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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 6 Jon Asamoah

July 22nd, 2014 No comments

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Jon Asamoah

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with sixth-ranked player: offensive guard Jon Asamoah.

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

Total Score: 82/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 70/100
Teams he is starter: 30 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 20 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +3
Positional Bonus: +3

Of the Falcons prominent offseason additions, Asamoah is the most talented. He has the potential to immediately step into the starting lineup at right guard and become the team’s best blocker.

Asamoah comes from Kansas City where he spent the past three seasons as one of the better guards in the league. He ranked among the top 21 among premium website Pro Football Focus’ grades in each of the past three years, with 2013 being his weakest thanks in part to injuries and changes in scheme.

Asamoah missed the 2013 season-opener with a calf injury, but came back to start the next nine games for the Chiefs and played well. Then a shoulder injury in Week 11 sidelined him for the following week, and his replacement, Geoff Schwartz, played well enough that the Chiefs’ coaching staff opted to go with the “hot hand” for the remainder of the season.

But here in Atlanta, the expectations are that a now healthy Asamoah should pick up where he left off and solidify a problem spot for the Falcons at right guard.

The Falcons have featured a revolving door of ineptitude at right guard since opting to let Harvey Dahl walk in 2011. Garrett Reynolds and Joe Hawley struggled at the position that year, followed by Reynolds and Peter Konz the past two years.

Asamoah certainly will be a stabilizing force over his predecessors, and hopefully that will have positive impacts on linemates beside him in Hawley at center and right tackle Jake Matthews. Asamoah certainly offers an upgrade in pass protection, which will definitely benefit quarterback Matt Ryan.

The only concern about Asamoah is in essence how good he will be this year. Asamoah shined in the zone-blocking scheme of Kansas City over the years, using his superior mobility and athleticism to open up creases for the likes of running back Jamaal Charles. However, the Chiefs under Andy Reid last season began to gear themselves more towards a power, man-blocking scheme. That was one of the reasons why the team swapped in Schwartz, who was a much better fit in that particuar style of blocking. But even with the changes the Chiefs still managed to run a large amount of zone-blocking runs, a larger percentage than the Falcons have traditionally run over the past six seasons.

It remains to be seen if the Falcons will adapt their blocking scheme to feature Asamoah’s strengths more. At 305 pounds, Asamoah is not especially cut out to be a pile-mover at the guard position, which is what Dahl was and what the team hoped Reynolds and Konz could develop into. Such an adaptation to the scheme may also benefit left tackle Sam Baker, as well as Hawley and Matthews, who are lighter players that aren’t known for their “road-grading” abilities. Coupled with the team’s running back personnel in Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman, quicker backs that need adequate spacing, several signs point to the Falcons utilizing more zone-blocking in 2014 and beyond. It’s just a matter of how much.

If the Falcons make that switch in blocking scheme then it’s likely that Asamoah will have equal if not greater success in Atlanta as he did in Kansas City. If not, then it shouldn’t lead to Asamoah struggling since he should still be able to impact in pass protection, but it could make him a less effective all-around player and fail to meet the lofty expectations that his high ranking merits.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Linebacker

July 22nd, 2014 No comments

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Joplo Bartu

There are a lot of questions surrounding the Atlanta Falcons linebacker position, with a number of unproven players being asked to contribute larger roles in 2014.

For the Falcons, things took a turn for the worse when linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, the unit’s leader and best player, was injured in June with a torn Achilles. Weatherspoon’s loss has forced the team to look in the others’ directions to compensate.

Much of the void left by Weatherspoon is expected to be filled by middle linebacker Paul Worrilow. Among the three projected starters, Worrilow is the most solidified in his role. As a second-year player, he will have to take on a much larger mantle, becoming the unit’s top playmaker and leader on defense.

While Worrilow possesses the necessary traits for leadership, it remains to be seen if he can perform up to them. Worrilow came out strong last summer as an undrafted free agent to make the team, and this summer will need a similar emergence to lead the team.

Strong-side outside linebacker Kroy Biermann is expected to return from his own Achilles injury to flank Worrilow on the edge. After using Biermann as a bit of a “joker” player in his first season under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in 2012, the team moved him fully to linebacker last summer. But Biermann was injured too early in the season to know if that transition was successful. Thus, he’ll have to prove himself again this summer.

