Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – May 16, 2016

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY SportsMohamed Sanu

It’s been two weeks since the 2016 NFL Draft is over and the Atlanta Falcons’ offseason appears to be pretty much wrapped up.

The Falcons might still have a couple of roster moves looming in the coming weeks and months, but the team appears poised to gear up for July’s training camp in preparation for the upcoming 2016 season rather than scouring the free-agent market for any major last-minute additions.

The report that the Falcons are prepared to pass on former Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Leon Hall doesn’t mean that the team is completely done addressing plugging some holes on their defense. I still expect the team to make a few depth-related moves along the defensive line and cornerback position before the season begins.

It only is a matter of what the timing of when those moves will happen, whether that comes in May when there are a few more free-agent options or August when the team has gotten a better look at the current talent on the roster.

Most NFL teams tend to go with the latter option, so if the Falcons are on the verge of making any major roster additions, they might not occur until the first week of September.

However unlike the defense, the Falcons’ offense is very likely intact for what presumably will be its lineup heading into the regular season. There simply isn’t going to be nearly as much competition for offensive spots this summer in training camp as there will be for the defense.

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Austin Hooper

In reality only one of the team’s 11 starting spots on offense appears likely to be up for grabs this summer. That is the tight end position where veteran Jacob Tamme and third-round pick Austin Hooper are set to compete for the starting spot.

Tamme will probably win the job but that won’t preclude Hooper from earning a significant amount of playing time this year. Ultimately who is named the “starter” doesn’t matter that much. Levine Toilolo “started” 15 games last season because the Falcons preferred opening games with a better blocking tight end than Tamme. Yet Tamme still managed to play roughly 250 more snaps than Toilolo over the course of 2015, despite playing one less game.

It’s a safe bet that the Falcons will feature a similar arrangement this season at tight end with Hooper taking over Toilolo’s “starting” role.

Beyond tight end the Falcons’ other 10 projected starters are fairly predictable. There almost certainly will be talk this summer about a brewing competition at running  Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman this year, especially if both backs manage to remain healthy unlike last summer. They both missed the majority of August with hamstring injuries.

Although there may be talk of a competition, one can fully expect that Freeman will remain the starter. But that doesn’t mean that Coleman doesn’t have the capacity to make things interesting.

Coleman Could Push Freeman This Summer For Bigger Role on Offense

The Falcons really thought highly of Coleman last year when they drafted him. They took him in the third round and indicated that they also considered taking him in the second round before ultimately deciding to show some patience.

If this team was completely sold on Freeman as their starter at that point, they wouldn’t have considered using one of the first 42 selections in the 2015 NFL Draft on a running back.

Alabama’s Derrick Henry was selected 45th overall by the Tennessee Titans in last month’s draft under expectations that he’ll grow into their main tailback once the team turns the page on 28-year old DeMarco Murray at some point in the near future. It’s likely that the Falcons could still have a similar view of Coleman despite Freeman’s status atop the depth chart.

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Tevin Coleman

Of course Freeman changed the narrative by having as highly a productive a 2015 as one would’ve expected. But it’s easy to forget that Coleman was actually given the starting gig to start 2015 and played relatively well through the first five quarters in which he held the job before injuries derailed him once again.

Injuries also prevented the Falcons from seeing how a true competition between Freeman and Coleman  would play out last summer, forcing the team to spend the bulk of last August with Terron Ward taking first-team snaps at running back.

One thing to monitor in any potential rematch between the Falcons’ two young running backs will be to see if the competition is as close as it appeared it was going to be before Freeman and Coleman’s injuries. While Coleman isn’t going to leapfrog Freeman on the depth chart this summer, barring injury; he could potentially carve into Freeman’s reps.

The coaching staff wants to see Coleman succeed and will be looking for ways to better integrate him into the offense this season. Coleman averaged just 2.9 carries per game last season during the eight games in which Freeman was the starter. In any one of those games, Coleman never saw more than four carries.

Coleman was too often an afterthought last season and the Falcons will need to find a better way to incorporate his skill set into the offense. But obviously Coleman will have to show that his skill set deserves an expanded role on offense. If he cannot particularly increase his value in the passing game by improving as both a receiver and blocker, then there’s no point increasing his reps on offense.

Like the tight end position, any looming training-camp battle at running back is likely going to be more about players jockeying for playing time not necessarily an adjustment of who is deserving of a starting role.

Most of the actual roster battles for the Falcons on offense this summer will be various players duking it out for reserve roles. Matt Schaub and Sean Refnree are poised to take on each other for the right to back up Matt Ryan at quarterback, while Justin hardy leads a competitive group of receivers trying to establish hierarchy at that spot after the team’s two starters.

