NFL Nation: Peter Konz
ESPN.com New York Giants reporter Dan Graziano makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.
Week 1: at Detroit Lions
The Giants are coming off a mess of a preseason, undermanned and overwhelmed, with the offensive line still a mess and the new offense not clicking at all. No one will pick them to win this game. Except me. Prediction: Win
Week 2: Arizona Cardinals
This one's a comedown off the Week 1 surprise, as Arizona's banged-up defense still manages to flummox Eli Manning and collect a few interceptions. It's a bummer of a home opener as reality begins to set in. Prediction: Loss
Week 3: Houston Texans
Houston's defense is as liable as Arizona's to make life miserable for Manning and the offensive line. But Houston has bigger questions on offense than even the Giants, and this is a win for the New York defense against Ryan Fitzpatrick. Prediction: Win
Week 4: at Washington Redskins
Week 5: Atlanta Falcons
The pattern continues, and the Giants overcome two Osi Umenyiora sacks to outscore the Falcons with a furious Manning comeback in the final minutes. The Giants poke their heads over the .500 mark as they make the turn into the most brutal stretch of their schedule. Prediction: Win
Week 6: at Philadelphia Eagles
The Giants don't have Matt Barkley to kick around this time when they visit the City of Brotherly Love. Chip Kelly and the Eagles show them what a truly innovative offense looks like. Prediction: Loss
Week 7: at Dallas Cowboys
The season-long debate about what gives when an anemic Giants offense meets a pathetic Cowboys defense tilts in Dallas' favor in the first meeting. Tony Romo & Co. have more than enough weapons to outscore Manning and his bunch, and the Giants hit the bye with a 3-4 record. Prediction: Loss
Week 9: Indianapolis Colts
After a long break before the Monday night home game, the Giants get taken apart by Andrew Luck, Hakeem Nicks & Co. at MetLife Stadium for a third straight loss. The offense is starting to run more smoothly, but it still doesn't have enough playmakers to outscore one of the league's better offenses. Prediction: Loss
Week 10: at Seattle Seahawks
You're kidding, right? Prediction: Loss
Week 11: San Francisco 49ers
The Giants have obviously handled the Niners in recent years and in some high-profile situations. But by this point in the season, San Francisco's defense is back to full strength, and the 49ers can't afford to lose ground to the Seahawks by failing to beat the team Seattle just beat the week before. Prediction: Loss
Week 12: Dallas Cowboys
A sixth straight loss is by no means out of the question here, as Romo and his crew still have the potential to outscore anyone in a given week. But from this far out, I'll forecast that something goes wrong for Romo late in this game, and the Giants get a gift. Prediction: Win
Week 13: at Jacksonville Jaguars
This is where the schedule starts to soften up, when the Giants start playing teams that insist on not starting their best quarterback. It's unfortunate they're 4-7 at this point and just about out of the playoff hunt, but they will get it going against the bottom-feeders. Prediction: Win
Week 14: at Tennessee Titans
I think the Titans are going to be dreadful this year, and by December they won't be very difficult for anyone to beat, even at home. A third straight victory keeps the Giants' hopes alive. Prediction: Win
Week 15: Washington Redskins
Have to be honest: The NFC East is so unpredictable that, when doing these predictions, I just decided to give the Giants a 3-3 division record with victories in all three home games and losses in all three road games. It's as fair a way as any to do it, I believe. Prediction: Win
Week 16: at St. Louis Rams
After moving back to .500 with four straight wins, the season falls apart at the hands of the St. Louis pass rush. An offensive line that has once again been the Giants' biggest problem all year can't protect Manning in a must-win game. Prediction: Loss
Week 17: Philadelphia Eagles
Tom Coughlin's teams can always find a way to play for pride. The Giants' playoff hopes are extinguished, but they still manage to end the season on a high note and with a .500 record. Prediction: Win
Predicted Record: 8-8
Yet such strength means nothing if the Falcons fail to use it to their advantage on the field. Just ask general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
"It's functional strength," Dimitroff said this offseason. "Our guys were considerably stronger last year than they were the year before, interestingly enough, and we had some challenges with it. What I'm saying it, yes, we're going to continue to focus on strength increase. But it's the functional strength. It's being able to put them in the right spot to utilize their strength."
Coach Mike Smith seemed a bit more animated Tuesday as he explained part of the formula would be for winning the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball.
"One of the emphasis points for us as a coaching staff was to evaluate everything that we do," Smith said. "One of the things that became very apparent for us was that we need to get bigger and stronger. I think we've started doing that with our players. ... It's going to be very important for us to be a much bigger and stronger football team."
Smith is counting on AJ Neibel and his strength-and-conditioning staff to produce results as the Falcons go through Phase I of the offseason workout program. Smith and the other coaches are not allowed to oversee activity during the first two weeks, which started Monday.
"The offseason program has changed," Smith said, again emphasizing the bigger-stronger campaign. "If you'll look back and look what I said the very first time I was here in this room -- not in this room but over in that team meeting room -- I talked about what it takes to win in the National Football League. And I believe I said that you have to win the line of scrimmage. You have to have bigger and stronger players than your opponent. I feel like we've lost our way. I've lost my way a little bit.
