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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 16 Matt Bryant

July 19th, 2014 No comments

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Bryant

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 16th-ranked player: kicker Matt Bryant.

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

Total Score: 61/100

Last year’s rank: 11
Player Grade: 60/100
Teams he is starter: 19 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 19 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 19 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +0
Positional Bonus: +2

Originally signed late in 2009 to replace the struggling Jason Elam, Bryant has been the epitome of consistency since joining the Falcons.

He has made 91 percent of his field goal tries in the Georgia Dome and has been outstanding in the clutch.

The only real issue concerning Bryant is age. At 39 years old, he’s reached the same age that Elam was during his final, disastrous season in Atlanta. And it’s only a matter of time before things go awry for Bryant as Father Time is undefeated.

But there’s no telling when that point will arrive. It could happen this year or it could happen three years from now.

This upcoming season marks the final year on Bryant’s current contract and it remains to be seen if he’ll continue playing beyond this year. But it’s probably a good bet that this will mark Bryant’s last season as a Falcon and the team will go with a younger option next season.

The hope is that Bryant can stave off Father Time for at least one more season and buy the Falcons a bit more time before they have to make a decision about the future of their kicking position.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 17 Joe Hawley

July 19th, 2014 No comments

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Hawley

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 17th-ranked player: center Joe Hawley.

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

Total Score: 60/100

Last year’s rank: 26
Player Grade: 53/100
Teams he is starter: 11 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 10 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

No different than teammate Peter Konz, 2014 will mark a very important season in the career of Joe Hawley.

It will be his first legitimate opportunity to hold down the Falcons’ starting center spot after spending most of the past two years looking over Konz’s shoulder.

Hawley stepped in over the final seven games of 2013 as the team’s starting center after the Falcons grew tired of Konz’s poor play. While Hawley wasn’t great, he played mostly well and was one of the few blockers that left positive feelings from his performance in 2013.

The goal will be for Hawley to pick up where he left off (although not exactly where he left off) from a year ago and continue solid to strong play in 2014.

It’s one thing to be an upgrade over one of the league’s worst centers for seven games, and it’s another to show that you can play at a relatively high level for a full slate of 16 games.

Hawley re-signed with the Falcons this past offseason on a two-year contract. And if he doesn’t play well this year, it will be harder for the Falcons to justify his return in 2015 with a cap hit of $4 million. It’s not an exorbitant figure, but it’s a lot more than a team would prefer to pay for a starting center who is not producing.

Years ago when Justin Tuck labeled the Falcons offensive line a bunch of dirt bags, it was likely Hawley that was the primary cause of that reputation.

With a penchant for playing beyond the whistle, Hawley has shown that he’s an able run blocker, but needs to solidify his pass protection.

Hawley turns 26 in October, and potentially could have a long career ahead of him if he can elevate his play to that next level.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 18 Paul Worrilow

July 19th, 2014 No comments

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Worrilow

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 18th-ranked player: linebacker Paul Worrilow.

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

Total Score: 60/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 56/100
Teams he is starter: 18 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 31 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

Worrilow certainly qualifies as the player that made the biggest leap in this year’s rankings considering his humble origins as an undrafted free agent last year. Expected to be a camp body last summer, Worrilow is now going to be counted upon to be a key difference-maker in the Falcons defense.

That has been largely brought on by the recent season-ending injury to fellow linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. But even before Weatherspoon went down, Worrilow was expected to be a big part of the team’s defensive resurgence in 2014.

Worrilow impressed last summer and coupled with the shoddy play of Akeem Dent, made a swift and prompt move into the starting lineup at middle linebacker.

One of the reasons why Worrilow was so impressive as a rookie was his natural feel for the game and instincts. He certainly showed a better knack for diagnosing plays and being in proper position than Dent, who had more than two years worth of NFL experience on him.

But there were still several times last season where Worrilow looked and played like a rookie. Yet, the Falcons remain optimistic that many of those issues can be ironed out.

Not blessed with great size and strength, Worrilow has bulked up this offseason to improve his tackling.

Another area where he’ll need to improve is in coverage. Last season, he wasn’t asked to play a ton of man coverage and there will be more opportunities this year. And it’s a question of whether Worrilow or opposing teams will take advantage of those increased opportunities.

Worrilow has the potential to grow into one of the better inside linebackers in the league, and should be helped by the beef the Falcons have provided in front of him that should better shield him from blockers and take advantage of those instincts to make plays.

