by John Huffstetler
Key Free Agents: DE John Abraham, DE Kroy Biermann, WR Eric Weems, WR Harry Douglas, CB Brent Grimes, LB Curtis Lofton, C Todd McClure, CB Kelvin Hayden, S Thomas DeCoud, S James Sanders
Resign Several Key Players
The Falcons most important task this off-season is to resign several essential players who are unrestricted free agents. 6 of their top 9 tacklers on defense are currently unsigned, including starters John Abraham, Brent Grimes, Curtis Lofton, and Thomas DeCoud. The Falcons might be better off letting Abraham walk because of his age (33) and high price tag, but Lofton and Grimes are crucial to their defensive success. 2011 Pro Bowl Special Teamer Eric Weems must be resigned as well, as he is one of the best special teams players in the league. Kroy Biermann would be a great replacement in the starting line-up at DE in place of Abraham, plus Biermann has incentive to stay in Atlanta because his wife is on the "Real Housewives of Atlanta" on Bravo. WR Harry Douglas should remain with the team as well in the 3rd-WR role. Without a first-round draft pick, their offseason will hinge on their ability to resign their crucial free agents.
Run-Blocking on the Offensive Line and an every-down RB to replace Turner
The Falcons ranked 21st in the league in yards per rush at 4.0 and they ranked 17th in rush yards per game at 114.6. The Falcons season hinged on two key games: The OT loss at Home to New Orleans, and the Playoff loss at the Giants. In both of these games, the Falcons failed to convert on critical 4th down plays of less than a yard. The failure on these plays ruined their season. The o-line simply did not create holes for the Falcons running game to get to the second level, and when they did, RB Michael Turner was incapable of breaking long runs. Turner's nickname of "Burner" from his college days at Northern Illinois is now simply ironic. He is approaching 30 and the Falcons need to address the running back position in this coming draft. Quizz Rodgers was a great pick up last season, but he is not the every down back Atlanta needs to replace Turner. The offensive line needs to get better as well. Adding a right guard who can block effectively in the running game through draft or free agency would benefit the Falcons greatly next season.
For two consecutive years in the playoffs, the Falcons' pass defense has failed to limit the opposing offense in the passing game. Against Green Bay in 2010, Aaron Rodgers embarrassed nickel corner Chris Owens, and last year against the Giants, starting CB Brent Grimes missed the game and Kelvin Hayden and Owens could not adequately replace him. Adding a strong nickel corner and either a safety or dime corner would help solidify the secondary against the NFC's pass-heavy offenses.
New Orleans Saints
Key Free Agents: QB Drew Brees, WR Marques Colston, WR Robert Meachem, G Carl Nicks, CB Tracy Porter
Figure out the WR Position
The Saints have two key FA's at WR in Colston and Meachem, and they must first decide what to do with these two players. Should they lose one or both players via free agency, they will need to acquire a big target at receiver for Drew Brees (who will almost assuredly remain a Saint). Colston is especially significant to their offensive success, and if he leaves, the Saints will need to address the WR position early in the draft. Here is a list of the Top 10 prospects at WR from January.
Outside Linebacker Help
Scott Shanle and Jo-Lonn Dunbar did not produce at an above-average level this season as the Saints starting OLB's. Shanle is now 32 years old, and while Dunbar, Jonathan Casillas, and Martez Wilson are moderately capable young players, the Saints should look to upgrade the position through the draft or free agency.
Pass Rushing Defensive Ends
Despite their defensive desire to bring extra pressure on the QB, the Saints recorded only 33 sacks this past season, tied for 19th in the league. Their leading sacker last year was Safety Roman Harper with 7.5, and their d-line was only responsible for 16.5 sacks on the year. At the very least, they should add a 3rd-down pass rushing specialist to generate better pressure on passing downs from the defensive front. They have several young players at the position that are yet to produce, so the Saints should look to fulfill this need through a veteran in free agency.
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