"And the emphasis moving forward is going to be a bigger and stronger football team. And we're going to win the line of scrimmage."
Adding big, physical players such as offensive guard Jon Asamoah, nose tackle Paul Soliai, and Jackson were the first steps toward improvement. New offensive line coach Mike Tice immediately encouraged center/guard Peter Konz to bulk up, and Konz, who was pushed around more often than not last season, responded by "living in the weight room" so far this offseason.
"I think it's more for the younger guys," Tice explained in January, during a break at this year's Senior Bowl practices. "I think the younger guys, as they grow into their bodies and they stop growing and they start maturing, physically, I think that they get stronger and take a big leap and not only take a big leap with strength, but when they gain strength, they gain confidence.
"I see us in a couple different areas needing to gain that confidence. And I think a good offseason in the weight room will help some guys."
The first two players quarterback Matt Ryan mentioned Tuesday in terms of working hard in the weight room were tackle Lamar Holmes and Konz. The Falcons' offensive line obviously failed at the line of scrimmage last season as Ryan was the most pressured quarterback in the league.
"I think everybody takes a good, hard look in the mirror when things go well and then also when things don't go well," Ryan said. "And I know that's one of the most important things for me as a player and as a professional is to take a good, honest evaluation of yourself after a season and try and find areas that you can improve. And so those guys, they've made a conscious effort to get into the weight room and to move weight.
"We're not naive. Those guys (the offensive linemen) have taken some heat. And they've had to answer questions and tough questions all of last season and through the offseason so far. And I think they've taken it as a challenge. And they're in there working as hard they possibly can. I've been really impressed with the way they've handled it professionally and also how they have taking it personally, too, and want to become better and are doing everything that they can in order to improve."
Konz appears to be taking things personal. But again, he understands it's about more than just bulking up.
"You know what? We never talk about strength in the film room because it's all about technique," Konz said near the end of last season. "If you open up any book, it's all about leverage. And strength is important when you know how to use it with your footwork.
"Strength is very important, when used in combination with technique. That's what most important: lowest man wins. If you've got your hands on somebody and you've got them, they're going to have a hell of a time trying to get away from you."
If the Falcons don't improve up front, the season could get away from them again.
None of them, however, has made the short trip north to play for the Green Bay Packers.
It has been more than 10 years since the Packers drafted a lineman from Wisconsin. In back-to-back years (2000 and 2001), they picked tackle Mark Tauscher (seventh round) and guard Bill Ferrario (fourth round). Tauscher went on to become a longtime starter, while Ferrario lasted only one season as a backup.
There’s another former Badgers lineman on the Packers’ radar this year. Ryan Groy said Thursday that he met with Packers offensive line coach James Campen on Wednesday at the NFL combine.
Groy played mostly guard for the Badgers, starting every game at left guard last season. But he also has experience at tackle (three starts in 2012) and center (one start in 2011).
With the Packers potentially in the market for a center depending on whether they re-sign Evan Dietrich-Smith, who will be a free agent next month, Groy might be someone the Packers would consider in the late rounds.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. rated Groy as the 10th-best guard in the draft , although he’s not limiting himself to just that position.
“A lot of guys have asked me that, and what I’ve told them mostly is the inside three [positions],” Groy said on Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium. “That’s where I feel most comfortable. I feel very comfortable at guard [and] center, and I told them if need be I can play tackle. I’m not afraid to go out there. I’m not afraid to play it.”
Groy’s lone start at center came against Illinois as a sophomore.
“Pete Konz went down against Minnesota, hurt his ankle, and then I played [center] at Illinois,” said Groy, who said he was measured at 6-foot-4½ and 316 pounds at the combine. “Travis switched to center in the third quarter and I played left guard the last three games [of that season].”
No, it was not a strong enough performance to wipe out every bad memory from this season. But it was an encouraging sign from a unit that was expected to be dominated by a San Francisco 49ers front seven touted as arguably the best in the NFL.
Falcons coach Mike Smith hasn’t singled out the play of an offensive lineman too often this season. Tuesday afternoon, he singled out three.
Although quarterback Matt Ryan did a masterful job improvising at times, his pocket was clean for the most part, which helped him complete a career-high 37 passes. He was sacked just once and was able to go deep more than he had all season.
"The interior of the pocket was a little more stout," Smith said. "I thought that we did a very good job with scheming, with chipping, helping and having backs chip out, tight ends chip out before they went into their routes.
"The two tackles [Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder], they had tough draws. I thought they handled it well. I thought Matt [had a] very good pocket as well. And I really feel, after watching the tape on the ride back and watching it this morning, that Joe Hawley did a nice job cleaning the pocket up."
Hawley has been solid at center since taking the starting job away from Peter Konz, so his performance wasn’t that shocking. But Holmes held his own at left tackle against pass-rush demon Aldon Smith, while right tackle Schraeder did the same against Ahmad Brooks. Schrader fared well against Smith, too.
Holmes had a couple of false starts in the first half, but he settled down in the second half and competed with Smith. Bad technique seemed to cause Schraeder to fall on his back during one play, but he quickly shook it off.
