Dec, 11, 2011; Charlotte, NC, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) scores a touchdown as Carolina Panthers cornerback Darius Butler (27) and free safety Sherrod Martin (23) defend in the fourth quarter. The Falcons defeated the panthers 31-23 at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-US PRESSWIRE

Franchise Development 2 of 32: Atlanta Falcons

After starting this particular series looking at the Arizona Cardinals, next in the Alphabet Soup is probably the Panthers’ biggest rival: the Atlanta Falcons. How have they changed since last season?

First of all, looking at their draft, it appears they really wanted to shore up the offensive line and help the ground game. Lacking a first-round pick due to the Julio Jones trade (the Cleveland Browns took QB Brandon Weeden with the Falcons’ would-be 2012 first-round selection) last year, they spent their 2nd, 3rd, and 5th round picks on a guard, a tackle, and a fullback (lead-blocker).

With a young Field General in Matt Ryan and two of the top 30 or so WRs in the league, they have a good nucleus of talent at the skill positions on offense. Tony Gonzalez is turning 57 or so this summer but still manages to produce and was even signed to another offseason contract. WR Harry Douglas helps round out the 3rd WR spot, giving them a top-ten WR trio.

The Falcons organization tends to take care of their own better than most, and this does two things: It helps to keep things coherent from one season to the next and instills a sense of loyalty in their players – both of which are good for the franchise. The Powers That Be have been somewhat rewarded with consecutive playoff appearances, only to be trounced and booted out in their first game.

Clearly, Matt Ryan needs to lead the team to a playoff win in order for him to even be thought about in the same conversation with “elite” quarterbacks, but he’s better than most and should be entrenched for years to come. But what else have they done?

First, they let their MLB from 2011, Curtis Lofton go in Free Agency. But I just SAID “they take care of their own!” Yes, within reason they do. Retaining him would have been rather expensive and he’s not a 3- or 4-down MLB. In the pass-happy NFL, you really need an MLB that can cover as well as tackle. Lofton’s a solid and durable player, but with limited upside after 4 years in the NFL. LB Sean Weatherspoon, the Falcons’ top pick in 2010, should step in as their captain and they signed former Pro-bowler Lofa Tatupu to replace him. Upgrade.

They also let some special teams players go, but that shouldn’t hurt them. The guys they did let go are replaceable. The special teamers they kept, Michael Palmer and Antoine Smith, were the cornerstone players up for contracts and got them. They also re-signed the President, guard Andrew Jackson, for depth and to keep some of that cohesiveness on offense. Expect Wisconsin rookie Peter Konz to take over at one guard spot pretty quickly. A few others, like backup QB Chris Redman, signed for the veteran minimum to stay in Atlanta.

THAT is what loyalty can do as well – help you stay cap-friendly. Harry Douglas most likely could have gotten more money in Free Agency as well.

Others they re-signed include C Todd “Mad Duck” McClure, DT Vance Walker, and DE John Abraham – keeping that continuity theme going on both lines. Again, Abraham could have gone elsewhere for more, but signed a 3-year contract making about $5 million per season.

Whew! The Falcons had twenty players – a third of their roster – up for free agency or new contracts and the brass kept those they felt they had to or did so for depth purposes.

This is the main reason why Atlanta will once again be at or near the top of the standings in the NFC South in 2012. Keep an eye on them as they go through their mini camp next week. Pay special attention to the offensive line, running game, and how the mixture of rookies and veteran signees mesh.

As of now, I don’t see any fall-off at all in the Falcons’ level of talent. In fact, they’ve gotten a little better and that’s a scary thought.

Overall, I’d rate them one step forward.

Next up: the Baltimore Ravens

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Tags: Atlanta Falcons Brandon Weeden Chris Redman Harry Douglas John Abraham Julio Jones Matt Ryan Michael Palmer Peter Konz Sean Weatherspoon Todd McClure Tony Gonzalez Vance Walker

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