Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – August 1, 2016

Jason Getz-USA TODAY SportsChris Chester (65)

The Atlanta Falcons’ decision to release wide receiver Devin Hester and center James Stone over the past two weeks before the beginning of this summer’s training camp were two more indications of Dan Quinn’s coaching staff having a strong aversion to injury-prone players.

The Falcons had shown that aversion throughout this offseason with the release and departure of several players on the roster in 2015 that dealt with injuries.

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Devin Hester

Hester missed the first 11 games of last season with a toe injury and then subsequent post-season surgery to fix that ailment caused him to miss the entire offseason program. Stone finished the year on injured reserve after suffering a torn ACL last December.

There were eight Falcons that ended 2015 on the team’s injured reserve list, with kicker Matt Bryant being the only that is still left on the roster after Stone’s release. The six others that are now gone include tight end Beau Gardner, cornerback Travis Howard, fullback Collin Mooney, safety William Moore, guard Adam Replogle and defensive tackle Paul Soliai.

Notably there were seven additional players that spent some time on the team’s injured list prior to the end of the season, with tight end D.J. Tialavea being the only one still remaining on the team entering training camp. The six others include Hester, guard Jon Asamoah, wide receiver Leonard Hankerson, defensive tackle Ricky Heimuli-Havili along with running backs Evan Royster and Jerome Smith.

Bryant managed to stick around likely due to his longevity and consistency despite having his least productive season since joining the Falcons in 2009.

Tialavea went on the injured list because he was forced to pass through waivers, was subsequently released with an injury settlement before the start of the regular season and then returned healthy before the season was up, saving his job.

Chester’s Returns to Atlanta Exception Rather Than Rule

One player that has dealt with injuries since the end of the 2015 season, but has managed to survive under this coaching staff is right guard Chris Chester. It’s been somewhat a mild surprise that Chester was retained, especially given he’s suffered from a shoulder ailment at the end of the year that also limited him throughout the offseason because it required post-season surgery.

Based off what happened with Hester, Stone and others, it seemed very possible that the Falcons would pass on bringing back a veteran like Chester, given his age (33) and injury status. But the Falcons opted against letting Chester walk and brought him back little more than a week before the 2016 NFL Draft in April.

That could have been due to the team being nervous about their other options at the vacant right guard position heading into the draft since Mike Person and Stone were their two most experienced guards besides starting left guard Andy Levitre. Person has zero career starts to his name as a guard, with all 14 of his career starts coming in 2015 at the center position. And Stone’s only real starting experience at guard were four preseason games last summer.

At the time of his re-signing, Chester was likely seen as a strong insurance policy in the event that the Falcons didn’t quite land the blocker they sought early in the draft. The team eventually settled on guard Wes Schweitzer in the sixth round of the draft.

That somewhat left Chester’s status entering the summer up in the air, with most reports indicating that he would be competing for his starting job and potentially find himself on the bubble to stick. Joining Person and Schweitzer in pushing Chester for his starting spot would also be veteran free-agent pickup Tom Compton, who had spent much of his career in Washington playing right tackle.

In the opening days of camp this summer it did look like Chester was indeed in for a significant challenge, as he was relegated to second-team work on the second day of camp this past Thursday. That was reminiscent of the fate of Asamoah, who was demoted on the second day of last summer’s camp and never regained his job.

But seemingly the Falcons were back to giving Chester first-team reps on Friday and Saturday. While it doesn’t mean that Chester is out of the woods entirely when it comes to his job prospects, it is a clear signal that the Falcons have all along envisioned him starting at right guard in 2016.

Chester’s Contract Strong Signifier That He’ll Start in 2016

Chester’s price tag is another strong indicator of his perceived status as an eventural starter this season. Otherwise, his $2.6 million cap hit in 2016 would make him the highest-paid reserve among interior linemen, edging out the likes of Dallas Cowboys guard Ronald Leary ($2.553 million) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Evan Dietrich-Smith ($2.5 million) as the next highest-paid players that are expected to ride the bench this season.

If the Falcons really saw Chester as a player that didn’t have a fairly firm grip on a starting spot, why would they pay such a premium for him? It’s not as if Chester is really that valuable as depth  given the fact that he hasn’t played a single snap at another line position besides right guard since October 2007 when he was an injury fill-in at center with the Baltimore Ravens.

That’s so long ago that 86 of the current 89 players on the team’s roster in training camp weren’t even in the league. If the team was mostly interested adding in a versatile reserve, wouldn’t they have preferred someone that has played multiple spots along the line at some point in recent memory?

Not to mention, why would the Falcons pay top “backup money” for a player coming off a major injury? Surely the fact that Chester was recovering from shoulder surgery probably meant that his contract demands wouldn’t be too costly.

Chester drew interest from three other teams according to ESPN during the offseason, but it’s clear that the interest wasn’t so red hot to drive up his price that much, evidenced by the fact that he was one of the last players to sign a contract before the draft.

Bears’ Larsen’s Contractual Structure Indicative of Competition

Interestingly the Chicago Bears signed a free agent in Ted Larsen that the Falcons had expressed interest in a month before deciding to keep Chester. Larsen wound up signing a one-year deal with the Bears worth $1.65 million with the potential to earn up to $2.4 million in incentives based off playing time.

At that time, the Chicago Tribune wrote that Larsen’s contract was a strong indicator that the Bears saw him as a potential competitor to push incumbent starting left guard Matt Slauson for his roster spot. This caught many Bears fans by surprise given how well Slauson played for the Bears contrasted with subpar play for Larsen in 10 starts with the Arizona Cardinals in 2015.