"I thought Ryan Schraeder continued to show improvement, as an undrafted rookie getting his second start on 'Monday Night Football,'" Smith said. "I thought he did a nice job. He battled. He battled against a very good front seven."
The Falcons need to find five players capable of battling each and every week. Hawley looks like a keeper at center, while left guard Justin Blalock has been the only offensive lineman to keep his starting job throughout the season. Schraeder continues to show promise as the right tackle of the future, while the Falcons hope to get left tackle Sam Baker back healthy next season after knee surgery.
The coaches still believe Holmes has a bright future despite his obvious struggles. And the fact that Harland Gunn played 45 snaps at left guard against the 49ers, compared with 27 for Konz, is telling in terms of Konz’s status after losing his job at center.
If the line manages to string together back-to-back strong performances, the coaches truly would have something to build upon. And the Falcons finish the season against another one of league’s top defensive fronts in the Carolina Panthers.
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and offensive lineman Peter Konz, both of whom were limited during Wednesday's practice, had full participation during Thursday's session. Weatherspoon is coming off a knee injury, Konz a tweaked ankle.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez and safety Zeke Motta were the only two Falcons limited on Thursday. Gonzalez continues to deal with a toe injury but is healthier than he's been in weeks. Motta broke a finger on his right hand and continues to play with a cast.
Roddy White's absence from the injury report for the second straight week means the receiver is close to full strength, although White told ESPN.com his previously sprained right ankle continues to bother him.
Eleven months later, the teams have a combined record of 8-15-1.
That’s why the NFL moved the game, which was originally scheduled for prime time on Sunday, to a 1 p.m. ET start.
ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure break down the matchup:
Rob Demovsky: Vaughn, it’s hard to believe the Falcons are in playing-out-the-string mode with all of the talent they have on offense. Obviously, injuries have been an issue, especially losing a talented receiver like Julio Jones. But unlike the Packers, they didn’t lose their quarterback. How come Matt Ryan hasn’t been able to be a difference-maker?
Vaughn McClure: Well, it’s been hard for Matt Ryan to be himself, playing under duress most of the season. The Falcons have ranked in the top 10 in sacks allowed per pass attempt, but that’s only because Ryan has taken shorter drops and delivered the ball quicker. He has still been sacked a career-high 30 times and has been hit countless other times. In the past two games alone -- against the Saints and Bills -- Ryan was sacked 11 times. True, being without Jones hasn’t helped Ryan’s cause. But also, Roddy White hasn’t been at full strength all season. Without Harry Douglas or Tony Gonzalez, Ryan would really be in trouble.
Speaking of quarterbacks, can you explain the different scenarios for the Packers at the position come Sunday, based on Aaron Rodgers’ injury status?
Demovsky: Well, it sure looks like Rodgers will be out for at least another week. This was the game he was really targeting to come back for, thinking he could lead them to the playoffs if he got back for the last four games. But his collarbone did not check out well enough Tuesday to be cleared. Even though he plans to practice this week, it doesn’t look good for him to play. I was a little surprised that coach Mike McCarthy appears to be going with Matt Flynn again. Flynn was completely ineffective in the Thanksgiving debacle at Detroit, and quite frankly, his arm strength does not look good. He didn’t have a lot of zip on the ball indoors against the Lions, and it sure won’t get any easier to throw in the cold, wintry conditions at Lambeau Field. I wondered if he might go back to Scott Tolzien, who looked good in a couple of his appearances but threw too many interceptions.
You mentioned pass protection -- the Packers had issues of their own against the Lions. Flynn was sacked seven times, but on at least a couple of those, he held onto the ball too long. What has been the Falcons’ biggest problem in pass protection?
McClure: The biggest problem has been the offensive line, simply. The guys up front haven’t held up their end of the bargain. They’ve been physically dominated at times, particularly in the loss to the Seahawks. The Falcons lost left tackle Sam Baker to season-ending knee surgery, and Baker wasn’t the same player he was last season before being placed on injured reserve. Left tackle Lamar Holmes, the guy trusted to protect Ryan’s blind side, admitted being out of shape at the beginning of the season and is still experiencing growing pains. Center Peter Konz, right guard Garrett Reynolds, right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and Holmes have all been benched at point during the season. Such turnover hasn’t helped the group develop any cohesion. And now, it has to face a capable Packers defense.
I know Clay Matthews was injured this season, but is he back to the dominant player he was when I covered the NFC North?
Demovsky: He’s starting to look like the player you remember, Vaughn. In his first game back from his broken thumb, he wasn’t a factor,because he had to wear that giant club cast. But the next week against the Giants, he was able to play with a much smaller cast. Ever since then, he’s been a playmaker again. In the past three games, he has three sacks and a forced fumble. The problem is he’s not getting a ton of help. And even when they make big plays like they did against the Lions last week, when they forced four turnovers, the offense can’t take advantage of them. Even with Matthews back on the field, the defense has been in a free fall over the past month.
About the only thing the Packers have been able to count on has been their running game, and even that has been a little up and down. But rookie Eddie Lacy looks like a force with 806 yards rushing in basically 10 games. I’m sure the Falcons will load up the box to stop him like most teams have tried to do since Rodgers got hurt. Do you think they can stop him?
