- Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Atlanta Falcons plan to be back in Super Bowl contention this season. But it's not just about rebounding from last year's 4-12 campaign. It's about maintaining the success they've had since Mike Smith took over as coach; Smith has posted a 60-36 record since arriving in 2008.
Over the next three years, maintaining an emphasis on offense will be the biggest key to success. Nothing is more important than keeping franchise quarterback Matt Ryan upright and healthy. The team firmly believes Ryan is an elite quarterback when given ample opportunity to deliver the ball. The hope is a rebuilt offensive line, featuring veteran offensive guard Jon Asamoah and first-round draft pick Jake Matthews, that will be solid for years to come. But the Falcons have to continue to develop depth, particularly at tackle, just in case a player like Sam Baker (knee) doesn't hold up for an entire season.
Of course, giving Ryan all the protection in the world means nothing without playmakers catching the ball. That's why the Falcons have to lock up top receiver Julio Jones with a lucrative, long-term contract. Picking up the fifth-year option on Jones allowed the team to assure he'd be around through at least 2015. Although Jones is coming off a significant foot injury, the Falcons are certain he'll return to his old explosive self. At his best, Jones is probably one of the top two receivers in the league, along with Calvin Johnson. Johnson makes $16 million per year; Jones will make $10,176,000 in 2015 as part of the option year.
The Falcons are built to be an offensive team, and that won't change any time soon. They'll likely have to invest in another receiver unless they can get another solid three years out of Roddy White. They'll have to look into a pass-catching tight end if promising Levine Toilolo doesn't make the necessary strides. And the running game doesn't have to be dynamic, just solid. Devonta Freeman could be the every-down back they count on over the next three years.
Defensively, the Falcons won't be in the top five in the league. They probably won't even be in the top 10. They just need to be good enough to keep opposing teams from scoring in the high 20s and breaking off explosive play after explosive play. The future looks bright with Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford at the corners. The Falcons will have to invest in a pass-rusher at some point while also addressing needs at linebacker. But the defense doesn't have to be great for the team to have success.
The offense, however, certainly needs to be dynamic.