Up front the Falcons are pretty firm in who their five starters are expected to be this year, but four or five reserve spots along the offensive line are fairly fluid. Mike Person is the closest thing to a lock to nab one of those spots among the five veterans and one rookie expected to be the front-runners in the competition for those spots.

Thus much of the ink devoted to the Falcons offense this summer during training camp will likely focus on the team’s newest additions to the starting lineup and how they integrate themselves with the holdovers.

That will mostly focus on wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, whose potential impact in Atlanta’s offense is the most unknown. That’s because center Alex Mack, the team’s biggest free-agent signing of this past offseason, has very few question marks surrounding him.

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Alex Mack

Mack Poised to Solidify Center Spot for Falcons

Mack’s potential impact this year is not as unpredictable a variable as Sanu’s could be. As an eighth-year veteran that has logged over 100 starts in the NFL, Mack is clearly more of a known commodity. His experience playing under Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan when both were with the Cleveland Browns in 2014 also minimizes questions on how effectively Mack could fit into the Falcons offense.

Mack should help solidify the team’s biggest weakness up front from a year ago: the center position. That’s where Person looked too often out of his element as a first-year starter at that spot. Not only in terms of botched snaps, but Person didn’t seem capable of making the necessary line calls and adjustments against the blitz that Shanahan’s West Coast offense requires at the pivot.

Seven of the 33 sacks the Falcons allowed last season were perpetrated by “off-ball” linebackers, i.e. linebackers that are predominantly pass-rushers like those typically employed by 3-4 defensive schemes. A year before, that number was less than half as high with three out of 32 sacks allowed in 2014 credited to an off-ball linebacker.

That’s a strong indicator of how effective opposing blitzes were against the Falcons in 2015 as opposed to past season. If one goes back to the heyday of Todd McClure, you’d learn that seven sacks given up to off-ball linebackers was the total accumulated by the Falcons offense over the final four years of McClure’s stint at center (2009 through 2012). That was out of 104 total sacks allowed in that span.

The expectations are that Mack’s veteran presence can revert the team back to the ability to handle various blitzes last seen during McClure’s time in Atlanta, where blitzing defenses were rarely ever problematic for the Falcons offense to handle. Mack’s experience within the scheme and facing many 3-4 defenses in the AFC over the past seven years should make him a lot more effective in that arena than Person was.

Not to mention the expectation that Mack will more importantly be an upgrade as a blocker. While blitz pickup and snapping the ball are important details of playing the center position, at the end of the day, how well a center blocks remains the most important factor. A heady center that can snap the ball perfectly isn’t particularly valuable if he consistently gets dominated at the point of attack.

While the blocking aspect of the position wasn’t a huge weakness for Person last year, there certainly remains room for significant improvement. That’s room that the Falcons are hoping Mack fills over the next few seasons.

Similarly, Sanu will also be asked to fill a void left at wide receiver due to the departure of long-time Falcon receiver Roddy White. White is of course the Falcons’ all-time leading receiver (at least until Julio Jones breaks his records) and was a staple of the team’s offense for about seven seasons.

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Mohamed Sanu shines with the ball in his hands

Falcons Hope Sanu Solidifies Problematic No. 2 Wide Receiver

Things took a turn for the worse for White beginning in 2014 when a nagging knee injury really slowed him down. But despite that injury, White still managed to produce a respectable 80 catches, 921 yards and seven touchdowns that year. Yet it was still clear that White was mostly taking advantage of the substantial scraps left in Jones’ wake, as opposed to fostering the sort of attention that he had earned the previous seven years.

Last year things became even more problematic for White thanks to Shanahan effectively writing him out of the offense. His production was nearly cut in half when it fell to 43 catches, 506 yards and only one touchdown. Although it’s fair to say that White’s skills had diminished so significantly that Shanahan’s attitude was somewhat justified.

But it left the team without a viable secondary option in the passing game as that role wound up being alternated by Leonard Hankerson and Tamme throughout most of 2015. Neither performed at a level high enough to justify such a role. Hankerson was cut before the season was up and Tamme’s limited value was confirmed when the team selected Hooper two weeks ago.

Sanu is now thrust into the position to potentially solidify that No. 2 spot, but it remains to be seen if he will. While he has certainly won the “public relations” battle with his frequent video postings featuring his offseason training, it remains to be seen how that hard work will translate onto the field.

That’s why his presence will likely be the largest looming storyline for the Falcons offense this summer, as folks try to glean from practices and preseason games just how much Sanu will impact in his new role in Atlanta.

It’s likely that Sanu will impress in training camp as it shouldn’t be hard for a player blessed with his size, athleticism and large hands to impress in shorts. After all, Tamme and Toilolo were both deemed standouts throughout last summer’s camp. But ultimately it will be down to whether Sanu is able to step up when the pads go on and the games matter at the outset of the regular season in September.

