Three Burning Questions
How good is Michael Vick going to be this year?
Better. Let's just leave it at that. His wide receivers should help him more than ever as they mature. His accuracy almost has to improve from last year, as does his comfort level in Jim Mora's system. Atlanta will continue to be a heavy run-first attack and won't ask Vick to do more than he is capable. Staying healthy will be of the utmost importance.
Getting back Edgerton Hartwell and adding Lawyer Milloy are certain improvements over who Atlanta was playing with last season in the middle of its defense, but the defensive front just doesn't have the power and size to slow down the likes of Cadillac Williams and DeShaun Foster play after play and week after week. Teams are going to run up the middle, run up the middle and then run up the middle again until the Falcons prove they can bang with the big boys. Even if Vick improves, Atlanta's run defense may be the weakness it just can't overcome, especially later in the year as injuries take their toll and fatigue becomes more of an issue.
How much of a difference will John Abraham make?
Against the pass, Abraham will make a tremendous difference. He is a pass rusher who demands extra attention from opposing offenses' protections schemes. The problem with doubling Abraham is that Patrick Kerney is a fine pass rusher in his own right. Blocking these two while keeping Rod Coleman at bay inside is going to prove extremely difficult, especially with the less-than-ordinary offensive tackles division rivals New Orleans and Tampa Bay will be playing with this season. Yes, Abraham is going to change a few games very quickly and will demand special attention, but his addition also makes a light-in-pants defensive front even lighter. If Atlanta can't slow down the run game and Abraham is forced to take on 320-pound offensive tackles coming off the ball right at him play after play, his pass rushing talents could be neutralized in a hurry.
The player under the microscope
Vick. This is a no-brainer for this category. Vick is always under a high-powered microscope. There is no reason to get into the rare talents that Vick possesses because you all understand those by now. The question is: Why isn't Vick a great quarterback yet? It appeared that Vick made little progress in his quest to be great last season, but he battled injury more so than was made public. Yes, his accuracy last season was abysmal at times, but that second season in this offense had to be a great learning tool -- even if it was for Vick to realize what not to do. He needs to stay healthy for a whole season, let the game come to him and simply throw the football better. He is certainly capable.
Second-year WR Roddy White. White turned it on at the end of his rookie season and has the tools to become one of the most dangerous wide receivers in the league. He has very good size, a strong thick build and elite deep speed. Usually it takes wide receivers three years before they really begin to emerge, but remember, White came from a small school (Alabama-Birmingham) and became a force by just the end of his rookie season. At that rate, look out for 2006. Of course he still needs to work on the finer points of the position, but he could develop into a true No. 1 receiver by midseason.
Comeback player of the year
Hartwell. After the 2004 season, the Falcons spent big money to acquire the services of Hartwell. He played just five games last year before tearing his Achilles' tendon. His recovery has reportedly progressed nicely and the Falcons need him to return in a big way. Atlanta was gashed up the middle in the run game and Hartwell is the ideal interior run defender to remedy the problem. Atlanta's defense isn't lacking for athletic ability and speed, but powerful run defenders are difficult to find on this unit. With Hartwell coming back to man the middle, Keith Brooking can move to his more natural outside linebacker spot. Hartwell's return will upgrade two linebacker positions on the Falcons' defense -- especially against the run. The question is whether it will be enough if the defensive line is getting pushed around at the point of attack?
The Falcons are a heavy run-first team that relies on similar zone blocking techniques as the vaunted Denver Broncos' attack. Although their offensive line isn't overly talented, they are well schooled and return four starters. Warrick Dunn's backup is now muddled and there will competition for that spot in training camp, but Dunn looks as good as ever although he needs help carrying the load. Few teams run the ball as well as the Falcons. They will utilize multiple ball carriers, including Vick on designed and impromptu runs, to wear defenses down and draw an extra defender into the box. In the passing game, Mora wants to get the ball out of Vick's hands quickly and utilize the terrific size of his pass catchers and lighten the mental load on Vick. Although Vick has yet to prove he can be an accurate deep ball thrower, expect a few more go routes and deep posts to utilize the long speed of Michael Jenkins and particularly Roddy White while keeping defenses more honest against the run.
This is an attacking defense that has the luxury of having one of the true shutdown cornerbacks in DeAngelo Hall and a very athletic front seven, particularly across the defensive front. Although Hall is a budding superstar, the rest of the secondary was suspect last season. Although much needed reinforcements were added to the secondary, don't expect the Falcons to blitz an awful lot or tax this group more than necessary. The beauty of this philosophy for Atlanta is the pass rushers they have up front. Coleman might be the best interior pass rusher in the game, Kerney remains very productive and Abraham will make NFC South quarterbacks wish he never came to Atlanta. The return of Hartwell will help shore up a porous run defense, but the Falcons desperately miss an interior lineman to command a double team in the run game and be a fire plug inside -- especially with the quality running backs in their division.
Matt Williamson was a scout for the Cleveland Browns in 2004. He spent the previous three years as a recruiting assistant at the University of Pittsburgh.