NFL Stock Watch: Falcons struggles could linger

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer

It's a struggle for Atlanta these days.
It's a struggle for Atlanta these days. (USATSI)

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Is it too late to change my Super Bowl pick? I'll still take the Patriots but, man, does picking the Falcons to rep the NFC in New York look stupid now. That's OK, because Super Bowl picks are almost wrong. But there's nothing worse than picking a bad team to be really good. I expected a fallback from Atlanta, though: it's why I picked the Saints to win the division.

New Orleans is almost assuredly doing that now and Atlanta looks destined for a January at home. Health issues with Julio Jones -- likely a season-ending foot injury -- and Roddy White -- a hamstring injury that could cause him to miss several games -- are just the latest problems.

So how did the Falcons go from contending for the Super Bowl to contending for Jadeveon Clowney? The answer is simple -- injuries -- and complex -- roster development. Or lack thereof anyway.

Start with the aforementioned Jones. He cost the Falcons a pretty penny, with GM Thomas Dimitroff -- who is a very good, very smart football man -- burning two first-round picks, a second-round pick and a pair of fourth in order to skyrocket up the board and grab Jones. We all agree he "won" that trade in the sense that the Browns didn't end up acquiring much with the picks that Atlanta sent them.

But that's more a by-product of bad drafting from the Browns. Any time you take away an extra first-round pick from a roster, that roster is going to struggle.

Want a good example? Look at the wasteland that is the Redskins secondary right now. Robert Griffin III is a stud but he came at a cost. Same deal with Jones -- the Falcons might have the best wide receiver duo in the NFC, but they lack depth in other key areas.

Defensively, the Falcons haven't really recovered from the Ray Edwards debacle. (If only the Panthers hadn't offered Charles Johnson the key to the city of Charlotte ...) Osi Umenyiora's pair of sacks Monday aside, Atlanta doesn't have much of a pass rush and the front seven is particularly weak when you add in season-ending injuries to Kroy Bierrman and Sean Weatherspoon.

Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant will end up being very nice players but they're also rookies. Asante Samuel is a riverboat gambler who doesn't love to tackle. Dunta Robinson -- now with the Chiefs -- was a flop of a free-agent signing.

On that side of the ball, the formula is pretty simple. Take two big free-agent busts, add a lack of draft picks, stir in some serious injuries to bigger-name players and -- voila -- you have a terrible defense that ranks 31st in Football Outsiders defensive metrics five weeks in.

The offensive line is a bigger issue. Mike Johnson, supposed to replace Tyson Clabo, was out before the season began. Sam Baker, who signed a big contract to stick in Atlanta, hasn't been healthy. Jeremey Trueblood is prominently involved. Without any protection, Matt Ryan doesn't have to throw the ball deep. Credit Dirk Koetter for managing to keep Ryan a) alive and b) upright while also scoring points. But the Falcons haven't been the big-play offensive powerhouse we've come to expect. And that doesn't even touch on Steven Jackson's playing in just one game.

If everything was breaking right for Atlanta, they'd be neck-and-neck with the Saints in the NFC South. But it's not. Things are breaking ... mmmm ... badly right now. Are they guaranteed to suddenly flip back in 2014? I'm not so sure. Having a quarterback and talented wideouts can solve lots of issues. But a deficiency at various roster positions caused by free-agent whiffs and less high-end draft picks than normally expected will show up again next year.

Fortunately -- or not -- for the Falcons, they should have an organic opportunity to land a blue-chip prospect in a loaded 2014 draft. But right now? Their stock is plummeting.

Bull Market

Sheldon Richardson, DE, Jets -- After Monday night's mauling of Atlanta, I should probably put Muhammad Wilkerson here too, so consider him added. Richardson, though, is distinguishing himself as a viable Defensive Rookie of the Year. After picking up another sack Monday, Richardson is third among all rookies with 2.5 sacks on the season. Not too shabby from a 3-4 DE. He's a complete player, though: Richardson was stuffing runs all over the place, picking up a few tackles for loss and making plays on passes as well (I distinctly recall an athletic batting of one Matt Ryan pass). He's the complete package.

