Going into training camp, there are always a lot of question marks for a team in a rebuilding phase. The 2008 Atlanta Falcons are no exception. Will Matt Ryan start week 1? Is Sam Baker an elite (or even starting) left tackle at the NFL level? Looking beyond these common questions, however, lies another set of questions, the resolution to which will go as far as any other in determining the Falcons success in 2008 and beyond. These questions revolve around the guys you haven’t heard much about. That you haven’t heard about them is the scary part.
The June 11th cut of Jimmy Williams should have been alarming news to Falcons fans. While Williams was not a playmaker—or even a starter—his removal from the roster highlights an increasing trend toward the marginalization of what has turned out to be a disastrous 2006 draft class. The Falcons had five picks in 2006, who should be coming into their own over the next two years, entering their third and fourth years in the league. Instead, a team that is already in heavy-duty rebuilding mode owing to the loss of key high-profile veterans in the offseason finds itself lacking in a young core, as well. Absent prominent contribution from the class of 2006, the Falcons rebuilding efforts look more insurmountable than ever.
Cornerback Jimmy Williams headlined of the class in 2006, and the Birds thought they got him for a steal. He fell out of the first round—for reasons now evident—and the Falcons landed him with their first pick, 37th overall. Williams, however, lacked the hip fluidity to turn and run with wide receivers in the NFL, and he was soon moved to safety. But even at safety, he struggled in pass coverage, and at 6’3” 212 lbs, he lacked the bulk to get up in the box and stuff the run. After a final run last season as the third safety on the depth chart, he was released in June. Because Williams couldn’t produce, the holes at corner and safety both loom larger. At safety, the team had to scramble to sign the 30-year-old Deke Cooper to a one-year deal. He may be a stopgap player, but at his age, Cooper’s not part of any rebuilding plan. That means that that hole will loom large again one year from now.
Jerious Norwood is by far the biggest hit of the 2006 draft. Unlike Williams, Norwood has shown explosivity on the field, compiling 202 carries for 1246 yards and three touchdowns since he was drafted. Initially Norwood was thought to be the second coming of Warrick Dunn, a quick, small, one-cut runner in the zone blocking scheme installed by Alex Gibbs. However, since Norwood’s arrival, Alex Gibbs has left, and the team has moved away from zone blocking in favor of a power running game. While Norwood should continue to see plenty of field time in a complimentary role, Michael Turner was brought in to be the feature back, and any expectation that the organization found a starting back in the third round in 2006 seems less and less likely to be fulfilled.
The later rounds in the draft yielded offensive tackle Quinn Ojinnaka, wide receiver Adam Jennings, and quarterback DJ Shockley. Ojinnaka was a bust at tackle and now spends his time providing organizational depth at guard for what amounts to a sub par offensive line. Had Ojinnaka stepped up at tackle, even as a developmental prospect, the Falcons would have had more options to protect Matt Ryan’s blindside going into the 2008 draft, leaving them free to keep the two second round picks they traded this year so they could reach—yes reach—for a major need in Sam Baker. Jennings remains buried so deeply on the depth chart I had to double check to make sure he hadn’t been cut while I was looking the other way. Shockley will never be a starter. He lacks ideal height and pocket presence, and he is recovering from ACL surgery. It is unlikely that he’ll make it out of camp.
The 2006 draft can only be considered a large blunder on the part of then-GM Rich McKay. It leaves the Falcons this year with major holes that should not exist. After the offseason departures of Alge Crumpler, Warrick Dunn, Byron Leftwich, DeAngelo Hall and others, fans knew to expect rebuilding at the positions that these veterans occupied. Fans also expected that the new players would have growing pains emerging into the starting roles these veterans filled. But the fact that an entire generation of those new players has failed to make an impact makes the rebuilding effort a Herculean task. The Holes at tackle, cornerback, safety, quarterback, running back, and wide receiver are all worse than they should be, and the team has had to expend even more of its limited capital to re-address them. Quite suddenly, “rebuilding” sounds less like a cute term for a team coming off a bad season and more like an impassable barrier to ever having a good season again.