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Best Of 2014: Five Biggest Storylines of the Year

1. Jake Matthews Era Begins

Following the 2013 season, the Atlanta Falcons prioritized better protection for quarterback Matt Ryan, who was sacked 44 times during 2013. The team proved it by selecting rookie tackle Jake Matthews with the sixth-overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft. The son of Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Bruce Matthews, Jake Matthews began his NFL career at right tackle, before switching to the left tackle spot, replacing the injured Sam Baker in the preseason.

Matthews never looked back, owning the position, missing just one start in 16 games with an ankle injury. The 22-yeard old rookie showcased his talent early on, helping block for the Falcons offense that generated a franchise record 548 total yards in the Week 1 win against New Orleans. Falcons fans can trust that Matthews will provide the desired protection of Ryan's blindside for years to come.

2. Hester Headlines Free Agency Signings

The Falcons made a splash in the offseason, signing key free agents, headlined by all-world returner Devin Hester. Following a stellar eight years with the Chicago Bears, Hester joined the Falcons in March, boosting an already star-studded receiving corps. He made headlines with his return skills, highlighted by his 62-yard punt return score in Week 3, setting a new NFL record with 20-career return touchdowns. Hester also played a vital role as a receiver in 2014, finishing with 38 receptions for 504 yards and two scores, adding one 20-yard rushing touchdown as well.

Also included in the team's free agent class of 2014 were right guard Jon Asamoah, who joined the Falcons after four years with the Kansas City Chiefs. Asamoah started 15 games in 2014 and provided great mentorship to his younger linemen teammates, including rookie center James Stone and right tackle Ryan Schraeder.

Defensive end Tyson Jackson and defensive tackle Paul Soliai were also part of the new-look Falcons in 2014.

3. Julio Jones Returns

Following a foot injury in Week 5 of the 2013 season, Jones wasn't seen on the field again until 2014. The team's best wide receiver announced his comeback in a big way in Week 1, grabbing seven receptions for 116 yards in the Falcons' 37-34 win over New Orleans. Two weeks later, Jones scored two touchdowns in Atlanta's 56-14 defeat of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, finishing the game with nine receptions for 161 yards and the two scores.

Jones completed his comeback campaign in 2014 with a team-high 104 receptions for 1,593 yards. He was second to only Roddy White (7) with six touchdown receptions this season.

4. Hard Knocks Comes to Flowery Branch

Atlanta Falcons Owner and Chairman Arthur Blank made it very clear in the offseason that he's all about the fans, evidenced by featuring his team on the HBO Sports award-winning documentary series "Hard Knocks."

"This marks the first time that our franchise will be featured on Hard Knocks, and we look forward to showcasing our great players and coaches to football fans all across America," Blank said at the time.

The Falcons teamed with HBO Sports and NFL Films to provide fans with an all-access look at what it takes to make it in the National Football League. Hour-long episodes ran every Tuesday night from Aug. 5 to Sept. 2, featuring on and off-the-field looks at the Falcons players, including a bowling competition between Falcons wide receivers White, Jones and Harry Douglas.

5. Added Toughness of Bryan Cox and Mike Tice

Not only did the Falcons sign key free agents in the offseason, they added toughness and experience to their coaching staff as well. Mike Tice and Bryan Cox were brought in to utilize their coaching and playing experience for improvements on the offensive and defensive lines.

Tice brought 17 years of NFL coaching experience to the Falcons, including seven seasons as an offensive line coach. He ensured the Falcons offensive line had depth at each position, helping overcome several injuries (Sam Baker, Joe Hawley, Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes) throughout the season. The Falcons used 15 different combinations of offensive linemen during the 2014 season and most of those combinations found success with Tice leading the way.

Cox brought eight years of NFL coaching experience to Atlanta, delivering the same energy and enthusiasm to the meeting room and sideline as he did in his 12 years as a linebacker in the NFL. Falcons players praised Cox for his bold and blunt personality, which was spotlighted in the No. 4 storyline on this list.

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