As a second-year player, Worrilow is going to be asked to be the stabilizing force for the middle of the Falcons defense. He’s certainly capable of being that player, but it’s now going to have to be displayed on the field. Had Weatherspoon been aligned beside him, it would have made Worrilow’s job easier. But in the face of adversity, some plays will rise while others will fall. In the case of Worrilow, he now has to be the former.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 19 Steven Jackson

July 19th, 2014 No comments

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Steven Jackson

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 19th-ranked player: running back Steven Jackson.

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

Total Score: 59/100

Last year’s rank: 13
Player Grade: 59/100
Teams he is starter: 12 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 9 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +0
Positional Bonus: +3

Jackson has spent the bulk of his career as one of the league’s most consistent running backs. That consistency coupled with his durability were two of the main reasons why the Falcons were attracted by Jackson last offseason as their most notable free-agent signing.

But durability became a problem in 2013 as Jackson suffered a hamstring injury against his former team, the St. Louis Rams, in Week 2. He missed the next four games and then spent a few more games shaking off the rust before the Falcons started to see the player they had paid for.

However, Jackson still did not quite live up to the billing.

Coupled with a prolific passing attack, the Falcons intended to have Jackson finish games for them with his hard-running style and toughness to salt away leads. However, due to the injuries suffered at the wide receiver position, those plans were nixed early in the year. In the second half of 2013, Jackson wound up being asked to be the guy that drives the metaphorical bus for the Falcons offense.

Last season, Jackson was not capable of being that sort of player and really hasn’t been since 2011.

However, it certainly did not help Jackson’s cause that the Falcons offensive line was so porous, coupled with a defense that could not get enough stops to build leads.

And while time won’t rewind for Jackson, the hope is that improvements made in both those areas will give Jackson more opportunities to shine in 2014.

Jackson’s durability will also be very important for the team this year. He’s currently the only running back on the roster that has shown he’s capable of getting the tough, interior yards that are necessary in the NFL. So while there is certainly a decline in Jackson’s play in recent years, his value to the Falcons may have only increased.

Jackson will need to showcase that value this year due to the probability that it may be his last season in Atlanta. While signed through 2015, it’s going to be increasingly harder for the Falcons to justify keeping Jackson, who will be 32 next year and costing the team nearly $5 million in cap space.

And the only way that could be justified is if Jackson eclipses 1,000 yards and is every bit the player the team envisioned when they signed him. But even then, that may not be enough.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Interior Offensive Line

July 19th, 2014 No comments

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Hawley

The Atlanta Falcons finally stabilized the interior of the offensive line this offseason by signing Kansas City guard Jon Asamoah to handle right guard duties. Since the team allowed Harvey Dahl to depart via free agency three seasons ago, there has been a revolving door of one poor player after another stuck at that position.

The addition of Asamoah gives the team an accomplished player that will do well to bolster their pass protection, something that should greatly benefit quarterback Matt Ryan. If there are any issues surrounding Asamoah, it’s the run blocking that is a relatively minor concern.

Asamoah made his bones in Kansas City as a productive starter mainly with his athleticism and ability to block on the move in their zone-blocking scheme. That has not been the style of blocking the Falcons have preferred over the course of the Mike Smith Era, thus raising the question of how much, if any, adapting the Falcons will do for Asamoah.

Opposite Asamoah at left guard, Justin Blalock returns and was the team’s best blocker a year ago. But given the Falcons had one of the league’s worst lines, that might not be saying a lot.

But 2013 was one of Blalock’s better seasons as a Falcon and if he can carry that momentum in 2014, it should give the Falcons the best pair of starting guards that they’ve had in more than a decade. While Blalock has never blossomed into one of the league’s premier guards, he has become relatively consistent with above average to good play each year as he enters his eighth season in the league.

Contrasting with Blalock, there is a lot more uncertainty surrounding Joe Hawley at center. While Hawley played mostly well down the stretch as a replacement for Peter Konz at center, that does not automatically mean that given the opportunity to start every game this year will automatically translate to equal or greater success.

This summer will be an important one for Hawley, as he is getting his first legitimate chance to be the team’s long-term option at center. Initially drafted as the heir apparent to Todd McClure in 2010, Hawley was leap-frogged when the team drafted Konz in 2012.

Read more…

Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 20 Robert Alford

July 18th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Alford

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 20th-ranked player: cornerback Robert Alford.

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

Total Score: 56/100

Last year’s rank: 24
Player Grade: 50/100
Teams he is starter: 15 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 1 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +3
Positional Bonus: +4

After watching both Alford and fellow cornerback Desmond Trufant in college, I felt that Alford had the greater upside as an NFL corner due to superior physical tools. With what appeared on tape to be better speed, length and ball skills, Alford has the makings of a top NFL corner.

