Funny how much things can change in a year.
It wasn't long ago that the Falcons were a franchise saddled with a black mark, facing an uncertain future. Michael Vick had been suspended and imprisoned entering 2007, and new coach and savior Bobby Petrino, robbed of his most valuable offensive weapon, resigned his post late that year. The Falcons finished the season 4-12, and while that didn't represent the worst record in franchise history, most people would have told you there might not have been a lower point in the team's first 42 years.
But with a new coach, Mike Smith, and a new cast of characters, including rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner (plucked from the Chargers during the offseason), the Falcons shocked the world in 2008, winning 11 games and earning a wild card. Smith was up to the task in his first NFL head coaching gig, making seemingly all the right decisions. Turner quickly developed into one of fantasy football's most productive players, and Ryan took the helm in the first week of the season, posted the 15th-best fantasy season by any quarterback and was named the Associated Press offensive rookie of the year.
So, coming off such a surprisingly successful year, what can the Falcons possibly do for an encore? While some might fear the team will fall back to earth -- something that might manifest itself more in the team's record than in individuals' performances -- the seeds are here for a repeat or perhaps even an improvement. Atlanta continued to bolster its offense during the offseason, acquiring future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, and made a few key additions on draft day to its defense, a key weakness in 2008, by selecting defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: Although Roddy White almost assuredly will occupy the role of Matt Ryan's most trusted receiving target, with new arrival Tony Gonzalez as Ryan's next most preferred option, the battle for the starting split-end role will be one to watch, at least for sleeper-seekers. Michael Jenkins locked down that spot admirably in 2008, setting career highs with 50 receptions and 777 receiving yards, but sophomore Harry Douglas, who caught 23 passes as a rookie, five of which went for 20-plus yards, surely will provide healthy competition. Whichever of the two emerges as the clear starter -- if that's a clear preseason decision -- might warrant some matchups potential even in a more limited role.
Fitting in: The Falcons' trade for Tony Gonzalez represented not only one of the more significant moves of the offseason, but also one of the more surprising ones. A Kansas City Chief for his entire career up until the trade, the 12-year veteran brings with him a résumé that includes 10 Pro Bowl selections and a string of nine finishes in the top three in fantasy points at his position in those 10 years. Gonzalez gives the Falcons their first elite receiving threat at tight end since Alge Crumpler, and while his role on the team might be somewhat diminished due to Atlanta's power running game featuring Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood, he almost assuredly will remain one of the game's better choices at the position. Still, it's hard to imagine him as the 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown threat he was at his peak, accounting for Atlanta's multitude of offensive weapons.
On the line: The offensive line was a particular strength of the Falcons in 2008; they ranked fifth in the league with only 17 sacks allowed and paved enough running lanes for the team to average 4.4 yards per carry, seventh in the NFL. Atlanta returns largely the same cast in 2009, including tackles Sam Baker and Tyson Clabo, guards Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl, and center Todd McClure. It's a unit somewhat more known for its pass protection than run blocking, but any O-line that can keep a player like Michael Turner healthy for 376 regular-season plus 18 playoff carries has to be skilled at the latter, too. Depth is the main worry; an injury or two to any of the starters might expose the team and result in lackluster numbers for the team's key offensive players.
The bottom line
Needless to say, the Falcons' chances at a repeat appearance in the playoffs rest mostly on the right arm of Matt Ryan, the cornerstone of the franchise. With a year's experience under his belt and another veteran pass-catcher at his disposal, the sophomore quarterback has a legitimate chance at a huge breakout campaign. Still, it'll be interesting to see how Ryan responds to his first taste of playoff failure and defenses perhaps more prepared to challenge him now that they have had a year to study his game film. History is on Ryan's side; two of the past three quarterbacks picked in the top five of the draft who had comparably memorable rookie campaigns went on to even better things as sophomores. Their names? Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer, two fantasy staples. And the third, Vince Young, is hardly a passer in the Ryan mold.
The running back position is another spot to watch. Michael Turner might not ideally fit as a player in serious jeopardy from the "curse of 370," but his fantasy chances would be helped tremendously by a productive season from his backup, Jerious Norwood. With training camp on the horizon, the Falcons have stressed -- as they seem to every summer -- that they intend to involve Norwood more in the offense. That probably won't mean Norwood warrants much more than handcuff status for fantasy, but it'll be worth tracking his usage in the preseason. Even his ability to take some of the pressure off Turner, keeping the star somewhere closer to the 325-carry range, might go a long way toward keeping Turner productive enough to again rank among the game's elite.
You get the idea: Less quantity might mean more quality.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.