We all want the Falcons season to start tomorrow.

We all have a free agent and a draft wish list floating in our noggins. But the first thing the new staff has to do is look at this roster and decide who’s staying and who’s going.

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Some Falcons fans (OK, me) might say: “How hard can that be? Cut 90% of the defense.”

Yeah, it’s not that simple. But if it’s anything like Dan Quinn’s former team under his old boss Pete Carroll we can expect a lot of turnover.

Coach Quinn didn’t pack Richard Sherman, Cam Chancellor, Michael Bennett or Cliff Avril in his suitcase. The defensive cupboard is quite bare at Flowery Branch. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will need a big time running back to compliment Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. The Falcons will need to shore up the offensive line; and if need be, find some new faces that can make the zone blocking scheme work.

So here’s what I think are the biggest challenges/priorities for Dan Quinn and Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff this off season.

DEFENSE: Create pass rush/Simplify the defense/Get some playmakers!

In his introductory press conference Dan Quinn used the word “attack” early and often. Yes please!

The Falcons were dead last in the NFL in total defense, dead last in passing defense and 21st against the run. The Falcons haven’t had tw legitimate pass rushers since 2006 with John Abraham & Patrick Kerney. And even that year Abe missed half the season with injuries.

Two years ago when Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril were free agents the Falcons signed Steven Jackson. It would have been nice to see one of those guys (who went on in to win it all with Seattle in 2013) opposite
John Abraham but for whatever reason the Falcons cut bait on The Predator. Instead we got Osi Umenyiora who came to Atlanta for semi-retirement.

Thomas Dimitroff has never gone higher than the 4th round to draft a defensive end. In last year’s draft the Falcons took Notre Dame’s OLB Prince Shembo in the 4th round. He was thought to be a pass rusher. But Mike Nolan’s multi-look defense rarely if ever had Shembo on the field targeting the QB. Nolan sure tried everything he could the last teo seasons. I guess his thinking was, ‘You can’t make surf and turf with fish heads and rice.’

Nolan was moving guys all over the place and the rotations made no sense to fans. Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson were brought in to stop the run, with only a slight improvement.

Remember Smitty’s mantra on “Hard Knocks”? “The Falcons are soft, the Falcons aren’t tough, bull [expletive]?”

Whatever toughness we were searching for, the results looked more like a Chinese fire drill than a physical 4-3 hybrid. The lack of play making ability at linebacker and zero pass rush created open lanes for quarterbacks to throw in, and all day to find a receiver. Paul Worrilow may have 270 tackles in two years but when your doing it Keith Brooking-style eight yards down the field you’re not an impact player.

Undrafted out of college, Worrilow & Joplo Bartu are backups on most teams in the NFL.

The Falcons need to draft any of the top 5 pass rushing ends/OLBs in the draft. We talked about picking up Greg Hardy, (not likely) so go get the Chiefs Justin Houston or the Redskins Brian Orakpo or maybe you like the Steelers Jason Worilds. And draft Shane Ray, Dante Fowler – or if he fell to the Falcons at 8, go get Nebraska’s Randy Gregory.

The Falcons are hoping the return of a healthy Sean Weatherspoon will fit nicely in Dan Quinn’s attacking scheme. Sean has shown glimpses over the years, but he’ll be the first to tell you he needs to be more spectacular than just solid out there. The one guy on defense who can hopefully elevate his game to Pro Bowl level is Desmond Trufant.

Meanwhile Robert Alford needs to be smarter out there and William Moore needs to stay on the field for 16 games. Any deficiencies in the Falcons secondary can be remedied by not giving the QB an eternity in the pocket to pull the trigger. After seven years it’s time for this team to finally get serious about getting heat on the quarterback!

Yes sacks do matter!

OFFENSE: Find a running back to take pressure off Matt Ryan/Shore up the offensive line.

Steven Jackson had nothing left by the time he got to Atlanta. Yes the offensive line was poor and racked with injuries, but I don’t think Jackson would have done anything with The Redskins’ Hogs linemen from the 80’s blocking for him. Too much wear and tear on #39. You can count his big plays on one finger. Dropping the game winning touchdown in week 1 in The Superdome back in 2013 was the harbinger of the bad things to come from Steven Jackson as a Falcon.

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Truth be told we probably could have saved some dough and drafted an RB and did it by committee with Snelling & Quiz that year.

The good news is FSU’s Devonta Freeman looks like he could be a poor man’s version of Warrick Dunn. He has a burst and can catch passes out of the backfield. Like many rookies he struggled at times last season with pass blocking. That aside, he’ll have chances for busting open some big runs with the new zone blocking scheme Kyle Shanahan will use.

Hopefully Shanahan will find a way to get Antone Smith on the field too. If they decide to keep him. Number 35 is an unrestricted free agent. Before breaking his leg on special teams in week 11 Antone had five touchdowns on 36 combined runs and catches. If he was ineffective when called on to block for Matt Ryan, I’m not sure why the coaches didn’t just say that.

Falcons fans will never understand why one of the team’s few explosive playmakers was so rarely used.

When asked about Antone Smith in his weekly press conferences Mike Smith would always throw cold water on the notion of getting him more touches. Maybe one of the reasons why he’s not the coach anymore.

Georgia fans will want Todd Gurley. Imagine if he was there in the third round for the Falcons to grab? He’s bigger than Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Miami’s Duke Johnson. Just a question of how durable the Falcons brass would think he’ll be as a pro – again providing he was available.

If the bigger defensive needs are addressed through free agency and assuming they snatched one of the top edge rushers with the 8th overall pick would the Falcons draft an offensive lineman (specifically a RT) in the 2nd round?

Sam Baker is signed through 2018. Would the Falcons take the cap hit and cut bait on a guy with a big contract who’s never sniffed a Pro Bowl? Will he stay healthy and fit the zone blocking scheme? Most Falcons fans would drive Baker to the airport right now.

Hopefully Jake Mathews continues to develop; he was banged up for almost the entire season. Did we find Joe Hawley’s permanent replacement in the Vols’James Stone?

With the exception of the Carolina game in the last week of the season (when the entire line was manhandled by the Panthers) he was a pleasant surprise anchoring all the makeshift versions of the Falcons o-line late in the season.

With all the glaring needs on defense how do the Falcons find the balance in free agency and the draft to give their franchise quarterback the tools to succeed?

Julio Jones is one of the best wide receivers in the league. But will the Falcons back up the Brinks truck with a new contract before he begins his final year under his current deal?

If you pay him $15 million a year, needless to say you won’t have money for the holes you need to fill on defense.

The Falcons brain trust needs to find a playmaking tight end too. Levine Toilolo is great on the ukulele but doesn’t do anything in the red zone.

Thought he’d be a big target for Ryan but it just hasn’t materialized.

What if the Noles Nick O’Leary was available in the 2nd round? I could see O’Leary becoming the safety valve (with big play potential) that Tony Gonzales was back in the day.

For me it all starts and ends with the o-line and protecting Ryan. He needs a pristine pocket to blow the top off a defense with Julio. Kyle Shanahan likes to move his QBs around and Matt showed his ability to move last year more than any other season as Falcons QB.

The business model for the last seven years has been all about the offense (and hope the defense is good enough). This thinking has produced ONE playoff win in seven years.

But just how do the Falcons turn around the league’s worst defense while maintaining and improving a top 10 offense?

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Good news is we have a lot of brain power in Flowery Branch to solve this problem. Don’t we?