However, one of the drawbacks to being a corner with unique athletic gifts is that such a player has a tendency to rely solely on those gifts. Prime examples of recent Falcons that were in a similar boat were DeAngelo Hall and Dunta Robinson. Both Hall and Robinson were two of the premier corners in the league their first few seasons in the league but as time passes, such players begin to lose that athleticism. And without the technical foundation to rely upon, they quickly can become liabilities.

Obviosuly, for a second-year player like Alford that sort of issue is a long way off. But is still relatable to what he can do in 2014.

As a rookie, Alford had his brighter moments where his natural gifts were an asset in coverage. But there were also times where Alford looked a bit lost, and that lack of technical foundation showed. His key for success in 2014 will be improving that technique by playing with better balance, footwork and awareness.

If he can improve in those areas, that inconsistency can begin to be eliminated. And while I’m optimistic Alford will make significant progress this season, it’s likely to come with him taking a few lumps as well.

Another area where improvement must be made is in run support. That weakness was not exposed to any great deal in 2013 due to the fact that the majority of his reps came in the nickel (i.e. obvious passing situations). But as the Falcons’ presumed starting cornerback opposite Trufant, it’s likely he’ll see more than twice as many snaps where he’ll have to play the run in 2014.

Alford has a fairly bright future ahead of him, but the big question remains whether or not he will hit the ground running this season. It’s been a long time since the Falcons were able to say that they got good play out of both starting cornerbacks in the same season. Usually if one excels, the other does not. That’s a trend that dates back to the heyday of Ashley Ambrose and Ray Buchanan in 2001.

Getting good play from Alford as well as Trufant could really be a huge boost for the Falcons this season. Given the probability that the team won’t be able to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback, the defense may be largely reliant on turnovers to get stops. And if you have a pair of ball-hawking corners as opposed to one, it makes generating such turnovers a lot easier.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 21 Osi Umenyiora

July 18th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Osi Umenyiora

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 21st-ranked player: defensive end Osi Umenyiora.

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

Total Score: 54/100

Last year’s rank: 8
Player Grade: 57/100
Teams he is starter: 10 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 1 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 30 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +4

When the Falcons brought in Umenyiora as a free agent last offseason, they likely envisioned him as a younger, cheaper option than long-time Falcons pass-rushing stalwart John Abraham.

Umenyiora was after all more than three years younger than Abraham and over the course of the two-year deal he signed with the Falcons was expected to only count $8.5 million against their cap. Abraham on the other hand, was slated to count roughly $12.3 million against the team’s cap over the course of 2013 and 2014, making Umenyiora roughly a two-thirds of the cost.

Thus when Umenyiora finished 2013 with 7.5 sacks, about three-quarters of the average of Abraham (9.8 sacks) over his seven seasons in Atlanta, it seemed superficially like a successful bargain. However, diving a bit deeper below the surface revealed that Umenyiora’s production was significantly less than Abraham.

Using the metrics of Moneyball, my own review system, Umenyiora finished the season 12.5 “positive pass rushes” or PPRs, which include sacks, pressures and hits.

In contrast, Abraham earned 33 PPRs in his final season in 2012. That came off seasons of 31.5 PPRs in both 2009 and 2011, with 23 in 2010. So while the Falcons were paying two-thirds of the cost, they were more closely getting one-third of the production. And that lack of production contributed significantly to the fact that the Falcons finished dead-last in third-down defense in 2013.

The Falcons appear hopeful that Umenyiora will be better in 2014. At the tail end of last season, he was relegated to a situational pass-rusher coming onto the field in nickel situations. Unlike the rest of the Falcons defenders, who will alternate between three and four-man sets, Umenyiora’s role will strictly be a defensive end in a four-man front.

The goal being that should keep him fresher, which should equal more production. Whether it is effective remains to be seen. Umenyiora had a similar role with the New York Giants in 2012, but it did not pay dividends and prompted the team to let him walk after the season.

If the Falcons can’t get increased production from Umenyiora and others this year, it’s very likely that there will be a dramatic revamp of the pass-rush unit next season. And then Umenyiora’s brief time in Atlanta will draw more comparisons to that of Ray Edwards than Abraham.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Offensive Tackle

July 18th, 2014 No comments

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Baker

The major questions surrounding the Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle position center on their pair of starters: left tackle Sam Baker and right tackle Jake Matthews.

Those questions mainly are whether Baker can rebound after a 2013 season depleted by injuries and poor play, and whether Matthews can make an impact as a rookie. And those questions won’t get answered until the regular season, regardless how this summer turns out.

