Every season each team has a few players who unexpectedly make that jump from a guy on the team to an impact player, and every season each team has a few players who need to make that jump to keep their jobs. The Falcons have had their share of players in the last few years - Brent Grimes, Jason Snelling, Corey Peters - who have stepped up when the team needed them most, and there are sure to be more in the upcoming season. On the flip side, Atlanta has also had it's share of draft disappointments who are going to be heavily scrutinized during the upcoming training camp.
Starting with the latter, there are a few guys who have yet to live up to the high expectations the Falcons had when they were drafted. Offensive tackle Sam Baker has yet to deliver on the promise he showed when the Falcons took him in the first round of the draft in 2008. Baker is not only going to have to show the coaches that he can play up to the level needed, but also that his chronically injured back will stand up through an entire NFL season. Frankly, I think the likelihood of either is pretty slim. Likewise, defensive tackle Peria Jerry is going to have to convince Smitty and his staff that he has overcome his injury-plagued three year start in Atlanta. I think both of those guys are on the short list for "fish or cut bait" with the Falcons.
Another guy who might need to really take mental stock of his game plays in the much maligned Atlanta secondary. During this offseason, the Falcons have resigned two key starters in the secondary - safety Thomas DeCoud and cornerback Brent Grimes. This means that fourth year corner Christopher Owens is going to really have to step up his game if he wants to make this team. Owens played in 14 games in 2011 (starting in two of them) and needs to be depended on to relieve Brent Grimes when called on.
As for guys who I look to step up without any prodding from the coaching staff, I'll look to the secondary again. Cornerback Dominique Franks showed some real flashes of greatness in 2011, and I see him really breaking out and showing what he can do this season. He's got great closing speed and puts out his maximum effort anytime he's on the field. Also on defense, I think that recently re-signed defensive end Kroy Biermann is going to send some shock waves around the league this season. With the likely departure of John Abraham from the team, Biermann will no doubt become a huge part of Mike Nolan's new defensive scheme.
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On offense, I'd look for Jacquizz Rodgers to really start putting on a show for Atlanta fans. Rodgers is the perfect change of pace back to Turner and Snelling, and he's exactly the kind of multi-purpose back that new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter likes to build plays around. Getting Rodgers the ball in some creative play designs will allow him to use his quickness and escapability to it's max. I would also expect to see a lot more of wide receiver Harry Douglas this season. The Jonesboro, Ga. native had his best season in 2011 and I think will become even more integrated into the Falcons offensive scheme this season.
One last thing to look for this year...and it's not a huge surprise...but tight end Tony Gonzalez is going to be a man to keep your eye on. After announcing that he will retire after the 2012 season, TG is going to be leaving it all out on the field for one more shot at a Super Bowl ring. And I can't think of anyone in the league more deserving of finally getting that ring.