Beside Worrilow at the other inside position that is expected to replace Weatherspoon is Joplo Bartu. Bartu, a 2013 undrafted free agent like Worrilow, also quickly impressed the coaching staff last summer with his range and athleticism. He quickly carved out a role in the sub-packages due to his coverage potential, and relative to his undrafted status as a rookie, played well in 2013. But there have been recent concerns over whether the coaching staff is ready to place the same amount of trust in him this year.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 7 Sean Weatherspoon

July 22nd, 2014 No comments

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Weatherspoon

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with seventh-ranked player: linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.

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

Total Score: 78/100

Last year’s rank: 6
Player Grade: 64/100
Teams he is starter: 29 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 17 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

Despite the fact that Weatherspoon will not play this season, he still ranks among the team’s best players. While his production has dipped under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, he still has been the team’s most impactful linebacker.

The big concern with Spoon has always been his durability. Over the course of his four-year career, he’s missed a third of the team’s defensive snaps, most of which came during 2010 and 2013.

Weatherspoon possesses top-level traits which is why the Falcons drafted him in the first round in 2010. His speed and range are excellent, allowing him to cover sideline-to-sideline to make plays in pursuit. His closing burst on the ball is solid and his instincts are good. While possessing the athleticism and hips to match up in coverage, Spoon has struggled from time to time in that regard. His match ups against running back Darren Sproles have been one-sided in the past, usually in Sproles’ favor. He’s also been inconsistent when asked to cover tight ends in recent years, not reliably playing up to his athleticism.

All that said, Spoon’s future in Atlanta is in doubt. This year was going to be a make or break year for him, to show he can stay healthy and prove that he was a good fit in Nolan’s scheme. He possesses more of the classic traits for a 4-3 weak-side linebacker, which is where he excelled in 2011 in then defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s theme. That season he received the fifth-highest grade from premium website Pro Football Focus among 4-3 outside linebackers.

While his fit in Nolan’s multiple hybrid scheme was not poor, it was more or less like a oval peg being fit into a round hole. Taking on blockers at the point of attack was another weakness of Weatherspoon’s, however additions like nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson should have helped mitigate that to a certain extent this season.

This season marks the final year on Spoon’s rookie contract, and the Falcons will have to make a decision on his future next offseason. What that decision is remains to be seen. At this point, the best-case scenario is likely a modest, one-year “prove it” deal where Spoon can earn a long-term deal in 2016 if he plays up to expectations in 2015. Spoon’s cause will certainly be helped if linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu struggle this year in his absence. However, if either or both play well, it might prompt the Falcons to move on from Spoon next spring.

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Predicting Roddy White’s New Contract Extension

July 22nd, 2014 No comments
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Roddy White

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White is up for a contract extension, and it’s potentially the last deal he could sign from an NFL team before his career is over.

Because of this, it’s likely that Roddy’s people will try to get as much money as they possibly can. At the same time, the Falcons will likely be attempting to pay the least amount of money possible given White’s age and the expected decline in production that will occur from this point forward. These two conflicting leverage points could hold up negotiations, although my expectations that they won’t be insurmountable obstacles for both parties to reach an agreement.

The issue that White faces is mainly his age. White will turn 33 in November and unless he signs an extension will be poised to become a free agent after the season. White only has to look at recent contracts signed by other receivers that were at similar ages to know that the market is not kind to older wide receivers.

In 2012, the Indianapolis Colts re-signed a then 33-year old Reggie Wayne to a three-year contract worth $17.5 million with $7.5 million guaranteed. This past offseason, a 34-year old Steve Smith signed with the Baltimore Ravens for a three-year deal worth $11.5 million with $3.5 million guaranteed. A 33-year old Anquan Boldin inked a two-year extension worth $12 million with $9 million guaranteed to remain with the San Francisco 49ers this past spring as well.