As for the first question about Baker, there isn’t a lot of room for optimism. In six years in Atlanta, Baker has managed to stay fully healthy for two seasons (2010 and 2012) and only in the latter year did he perform at a high enough level to merit distinction.

If there is reason for hope, it is that Baker’s performance against Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy in Week 9 was good, especially relative to his three appearances at the outset of 2013.

The hope is that in 2014, Baker can potentially string 16 starts together similar to his performance against Carolina. Otherwise, his future will be limited in Atlanta due to the presence of Matthews on the other side.

There’s little doubt the Falcons envision Matthews as the long-term blindside protector for quarterback Matt Ryan. The son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, Jake has the potential to be a long-term fixture. If his career is just half as successful as his father’s, then fans can expect Matthews to play a decade in Atlanta.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 22 Kroy Biermann

July 18th, 2014 No comments

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Kroy Biermann

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 22nd-ranked player: outside linebacker Kroy Biermann.

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

Total Score: 53/100

Last year’s rank: 19
Player Grade: 54/100
Teams he is starter: 15 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 26 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +4

Despite hardly playing last season, Biermann’s ranking goes largely unchanged. Mainly because while Biermann is by no means a star, he’s a very effective role player that could carve out a starting spot for roughly half the teams in the league, mostly at strong-side linebacker.

Biermann has developed over his tenure in Atlanta, being one of the few, true success stories among their late-round picks selected under general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

Biermann has grown for a situational rusher to a full-fledged starter at strong-side linebacker. While Biermann has no outstanding skill set in his repertoire, under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, he has blossomed in a versatility starter for the team.

If there is any strength to Biermann’s game, it’s likely his run defense which is surprisingly good considering he’s only 260 pounds. Biermann understands how to get leverage, using his smaller frame to get lower than opposing blockers and get stops there.

2014 potentially marks the final season of Biermann in Atlanta. Coming off a torn Achilles tendon, unless he can bounce back to his 2012 level as an asset in Nolan’s defense, he could be hard-pressed to earn a substantial contract from Atlanta in 2015, especially if a young linebacker like Tyler Starr shows growth in his rookie season.

But it could be hard to get rid of Biermann next year, even at age 30. Even if it’s not as a starting outside linebacker for the Falcons, again Biermann adds value as a rotational run-defender and situational pass-rusher. His versatility means that he can play both linebacker and defensive end for the team.

And while he’s never looked like an impact pass-rusher outside maybe the first few weeks of the 2009 season, he does show relatively consistent ability as a complementary rusher. Ideally, Biermann would be the third or fourth guy in a team’s rotation. However in Atlanta, for much of his career he has been counted upon to be the second option.

If other young pass-rushers show enough growth this season, it may lead to the ironic conclusion that when Biermann is finally poised to settle into the role he should have always been in, he will no longer be on the team.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 23 Tyson Jackson

July 18th, 2014 No comments
John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Tyson Jackson

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 23rd-ranked player: defensive end Tyson Jackson.

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

Total Score: 52/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 58/100
Teams he is starter: 13 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 1 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 22 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +2
Positional Bonus: +3

Jackson was one of the Falcons big, splash signings at the outset of free agency this year. He was brought in likely because he is an experienced 3-4 defensive end that he can beef up the Falcons run defense.

Jackson had a slow start to his career, and it would not be unfair to call him one of the bigger draft busts in recent memory. The Kansas City Chiefs envisioned their own version of Richard Seymour when they selected him third overall in the 2009 NFL Draft.

Jackson never lived up to that billing, struggling during his first two seasons when he got on the field. But things started to click by 2011 and he started to carry his own weight.

Now Jackson comes to Atlanta, where he’s presumably expected to be a bridge until players like Malliciah Goodman and Ra’Shede Hageman are ready to take on his role. The five-year contract he signed with the Falcons make it so that it’s unlikely he’ll make it to the third season when his cap hit bloats to $6.35 million.

In the meantime, the Falcons will likely expect Jackson to add value by his ability to shield linebackers from blockers and clog running lanes. His pass-rush ability is limited due to a lack of quickness and limited array of moves.

Ideally, and this was the case in Kansas City, he’ll be pulled off the field in nickel situations. Unfortunately, unless defensive tackle Corey Peters is healthy for most of the year, the Falcons may give Jackson a significant portion of pass-rush snaps because there may not be better options right now. Jackson would likely play inside in a four-man front next to Jonathan Babineaux in those situations, where perhaps what limited quickness he does possess might be functional against slow-footed guards.

But essentially Jackson is nothing more than a highly-paid role player, that is a good enough run stopper that he adds some value in a 3-4 scheme, but not enough where he is going to be as an essential piece of a good defense.

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