Free agency is just less than a month away and that is the official beginning of the 2014 NFL season. For Falcons, the new season can’t come soon enough. There is a lot we don’t know about what 2014 holds, but there are some reasons to be excited, maybe even love about the upcoming season. In honor of Cupids everywhere, and in lieu of chocolates, I give you 14 things to love about the 2014 Falcons season.
1) Back to Winning: Hey, 2013 was hard. In the Mike Smith era, the Falcons have only known winning and last year was the first year many on the roster have ever spent losing in the NFL. A bounce-back season will be anticipated for the Falcons this year after beginning last season with Super Bowl aspirations. They may start the year under the radar, but all year they’ll be seeking to, as Smith always says, be relevant in December.
2) Julio Returns: Everyone’s favorite bionic wide receiver should be set to return next year. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said in January Julio Jones will be all systems go for 2014 and we’ll all have Jones’ new year of highlight reel catches to look forward to.
3) Renewed Run Game: What’s not to love about a good running game? The last two seasons have seen Atlanta’s run game taper off, but offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter recently said the Falcons want to commit to the run game more in 2014. In 2008, behind the No. 2 rushing attack in the NFL, the Falcons surprised everyone when they made the playoffs with a rookie at quarterback and an entirely new Falcons squad. A running game like that would look good paired with the kind of offense Matt Ryan operates now heading into his seventh NFL season.
4) Year 2 of Worrilow: The legend of Paul Worrilow will no doubt continue next season. After posting eye-popping tackle numbers when he started playing full time in Week 7, Worrilow has given the Falcons a reason for optimism on defense next year. He’s selfless, productive and kind of a cult hero and he may be headed for a little more than the All-Joe Team in 2014.
5) New Trenches Mentality: The additions of new line coaches Bryan Cox and Mike Tice coincide with Dimitroff’s stated desire to become more rugged in the trenches. Cox and Tice are expected to bring a new level of competitiveness to the Falcons lines and will have input on some of the new players that are anticipated to be added on both sides of the ball.
6) No. 6 Pick: The last time the Falcons had a top-10 pick was 2008 when they selected Ryan. In 2011, they pulled off the move of the draft, moving from No. 26 to No. 6 to select Jones. It’s unclear what the Falcons may do with the sixth overall pick this year, but they’re in position to select one of the best players in the draft and hopefully land a cornerstone piece to improve the Falcons.
7) Trufant and Alford Together: Desmond Trufant put together a rookie season that got him some recognition and he’ll continue to make a name for himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the league in Year 2. His counterpart, Robert Alford, started the final four games of the season opposite Trufant and with those two on the field, the future on the outside of the defense looks promising.
8) London: In Week 8, the Falcons will travel to London to host the Lions in the second of three international games played in 2014 in London, England. Tickets have already gone on sale and as the Falcons family has grown internationally over the years, a lot of fans in red and black are expected to flock to Wembley Stadium for a true once-in-a-lifetime game.
9) Nolan, Year Three: The last time Mike Nolan was a defensive coordinator entering his third season in position with the same team, it was 2004. That was the third and final year Nolan coordinated the defense for the Baltimore Ravens before becoming head coach in San Francisco. Nolan served two stints as DC in Denver and Miami following his head coaching job, but never spent more than two seasons in place because of head coaching changes. In that third year in Baltimore, Nolan directed a defense that finished No. 8 against the run and No. 10 against the pass. Nolan continues to coach a defense that is growing in experience in his system and while an ’04-like Ravens defense is an ambitious expectation, it’s fair to assume improvements will come.
10) Hybrid Biermann: Last season was the year of expectations for Kroy Biermann in what appeared to be a new role on defense. Biermann was expected to step into a hybrid linebacker role in Nolan’s defense and serve as a do-everything player that would help Nolan disguise his defensive intentions. Before the season barely even began, Biermann was out for all of it with an Achilles injury, but he said in December that he’ll be back to 100 percent and ready to pick up the pads in 2014.
11) Youth Movement: In 2013, injuries put a lot of rookies on the field unexpectedly. The Falcons led the league in rookie snaps last season and that experience is nothing but helpful as they look to improve in the upcoming season. In the final game of 2013, the Falcons started 10 players who were rookies or second-year players. While all of them may not be starters next season, they will provide needed depth. Additions to both sides of the ball will be made in the draft and while the Falcons won’t be the youngest team in the league next year, they’ll have hungry and youthful depth all over the roster.
12) Free Agency: It may be a bit much to expect the Falcons to make a big splash in free agency this year, but in every offseason under Dimitroff, the Falcons have attempted to improve their roster with a veteran trade acquisition or free agent signing. Some deals have worked out better than others, but one thing has been consistent since 2008: the Falcons use free agency to touch up the roster.
13) Franchise Records: The 2014 season should mark the passing of the torch in the Falcons franchise record books to two of their most recent superstars. Ryan is one passing touchdown shy of tying Steve Bartkowski for the all-time franchise lead. Wide receiver Roddy White is two receiving touchdowns short of tying Terance Mathis in the record books.
14) Falcon Induction: The Hall of Fame welcomes its second Falcons Ring of Honor member this year when Claude Humphrey is enshrined in August. The first Ring of Honor member, Deion Sanders, was enshrined in 2011. Humphrey enters the hall as the Falcons all-time sack leader, joined in his class by Michael Strahan, Derrick Brooks, Walter Jones, Aeneas Williams, Andre Reed and Ray Guy.