McClure: No. Not at all. They struggled to contain speedy backs like Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller (149 rushing yards) just like they’ve struggled against powerful backs like Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch (145 yards). Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan counted 28 missed tackles for his defense over the past two games, which is unacceptable, particularly when they occur in the second level and lead to explosive plays. Although rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow has been a tackling machine, he can’t do it alone. Like the offensive line, the defense has been dominated physically at times. Lacy’s bruising style is the last thing the Falcons want to see. The Falcons are tied for 29th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game.
Four players were limited during Wednesday's practice: tight end Tony Gonzalez (toe), linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (knee), offensive lineman Peter Konz (ankle) and safety Zeke Motta (hand).
"We're in pretty good shape," Smith said after practice. "Tony is ahead of schedule. He practiced more today than he did at this time last week. He's feeling better.
"I think the guys will be full-go tomorrow. We're all on track. Nobody is 100 percent at this time of the season, but everyone is healthy enough to go out and play. And that's a good thing this time of the season."
In Green Bay, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was limited coming off a broken collarbone and seems unlikely to play Sunday, although Rodgers hasn't been ruled out.
ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 17-13 loss to New Orleans Saints on Thursday night at the Georgia Dome:
Showing fight: Tight end Tony Gonzalez promised the Falcons would come out with some fight despite entering the game with a 2-8 record. He was right. The Falcons definitely put together a spirited effort against their NFC South rival. It showed from the start when the defense forced Drew Brees and the Saints into a three-and-out to begin the game, including two run-stuffing plays. And the offense played with just as much enthusiasm, as evident with Steven Jackson’s 1-yard touchdown flip -- his first rushing TD with the team. Despite some hiccups in defensive coverage and pass protection, the Falcons competed for almost the entire game, though the defense seemed to just wear down at the very end. It wasn’t truly over until Matt Bryant missed a 52-yard field-goal try in the final minutes. The Falcons needed to play with the same type of fire the previous four weeks. They’ve now lost five in a row.
Stock watch: Undrafted rookie receiver Darius Johnson’s stock skyrocketed and plummeted all in the same game. He played like a veteran in the first half, catching a team-high five passes for 65 yards. He almost had a touchdown, but a replay review showed he was down at the 1-yard line. As good as Johnson looked, though, he still made some rookie mistakes. He had a key drop across the middle while wide open on a third-and-2 play in the third quarter. Then in the fourth, Johnson fumbled the ball away after a catch, killing a Falcons drive into the red zone.
Third downer: When the Saints converted 5 of 5 third-down tries on their second drive of the game, you figured it would be a bad night for the Falcons' defense. It was. Atlanta gave up way too much room on third down, allowing the Saints to march at will. Third-down defense and surrendering explosive plays have been a problem for the Falcons all season. They also gave up a 44-yard touchdown from Brees to tight end Jimmy Graham.
Line change: Once again, the Falcons' offensive line experienced a change. Garrett Reynolds, who regained his starting spot at right guard after being benched last week, was benched again in favor of center/guard Peter Konz. There might be some more changes next time out after the Falcons allowed Matt Ryan to be sacked a season-high five times. Left tackle Lamar Holmes didn’t have a good day going up against right defensive end Cameron Jordan (2.5 sacks), and Saints left defensive end Akiem Hicks had a field day against the Falcons' linemen, too.
Bad call? Speaking of Hicks, he wrapped Ryan up high and twisted the quarterback to the ground in the second quarter on a play that appeared to be a roughing penalty. Falcons coach Mike Smith was livid that no call was made. And the sack essentially cost the Falcons a touchdown as they settled for Bryant’s 39-yard field goal. A touchdown there might have changed the complexion of the game. Smith and the Falcons are sure to reach out to the league about the officiating.
What's next: The Falcons have a few extra days to prepare for their trip to Toronto to face the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo beat the New York Jets 37-14 in Week 11 and has a bye this week. In other words, nothing gets any easier for the Falcons moving forward.
That's all that stood between the Atlanta Falcons and rebounding from a dismal 2013 start.
One yard might have given them much-needed momentum going into the bye week. One yard might have given fans hope the team would sneak right back into the playoff picture.
Instead, Monday night ended with one resounding thud.
There were a variety of reasons why the Falcons suffered their third straight defeat, falling to 1-4 with a 30-28 loss to the New York Jets, who kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired. Some folks will put the blame on head coach Mike Smith, particularly after he decided against going for a field goal with a second left before halftime.
Smith admitted, in hindsight, maybe settling for three would have been the best option. But he believed his team could get the one yard necessary for a touchdown. He expressed faith in his offense, faith in his quarterback, faith in his offensive line.
"Probably would have been better if we had gotten a better push," right guard Garrett Reynolds said. "I don't know exactly what happened. I haven't watched it. But we didn't get in there."
Based on the replay, it appeared at least two front-line Falcons got beat on the play. Joe Hawley, the backup center who lined up as an extra lineman in the tight end spot, seemed to miss his block and allow penetration to Jets defender Quinton Coples. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood appeared to get overpowered by Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who was credited with dropping Rodgers for no gain.
"What did I see? I was just trying to block my guy," Trueblood said. "I wish I would have done a better job. If I would [have gotten] my man, [Rodgers] would have scored."
