- Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer
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NFL Nation's Vaughn McClure examines the three biggest issues facing the Atlanta Falcons heading into training camp.
Julio Jones: Everyone knows how dynamic Jones is when he's healthy, but coming off a second right foot surgery, no one will be at ease until he absorbs his first live contact. Jones was held out of all offseason activity but said he feels stronger due to extensive weightlifting, particularly with squats. The Falcons sorely missed him last season, particularly in the red zone and as a deep threat. Matt Ryan can always throw a quick screen to Jones and rely on him to pick up plenty of yards after the catch. Jones, despite the surgery, seems more confident than ever in his ability, touting himself as the league's best receiver and saying he and Roddy White are the league's top receiver combination. Jones has a career average of 15.7 yards per catch and has 42 catches of 20-plus yards. To put it simply, the Falcons' offense is rather pedestrian without Jones in the lineup. With him, opposing defenses have more planning to do. The Falcons need Jones for all 16 games in a pivotal 2014 season.
Offensive line: Yes, the Falcons invested in the offensive line this offseason by signing right guard Jon Asamoah to a five-year deal worth $4.5 million per season and by drafting right tackle Jake Matthews in the first round. Yes, the Falcons hired Mike Tice, a new offensive line coach capable of instilling some toughness. But none of that will matter if the five guys up front don't develop cohesiveness as a unit. The Falcons expect Matthews to make a seamless transition to the pros, and the expectation is for left tackle Sam Baker to hold his own despite coming off a significant knee surgery. Some of center Joe Hawley's struggles last season can be attributed to weak play next to him at right guard, so having Asamoah in the fold should benefit Hawley. And left guard Justin Blalock was the team's best lineman last season. The Falcons feel like they have some quality depth now with Mike Johnson, Ryan Schraeder and even newcomer Gabe Carimi. But if they have to rely on their second-stringers, it could be another long season along the line.
Lacking at linebacker: Since we've talked so much about the lack of a pass rush, it's time to pinpoint a different area of deficiency on defense. Obviously the Falcons aren't where they need to be in terms of their linebacker situation. The loss of Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles) will be felt, although injuries limited his time last season as well. There's something to be said for having a spiritual leader and coach on the field, and the Falcons will miss that from Weatherspoon. No one can take away what Paul Worrilow accomplished last year as an undrafted rookie, but Worrilow would be the first to say he missed his share of tackles. And the coaching staff doesn't have full confidence in Joplo Bartu. Rookie fourth-round pick Prince Shembo was switched from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, and the coaches believe they can mold him into a capable replacement for Weatherspoon. Shembo has the talent, but even he admitted it will be a quite an adjustment from what he did at Notre Dame. The Falcons worked out veterans such as Jonathan Vilma and Nick Barnett but only signed Tim Dobbins, a guy better known for special teams. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Falcons add another linebacker before camp or search the open market for linebacker depth once cuts are made. The issues at linebacker put more of the onus on the rebuilt defensive line, led by Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, to create havoc up front.