Remember the days when the Saints' offense was the best in the league three out of four seasons? Last year they took a slight dip down to 6th overall but a lot of that had to do with the number of injuries at the running back position. Still, it was a signal that other teams are starting to catch up with the Saints in terms of scoring potential and overall offensive explosiveness.
While the Falcons were just 16th overall, one has to wonder if the recent addition of Julio Jones combined with the continuity they've seen in personnel the last few seasons will lead to a huge improvement in 2011. Not only do the Saints have a lot to do to get back to being the top offense in league, they may not even be the top offense in the division this upcoming season. Let's break down the positions.Quarterback: Drew Brees > Matt Ryan
This comparison is much closer than we think. Ryan is a budding NFL star that proved several times last year he's most dangerous when the game is on the line in clutch situations. Make no mistake, Matt Ryan is the kind of quarterback that's maybe a year or two away from putting it all together (if he hasn't already). Last year was a statement year for him, and the Falcons have done a terrific job of putting weapons around him. Still, he's got a ways to go to be in Brees' class. Brees is still one of the best in the league and his leadership in unparalleled.
Running Backs: Michael Turner, Jason Snelling, Jerious Norwood = Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, Reggie Bush
I'm calling this a draw but it's really tough to see how this will all play out. The Saints are hoping PT and Ivory can come back to full strength, but health is a huge question mark and Bush may not return to the team. Michael Turner is aging but he's the most reliable every down bruiser of these backs. The drafting of Ingram has some unknowns attached to it but based on his potential and the Saints depth, I think the position is even for now. Keep in mind Snelling is a solid backup and Norwood, when healthy, is a game breaker.
Receivers: Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas, Michael Jenkins. Brian Finneran > Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson, Adrian Arrington
It's hard to know who will be back based on the uncertainty of the CBA - but drafting Julio Jones went a long way towards solidifying this position for the Falcons. He's NFL ready and will make an impact right away. The Saints aren't sure if they can retain Moore and they may part ways with Henderson. Roddy White, as much as I loathe to admit it, is the best receiver of them all. I think the Saints had a lot more depth previously after the #1 receiver, but drafting Julio Jones tips the scales.
Tight Ends: Tony Gonzalez, Justine Peele > Jimmy Graham, David Thomas
With Shockey gone, the Saints depth at tight end takes a huge hit. Even at his ripe old age, Gonzalez is still a hall of fame quality player and the Saints experienced that first hand last season as he repeatedly dominated them in the first meeting. Jimmy Graham should be able to close the gap quickly with Gonzalez if he continues to improve and has a good season, but it's unfair to say the raw youngster is anywhere close to that level now.
Tackle: Sam Baker, Tyson Clabo > Jermon Bushrod, Jon Stinchcomb
Clabo is the best player on the Falcons' line and one of the best young right tackles in the league. He made the Pro Bowl last year, while Stinchcomb is reliable but unspectacular. Bushrod is the one liability on the Saints' line while Sam Baker is steady.
Guard: Jahri Evans, Carl Nicks > Justin Blalock, Harvey Dahl
The Saints have the best two guard tandem in the NFL. I'd put them up against anyone in the league.
Center: Jonathan Goodwin = Todd McClure
McClure was a very solid player in his prime, but at 34 the former LSU standout is starting to show signs that he's no longer a superstar center. Goodwin is still a very solid performing center but he's a free agent and the Saints may elect to start youngster Matt Tennant next season. That remains to be seen.
If you weigh each position, I've got the Falcons as superior at three positions, the Saints superior at two and two positions that I deem about even. While deciding which offense is better isn't based simply on that, I think that's a clear indication that at the very least, the Falcons are closing the gap. The Saints still have Drew Brees, an elite NFL quarterback. And while Matt Ryan is very good and on his way to being great, I think the Saints will always have an edge as long as Brees stays on top of his game.
Still, the Falcons are balanced, deep and explosive. There was no comparison two years ago and now one could argue that the Falcons may even be slightly better. Like it or not, the Falcons have closed the gap offensively, and the Saints will need to showcase better defense and special teams in 2011 if they want to keep the Falcons from winning another division title.