Throughout the offseason, I will be fielding your questions about all things Falcons and trying to give you the best answers I can. If you would like to submit a question to be included in the Friday Mailbag, check out my profile on Formspring.me. If you asked a question this week and don't see the answer below, fear not. They may appear in future mailbag posts.
Q: It seems the Super Bowl teams for the past 10 years or more rarely have a single, dominant running back. They use the RB by committee approach. Do the Falcons need to rethink their position on this to "Rise UP" to the next level?
A: This is a great question and a fantastic observation. It certainly does seem to be a trend in the league. More and more, teams seem to going to a RB-by-committee offensive philosophy, and it appears that many of the teams enjoying top success have not had that one true every-down back. The Giants run with Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs; The Packers with Ryan Grant and James Starks; The Saints with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush at the time of their Super Bowl win. And that's just a small sampling of teams that have gotten away from the feature back concept. I think we're starting to see the Falcons toy with the idea with Jacquizz Rodgers being drafted by the team last year, but it certainly hasn't shifted overnight. As long as Devonta Freeman is around, he will be the Falcons' feature back when we're referring to the number of carries each of the running backs get. However, we saw in 2011 where Rodgers' touches increased as the season went on and he became more accustomed to the offense. Jason Snelling, a free agent this year, has seen a good amount of carries in his time as Turner's backup, but Turner is the man in Atlanta at the running back position and he'll always see the majority of the carries. One of the biggest things to remember about Turner is that he's not your traditional running back approaching 30 years old. If you take a look around league history, running backs at or around 30 tend to have a drop off in production — and, more than any other position, it tends to be dramatic. Turner, however, is in a much different scenario. Yes, he's getting up into an age where running backs tend to lose some of their game, but if you remember the early part of Turner's career, you'll recall that he wasn't a feature back in San Diego. He played behind LaDainian Tomlinson, who received more than his share of carries during Turner's tenure with the Chargers. That means the Turner never sustained the type or number of hits that most running backs do in the early stages of their pro careers. We've seen Turner be nothing but productive during his time in Atlanta, consistently near the top of the league in rushing yardage. And in 2011, that was certainly true as Turner finished No. 3 in rushing and chipped in 11 touchdowns. With Rodgers now having a year under his belt, we'll likely see a lot more of him as the change-of-pace back he was drafted to be, but it likely won't be enough to term it a by-committee offense.
Q: What is the offensive line coach going to do to get the line to protect Matt Ryan and open holes for the running game?
A: One thing you can expect from new offensive line coach Pat Hill is a strong focus on this issue. The offensive line experienced inconsistency early on as the personnel changed several times. The unit found some stability later in the season and actually became quite a strength as Ryan wasn't hit nearly as much. Hill has an impressive football resume that includes 15 years as a college head coach. Before that, he got some experience as an offensive line coach for the Browns and Ravens. From all indication, Hill is an old-school, tough football coach whose specialty is putting together strong offensive lines. Working alongside offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, Hill will find the right personnel for the right positions to make sure that the trenches are secure to allow Ryan to succeed in the pocket and for Turner to find holes in the running game. The coaching staff has been looking at every possible angle, evaluating all aspects of the team and football operations to determine the best solution for any problem that may be out there, and you can rest assured that due diligence will be served at the offensive line positions.
Q: With Eric Weems being a free agent, we may need a return man. Brandon Boykin is about the best return man in the draft. He also is a very solid corner. Why are the Falcons not projected to draft him in some mocks? He's being projected to fall that far.
A: Mock drafts can be a lot of fun to look at during this time of year. Heck, we do quite a bit of it around here, too. But I can't answer why mocks haven't chosen him for the Falcons in the second round because, well, that's up to the creators of the mocks. I will say that Boykin is certainly a strong talent in this year's draft at the cornerback position, as well as return positions. Right now, however, there's a bit of uncertainty at where he'll fall among the mocks. I've seen some mocks that have him falling to the third round, in which case, if the Falcons had interest in him, they could snag him there. The Combine has a way of clearing these types of things up. If Boykin goes in and has a great performance at the Combine, we could see him become a definite second-rounder and perhaps see more projections of him coming here. But more than anything, free agency will tell the tale of the Boykin-to-Atlanta story. What the Falcons do in free agency will dictate what they'll need in the draft, so sit tight. Things could look different once we get past March.
Q: Do you think there is any chance the Falcons get crazy and try to trade into the first round?
A: As we go through the first round this year, that's a thought that will be in the back of a lot of fans' minds. The Falcons certainly caught a lot of people off guard in last year's draft when they gave up four picks to move into the top 10 to snag Julio Jones. At the time, people thought it was very uncharacteristic of the current front office regime, but as we saw during the 2011 season, the move paid dividends on the field with Jones' rookie performance. The question will linger from here until the draft: Will Thomas Dimitroff swing a deal to get back into the first? Not to keep anyone in suspense, but again, this is a front office that looks over every scenario that could potentially come up and I'm sure getting back into the first round is one they'll go over plenty of times before the draft comes in April.
Q: Lawrence Sidbury was very productive with limited snaps. Do you think that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will increase his playing time with a new defensive scheme?
A: This will be a big year for Sidbury. With the opportunities he's had in his short career, he definitely seems to make the most of them. We saw in 2010 where Sid was frequently on the inactive list, but in 2011, he was active for every game and contributed quite a bit — quietly. He had a monster game against Minnesota, but other than that, his progression and production were mostly hushed despite putting up decent numbers for the amount of time he was playing. Sidbury played 220 snaps in 2011 and recorded three sacks, two QB hits and 12 pressures. Let's play with those numbers, shall we? Sidbury managed to get one QB pressure for every 18.3 snaps he played in 2011. Compare that to Vic Beasley Jr., the Falcons' leading defensive end last season, and the numbers aren't all that far off. Abraham produced one pressure in every 17.25 snaps he played. So, while Sid's overall number of snaps paled in comparison to Abraham's, he was able to produce at about the same clip. Nolan's defensive scheme is a work-in-progress as he continues to go over the Falcons' personnel and evaluate the talent he has to work with, so it's too soon to tell if Sid could see more snaps next season. But the arrow has certainly been pointing up for him and next season will be one where he could really prove himself.