We’re spinning the clock ahead to the time period between 2014 and 2016. Each division blogger has been asked to name which of the four teams we cover will be dominant during that time frame.
I’m going with the Atlanta Falcons and that’s mainly because they’re the safest bet. Tampa Bay could be really good, but Josh Freeman needs to keep growing and the Bucs need to surround him with more talent. We have no idea yet how good Carolina quarterback Cam Newton will be. That leaves the New Orleans Saints, who have been the division’s best team in recent years, but nothing stays the same for very long. Drew Brees will be in his mid-30s in the time period we’re talking about, and defensive leader Jonathan Vilma also will be getting close to the end of his career.
That’s why I’m going with the Falcons. They’re already good and should only continue to get better. Yes, they’ve got some aging guys like defensive end John Abraham, tight end Tony Gonzalez and center Todd McClure. Michael Turner’s had so many carries in recent years that he might be worn out by 2014.
But those guys can be replaced, and the Falcons don’t have a lot of glaring holes. In fact, they’ve got a glaring strength. That’s quarterback Matt Ryan. Since he came into the league in 2008, all he’s done is win. He’s a talented passer and a natural leader.
I don’t think the world has realized yet just how good Ryan is. In fact, I think his coaches are thinking it’s time to turn Ryan loose and let him do more in the passing game. That’s why they traded up to draft Julio Jones. He and Roddy White should give Ryan two top-notch receivers. White’s made some noise about the Falcons' having an offense that could be like St. Louis' "Greatest Show on Turf."
Let’s assume he’s right or assume the offense is at least going to be good. What about the defense? It hasn’t exactly been an Atlanta strength in recent years. I think that’s going to change.
Mike Smith comes from a defensive background, but he and general manager Thomas Dimitroff decided early on they had to begin with offense. They’ve started to get the kind of defensive players Smith likes, but we haven’t seen the real results of that yet. The Falcons almost surely will sign a pass-rusher as soon as free agency opens. But whoever that is might not be the real key to the defense.
I’m thinking that, by 2014, Peria Jerry and Sean Weatherspoon will be very important players. Jerry, a defensive tackle, suffered a major knee injury as a rookie in 2009 and played sparingly last year. The Falcons are convinced Jerry should be 100 percent healthy this year and think he can be a star. Weatherspoon showed flashes of potential and the kind of personality it takes to be a leader as a rookie last season. But his season was interrupted by injuries.
The Falcons should get better on defense in the next few seasons, and their offense already is good. Throw in the fact that Smith has one of the top coaching staffs in the league and that he and Dimitroff work together as well as any coach and general manager in the league, and I think the Falcons will be solid for a long time.
Atlanta fans put up with a lot of suffering throughout franchise history. But things have changed. The Falcons haven’t had a losing record the last three years, and I don’t see that streak ending anytime soon.