All three of those deals suggest the market value for a 33-year old wide receiver is no more than $6 million/yr. with less than $10 million in guaranteed money. Contrast that to deals signed by other wide receivers this offseason:

  • DeSean Jackson, Washington Redskins: 27 years old; four years, $32 million; $16 million guaranteed
  • Eric Decker, New York Jets: 27 years old; five years, $36.25 million; $15 million guaranteed
  • Golden Tate, Detroit Lions: 25 years old; five years, $31 million; $13.25 million guaranteed

White would be hard-pressed to get deals that approach those on the open market, which gives the Falcons a considerable amount of leverage.

But at the same time, it’s doubtful that the Falcons would significantly lowball White. White has been a fixture in Atlanta for a number of years, and I’m certain the team wants him to retire a Falcon, no different than recent players like Hines Ward in Pittsburgh or Donald Driver in Green Bay. The team has also made no secret their intention to give White a contract extension since last November.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 8 Justin Blalock

July 21st, 2014 No comments
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Blalock

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 8th-ranked player: offensive guard Justin Blalock.

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

Total Score: 78/100

Last year’s rank: 10
Player Grade: 69/100
Teams he is starter: 29 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 18 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +3

Blalock’s ranking increased simply from the fact that he is coming off one of the better seasons he’s had in a Falcon uniform. Blalock’s solid 2013 season probably looks better in comparison considering many of the other Falcons blockers were especially bad. But Blalock’s play in 2013 was an uptick in his play over at least the two previous seasons, where he struggled to make an impact.

At least in the early going of the season, Blalock was one of the few Falcons blockers playing at a high level. His production dipped a bit over the final month of the season, when the blocking as a whole took a significant step back. Blalock only generated one key block over the final four games, after tallying 9.5 in the previous 12. He also gave up 3.5 of his total 4.5 sacks allowed in the final fives games of the 2013 season. There were also five hurries allowed in the final three games, with 8.5 total for the season.

But Blalock should be expected to bounce back this year and play at a level comparable to his play through the first three-quarters of 2013. He should be helped by a healthy return of left tackle Sam Baker, as well as the fact that the team should have an upgrade at right guard in Jon Asamoah. Typically, NFL teams slide their protections the left, leading the center to help out the left guard moreso than the right one. With Asamoah being capable of being left on an island at right guard, that should allow Blalock more help on his side.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 9 Matt Bosher

July 21st, 2014 No comments

Matt Bosher

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 9th-ranked player: punter Matt Bosher.

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

Total Score: 75/100

Last year’s rank: 17
Player Grade: 67/100
Teams he is starter: 23 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 23 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 23 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +5
Positional Bonus: +2

Why does Bosher rank so highly? Well, firstly he’s a really good punter. And my scoring system (linked above) doesn’t negatively effect a really good player at a low-value position like punter as other rankings might. Such a player is always going to be rated higher than an average player at a high-value position.

And secondly, I repeat that Bosher is a really good punter.

For much of his 2011 rookie season, Bosher drew considerable criticism from me for poor play. If there’s any player on the Falcons team that you’re retroactively making the argument was hurt most by the 2011 lockout, it was probably Bosher. For most of the first half of that season, he was the worst punter in the league. But by year’s end, his play had started to reach adequate levels, and hasn’t look back ever since.

Now entering his fourth year in league, Bosher is one of the premier young punters. He’s one of a handful of punters that also kick off for their respective teams. Per Pro Football Focus, Bosher had the third-lowest percentage of kickoffs returned by opposing teams, meaning that he can consistently boot touchbacks and keep teams from starting drives beyond their own 20-yard line.

He also graded among PFF’s top five punters and shined particularly with getting hang time in open field punts. His strong leg is able to help flip field position, but he can also control that booming leg with good hangtime. More often that not, breakdowns on the Falcons punt team over the past two years have been due to poor coverage or poor blocking leading to two punts blocked last season.

Bosher is still growing as a player, but he’s morphed himself into one of the team’s best players. It’s a good bet that among the 2011 draft picks, he’ll be the first one to earn a contract extension, even before wide receiver Julio Jones.

And if you needed a third reason for Bosher’s high ranking, then just go back and watch highlights of his performance against the New York Jets.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 10 Jonathan Babineaux

July 21st, 2014 No comments
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Babineaux

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 10th-ranked player: defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux.

