Matt Ryan had a solid season in 2012 (USA Today Sports Images)
After taking a few days to focus on the 2013 NFL scouting combine, "Shutdown Corner" resumes our look back at each team's 2012 season and a look at what lies ahead for the 2013 offseason. We continue in the NFC South with the Atlanta Falcons
2012 record: 13-3
What went wrong: Well, the final 44 minutes and 54 seconds of the 2012 NFC championship game immediately comes to mind when looking at what went wrong for the 2012 Atlanta Falcons.
Atlanta dominated the San Francisco 49ers for the first 15 minutes and six seconds of that game with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones connecting on a pair of touchdown passes to give the Falcons a 17-0 lead that had the Georgia Dome rocking. After that, it was all 49ers, who scored two touchdowns in the second quarter to trail 24-14 at the half before Frank Gore had a pair of rushing touchdowns in the second half to stamp their ticket to Super Bowl XLVII.
The Falcons were a bit of a bend, but don't break defense, ranking 24th in total defense – 21st against the run and 23rd against the pass. The pass defense was not helped having cornerback Brent Grimes, who received the $10.281 million franchise tag, on injured reserve for nearly the entire season after sustaining an Achilles injury after 52 snaps.
A weak spot of the pass defense was their ability to defend opposing tight ends, ranking 21st in Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) against tight ends. That deficiency was evident in the playoffs as Seattle Seahawks tight end Zach Miller caught eight passes for 142 yards and a touchdown in a 30-28 win in the divisional round, which was followed by Vernon Davis catching five passes for 106 yards and a touchdown in the NFC championship game
Atlanta's offense was rather one-dimensional, relying heavily on Ryan and the passing game. The Falcons averaged just 87.3 yards per game on the ground.
What went right: Ryan had a phenomenal season, completing 68.6 percent of 615 pass attempts for 4,719 yards with 32 touchdowns and a passer rating of 99.1. According to Football Outsiders, Ryan was fifth among NFL quarterbacks in passing DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) last season. Ryan's season was marred by two miserable performances at home. First came a three-interception game against the Oakland Raiders on Oct. 14 and the second was a five-interception showing against the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 18. Other than those two games, Ryan was intercepted six times on the season.
Ryan's top three targets were wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, who combined for 171 receptions, 2,549 yards and 17 touchdowns. White and Jones each had over 1,100 receiving yards and were among the Top 12 receivers in FO's DYAR metric. Future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez led the Falcons with 93 receptions, gaining 930 yards and eight touchdowns. Of Gonzalez's 93 receptions, 65 produced first downs, which helps explain why he was second among NFL tight ends in FO's receiving DYAR.
The Falcons produced just 29 sacks, but 34-year-old defensive end John Abraham was his disruptive self. Abraham had 10 sacks and six forced fumbles, earning a $1 million base salary increase for the 2013 season. Atlanta was one of six NFL defenses to produce 20 or more interceptions. Safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore combined for 10 of the Falcons' interception total and were added to the NFC Pro Bowl squad following the loss to the 49ers in the NFC championship game.
Coaching/front office changes: All three of Mike Smith's coordinators – Dirk Koetter, Mike Nolan and Keith Armstrong – received interest for head coaching vacancies, but the staff remains intact heading into 2013. One key departure was director of college scouting David Caldwell, who is now the GM of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Estimated 2013 cap space: $4.3 million
Possible cap casualties: The most likely cap casualty is also one of the best free agent signings in franchise history. Michael Turner signed a six-year, $34.5 million contract with the Falcons in 2008 and, over the last five seasons, has rushed for 6,081 yards, which ranks second in Falcons' history (Gerald Riggs is No. 1 with 6,631 yards) and is the Falcons' all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (60) and total touchdowns (61). Turner triggered a $1.4 million base salary escalator over the 2010-11 seasons that increases his salary to $6.9 million and cap number to $8.9 million for the 2013 season, which is simply too much for a 31-year-old running back whose yards per carry average dropped by nearly a full yard in 2012. Releasing Turner would save $6.9 million in cash and cap space, or essentially gives the Falcons the means to re-sign Gonzalez and have a little cash and cap room left over.
Additional Falcons over the age of 30 who could have their contracts tinkered with this offseason include Abraham, Dunta Robinson, Asante Samuel, Tyson Clabo and Jonathan Babineaux.
Unrestricted free agents
Sam Baker, OT
Mike Cox, FB
Tony Gonzalez, TE
Brent Grimes, CB
Chris Hope, S
Todd McClure, OC
Luke McCown, QB
William Moore, S
Christopher Owens, CB
Mike Peterson, LB
Garrett Reynolds, OL
Lawrence Sidbury, DE
Will Svitek, OT
Vance Walker, DT
Restricted free agents
Michael Palmer, TE
Antone Smith, RB
RFA tender amounts in 2013 are:
• $1.323 million for right of first refusal and/or original draft round compensation
• $2.023 for right of first refusal and second round draft selection
• $2.879 for right of first refusal and first round draft selection
Franchise Tag candidates: The Falcons franchised Grimes in 2012, but he last just 52 plays before tearing his Achilles' tendon. A second tag for Grimes would cost the Falcons $12.337 million this season, which is not going to happen. The Falcons would like to hang onto Gonzalez, but he remains uncertain about whether or not he'll play this season. Additionally, while the franchise tag for a tight end will be a little under, or a little north, of $6 million (depending on the official league-wide salary cap number), to franchise Gonzalez would cost $7.099 million, a 20 percent over his $5.915 million cap number from 2012.
The player Atlanta may strong consider franchising is safety William Moore, who had 75 tackles, one sack and four interceptions and was added to the NFC Pro Bowl squad. The franchise tag for a safety has an estimated value of around $6.9 million in 2013, which is a lot of money for one season of a player with durability issues. Moore has missed 22 games during his four-year career and has only one full season (2010) on his resume.
Previous installments of the "Offseason TPS Reports" series:
AFC East: New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns
AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans
AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos
NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers
NFC South: Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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