Owning up to the mistakes is the first step. Correcting those errors is the next phase for the much-maligned offensive line.
The front five have been the object of much criticism since an ugly showing in the preseason. This line underwent a major facelift from last season with center Todd McClure retiring and right tackle Tyson Clabo being released, then signing with the Miami Dolphins. The Falcons were prepared to start Mike Johnson in place of Clabo until Johnson went down for the remainder of the season with a broken leg and dislocated ankle.
Then left tackle Sam Baker, who was stellar last season, went down with an injury in Week 4 against the New England Patriots, which forced demoted right tackle Lamar Holmes to take over at left tackle alongside left guard Justin Blalock, center Peter Konz, Reynolds and Trueblood.
The makeshift line has had its struggles. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter compensated by orchestrating plays to help quarterback Matt Ryan release the ball quicker to avoid pressure.
Still, Ryan has been sacked at key times this season, including against the Patriots when Holmes allowed Ryan to get sacked in the red zone. On Monday night, Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson beat Trueblood and Reynolds, swooping in for a sack-fumble play on Ryan. The turnover led to a Nick Folk field goal.
The line must have gotten a pep talk from offensive line coach Pat Hill at halftime Monday night. The performance in the second half was much better, particularly in terms of clearing holes in the running game. Rodgers had two red-zone touchdown runs in the second half. And Ryan didn't get sacked in the fourth quarter, when he completed 12 of 18 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown.
Regardless, that one yard the Falcons couldn't pick up before halftime might stick with them the entire season. Still, Ryan refused to blame the line.
"I thought they did a good job," he said. "I thought they fought the entire night. It's a good defense that we went against, specifically a very good front seven. And I thought our guys stepped up to the challenge.
"We ran the ball really effectively in the red zone. We just didn't run it effectively on that one play."
The Falcons don't have much of a choice but to ride with the offensive linemen they have now. Getting Baker back healthy might help, but he struggled when he was in the lineup. There aren't too many quality linemen sitting on the streets, and the Falcons have no current interest in recently released tackle Max Starks. Plus the organization still has high hopes for Holmes developing into a Pro Bowl-caliber tackle down the road.
Building toward the future is great, but the Falcons have to be more concerned about the present. If they have any thoughts of rebounding from this dismal 1-4 start, the line has to hold up its end. If it doesn't, the critics will continue to feast on the entire group.
"We always say we're all we got; we're all we need," Reynolds said. "All these people out here saying stuff about us. That's OK. That's their opinion. They don't know what we do. They don't know how hard we work. We have to take it on ourselves to continue to get better. We're a team. We're going to stick together."
Have Payton and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan fixed that horrid defense of a year ago? Will the Saints have much of a running game? Can the Falcons protect their franchise quarterback and give him time to find his myriad weapons?
ESPN.com NFL columnist Ashley Fox and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas discuss what Saints and Falcons fans can expect from the latest installment of this heated rivalry.
Fox: He’s back. It is redemption time for Payton after missing a year because of the bounty scandal. I’m sure, given how beloved Payton is in New Orleans, that the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be so loud it might lift off. I’ve seen different estimates for Payton’s worth. How many wins do you think he’s worth to the Saints?
Yasinskas: I think Payton's presence instantly takes the Saints from a nonplayoff team to a playoff team. His skills as an offensive guru are well known, and that certainly will help. But I think the more subtle benefit to having Payton back is his skill as a motivator. He's a master in that area, and he'll have his team ready for big games. Speaking of changes that came in the offseason, what do you think was the biggest move for the Falcons?
Fox: To me, the biggest change was the addition of Steven Jackson. As you well know, the Falcons struggled to run the ball late last season, when Michael Turner clearly had nothing left in the tank. I know Jackson has hit the age when running backs typically decline, but the Falcons don't need him to carry the load. They're going to pass to get a lead and run to win the game. As long as he can stay healthy, Jackson should be able to do that. How effective do you think the Saints' running game will be?
Yasinskas: That's a very timely question. Several times this offseason, Payton has said he wants more out of his running game. The Saints always are going to be a pass-first team. But if you look back at their Super Bowl year, their running game ranked in the top 10. Payton wants to get back to that, and I believe he has the tools to do that with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram. I think you'll see more of Ingram this year. He's a guy who needs 10 to 15 carries to get going, and he can bring more balance to the offense. Speaking of balance, the Falcons seem to have plenty of that. How potent is their offense going to be?
Fox: I think they have a chance to be as potent, if not more so, than last season. The newly signed Matt Ryan has all of his toys back -- Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez. He threw for more than 4,700 yards last season and set career highs for completion percentage, attempts and completions. He could break those again this season. It will be interesting to see if the preseason, when the Falcons were flagged for countless penalties, was an aberration. They were the least penalized team in NFL history last season. As far as setting NFL records, the Saints' defense did last season and not in a good way. Do you think it is going to be any better this season under Ryan?
Yasinskas: It's hard to imagine the New Orleans defense being any worse than it was a year ago. Things just never worked for former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. I think there will be improvement with Ryan, but I'm not sure how significant it will be. The Saints are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme, and I'm not sure they have all the personnel they need to be successful. Time will tell, but it's more than fair to say the defense is the biggest question mark for the Saints. Speaking of question marks, do the Falcons have any glaring weaknesses?
