2014 NFC South Preview: Atlanta Falcons

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

In this series we take a look at the off-season moves made by the Saints' NFC South division rivals. Today we scout the Atlanta Falcons.

In 2013, the Atlanta Falcons ended the season with a 4-12 record and a 3rd place finish in the NFC South.  Atlanta was 1-5 in division games including an 0-2 record vs. the New Orleans Saints.  The Falcons had the 14th ranked offense and the 27th ranked defense (both in yards) in 2013.  Head coach Mike Smith and starting quarterback Matt Ryan return for their seventh season respectively.

Key free agent acquisitions

G - Jon Asamoah

DE - Tyson Jackson

DT - Paul Soliai

CB - Javier Arenas

KR - Devin Hester

***

Key free agents lost / not re-signed

CB - Dominique Franks

S - Thomas DeCoud

CB - Asante Samuel

TE - Tony Gonzalez (Retired)

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Draft selections

OT - Jake Matthews - Texas A&M (Round 1)

DT - Ra'Shede Hageman - Minnesota (Round 2)

S - Dezmen Southward - Wisconsin (Round 3)

RB - Devonta Freeman - Florida St. (Round 4)

OLB - Prince Shembo - Notre Dame (Round 4)

CB - Ricardo Allen - Purdue (Round 5)

OLB - Marquis Spruill - Syracuse (Round 5)

OLB - Yawin Smallwood - UConn (Round 7)

OLB - Tyler Starr - South Dakota (Round 7)

***

Here's how walterfootball.com graded Atlanta's draft:

Atlanta Falcons: C+ Grade
Goals Entering the 2014 NFL Draft: Many seem to forget that the Falcons were in the NFC Championship 16 months ago. They fought through a barrage of injuries this past season and were never able to recover because of their lacking depth. Atlanta essentially just needs to bolster its roster while taking care of a few needs, including rush linebacker, safety and right tackle.

2014 NFL Draft Accomplishments: I don't think the Falcons are fans of their own draft. They got off to a good start with Jake Matthews, though he was close to being the worst-case scenario pick at No. 6 (Clowney-Robinson-Mack-Matthews-Watkins would have been disastrous for them). Matthews will be a huge upgrade at right tackle, and he'll eventually move over to the blind side, where he'll offer great protection for Matt Ryan.

It all went downhill from there, however. The Falcons were trying desperately to move into the end of the first to secure one of Dee Ford, Jimmie Ward or Deone Bucannon. All of them went off the board rather quickly. That prompted the front office to make a strange choice in Ra'Shede Hageman, who will be stuck behind a bunch of players on the depth chart. Atlanta followed that up with two reaches: Dez Southward and Marquis Spruill.

The Falcons saved themselves with some nice choices like Devonta Freeman and Ricardo Allen, but they didn't have a good draft overall.

Here's how The Falcoholic's Dave Choate graded Atlanta's draft:

What do you want from your draft class? The easy answers are "talent" and "filling needs," but what kind of talent are we talking about? Are we speaking of future or current needs? What leaves fans satisfied or dissatisfied after those exhausting three days wind up, besides knowing and already being predisposed toward the players selected?

The answers are always complex, but these are my guidelines. A good draft should inject youth and upside into positions of weakness, not be so wedded to those needs that it ignores best players available and

By those standards, this is a good draft, albeit not one that's particularly likely to go down as an all-timer. Jake Matthews is the potential standout here, Ra'Shede Hageman has a chance to make the class by himself if he reaches his full potential and Dezmen Southward has a box full of wrenches and hammers, even if he's not 100% sure why he's using them to fillet a catfish. The story is the same throughout the draft-the team filled positions of need for this year and in the years to come, and they did so with players who have upside but may not realize that upside.

On balance, then, I have to say I like the incoming class. Because of the uncertainty surrounding several of the players within it and the lack of an edge rusher or meaningful offensive weapon outside of Devonta Freeman, you wind up with a B-.

Grade: B-

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How this affects the Saints in 2014

The long and bitter rivalry between the Saints and Falcons soldiers on into 2014 with no delay as Atlanta hosts the Saints in Week 1.  Although Atlanta only lost a few "names" who weren't playing to their potential, there is one glaring loss among them, that loss is Tony Gonzalez.  "Gonzo" brought more than productivity to the Falcons, he brought heart, desire, toughness, and leadership, and that will be sorely missed in his absence.  Not having to answer for the multi-faceted Gonzalez will be a welcome relief for the Saints and to Who Dat Nation as well.

Devin Hester will be a concern on special teams of course, and the Saints will have to be much better than they've been in recent years to combat his skill and explosiveness, even with the miles on his body at this point.  The drafting of Jake Matthews will improve a dismal offensive line from a season ago, as the Saints will have a new obstacle to attack in pursuit of Matt Ryan.  Above any of the moves made by the Falcons this offseason, the most impact will be made with the healthy return of star wide receiver Julio Jones.  Jones is a nightmare matchup for any team in the NFL, and the Saints will have to plan accordingly for an increased role as Matt Ryan's primary target in absence of Tony Gonzalez.

On defense, the loss of star linebacker Sean Weatherspoon cannot be overstated, the absence of 'Spoon is devastating.  The outlook is so dire that the Falcons briefly flirted with the prospect of signing oft-injured Saints favorite Jonathan Vilma to provide support at linebacker.  Atlanta will continue to depend upon a young secondary who stood the test of growing pains last season.  No matter how good or bad the Saints or Falcons are, one thing's for certain, they will play each other as if the championship is on the line.  Saints vs Falcons is a rivalry that stands for something almost as important as that, they play for pride.

Atlanta has been good in the Mike Smith era, very good, and also very fortunate.  Last season was an anomaly for the Falcons and it will likely not be repeated, this isn't a 4 win team in 2014.  However, this could likely be another 4th place finish for the Falcons, and with the fantastic defense in Carolina, the dramatic upgrades in Tampa, and the potential for dominance in New Orleans, I believe the Falcons are a slightly sub .500 team that will finish 4th in the NFC South in 2014, and the Saints will sweep the season series.

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