has officially retired, while Roddy White, the most prolific receiver in franchise history, played less than the full 16 games for the first time in his career in 2013 and was hampered by injuries. He had 63 receptions for just 711 yards and three touchdowns, the lowest totals in all three categories since 2006, and the 11.3 yards-per-reception was the lowest mark of his career. White will turn 33 during the 2014 season. With Jones' injury and White's inconsistency, Harry Douglas stepped up and recorded over 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his career, but he remains best suited as a complementary weapon instead of a primary option. The offensive line has been in a constant state of flux and, in addition to failing to open up holes in the run game, allowed 44 sacks in 2013 (20th in the NFL). Sam Baker signed a six-year contract extension in 2013 to remain the team's left tackle, but Gabe Carimi, a former first-round pick who was traded by the Chicago Bears and then cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is currently slotted as the starting right tackle.
The Falcons need playmakers at every position aside from quarterback and could go a number of different directions with the sixth pick. With Jadeveon Clowney selected first overall by the Houston Texans and Khalil Mack snapped up by the Oakland Raiders one spot ahead of the Falcons, only Anthony Barr remains on the board as one of the three consensus top pass rushers. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald is the draft's premier interior penetrator and would pair with Soliai to create a formidable tandem in the middle. Perhaps the team might look at safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as a replacement for Thomas DeCoud?
If the Falcons want to address offense, they could target Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans as White's eventual successor to pair with Jones. If they would rather address the offensive line, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews is there for the taking. Another option on the table is to fill the void left by Tony Gonzalez and pick North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron.
Who do you think the Falcons will draft?