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Atlanta Falcons Season Report Card

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Atlanta Falcons season report card

By Vaughn McClure

» AFC: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Although they entered Week 17 with a chance to win the NFC South, the Atlanta Falcons were doomed early in the season when they suffered through a five-game losing streak and 2-6 start en route to a 6-10 finish and the firing of coach Mike Smith.

Losing linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles) and five offensive linemen to season-ending injuries surely didn't help matters. Not to mention the Falcons failed to address their most glaring need on defense -- a pass-rusher -- and it showed.

The whole theme of getting bigger, tougher and stronger that was emphasized in the preseason and portrayed on HBO's "Hard Knocks" ended up being just a facade as the Falcons got beat up on both sides of the line of scrimmage in their most important game: the season finale against Carolina, where they were pummeled 34-3.

OVERALL
grade_f.jpg It was inexcusable to go 6-10 after getting Julio Jones back healthy from last year's season-ending foot fracture and after supposedly bolstering the offensive and defensive lines -- although the Falcons did lose five offensive linemen to season-ending injuries. Blown double-digit leads against the Lions and Giants and horrendous clock management against the Browns threw away three winnable games. Coordinators Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan both had their struggles, although Nolan had a lot less talent at his disposal.

OFFENSE
grade_cminus.jpgThat might seem harsh for a team that finished in the top five in red zone percentage and in the top 10 in passing yards and total offense. But the Falcons failed the final exam with a poor offensive showing in the season finale with the division title on the line.

DEFENSE
grade_f.jpgYes, strides were made at the end of the year and corner Desmond Trufant is going to be a perennial Pro Bowl pick very soon. That being said, the Falcons still finished last in the league in six defensive categories, including total yards per game (398.3), passing yards per game (279.9), and third-down defense (46.8 percent). The Falcons allowed 6,372 total yards -- 2,098 more than the top-rated Seahawks.

Team MVP: Julio Jones. Earlier in the season, it was running back Antone Smith, simply based on Smith being the lone bright spot on a team that was struggling. But then Smith broke his leg and was done for the season. As the Falcons started to turn things around and as Jones shook off an ankle injury, he started to dominate. Jones' franchise-record 259 receiving yards against the Packers on "Monday Night Football" showed the world just how great he can be. Jones, named to his second Pro Bowl, finished the season with a franchise-record 1,593 receiving yards and six touchdowns. And he missed the game against the Steelers with an oblique injury. "I just have to get back healthy and focused on next year," he said.

Best moment: Pro Bowl return man Devin Hester setting the NFL record with his 20th career return touchdown, a 62-yard punt return against Tampa Bay in Week 3. Hester high-stepped his way to the end zone with his mentor, former Falcon Deion Sanders, in the building for NFL Network. The play also happened in front of Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith, who brought Hester into the league with the Chicago Bears and has maintained a close relationship with him over the years.

Worst moment: The Falcons blowing a 21-point lead to the Lions in London, which resulted in a 22-21 loss on Matt Prater's game-winning 48-yard field goal. The tide turned in the Lions' favor when Matt Ryan threw a third-quarter interception right into the hands of a defender. Jones had a key drop late in the game.

2015 outlook: The Falcons are set to have a new coach after seven seasons under Smith, but general manager Thomas Dimitroff remains. Owner Arthur Blank doesn't want to take mediocrity into his new Atlanta Stadium. He just wants wins, with no excuses. Smith was a great guy whom the players appreciated, but Blank no doubt wants a coach who's going to be stern to all the players, from the top guys on down. Dimitroff has to secure a pass-rusher or two and continue to invest in the offensive line. Finding quality linebackers also has to be a priority, as well as a pass-catching tight end.

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I agree with the grades but if you are going to ding the offense, it would be better to put it on the shoulders of the porous O-line and terrible running game rather than a poor showing in week 17.

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I agree with the grades but if you are going to ding the offense, it would be better to put it on the shoulders of the porous O-line and terrible running game rather than a poor showing in week 17.

Yep, OL and run game.

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Sunday, February 1, 2015
Arthur Blank values Julio Jones, but extension on hold pending new coach

By Vaughn McClure

The Atlanta Falcons obviously value Julio Jones, probably even more now with Jones coming off a record-breaking, Pro Bowl season.

However, team owner Arthur Blank was a bit apprehensive when discussing a long-term extension for Jones, who is signed through the 2015 season. Blank basically deferred to incoming head coach Dan Quinn, who is set to be introduced Tuesday after he completes his Super Bowl run with theSeattle Seahawks.

"Well, I think it's a decision that the head coach will look at the talent on the roster," Blank said. "Julio's been a great player for us and a great talent, and he represents us on the field and off the field as well as anybody else.

"As the owner, it's not my decision to make. The new coach will spend a great deal of time assessing the roster and all of our players, and obviously Julio is a critical one."

Blank's words would imply Quinn will have plenty of say regarding the 53-man roster as questions continue to linger about how much control general manager Thomas Dimitroff will have, with the head coach and Dimitroff reporting to Blank separately.

It would seem foolish for the Falcons not to lock up Jones long term, particularly after trading away five draft picks to secure him No. 6 overall in the 2011 NFL draft. Jones, who turns 26 on Tuesday, is coming off a franchise-record-setting 1,593 receiving yards in 2014 despite missing one game due to injury. He was third in the league with 104 receptions and led the league with 31 receptions of 20-plus yards.

Jones is scheduled to make $10,176,000 in 2015 after the Falcons exercised his fifth-year option. That, however, doesn't preclude the team from signing Jones to a long-term deal before the season.

Franchising Jones in 2016 would be an option, but a long-term deal probably makes more sense from a business standpoint. If there are serious concerns about Jones' long-term health, then maybe the Falcons would want to consider the franchise tag after the 2015 season and only a one-year commitment. But Jones has shown no ill effects from the season-ending foot fracture he suffered during the 2013 campaign. And although Jones dealt with an oblique strain and ankle sprain this past season, he still played in 15 games.

If the franchise tag came into play in '16, Jones would be on track to receive no less than 120 percent of his '15 salary -- $12.2 million guaranteed. However, former agent Joel Curry projects the franchise tag number for wide receivers to be no less than $13 million in 2016, and Jones would be eligible to receive the higher of either the 120 percent figure or the wide receiver franchise tag. And the Falcons have the ability to franchise Jones again in 2017 under the same guidelines. But it would be smarter to just lock him up with a long-term deal rather than committing $25-plus million guaranteed for just two seasons.

Jones’ agent, Jimmy Sexton, could seek a long-term deal in the same neighborhood of Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald: $16 million per year with $45 million guaranteed.

Jones' teammates certainly believe he deserves a lucrative, long-term deal.

"I think Julio Jones is the best receiver," safety William Moore said near the end of the season. "The guy is a workhorse. All you have to do is give him the ball. He shows up when you really need it. He doesn't talk much. He just goes out there and puts it on the field, and I love that about Julio.

"I'd keep Julio and give him the max. He's young. He has a lot offer. I don't see any negatives out of Julio. He's everything you want out of a top receiver in the league."

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