And what the best litmus test to see whether Sanu is up to par is in the worst-case scenario for the Falcons: an injury to Julio Jones.

Jones has been the driving force of the Falcons offense for the past four years. When he’s playing at a high level, the Falcons are extremely difficult to stop and slow down. When he’s not, the team has typically become ordinary.

The ideal No. 2 receiver for the Falcons would be someone like what Golden Tate has been for the Detroit Lions the past two seasons. After Tate had an up-and-down tenure with the Seattle Seahawks, he signed with the Lions in 2014 to be the second option across from recently retired superstar Calvin Johnson.

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Golden Tate scores against the Falcons in 2014

Golden Tate Represents Ideal Impact Falcons Looking For With Sanu

Tate has since blossomed in Detroit as one of the league’s more productive receivers, having risen to the occasion multiple times when the Lions have been without a healthy Johnson in the lineup. Johnson missed three games in 2014 due to injury and the Lions managed to win all three, including a last-minute victory over the Falcons in London.

The previous year the Lions sported an 0-2 record in a pair of games that Johnson missed, averaging just 11 points per game in those two outings. In the three games Johnson missed in 2014, that scoring output increased by a touchdown to just over 18 points per game. While by no means a great offensive output sans Johnson, it was more than good enough to win those games thanks to the backing the offense with one of the league’s stoutest defenses in 2014.

The hope is that Sanu can do the same for the Falcons especially since he and Tate make roughly the same amount. Sanu signed a contract with the Falcons that averages $6.5 million annually this past offseason, including $14 million in guaranteed money and a $20 million payout over the first three seasons. Tate similarly signed a deal back in 2014 that averaged $6 million per season, included $13.25 million in guaranteed money and a three-year payout of $18 million.

If Sanu is going to live up to Tate’s expectations, he’ll have to similarly carve out a significant chunk of production away from Jones, as Tate has done with Johnson.

Over the past two years in the 29 games they’ve played alongside one another, Tate and Johnson have put up comparable stats in several categories. Tate has essentially become the possession wideout to Johnson’s vertical playmaker. The latter of whom has generated 32 plays of 20 or more yards and 17 touchdowns to Tate’s 20 and eight, respectively.

But Tate has caught more passes (165) on less targets (238) than Johnson (159 catches on 277 targets) in those 29 games beside one another. They have roughly an equal share in how Lions quarterback Matt Stafford has distributed the ball.

Tate also has consistently racked up huge production after the catch, with a league-leading 1,267 yards after the catch over the past two seasons. That edges out Jones’ 1,244 yards and Antonio Brown’s 1,219 yards in that span, representing the only three receivers that have eclipsed 1,200 yards after the catch. That equates to roughly 59 percent of all of Tate’s receiving yardage coming after the catch, indicating how effective he’s been playing as a slot receiver that is able to turn quick, timing-based throws into big yardage due to his skills with the ball in his hands.

Johnson on the other hand has produced very limited yardage after the catch relative to his overall production. Only 525 of his 2,291 yards the past two years came after the catch, which is roughly 23 percent. That is slightly higher percentage than White’s 22 percent of his 1,427 combined yards the past two years.

Tate’s presence over the past two years have made Johnson’s role primarily that of a red-zone and vertical threat rather than a chain-mover that has to carry the Lions offense as he did in previous years surrounded by sub par secondary targets like Kris Durham, Titus Young, Nate Burleson and Bryant Johnson.

Sanu’s best trait is his ability to win after the catch as 46 percent of his yardage over the past two years has come in that arena. He’s also been very effective working in the slot since his size can create mismatches against typically smaller slot corners. So at least on paper there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic than Sanu can provide a Tate-like impact for the Falcons offense.

Yet the bottom line may simply be that Sanu simply isn’t as good a receiver as Tate is or was at the time he left Seattle. While Tate was never competing for passes with receivers as good as A.J. Green during his days as a Seahawk, it is worth noting that Tate was arguably Seattle’s most reliable receiver over his last two seasons with the team.

Much of the “fansplaining” in regards to Sanu has been that he was held back by the presence of better receivers in Cincinnati that limited his production. But this doesn’t take into context the possibility that perhaps Sanu was utilized as much as he should’ve been in Cincinnati given his abilities.

Ultimately the answer to whether Sanu was held back by the talent around him or his own skill won’t be answered until the Falcons step onto the field this September. But it’s going to be one of the most intriguing questions surrounding the offense this summer.

But for now the Falcons can look back at their 2016 offseason and say they put the pieces in place to potentially answer that question among several others. Their starting lineup is relatively secure and the team has now added backup options at most of their major positions, upgrading quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, offensive guard and offensive tackle with free-agent and draft moves this spring. That in conjunction with improved competition at running and the solidification of center means that most of the team’s concerns offensively will just focus on whether it all comes together during the regular season.

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