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

Total Score: 74/100

Last year’s rank: 7
Player Grade: 67/100
Teams he is starter: 29 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 14 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +0
Positional Bonus: +3

While his salary may have been eclipsed by the likes of Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson this offseason, Babineaux still remains the team’s best defensive linemen. He’s only player up front that is a steady every-down player, meaning can make plays both against the run and the pass.

The issue for Babineaux is that his play has declined each year since his breakout season in 2009. Each year, there appear to be less and less games where Babineaux’s impact along the line of scrimmage is clear. In 2012, he had that sort of impact in roughly half the games played. A year ago, that figure was virtually cut in half.

One of the possible reasons for that is simply the natural decline that comes with age. Babineaux turns 33 in October, and typically it’s around age 31 or 32 when plays of his ilk start to decline. That ilk is penetrating tackles that rely on getting upfield and being disruptive in the backfield.

But another reason for that is due to the sheer number of reps he was forced to play last year. Per premium website Pro Football Focus, Babineaux played in 87 percent of the Falcons’ defensive snaps last season. That is way too much for a player at this point in his career. That number hopefully can be reduced to under 60 percent in 2014.

Another promising thing is that Babineaux’s new three-year contract should keep him in Atlanta for the remainder of his career. None of his cap hits become prohibitive, with the highest being $3.67 million in 2015, which is still lower than any of the cap hits he’s had over the past five seasons since signing an extension in 2008. That means that as long as his production is up to par, Babineaux should have a spot on the Falcons roster.

Keeping that production up to par will require help from a stronger rotation, which the Falcons have seemingly added with the additions of Soliai and Jackson, as well as drafting Ra’Shede Hageman. Malliciah Goodman will also be a heavy factor in the mix as well. The Falcons don’t really have an excuse to overuse Babineaux in 2014, which should mean that his production could rebound back to 2012 levels if Father Time hasn’t taken too much of a toll.

Babineaux is an important piece in the Mike Nolan defense. Playing a mix of five-technique defensive end and three-technique defensive tackle, Babineaux is a versatile player that has proven to be disruptive at either spot. The latter position is probably his most natural, where Babineaux should earn more opportunities particularly if players like Hageman and Goodman can earn significant snaps as five-technique ends.

Ideally, Babineaux’s primary role will come on third downs when the Falcons will likely employ a four-man front. That way, Babineaux’s quick burst upfield can be saved for passing situations with Hageman and Goodman taking the brunt of the snaps in running situations. That would be the best way to utilize Babineaux and save him wear and tear this season.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 11 Paul Soliai

July 21st, 2014 No comments

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Soliai

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 11th-ranked player: defensive tackle Paul Soliai.

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

Total Score: 69/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 63/100
Teams he is starter: 22 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 14 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 31 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +3

While Soliai is a two-down player, the simple reality in the NFL is that every team needs a couple of players like that. Certain players that can be really effective against the run, something that Soliai is capable of being. It’s why Soliai could find a role with 31 other NFL teams and could start on roughly two-thirds of NFL teams because most teams still employ base personnel that is geared towards defending the run.

For the record however, I’d also like to state that I think the 3-4 nose tackle is one of the more overrated positions, at least in terms of overall value in today’s NFL. Many people believe that the 3-4 nose tackle is the essential piece to making a good 3-4 defense, but history clearly disagrees with that. While nose tackles like Vince Wilfork and Casey Hampton were great on past top New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers defenses, respectively, it was instead ends like Richard Seymour and Aaron Smith that really were the lynchpins to both of those defenses’ successes. The same holds true today, with top 3-4 defenses usually having a dominant end (e.g. J.J. Watt, Justin Smith, Calais Campbell, Muhammad Wilkerson, etc.) rather than a dominant nose tackle (e.g. Earl Mitchell, Isaac Sopoaga, Dan Williams, Damon Harrison, etc.).

There certainly was a time when the conventional wisdom that having a good nose tackle was true, but that wisdom stems from an era of the NFL where running the ball was still the norm. In today’s NFL, most teams pull their nose tackles off the field in passing situations, which are also now the majority of plays, thus decreasing their value.

It was one of the main reasons why I wasn’t too thrilled when the Falcons elected to give Soliai a $33 million contract this offseason. While Soliai is probably one of the premier nose tackles in the league, that might not be saying as much given the aforementioned decreasing value of the position. Most NFL teams are plugging and playing with middle and late-round talent.

