For the second summer in a row, the Atlanta Falcons are undergoing a transition at tight end. The team is hoping they are better prepared than last year with dealing with the absence of long-time starter Tony Gonzalez, who retired after the 2013 season.
This offseason the Falcons added a pair of free agents in Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki to bolster the position. Both will be competing with incumbent Levine Toilolo for the right to be the team’s starter this season.
Tamme is very likely to win the job and it would take an unexpectedly poor performance from him or an equally unexpected strong one from either Moeaki or Toilolo this summer to unseat him.
Tamme is the most experience of the group, having spent the past several years catching passes from Peyton Manning both in Indianapolis and Denver. Tamme spent the past two years as a reserve to Julius Thomas in Denver, but will be returning the starting role he held back in 2012. That year, Tamme finished third on the Broncos with 52 receptions. The Falcons are hoping that he can bring comparable production in 2015, which would be a significant improvement over the 31 catches Toilolo reeled in a year ago.
Tamme is a capable receiving tight end that is most comfortable lining up at H-back, inabling him to line up in the slot or splitting out wide. But more than likely he will be asked to play more inline in new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme with the Falcons. It will be important for Tamme to try and develop a rapport with quarterback Matt Ryan similar to the one he held with Manning. Tamme was an oft-used, third-down option for Manning over the years and the Falcons are hoping that Tamme could fill that same niche in Atlanta.
Behind Tamme will be where the bulk of the competition lies, as Moeaki and Toilolo compete for the right to be the No. 2 tight end and oft-used blocker. Moeaki is the superior blocker of the two, as Toilolo proved inconsistent in that arena last season with the Falcons.
Moeaki was able to add value late in the year with the Seattle Seahawks as a blocking tight end, as well as occasionally making an impact in the receiving game. Moeaki had a breakout rookie season in 2010 with the Kansas City Chiefs, but injuries limited him in subsequent seasons. The Falcons now represent the fourth team he’s played for over the past two years as injuries had a hand in forcing his exits from both the Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills in that span.
The goal for Moeaki will be primarily to make it through camp healthy. If he does that and plays to the level he’s shown in recent years, there should be little doubt that he’ll be able to beat Toilolo to earn a spot as a blocking tight end for the Falcons in 2015.
Toilolo is the biggest question mark of the group. After a lackluster first season as a starter, it remains to be seen how the new coaching staff feels about the third-year player. Toilolo has tools worth developing, given his monstrous 6-8 frame that could be extremely valuable in the red zone and as a blocker. It just remains a matter of whether that potential can actually be developed by this new coaching staff. He consistently was underutilized and a square peg in the offense of former play-caller Dirk Koetter, which suggests there is significant room and potential for improvement under Shanahan.
Therefore Toilolo should be relatively safe and stick on the roster as the third tight end. But he’ll certainly need to show that improvement, primarily as a blocker this summer. Toilolo proved most effective last season when he lined up at H-back and would pull outside or function as a fullback rather than lining up with his hand in the dirt and blocking inline. He’ll need to improve in that latter area if he hopes to unseat Moeaki as Tamme’s primary backup.
Pushing Toilolo for the right to be the third tight end is Mickey Shuler. Shuler was cut by the Falcons at the end of last year’s training camp, only to land with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Shuler played in three games before ending the year on the Jaguars’ practice squad. He was re-signed by the Falcons after the season. Shuler flashed ability as a pass-catcher last summer and will need to build on that this year.
Shuler has been cut in the final cuts of each of the past four summers by four different teams including the Falcons. He’ll hope that an even stronger summer will break that streak to allow him to usurp Toilolo for the third spot on the depth chart.
Also in camp will be undrafted free agent Beau Gardner. Gardner is an impressive athlete, posting the fourth highest SPARQ score among tight ends in this past year’s draft class. Gardner is unlikely to vault into a roster spot and instead will be hoping that the Falcons’ coaching staff see his athleticism as something that is worth developing on the practice squad.
At this point, Tamme represents the surest thing at the position, being a long-time veteran and productive player whenever given opportunities. Behind him, if players like Toilolo and Moeaki play up to their potential, the Falcons should sport capable backups.