The Atlanta Falcons began training camp over the weekend. And while three days worth of practices gleans little in the big picture, there are at least some small victories for Falcons fans to glom onto.
Top draft pick Vic Beasley is impressing early. While that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to eclipse Jevon Kearse’s rookie record of 14.5 sacks this season, it at least suggests that he won’t be next Vernon Gholston, who was reportedly “swimming” in the playbook and non-descript during the early portion of his first NFL training camp back in 2008.
Gholston is one of the more infamous draft busts in recent memory, an impressive physical specimen out of Ohio State that just like Beasley was selected early in the first round. Gholston went on to play just three seasons with the New York Jets before being released, starting just five games and logging zero sacks.
Of course using Gholston as a bench mark is setting standards exceptionally low for Beasley. But given just three days of practice, it can become easy to exaggerate the positive this early in camp, so it makes sense to start with lowered expectations. As the summer goes along and Beasley continues to shine in practices and subsequently preseason games, it will be easier to start to raise the stakes.
It’s hard to glean too much from a couple of early practices. This time last year, much of the early camp buzz centered on wide receivers Julio Jones and then rookie Bernard Reedy.
Early Camp Buzz Does Not Always Pay Dividends During Season
Jones created buzz thanks to lowered expectations that he might start camp sluggishly due to returning from a foot injury that sidelined him for most of 2013.
— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) July 25, 2014
Jones’ strong camp certainly carried over into the 2014 regular season. But then again, Jones impressing in camp last summer wasn’t exactly a revelation given he was already well-established as one of the league’s premier wide outs entering his fourth summer in the NFL.
Reedy on the other hand wasn’t able to continue his impressive early run into preseason games. That eventually led to him not making the roster and landing on the practice squad for the entire year.
Reedy’s first camp with the Falcons could be compared favorably to that of Tavon Austin with the St. Louis Rams two years ago. The Rams traded up to take Austin with the eighth overall pick in 2013, expecting him to be one of the league’s most dynamic weapons. Austin impressed early in training camp, but hasn’t been able to quite translate it into becoming an impact receiver during the past two regular seasons.
Last summer, Reedy caught just four passes for 63 yards in four preseason games, most of those yards coming on a 35-yard play in the first game against the Miami Dolphins. What looked like to be a strong start in preseason action failed to turn into much thereafter for Reedy.
Like Austin, Reedy’s lack of size seemingly hurts him as a wide receiver. Reedy, while listed at 5’9″ measured at 5’7 5/8″ at his pro day. That lack of size presents smaller windows for quarterbacks to throw into, making it more important for quarterbacks to be accurate and precise when targeting him. Given the fact that Reedy was receiving passes from quarterbacks T.J. Yates and Sean Renfree instead of Matt Ryan probably only exasperated that issue.
What little has been gleaned from Austin over the past two years is that he may not be a “traditional” wide receiver that can simply line up and run the normal route tree expected of most NFL receivers. Instead, the Rams have to manufacture ways to get him the ball in plays specifically designed for him such as screens. The Falcons might wind up discovering they have to do the same with Reedy.
Reedy Hopes to Become Next Taylor Gabriel, Not Tavon Austin
That is if new Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan can’t figure it out. With the Cleveland Browns a year ago, Shanahan was able to effectively utilize undrafted rookie Taylor Gabriel, who stands 5’7 1/2″. Gabriel had 36 catches while averaging 17.3 yards per reception in 2014.
Austin has caught 71 passes over the past two seasons, an average of 35.5 per year, which doesn’t seem too different from Gabriel. But Austin has only averaged 9.3 yards per catch, indicating that Shanahan was able to maximize Gabriel by asking him to run a lot more deeper routes. Austin sported the lowest depth of reception last season in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, with his average reception coming 2.1 yards past the line of scrimmage. Gabriel’s average depth of reception last year was 9.1, just slightly lower than that of Roddy White’s 9.2, both of which were slightly above average.
But even if Shanahan knows a better way to utilize Reedy than the previous coaching staff doesn’t guarantee the latter a roster spot. The Falcons made significant investments to shore up their wide receiver depth this offseason and the early returns in camp indicate that both Justin Hardy and Leonard Hankerson are impressing.
Not only Hardy and Hankerson, but Reedy is also potentially buried behind the likes of Devin Hester and Eric Weems on the wide receiver depth chart. Both of the latter players have established roles on special teams that Reedy is unlikely to usurp.
It will make it exceedingly difficult for one of last summer’s stars to make this year’s team. Perhaps if Reedy had done a better job taking advantage of his opportunities last summer in preseason games, he could have made the 2014 roster over the likes of Courtney Roby. Even if Reedy spent most of last season on the Falcons’ inactive list, it probably would have given him a leg up in this summer’s competition.
Had Reedy made the team and actually garnered reps last year, the Falcons could have been less likely to add both Hardy and Hankerson this offseason, instead opting for one to team with a 23-year old Reedy as they looked to shore up depth this past spring.
Purely speculation on my part, but it does signify how important preseason performance can be especially in light of the lack of a developmental league run by NFL. That could be changing in the future, but until it does, shining in practice only goes so far. Performances in the actual preseason games does have significant impact on players’ futures.
Gunn Released Despite Outperforming Other Falcons Blockers
Similar circumstances surrounded guard Harland Gunn, who was cut by the team this past weekend. One complaint I had throughout last summer was how the Falcons failed to give Gunn any in-game reps at center. While Gunn certainly practiced at times at center during the preceding summer, he never got any opportunities in preseason games over the course of the two summers he was in Atlanta to showcase those skills.