Fox: It is the offensive line. If Ryan is worth his salt as a defensive coordinator, he will strike the right side of the Falcons' line. That’s where the potential problems are. After 13 seasons and 194 starts, center Todd McClure retired after last season. Peter Konz, who started nine games as a rookie at right guard, slides back to his natural position at center. Left guard Justin Blaylock and left tackle Sam Baker are veteran rocks. That’s not the problem. The Falcons let right tackle Tyson Clabo walk in free agency. His replacement, Mike Johnson, broke his leg during training camp. Johnson's replacement, Lamar Holmes, was bad enough in the preseason that the Falcons signed Jeremy Trueblood earlier this week. Right guard Garrett Reynolds missed the second half of last season with an injury. How do you think Ryan will try to exploit the weakness?
Yasinskas: I agree with what you said about Atlanta's offensive line. It potentially could be a huge problem, and I'm sure Ryan is well aware of that. I'd look for him to try to exploit the right side of the line as much as possible. But the Saints have had their share of injuries on defense, and it still isn't clear how they'll apply pressure. Defensive end Cameron Jordan really is the only proven commodity as a pass-rusher. The Saints have big hopes for outside linebackers Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, and those guys need to become forces in a hurry. Atlanta has so many offensive weapons that the Saints need to get some pressure on the quarterback. Speaking of Atlanta's offensive weapons, is White completely healthy?
Fox: The Falcons better hope so. And they say he is, more or less. White sprained an ankle in the second preseason game but finally returned to practice this week. He is Mr. Reliable, having started 128 straight games, and had only two drops last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald had fewer among receivers who were targeted at least 100 times. So the Falcons need White to be healthy and productive. What’s up with the Saints’ third receiver situation?
Yasinskas: The Saints just brought back Robert Meachem, who didn't work out as a free agent in San Diego. I think Meachem can get back to being an impact player as a third or fourth receiver in time. But I think the Saints will open the season with rookie Kenny Stills as their third receiver. He has big-time speed, and the Saints need a downfield weapon to go along with Marques Colston and Lance Moore. Stills is an under-the-radar player who could have a big impact on this game. Do you see any Falcons who fall into that same category?
Fox: There are two undrafted rookie free agents on defense who won’t start but should see plenty of action. One is Joplo Bartu, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker out of Texas State. The other is Paul Worrilow, a 6-foot, 230-pound linebacker out of Delaware. Both are unheralded guys who are big and strong and really caught the coaches a little by surprise. Remember those two. OK, so give me a prediction. Who wins?
Steven Jackson. The Falcons signed Jackson to spice up their running game after Michael Turner ran out of gas last season. But Jackson’s not exactly young either. He turned 30 earlier this week, which isn’t always a good age for running backs. But I’m expecting to see Jackson show his legs are a good bit fresher than Turner’s.
How much Tony Gonzalez practices. Part of the reason the Falcons were able to coax Gonzalez out of retiring was because they made a deal that he could go lightly in training camp. I’m guessing Gonzalez’s participation will be extremely limited. But that’s good news because the Falcons know what they have in Gonzalez and they’ll be able to take an extended look at rookie tight end Levine Toilolo.
How the offensive line lines up. Center Todd McClure retired and right tackle Tyson Clabo was released. The Falcons are moving second-year pro Peter Konz from guard to center. Garrett Reynolds appears to be the favorite to take Konz’s spot at guard. Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes are expected to compete at right tackle.
Stephen Nicholas. The veteran linebacker took a lot of heat from fans after opposing tight ends shredded the Falcons in the playoffs. But I’m not sure Nicholas was completely healthy. The Falcons still must have confidence in him because they didn’t make any dramatic moves at linebacker.
The defensive tackles. The Falcons had some talks with free agent Richard Seymour, but he has not been signed. That means the Falcons seem likely to head into the season with Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry as their top three defensive tackles. All three are heading into the final year of their contracts and I’m curious to see who steps up.
What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC South team?
Offense: Reshuffled offensive line
Center Todd McClure retired and right tackle Tyson Clabo was released. The Falcons elected to go with youth and stick with guys already on their roster. Second-year pro Peter Konz should be fine at center after spending much of his rookie season at guard. But the right side is a question mark with Garrett Reynolds ticketed for guard and either Mike Johnson or Lamar Holmes at tackle. If the new starters don’t step up, this offensive line could have problems.
Defense: Pass rush
It seems reasonable to expect defensive end Osi Umenyiora to fill the shoes of John Abraham. But the Falcons need the pass rush to come from other areas, as well. Kroy Biermann likely will be used as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, and he has some pass-rushing skills. Second-year defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi also has some potential. But defensive coordinator Mike Nolan might need to get more creative and blitz his linebackers and defensive backs more often.
Wild card: Kids have to be ready
The Falcons used their first two draft picks on cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. The Falcons need one of them to start right away, and the other likely will get a fair amount of playing time. Opponents are likely to test the rookies, so safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore might have to provide a lot of help early on.
