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Final Power Ranking: 7
Preseason Power Ranking: 6
Biggest surprise: When the Atlanta Falcons drafted defensive tackle Corey Peters in the third round in 2010, they didn’t envision him being much more than a role player early in his career. But Peters wound up starting as a rookie and showed he could play the run pretty well. Even then, the Falcons thought Peters would just be a run-stuffer. But he became much more than that this season. Peters showed he can also rush the passer. He recorded three sacks and he and fellow defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux were able to create consistent pressure in the middle of the defensive line. Peters has locked up a starting job for the foreseeable future.
Biggest disappointment: This is the flip side to Peters. Defensive tackle Peria Jerry was the team’s first-round draft pick in 2009. But Jerry had a major knee injury in the second game of his rookie year. He came back last season and the team wanted to bring him along slowly, so they used Peters as the starter and Jerry as a situational player. After the 2010 season, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff said they took that approach because Jerry’s knee wasn’t 100 percent healthy. Smith and Dimitroff also said they thought a healthy Jerry would emerge as a force in 2011. It didn’t happen. Peters remained in the starting role all season and Jerry played in a rotation, but produced only 10 tackles and zero sacks.
Biggest need: Left tackle has been a problem spot for this team for most of the time quarterback Matt Ryan has been with the team. The Falcons drafted left tackle Sam Baker the same year they drafted Ryan. Baker never made it to the elite level and really struggled at the start of this season. He eventually went out with a back injury and was replaced by Will Svitek, who has done an adequate job. But Svitek isn't the long-term answer at left tackle and it’s likely the team will give up on Baker. The Falcons traded away their first-round pick in 2012 to draft Julio Jones in 2011, so it might be difficult to find a top-notch left tackle in the draft. The Falcons may have to find a left tackle in free agency. But at the moment, the crop of free-agent left tackles isn’t loaded with talent.
Team MVP: At first blush, Ryan didn’t quite take the step to becoming an “elite quarterback’’ that so many people expected. The Falcons were supposed to have one of the league’s most prolific offenses and they were coming off a 13-3 season. As it turned out they had a good, but not great, offense and went 10-6. But when you look at Ryan’s numbers, you realize that he quietly had the best season of his career. His 4,177 passing yards and 29 touchdowns both were career highs and his numbers would have been better if Roddy White and Jones hadn't dropped a bunch of passes. Ryan still took a step in the right direction during the regular season. If he can get his first career playoff victory, he might cement his status as elite.
Fountain of youth: There were times last season when it looked like veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez had hit the end of the road. His average yards per catch dipped to a career low 9.4 yards. He rarely got open downfield or made anything happen after the catch. But Gonzalez, 35, bounced back this season. He averaged 10.9 yards per catch. He had 80 catches for 875 yards and seven touchdowns and was the most consistent player on the offense. Gonzalez played so well that he was signed to a one-year contract extension just before the regular season ended. Retirement -- and a spot in the Hall of Fame -- can wait at least another season.