Falcons Waive WR Darius Johnson

July 25th, 2014 No comments

Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

Darius Johnson

The Atlanta Falcons made a surprise move today by waiving wide receiver Darius Johnson. While Johnson’s grip on a potential roster spot was tenuous at best, expectations were that he would at least get the opportunity to compete for a spot. The Falcons have yet to conduct their first practice of training camp, scheduled for later this afternoon. More details of his release are expected to revealed after practice this evening.

Johnson was an undrafted rookie with the Falcons last year out of Southern Methodist. Johnson impressed during the summer enough to make the practice squad. He was quickly elevated to the roster when injuries hit the team early at wide receiver and managed to work his way up the depth chart to the third wideout by season’s end. In 10 games last year, he caught 22 passes for 210 yards (9.5 avg) and one touchdown.

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Predicting the 2014 Falcons 53-Man Roster

July 25th, 2014 1 comment
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Thomas Dimitroff (left) and Mike Smith

It’s time for me to be that much reviled “armchair” general manager and predict which 53 players will make it with the Atlanta Falcons this summer.

Last year, in my preliminary prediction before camp, I wound up nailing 44 out of the 53 players that eventually made the Falcons. I think that’s pretty good. Of the nine that didn’t make the cut, two were put on injured reserve (Sean Renfree and Mike Johnson) and one was briefly signed to the practice squad (Phillipkeith Manley). Of the eight players I predicted to make the practice squad, only two did (James Rodgers and Terren Jones).

I also made note of which players I believe are eligible for the practice squad with an asterisk (*).

Quarterback

Staying: Matt Ryan, T.J. Yates
Going: Sean Renfree*, Jeff Mathews*

Put simply, the Falcons traded for Yates for a reason.

Running Backs

Staying: Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Devonta Freeman*, Antone Smith
Going: Josh Vaughan, Jerome Smith*, Patrick DiMarco, Roosevelt Nix*, Maurice Hagens*

I’ll explain the absence of a true fullback along wit the tight ends, but otherwise the four that stick shouldn’t be a surprise.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 1 Julio Jones

July 25th, 2014 No comments

Josh D. Weiss-US PRESSWIRE

Julio Jones

I’ve counted down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s finish with top-ranked player: wide receiver Julio Jones.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 97/100

Last year’s rank: 2
Player Grade: 88/100
Teams he is starter: 28 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 32 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

Jones’ status as the top player can be simply revealed by looking at his play over his 10 most recent games. In that span, he’s caught 74 passes for 1,022 yards and seven touchdowns. Extrapolated over 16 games that would equal a full season’s total of 118 catches for 1,635 yards and 11 touchdowns. Such a reception total would tie for the 10th most in an NFL season, and his yardage would be the 12th most.

The Falcons offense has morphed into a Jones-centric one. Once upon a time, running back Michael Turner was the driving force of the offense, but now Jones makes it go. Matt Ryan’s passer rating drops 16 points when Jones has not been on the field the past three seasons, something the Falcons felt wholeheartedly last season when Jones missed the final 11 games of the season.

That’s simply because the entire complexity of how teams defend the Falcons changes dependent on whether Jones is in or out of the lineup. Defenses have to respect the deep ball when Jones is on the field, and don’t when he’s not. He dictates coverage as he constantly draws safety help over the top, which has opened up opportunities for Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez underneath, where they work beautifully.

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Jones, Biermann To Be Limited At Start of Training Camp

July 25th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Julio Jones

ESPN’s Vaughn McClure has the scoop on Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith’s appearance 92.9 the Game this morning. During his appearance, Smith detailed the team’s plans for the practicing schedules of wide receiver Julio Jones and linebacker Kroy Biermann, both of whom are recovering from major injuries in 2013.

Every other day, Jones will receive a day off from practice, while Biermann will practice two days and then receive time off every third practice. Jones is recovering from a foot injury that sidelined him for the final 11 games of 2013. Biermann missed 14 games after tearing his Achilles tendon in Week 2 of last season.

Smith also indicated that he expects defensive tackle Corey Peters to be removed from the active/Physically-Unable-to-Perform (PUP) list quickly. Like Biermann, Peters is also recovering from an Achilles tear that caused him to miss the Falcons 2013 season finale.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Special Teams

July 25th, 2014 No comments

Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Devin Hester

The Atlanta Falcons special teams unit won’t appear much different than it has the past two seasons with the same group of specialists at kicker, punter and long snapper. But there is one big addition in the return game that could make a significant difference.

Incumbent kicker Matt Bryant, punter Matt Bosher and long snapper Josh Harris return for the third consecutive season. Bryant has been a reliable, clutch kicker over his past five seasons with the Falcons. He’s getting up in age and 2014 might mark his final season in Atlanta, but the Falcons should feel fairly confident that his previous success will continue this year. The team did however bring in a young option in undrafted rookie Sergio Castillo to push him. Castillo is a long shot to unseat Bryant, but can impress the coaching staff enough that he can return on the short list of kickers next year if the team and Bryant part ways.

