By Eli Nachmany
In 2011, after the high-flying Falcons added Alabama wideout Julio Jones to their 13-3 roster, a number of analysts pegged the Dirty Birds to be the best team in the NFL.
Though Jones lived up to the hype, the Falcons did not.
Atlanta finished the 2011 season with a sub-par 10-6 record (considering their projected totals) and the team will enter the 2012 NFL draft without a first-round pick.
The team did garner a wild card in 2011, capturing the fifth seed in the NFC, but Matt Ryan’s gang quietly bowed out against the Super Bowl-bound Giants in the first round of the playoffs.
While Ryan puts up solid numbers during the regular season, the young quarterback has yet to win his first NFL playoff game.
Though they may not be speaking up, some players in the locker room have to have their doubts about Ryan’s ability to take the team far in the playoffs.
Running the ball is Michael Turner, who’s been a great rusher for the Falcons but his punishing, physical style leaves many wondering when he will crash.
Turner just hit the dreaded age of 30 and after four years of bruising running for Atlanta, this may be the year that ‘The Burner’s’ body just stops grinding out yards. The Giants bottled up No. 33 in the playoff game and, to the dismay of Atlanta fans, that may not be an aberration.
Consider that, until running all over Tampa Bay in Week 17, Turner was unable to record a 100-yard game since Week 11 against the Tennessee Titans when the rusher gained exactly 100 yards on the ground.
The Falcons return a solid, if underwhelming, offensive line that has its moments. I wouldn’t say that the addition of guard Vince Manuwai is up there with the Carl Nicks and ben Grubbs signings, but it was a nice under-the-radar move.
In context, though, the signing of Manuwai was one of the biggest Falcon moves of the offseason.
After signing linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who hasn’t been in the league for a year, the team lost emotional leader and star centerpiece Curtis Lofton to the rival Saints.
The team has major questions on the defensive line and, without a first-round pick this draft, is about to fall behind a host of other ballclubs.
The NFC South is looking tougher and tougher by the day.
Though the Saints are mired in issues, the team still has a lot of talent and will be a force in the upcoming season.
Carolina has a franchise quarterback with Cam Newton and the team truly knows how to run the football. I have my doubts as to whether Atlanta will be able to stop the Panthers from running the ball all day.
As for the Buccaneers, look for Tampa Bay to sneak their way to a solid season and surprise a number of teams along the way.
This leaves Atlanta with the potential to finish as an eight or nine-win team. Look for the Falcons to struggle in 2012 and don’t be surprised if and when the Dirty Birds aren’t able to capture a playoff spot.