However, Soliai will help the Falcons beef up their run support and will be primarily tasked with keeping blockers off inside linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu. While that might not be as valuable as it was say a decade ago, it still holds value especially playing in a division where teams like Carolina and Tampa Bay operate run-based offenses.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Defensive Tackle

July 21st, 2014 No comments

Andrew Weber- US PRESSWIRE

Corey Peters

The Atlanta Falcons will feature more competition at the defensive tackle position in regards to their reserves since their starting lineup was solidified in the offseason by the signing of Paul Soliai.

As I explained in the write-up on the Falcons defensive ends, all signs point to the Falcons adopting more of a 3-4 schematic look in their base attack on defense this season. The addition of Soliai is a big part of that reason for he is the prototypical 3-4 nose tackle.

Big, strong and capable of absorbing double teams, Soliai gives the Falcons something they did not truly have with Corey Peters last season. Peters was capable in performing some of those roles, but was by no means the classic version of the 3-4 nose that usually weighs in above 320 pounds. Coupled with Peters’ recovery from injury, it was clear the Falcons were going to need more help at the position.

They found that in Soliai with a substantial long-term contract. If offensive tackle Jake Matthews is the jewel of the draft class, then Soliai is that for free agency based purely off his contract. And thus, it doesn’t make sense for a team to spend as much money as they did on 3-4 players like Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson and not utilize them in the manner that suits them best.

Soliai will start for the Falcons, but will likely be pulled off the field in most passing situations. That was the case in Miami as Soliai had a tendency to wear down over the course of games. The Falcons will need to find a way to minimize that.

A heavy rotation with Peters could be one answer, but that is dependent on his health. Peters told me himself that he is expecting to return for the regular season opener, and if that is the case then he’ll be able to earn reps replacing Soliai in passing situations.

Unlike some 3-4 teams, the Falcons will likely utilize a four-man front when they employ their nickel sub-packages on passing downs. It’s likely that the same starting lineup the team featured up front last season: Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Massaquoi at the end spots with Peters and Jonathan Babineaux at tackle will be their go-to group. That potentially puts the team’s four best pass-rushers (minus linebacker Kroy Biermann) on the field at the same time.

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Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Last Week – July 21, 2014

July 21st, 2014 No comments

Falcons will be essentially the Julio Jones Show in 2014

The Atlanta Falcons begin training camp later this week, signaling that the NFL offseason is over. While there are still 46 days until the regular season kicks off, it now feels like football is finally right around the corner.

One of the best things about the NFL is the unpredictability of every season. Of the three major American sports, it is the most unpredictable from year to year.

Which brings me to the Falcons and what will happen in 2014. A lot can happen, which again reflects the uncertainty surrounding all 32 NFL teams. While I feel like there is a very large spectrum representing what can happen this year, the 2014 Falcons season could fall anywhere on that spectrum.

The worst-case scenario appears to be a Falcons season similar to the one we just suffered through in 2013. In that scenario, injuries continue to plague the team and/or many of the young players expected to step up this season do not do so.

But the best-case scenario likely sees the Falcons earning a playoff berth, most likely as a wildcard team. While I’d like to believe that the Falcons can win the NFC South, the rest of the division appears too tough for this team to reach that level.

And that’s because, while I think the Falcons can be good, I don’t expect them to be great. This is not a team like that 2012 team that has the potential to be special.

Yes, it’s true this team is stronger in a number of areas than that 2012 team. The offensive line play should be stronger this year with the addition of right guard Jon Asamoah.

While an addition like Jake Matthews will almost certainly upgrade the Falcons front from a year ago, I’m not sure it’s fair to expect Matthews to come in right away and be better than Tyson Clabo was in 2012. That year was by no means the best season Clabo had in a Falcon uniform, but he still played at a fairly high level for a large chunk of the year. That would be a tall order for a rookie tackle like Matthews.

But it’s those types of the things that have me considering what are the biggest keys to success for the Falcons 2014 season.

The aforementioned play of the offensive line is certainly one, but the biggest key has to be the health of Julio Jones.

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