Bosher is becoming one of the league’s best young punters and won’t face any challengers for his position. Bosher is likely due for a contract extension at the end of the year, and thus his goal this summer will be preparing to put forth his best effort during the season to achieve maximum earning potential.

Harris has had a few lapses over the years, but they appear to become less and less with each passing season. So there’s no reason to expect the Falcons to be disappointed with his performance moving forward.

However, the one big move occurred with the team now having ex-Chicago Bear Devin Hester serve as return specialist. Hester is arguably the best return in NFL history and needs just one more score to sit atop the all-time leader board as far as non-offensive touchdowns go. Hester, 31, is not quite the dynamic threat he was in his prime, he’s still a very effective return threat that commands respect from opposing teams. Many teams still kick away from him because of his potential to take it the distance every time he touches the ball, although it’s not quite the death sentence it once was.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 2 Matt Ryan

July 24th, 2014 No comments

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Matt Ryan

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with second-ranked player: quarterback Matt Ryan.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 91/100

Last year’s rank: 1
Player Grade: 84/100
Teams he is starter: 24 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 24 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +5

Ryan held the top spot last year and his slip in this year’s rankings had to do with so much happening in 2013 that exposed too many of his weaknesses.

Ryan has never been blessed with great arm strength and thus the vertical element of the team’s passing attack has always been limited. Like most quarterbacks not named Roethlisberger, Ryan also has a tendency to shy away from contact. Hitting him early and often can significantly quicken his trigger leading to a lot of checkdowns, making it even harder for the team to find the big passing plays necessary to excel. Ryan certainly took his fair share of heavy contact last year. Hopefully with the upgrades made on the right side of the offensive line with Jon Asamoah and Jake Matthews, it should eliminate that problem.

Last season it became clear by year’s end that Ryan was not the sort of quarterback that could significantly elevate the marginal receive talent he was given. Ryan is much more cerebral than someone that will fly by the seat of his pants. Unfortunately after wide receiver Julio Jones went down last year, the Falcons needed more of the latter style of play from their quarterback.

In 2012, Ryan acted as a distributor of the football, wheeling and dealing and letting his receivers: Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez make plays. In 2013, without that caliber of talent on the receiving end of his passes, the Falcons offense struggled to put points on the board.

Ryan had a great deal of trust in Gonzalez to win in traffic. Now the Falcons appear to be saddling him with Harry Douglas as his third option, a player that has routinely struggled to win in traffic. Newly added wide receiver Devin Hester was never a reliable receiving option in Chicago, and it’s unlikely that will change in Atlanta. And tight end Levine Toilolo is very unproven as a receiving option. Essentially, the Falcons still have a ways to go before Ryan’s supporting cast beyond Jones and White is worth writing home about.

Ryan’s main strengths are his intelligence, decision-making and ability to win before the snap at the line of scrimmage. Ryan can diagnose mismatches very well, and it’s why the Falcons offense is most effective when the team operates out of the no-huddle. It’s not a coincidence that in the middle of the season when injuries at wide receiver forced the team to scrap the no-huddle, Ryan struggled mightily. If Jones, White and Douglas remain healthy, the Falcons shouldn’t have any issue running the no-huddle this year. However, if one or more of them is injured, it remains to be seen if Hester, Toilolo and the rest of the receivers are ready to fill any void.

Ryan is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league and more than capable of bringing a Lombardi Trophy to Atlanta. If the Falcons want Ryan to excel at the highest levels, they need to do a much better job surrounding him with not just better, but the right kind of talent. He needs bigger, faster receivers and strong offensive line play. A stronger ground attack would also relieve much of the stress of Ryan having to carry the offense with his arm. That way if future injuries sap the team’s ability to run the no-huddle, the team can rely on the run game to keep the offense afloat.

While the Falcons have made several strides in these areas in 2014, they haven’t yet reached their full potential. Until they do, there’s going to continue to be a degree of disrespect directed Ryan’s way.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 3 Roddy White

July 24th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Roddy White

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with third-ranked player: wide receiver Roddy White.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 90/100

Last year’s rank: 4
Player Grade: 83/100
Teams he is starter: 32 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 25 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +3

The ink is barely dry on White’s new deal that has been promised since last fall. If the market value I dictated earlier this week is accurate, then it means technically the Falcons overpaid for White. But that may be a small burden to bear to make sure the best wide receiver in Falcons history never suits up for another NFL team.

White’s protege in Julio Jones is considered an elite receiver because he dictates opposing coverage on a consistent basis, something that no longer is the case with White. But that doesn’t mean that White still doesn’t have a ton of value for the Falcons.

Over the last few years, White has morphed into the classic definition of a possession receiver. His primary duty is to keep the offense on schedule and keep the chains rolling. It’s why he has the fifth-most receptions of 10 yards or less over the past six seasons in the NFL. White is still one of the best in the league at this due to his sharp route-running and physical playing style that helps him win at the line of scrimmage.

Those traits may become more important in 2014 due to the retirement of tight end Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez was a huge asset for the Falcons on third downs and in the red zone over the past five seasons. White was also a huge piece of that puzzle, and alongside Jones will have to take on the bulk of the offensive burden in Gonzalez’s wake.