Offense: Establishing an identity
The Panthers opened last season using a lot of read-option with quarterback Cam Newton. After a 2-8 start, they switched back to a more conventional running game and had much more success. I expect that trend to continue under new coordinator Mike Shula. Newton has the skills to be a very productive passer if this offense is executed the right way.
Defense: Secondary questions
Aside from free safety Charles Godfrey, no one has a clear-cut starting position in the defensive backfield. There are lots of candidates, such as Drayton Florence, Josh Norman, Josh Thomas and Captain Munnerlyn, at cornerback. But some of those guys will have to elevate their games for the Panthers to have success in defending the pass.
Wild card: Missing links?
With defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and linebackers Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, Carolina has the potential to have one of the league’s best front sevens. But that is largely contingent upon rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. If they live up to the hype right off the bat, this front seven could be special.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Offense: Left tackle an open competition
After letting Jermon Bushrod go in free agency, the Saints have a glaring hole at left tackle. Charles Brown and Jason Smith haven’t done much in their careers, and rookie Terron Armstead is also in the mix. The Saints are hoping one of those three can step up. If not, the Saints might have to scramble to find a left tackle elsewhere.
Defense: Unit a question mark
After finishing last in the league in overall defense last season, the Saints brought in coordinator Rob Ryan and switched to a 3-4 scheme. The changes are probably a good thing, mainly because things can’t get much worse than they were last season. But it remains to be seen whether Ryan has the type of personnel to make his defense work.
Wild card: Payton’s return
If nothing else, Sean Payton’s suspension last year illustrated the true value of a head coach. He’s back now, and that should be a major positive. Payton is great with X's and O's, but he also is an excellent motivator. I expect Payton and the Saints to use what happened last year as fuel for this season.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Offense: Franchise quarterback?
It clearly is a make-or-break year for quarterback Josh Freeman as he heads into the last year of his contract. Freeman has done some very good things, but he has struggled to deliver the kind of consistency coach Greg Schiano wants. The Bucs have a strong running game with Doug Martin and two good receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. There will be no one else to blame but Freeman if this offense doesn’t prosper.
Defense: Pass rush
The Bucs let last year’s leading sacker, Michael Bennett, walk in free agency. It was a calculated gamble because the Bucs have a lot invested in Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers and believe they can be a strong duo at defensive end. They'd better be right. If they’re not, the revamped secondary might not be as good as it looks on paper.
Wild card: Leadership void
Aside from recently retired Ronde Barber, this team hasn’t had a lot of obvious leadership in recent years. Even Barber was more of a leader-by-example type than a vocal leader. The Bucs need some other players to step up. Newcomers such as cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson seem to be the most likely candidates to fill the leadership void.
They’re coming off a 13-3 season and they have a roster stocked with extraordinary talent from veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez right down to rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant. When the preseason predictions start coming out in another month or so, the Falcons are going to be a trendy Super Bowl pick, and that’s totally logical.
From the inside, I get the sense the Falcons are confident, but not totally comfortable with where they’re sitting. That’s probably because they’ve been here before.
It’s fresh in the minds of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith because it wasn’t that long ago. In 2010, the Falcons went 13-3 and seemed to be just a player or two away from the Super Bowl.
The Falcons certainly thought so. They went out and signed free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards and made a huge trade on draft day to get receiver Julio Jones. But the Falcons quickly learned that if you spend too much time and resources on fixing what was broken in the past, you can take your eye off the present and the future.
That’s what happened in the 2011 season. The Falcons stumbled to a 2-3 start. They finished 10-6, but the New Orleans Saints ran away with the NFC South title. Atlanta got a wild-card berth in the playoffs and got thumped 24-2 by the New York Giants.
Before the dust from that loss settled, coordinators Mike Mularkey and Brian VanGorder were gone. Their replacements, Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan, came in and helped set the stage for a bounce right back to 13-3.
But now comes the next step, and that’s why the Falcons shouldn’t be feeling too comfortable.
I don’t think history will repeat itself, mainly because the Falcons learned from their mistakes of 2011 and they’re taking a different approach this time around.
The most significant quote I heard this offseason was when Smith said the Falcons were 10 yards away from the Super Bowl last year, but they’re starting at 0-0 in 2013. Smith drilled that message into his team during the offseason program.
That type of self-awareness is nothing but a good thing. It’s hard just to win a game in the NFL. The Falcons have to go out and work as hard, or harder, than last year if they expect a similar season. Actually, they need to expect more. They need to expect a Super Bowl championship.
Blowing a 17-point lead to San Francisco at home in the NFC Championship Game wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t good enough for Smith and Dimitroff and it certainly wasn’t good enough for owner Arthur Blank.
I’m not subscribing to the theory of some who believe Smith needs to win a Super Bowl or Blank will clean house. Blank’s too smart for that. He realizes he has an excellent combination in Smith and Dimitroff. But expectations are justifiably high, and it wouldn’t reflect well on Smith or Dimitroff if the Falcons end up taking a step back.
There’s a reason why I don’t think the Falcons will take a step back. It’s because Smith and Dimitroff didn’t resort to the same gold-rush attitude that they did after the 2010 season. Blame a big part of that on Edwards, who ended up being perhaps the biggest free-agent bust in NFC South history. I think Smith and Dimitroff would make the Jones trade all over again, but that’s a once-in-a-career type of deal.