That certainly could have been due to the fact that the Falcons’ previous coaching staff was less than enthused with Gunn’s work there. But more than likely, it had a lot to do with the fact that Gunn was a lower profile player than others the Falcons had in camp, namely Peter Konz.
Another one of my major complaints at the end of the 2013 season was the fact that the Falcons refused to bench Konz in favor of Gunn, despite the latter outperforming the former in the final three regular-season games.
But for various reasons, the Falcons refused to give up on Konz. Things began to look more hopeful last offseason when reports surfaced that he was hitting the weight room with greater vigor. However, that failed to translate into better performances last summer.
Now perhaps in his fourth summer, this will finally be the point in Konz’s career where he finally shows why the Falcons drafted him so highly. But unless Konz has undergone a complete transformation as a football player, the chances of that happening appear to be extremely low.
Truth is that Konz’s “easy” disposition and limited athleticism make him a poor fit in the team’s new zone-blocking scheme. Yet, he’s still here and Gunn is gone.
Gunn’s Release Due to Lack of Prominent Draft Status
The simple explanation for many is that Gunn wasn’t good enough to cut it. But in reality, it’s more than likely due to the fact that Konz is a former second-round pick while Gunn was an undrafted player that the team picked up off another team’s practice squad. Yet despite this disparity in supposed talent, Gunn outperformed Konz every step of the way since 2013.
The reality of the NFL is that early-round picks will get many more opportunities to fail than late-round picks. And they especially will be given more opportunities than undrafted players.
Gholston is a good example of this. After the Jets released him in 2011, the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams each signed him over the next year to give him another opportunity as a reclamation project. Gholston even got a workout as recently as this past February despite the fact that he had not been on an NFL roster in nearly three years.
Former Falcon defensive end Jamaal Anderson is another prime example. After the Falcons cut Anderson after the lockout ended in the summer of 2011, he was signed by the Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals and Bears before being washed out of the league in 2013. He got tryouts in 2014 with the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks.
Compare that to Michael Sam, a former seventh-round pick. Despite a fairly productive preseason last summer, Sam couldn’t even get a tryout with an NFL team over the past nine months and had to go to the Canadian Football League to get another shot in the NFL.
Certainly players like Gholston and Anderson are more athletically gifted than Sam, and thus NFL teams understandably believe there is more potential to mine. But there’s always the sort of coaching “bravado” that the next coach will finally be able to get the talent out of the player that the previous one could not.
This notoriously happens all the time with quarterbacks. All one has to do is look at the number of “reclamation projects” that have played for the Philadelphia Eagles over the past several seasons including Michael Vick, Vince Young, Trent Edwards, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford and Tim Tebow.
The same may be happening in Atlanta in regard to Konz, with new head coach Dan Quinn along with offensive line coaches Chris Morgan and Keith Carter thinking that they’ll be able to get something out of Konz beyond what Mike Smith’s staff could. And that belief subsequently costs a player like Gunn an opportunity.
Limited Opportunities at Center Could’ve Cost Gunn
Like Reedy, had Gunn been able to get more opportunities last summer at center and taken advantage of them, it’s possible that upon the injury to Joe Hawley, it would have been Gunn that the Falcons turned to at center. Gunn is very much undersized for a guard, standing 6’2″ with 32-inch arms. Those dimensions mesh much better at center. But Gunn never really got an opportunity at that spot because of the presence of players like Konz and Joe Hawley, two players that the team had invested prominent draft picks in and thus had a vested interest in developing at that position over Gunn.
Of the six guards the Falcons brought into camp, half were holdovers from the previous regime, while the others were hand-picked by the new regime. Certainly the latter group would get the benefit of the doubt in camp. Of the holdovers, Jon Asamoah certainly isn’t in danger of losing his foothold on a roster spot. Gunn and Adam Replogle were the other two. And while Replogle is raw, this new coaching staff has shown no disdain for raw, athletic types. Replogle is a former defensive tackle that compared to most guards is a superb athlete (at least on paper), fitting a similar mold as Jared Smith, one of the guards the new staff brought in. This new coaching staff is going to be a lot more willing to bet on developing those athletic traits.
With Konz’s draft status insulating him, it made Gunn the most expendable of the interior blockers already on their roster. Gunn’s release signals the stark reality of many of the Smith-era holdovers like Reedy this summer, that their place on the team is tenuous.
Expect Roster Turnover to Be High With Regime Change
Many of the players that didn’t quite get the opportunities to showcase their abilities on the field in previous seasons are firmly on the bubble this summer. This includes many of recent draft’s late-round picks such as Tyler Starr, Marquis Spruill and Sean Renfree.
It means that even those players that would normally be insulated due to their status as former mid-round picks like Dezmen Southward, Malliciah Goodman and Levine Toilolo aren’t completely safe this summer.
Despite being given the extra opportunity, it doesn’t mean that Konz will fully take advantage of it and make this year’s Falcons team.
But this sort of heightened environment is exactly what Quinn wants as it creates competition, and through competition, the cream can rise to the top. While there may be a couple of players that stick in 2015 because the Falcons already made significant investments in them, the majority of the players that will make up the 53-man roster will be players that deserve it thanks to their ability to outperform, outproduce and outwork their competition this summer.
This is one of the reasons why whether fair or not, the Falcons needed a regime change. Over seven summers, the amount of competition decreased annually under Mike Smith. Complacency had taken root and the team’s attempts to get “tougher” last summer proved fruitless because of it.
Quinn’s newfound presence and the completely different style and environment he brings to practices have already done wonders in shaking things up. Only time will tell how that translates into success during the regular season, but the early returns on camp suggest things are starting to bear fruit.