White still manages to stretch the field from time to time, but he no longer displays the track speed that led to his selection in the first round of the 2005 draft. Most of his big plays over the past few seasons have come against nickel corners, safeties or linebackers. Ryan has done a good job of finding those mismatches and exploiting them. He may have a tougher time doing that this season since Gonzalez’s departure likely will force defense to pay more attention to White.

But nonetheless, White should endure in 2014 as he works to rebound from an injury-riddled 2013 campaign. Hindsight offers us that perhaps the Falcons would have been better able to salvage their season had they rested White’s high ankle sprain at the outset of 2013. White did not appear to be playing at his normal level until a 10-catch, 143-yard effort against the Buffalo Bills in Week 13. But White showed his trademark toughness in trying his best to gut through the injury through the first five weeks, but he was largely a decoy and the Falcons offense could not quite capture their 2012 magic without him at full strength.

While a healthy start to 2014 for White may not get the Falcons offense to their 2012 level, it certainly will bring them a few steps closer as the Falcons strive to quiet naysayers with a playoff-run this season.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Safety

July 24th, 2014 No comments

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Lowery

The Atlanta Falcons safety position is one that is in flux, as free safety Thomas DeCoud will not be entering camp atop the depth chart for the first time in five summers. Finding a suitable replacement will be critical aspect of the team’s training camp.

The player most likely to fill DeCoud’s shoes is Dwight Lowery. Lowery went under the radar this offseason because the Jacksonville Jaguars cut him early during the 2013 season. Lowery suffered a concussion three weeks into the season, and the Jaguars in rebuilding mode opted to cut him outright. Lowery was not scooped up until the Falcons nabbed him in early April in one of the later waves of free-agent signings. That leaves many skeptics as to whether Lowery is capable of stepping in at free safety. Lowery’s obscurity in Jacksonville coupled with the long absence from the field fuels that skepticism.

DeCoud’s poor play led to his release in February and the expectations are that his replacement will not just fill his shoes, but be an upgrade as well. Lowery has the potential to be that since he’s a more consistent tackler than DeCoud and also his past as a nickel corner with the New York Jets to start his career means he should translate better in man coverage. If that is the case, then it should pay dividends for the rest of the Falcons secondary.

Particularly in regards to strong safety William Moore, who is in no way fearful of his job being lost. While Moore is not coming off one of his best seasons, it feels more like it was one aberrant weak season among several good ones rather than the beginning of a new downward trend. With stronger play out of the free safety, Moore can play a little more fast and loose, which is more to his style of flying around, hitting opponents and picking off any tipped passes over the middle.

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Falcons and White Agree to New Contract Extension

July 24th, 2014 No comments
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Roddy White

The Atlanta Falcons announced what ESPN’s Adam Schefter first reported, in that wide receiver Roddy White has agreed to a new three-year contract extension. White, who was entering the final year of his contract agreed to ink a four-year deal worth reportedly $30 million this morning. Other parameters of the deal including $10 million in guaranteed money, with $11 million payout this year and $18 million over the next two years, a substantial increase from those that I predicted Tuesday.

White will turn 33 this fall and this deal should lock him up in Atlanta through the end of his career. White, originally a first-round pick of the Falcons in 2005, is alongside defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux as the currently oldest tenured Falcons on the roster now that they are entering their ninth seasons with the team.

White is coming off an injury-riddled 2013 season where he missed three games. However, White did not appear fully healthy until the Falcons Week 13 matchup against the Buffalo Bills, where he caught 10 passes for 143 yards. White finished the year with 63 catches for 711 yards and three touchdowns, his lowest production totals since his second season. Prior to 2013, White had caught over 80 passes for at least 1100 yards and six touchdowns in six consecutive seasons from 2007-12. A four-time Pro Bowler, White has been considered one of the premier wide receivers in the league over the past seven years.

The Falcons had indicated as early as last November that they wanted to extend White’s contract rather than let him hit free agency next offseason. Contract talks were tabled at one point this offseason due to the team allowing White to deal with family issues stemming from the murder of his brother in May.

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Roster Talk: Five Falcons on the Bubble

July 24th, 2014 No comments
Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

Darius Johnson

After examining the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons roster, that still leaves 50 players that did not get such in-depth looks. Most of those top 40 players will wind up making the Falcons 53-man roster this year, leaving little more than a dozen roster spots for the remaining 50.

Let’s examine several of the players “on the bubble” that may struggle to make the cut. All five of the following players have been counted among contributors in the past, but may not be any longer. In examining each, I’ll break down what exactly are their best avenues of making the team.

Darius Johnson, Wide Receiver

Johnson played well last year considering he was an undrafted rookie, leapfrogging both Drew Davis and Kevin Cone on the depth chart, two third-year veterans. But that won’t earn him lingering credit if he doesn’t perform up to task this summer.

He’ll face steady competition from a group of young, explosive receivers like Bernard Reedy. What hurts Johnson is that he won’t be able to help himself much on special teams. Given his smaller stature, he’s not shown that he’s very effective when asked to cover punts and kicks.

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