Dimitroff and Smith did go out and fix one major problem area from last year. They let aging running back Michael Turner go and replaced him with a slightly younger Steven Jackson. That alone should give a huge boost to an Atlanta offense that didn’t have even the threat of a running game last year.
But, more than that, I like the fact that Smith and Dimitroff were proactive. They let a still-productive John Abraham go and replaced him with a slightly younger Osi Umenyiora. They let veteran cornerback Dunta Robinson go and went out and drafted Trufant (yes, they traded up for him, but it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the Jones trade) and Robert Alford.
Although adding veteran defensive tackle Richard Seymour still might be a possibility (at the right price), Smith and Dimitroff avoided going for quick fixes and big names this time around. They let veteran right tackle Tyson Clabo go, and center Todd McClure retired.
Sure, it’s a little scary having two new starters on an offensive line. But the Falcons have invested draft picks in the likes of Peter Konz, Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes in recent years. It’s time to get them on the field.
That’s the way you fix things for the long term -- by making deliberate and calculated moves instead of moves that smack of desperation.
That’s how you take a step forward and not a step back.
Since 2007, the Cowboys have drafted 47 players and only 18 remain. That’s not good. After a quick perusal of the NFC East, it’s the worst percentage (38.3%) of any team in the division. From 2007-12, Philadelphia has 28 of 59 picks left (47.5%); Washington has 24 of 48 picks (50%) and the New York Giants have 24 of 46 picks left (52%).
In the last three years, which should be the core of a team, the Cowboys have 15 of 21 picks left. The Eagles are the worst with 23 of 33 picks. Washington is the best at 21 of 27 and the Giants have 16 of 22 picks remaining.
The point of entry for Todd's analysis was a discussion about whether they should have moved down in the 2011 draft, when they stayed put and took Tyron Smith at No. 9 and whether they were wise to move up in 2012, when they used their first-round pick and their second-round pick to draft Morris Claiborne. Todd thinks last year's move and 2011's non-move were mistakes. I agree, as I think most of you know, about last year. Because I think Smith will be a franchise left tackle, I don't hold the 2011 decision against them.
But what I see here is a clue about how the Cowboys play the top of the draft, and it's a discouraging one. It appears to me that Jerry Jones, who ultimately makes these decisions, falls in love with a player and does what he can to get him, the rest of the draft be damned. And a roster as thin with top-level talent as Dallas' has been for the last couple of years needs to make the second, third and fourth rounds more productive than the Cowboys usually have.
They love Claiborne as a keystone piece for the future, and that's fine. But had they held onto that second-round pick, they might have been able to come out of the first two rounds with, for example, Fletcher Cox and Peter Konz. (Yes, they'd have had to move up for Cox, but likely not with a second-rounder in the deal.) Two starting pieces instead of one. This is the approach Dallas needs to take this year -- finding a new starting offensive lineman in the first round and then looking for immediate contributors, on either line or at safety, in Rounds 2 and 3.
When they dealt away their second-round pick last year, a lot of Cowboys' fans said that was OK because they always mess up the second round anyway. But 2011's second-rounder was Bruce Carter and 2010's was Sean Lee. They also got DeMarco Murray in the third round in 2011. These are players on which they're attempting to build their future core, and it would be wise to keep in mind the value those picks (and those that follow them) have when things get hot and heavy tomorrow night and the temptation to grab a player they love overrides the value of the pick or picks needed to get him.
Remember, when we critique a draft in progress on this blog, we're not making predictions about how guys will play, because we can't and neither can anyone else. We're looking at the value of the picks and how they were used -- whether they could have waited until the fifth or sixth round for a guy they took in the fourth, for example. That's what you'll find here Thursday night through Saturday night, and we'll have a close eye on the Cowboys, of course, since this is a gigantic draft for them and they can't mess it up.
But McClure said it’s time to move on.
That means it also is time for the Falcons to move on. Replacing McClure’s leadership and experience won’t be easy. But the Falcons do have some other options at center and they’ve prepared for this moment by drafting Peter Konz and Joe Hawley in recent years.
The most likely scenario is Konz, who started at guard the second half of last season, shifting to center. That’s the position Konz played in college. If Konz makes the move, it could clear the way for Garrett Reynolds to move back in as a starting guard.
Reynolds began last season as a starter. But he suffered an injury and was replaced by Konz.
Final Atlanta 24 Jacksonville 14 Final Detroit 23 Buffalo 0 Final Indianapolis 7 Cincinnati 35 Final New York 7 Philadelphia 37 Final St. Louis 13 Miami 14 Final Kansas City 14 Green Bay 34 Final Carolina 10 Pittsburgh 0 Final New England 13 New York 16 Final Washington 24 Tampa Bay 10 Final Baltimore 22 New Orleans 13 Final Chicago 13 Cleveland 33 Final San Francisco 40 Houston 13 Final Minnesota 19 Tennessee 3 Final Denver 27 Dallas 3 Final Arizona 9 San Diego 12 Final Seattle 31 Oakland 41