But it bore out that Bears were indeed looking to move on from Slauson, as they selected guard Cody Whitehair in the second round of the 2016 draft and then subsequently cut Slauson and purged a 2016 cap hit that was just shy of $3.4 million from their books.

One would presume that the Bears wanted to upgrade over Slauson with their draft pick, but also didn’t want to pay the veteran nearly $3 million to be a backup and instead signed Larsen for about 50 cents on the dollar. Should Larsen wind up earning the job in camp, the additional $750,000 he could earn in 2016 based off playing time would bring his salary up to the level one would expect in a starter.

If the Falcons weren’t convinced that Chester wasn’t going to start for them in 2016, wouldn’t it have made much more sense to sign him to an incentive-laden contract comparable to what the Bears gave Larsen? If Chester isn’t likely to start of him, why is his contract worth more than twice what Person is set to count against the cap this year: $1.167 million?

Also if the Falcons really saw a competition between Person, Compton and an impending draft pick as likely to produce a strong, viable option at right guard this year, why bring back Chester at all?

These unanswered questions strongly imply that the Falcons envision Chester opening this season as their starting right guard. He won’t be handed a starting job as Quinn expects every player on the training-camp roster to compete but it’ll likely require another untimely injury to Chester to clear enough obstacles for a truly open competition at that spot.

As it is often said “money talks” and the yarn it’s spinning is one that says Chester’s starting job is a lot more secure than many reports are suggesting.

Falcons Rookies Create Early Camp Buzz

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Keanu Neal

I’ll finish this week’s column by discussing some of the early buzz centered on the team’s 2016 rookie crop of players. Most expected that safety Keanu Neal would impress early as the team’s top selection and a front-runner to win the starting strong safety position and he has not disappointed.

However, it remained to be seen how quickly the team’s other three top selections in linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell along with tight end Austin Hooper would get up to speed in camp.

So far the early returns have been impressive for at least Campbell and Hooper, with some wanting to see a bit more from Jones in the early going.

While 15 years of covering Falcons training camps in some capacity has created in me a thick crust of cynicism and skepticism when it comes to effusive hype praise going towards players in these earliest days, it does at least create a positive vibe and buzz for these young players to build off later.

Hopefully when all four get their first action of the year in upcoming preseason games, they won’t fail to live up to the early hype and promise.

But it did make me wonder if the Falcons really want to see all four rookies earn significant playing time.

I researched whether or not the amount of playing time garnered by rookies selected in the top 100 picks correlated to team success. My initial hypothesis was that the more teams had to rely on significant playing time for their early-round rookies, the more likely they were to struggle.

There is some evidence to back this up, at least when looking at the amount of playing time according to Pro Football Reference with the past two years’ draft classes. For this, I only looked at the top 100 picks (corresponding to the first three rounds) in each class since those are typically the picks when teams are targeting potential starters.

NFL’s Best Teams Rely on Rookies About 22 Percent Less Than Worst Teams

If looking at the picks of the 24 teams that made the playoffs each of the past two years, the 71 top 100 selections appeared in 878 combined games and played 29,103 combined snaps as rookies. That’s an average of about 12.4 games played per player, 33.1 snaps per game and about 409.9 snaps per player.

Contrast that with the combined data when looking at the 24 teams that each selected in the top 12 picks in each subsequent draft (essentially the 12 worst teams). Those teams had a combined 80 rookies that played in 1,066 games and 39,847 total snaps. That worked out to be about 13.3 games per player, 37.4 snaps per game and 498.1 snaps per player.

That means the difference between rookies playing for the best teams versus the worst teams amounted to about eight percent more games played per player, 13 percent more snaps per game and 22 percent more snaps per player.

That’s not a huge difference, but it does indicate a slight correlation that bad teams tend to rely on rookies more than good ones.

Now obviously just looking at snap counts does not paint a completely accurate picture. After all some players get a lot of reps on good teams but aren’t very good while others get limited reps on bad teams but tend to be much more effective in their initial NFL seasons.

Also notably the two teams that at least on a per player basis that saw the most help from their top 100 picks over the past two seasons arguably featured two of the better crops of drafted players.

In 2014, the three top 100 picks of the Oakland Raiders: quarterback Derek Carr, outside linebacker Khalil Mack and guard Gabe Jackson earned the most combined playing time, averaging 931 snaps between them that year. Most would agree that the Raiders really hit a home run with all three picks and despite the team finishing with a 3-13 record, that group would be considered the pinnacle of how to maximize your early-round picks. That trio have helped form the foundation of what many believe will be a resurgent Raiders team in 2016.

The same could be said of 2015’s most-played rookie group in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ crop of rookies featuring quarterback Jameis Winston, offensive tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet. They combined for an average of 1,000 snaps this past year and most would agree that they’re a comparably successful haul much like the Raiders pulled off the previous year.

As for the Falcons, in 2014 their three-man haul of Jake Matthews, Ra’Shede Hageman and Dezmen Southward averaged 472 snaps over the course of their rookie season, the 16th most in the league that year.

This past year the Falcons trio of Vic Beasley, Jalen Collins and Tevin Coleman averaged 354.3 snaps as rookies, the ninth fewest in the league.

With a two-game improvement in the win total, one could draw a loose line between the declining usage of rookies in 2015 as one factor in the team’s progress.

In the end, it probably means that the more the Falcons rely on Neal, Jones, Hooper and Campbell collectively this year, it probably won’t lead to a massive amount of success. But there’s no reason why the Falcons can’t rely on them to a certain extent this year and still expect improvement from last year’s results.

Hopefully the Falcons can look back and see this year’s crop of rookies in the same capacity that the Raiders look back at their 2014 class as a huge part of their foundation for future success. But in the immediate future, it might be a little better if the Falcons ease them into their roles.

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Aaron Freeman
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