Terrelle Pryor, QB, Raiders -- If you were, ahem, lucky enough to stay up and watch the Oakland-San Diego matchup, you were actually treated to another impressive performance from Pryor, who's stepped in and given the Raiders at least one more win at this point than anyone thought they'd have. Going 18-for-23 for 221 yards and a pair of touchdowns, Pryor efficiently carved up the Chargers defense without having to really utilize his legs (he ran 11 times for just 31 yards) and giving hope to Raiders fans desperate for a franchise quarterback.

It's too early to definitively call Pryor a "franchise" quarterback. And Oakland could still end up stuck in no-man's land with him (the ultimate nightmare). But right now he's putting together some good games and salvaging what looked like a lost season from the get-go.

T.Y. Hilton, WR, Colts -- For whatever reason (probably pass blocking) the Colts felt like they're best served having Reggie Wayne and Darrius Heyward-Bey on the field as their two wideouts. Hilton, an electrifying playmaker and Andrew Luck's top deep threat, is starting to prove that notion ridiculous. Hilton was Luck's top target in Sunday's victory over Seattle, catching five passes for 140 yards two touchdowns.

Terrell Suggs, OLB, Ravens -- Suggs is a massive reason why the Ravens, who are struggling on offense, are still 3-2. The 2011 Defensive Player of the Year's piled up seven sacks on the season now in 2013 and is making mincemeat of opposing offensive tackles. His three sacks against the Dolphins has him on pace for a better season than he did when he picked up his hardware two years ago. He's clearly regained the explosiveness he was lacking last year after an offseason Achilles injury.

Alshon Jeffrey, WR, Bears -- The Bears didn't win Sunday but it's hard not to be excited about what their second-year wideout did. Jeffrey hauled in 10 passes for 218 receiving yards and a score and really established himself as a legitimate second target for Jay Cutler.

After an injury-plagued season, Jeffrey could be headed for a huge breakout. Let's not go giving him a bust in Canton just yet -- ahem, Brandon Marshall -- but with a motivated quarterback (contract year) and a willing offensive attack (thanks Marc Trestman), Jeffrey could be on his way to a big season.

Bear Market

Matt Schaub, QB, Texans -- There's really no reason for the Texans to consider benching Schaub. Yet, anyway. T.J. Yates isn't the answer. If he was then we'd already have an idea of that. Plus, Yates looked overwhelmed when Schaub was mercy-benched against the 49ers on Sunday night. The issue for the Texans is that their offensive playbook is too predictable. If opposing defenses guess the playcall coming correctly, they can jump on what's coming and take the ball to the house. Don't believe me? Remember this little ditty from Richard Sherman?

"I knew it was coming,” Sherman said. “I picked the same play against our scout team on Friday."

Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn specifically planned that play expecting Schaub to roll out and dump it in the flat. That's not on Schaub. But the bigger concern here is that he gets the permanent "yips" and isn't ever able to overcome his addiction to throwing interceptions that get taken to the house.

David Wilson/Lamar Miller, RBs, Giants/Dolphins -- Lumping these two guys together because they were supposed to break out in big ways for their respective squads, becoming the next generation of impressive running backs. Thus far, 2013 is a trainwreck for both. They've combined for 357 on 94 carries through five weeks to go along with three touchdowns. That's 3.8 yards a carry which somehow feels like a win? Wilson's already out for Week 6's Thursday night affair against Chicago and Miller is on bye. Miserable start for both guys, even if it's not all their fault (shoddy offensive line play definitely deserves some blame).

Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons: Ryan's playing just fine, but he's about to see a serious dip in his value. See: above.

Tavon Austin, WR, Rams: What's the deal here? Austin's got two touchdowns on the season but he only has 23 catches for 156 yards through five games. That's downright misuse of the player many people called the most explosive (and rightfully so) in the 2013 NFL Draft. Sam Bradford's been struggling and there's no better prescription for bad passes than short dumpoffs to a player of Austin's athleticism in space. It almost feels like the Rams don't know how to use him properly and that should make everyone who cares about exciting football very sad.

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