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Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Last Week – July 28, 2014

July 28th, 2014 No comments
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Desmond Trufant is the rare impact rookie in NFL

Atlanta Falcons training camp has begun. And all the prognostications and analysis that has occurred over the past six months of the NFL offseason are basically thrown out the window at this point as things will soon be decided on the field.

It’s one of the reasons why football is great because of its unpredictably. As I noted last week, it’s one of the most unpredictable of the major American sports. And it’s for that reason, what I do is somewhat meaningless.

Like so many others, for the past six months I have made a bunch of educated guesses as to what I thought the Falcons would do this offseason, in the draft, and ultimately how that would lead to a successful or unsuccessful 2014 season.

What will ultimately happen this season is completely beyond me. If I knew, then I’d get on the first plane to Las Vegas and bet it all.

There are always several surprises in not just the regular season, but in training camp. There is always a player or two that winds up making the Falcons roster that I’m fairly dumbfounded as to why it happened. There’s always a promising prospect that doesn’t make the cut which disappoints me. There’s always a player that I had exceedingly low expectations on entering the summer, but manages to blow those out of the water. And then there’s the opposite, a player that disappoints greatly during the summer months. It all adds up to an eclectic mix that will eventually make up the Falcons 2014 roster.

One of the things that typically emerge during the initial days of camp reports and observations is how promising much of the new blood added to roster in the offseason is looking.

For instance, one can make the argument that after cornerback Desmond Trufant the best player on the Falcons defense last year was defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. And it’s very possible that he may hold that title going into 2014. But you probably won’t hear very much about Babineaux this summer during camp practices because he’s old news. Unless Babineaux is schooling one of the young kids like Malliciah Goodman or Ra’Shede Hageman on the intricacies of the position, there won’t be a lot of buzz surrounding him. Yet given that he’s the best player up front, he probably is a player that practices the best as well.

But nobody wants to hear how Babineaux still looks solid in the various camp reports you’ll find over the next several weeks. It’s more about how those young guys like Goodman and Hageman are looking and likely to contribute significantly in 2014.

So pardon my cynicism, but that’s the nature of the beast. People tend to get caught up in what is shiny and new rather than what appears old hat.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 1 Julio Jones

July 25th, 2014 No comments

Josh D. Weiss-US PRESSWIRE

Julio Jones

I’ve counted down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s finish with top-ranked player: wide receiver Julio Jones.

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

Total Score: 97/100

Last year’s rank: 2
Player Grade: 88/100
Teams he is starter: 28 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 32 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

Jones’ status as the top player can be simply revealed by looking at his play over his 10 most recent games. In that span, he’s caught 74 passes for 1,022 yards and seven touchdowns. Extrapolated over 16 games that would equal a full season’s total of 118 catches for 1,635 yards and 11 touchdowns. Such a reception total would tie for the 10th most in an NFL season, and his yardage would be the 12th most.

The Falcons offense has morphed into a Jones-centric one. Once upon a time, running back Michael Turner was the driving force of the offense, but now Jones makes it go. Matt Ryan’s passer rating drops 16 points when Jones has not been on the field the past three seasons, something the Falcons felt wholeheartedly last season when Jones missed the final 11 games of the season.

That’s simply because the entire complexity of how teams defend the Falcons changes dependent on whether Jones is in or out of the lineup. Defenses have to respect the deep ball when Jones is on the field, and don’t when he’s not. He dictates coverage as he constantly draws safety help over the top, which has opened up opportunities for Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez underneath, where they work beautifully.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Special Teams

July 25th, 2014 No comments

Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Devin Hester

The Atlanta Falcons special teams unit won’t appear much different than it has the past two seasons with the same group of specialists at kicker, punter and long snapper. But there is one big addition in the return game that could make a significant difference.

Incumbent kicker Matt Bryant, punter Matt Bosher and long snapper Josh Harris return for the third consecutive season. Bryant has been a reliable, clutch kicker over his past five seasons with the Falcons. He’s getting up in age and 2014 might mark his final season in Atlanta, but the Falcons should feel fairly confident that his previous success will continue this year. The team did however bring in a young option in undrafted rookie Sergio Castillo to push him. Castillo is a long shot to unseat Bryant, but can impress the coaching staff enough that he can return on the short list of kickers next year if the team and Bryant part ways.

Bosher is becoming one of the league’s best young punters and won’t face any challengers for his position. Bosher is likely due for a contract extension at the end of the year, and thus his goal this summer will be preparing to put forth his best effort during the season to achieve maximum earning potential.

Harris has had a few lapses over the years, but they appear to become less and less with each passing season. So there’s no reason to expect the Falcons to be disappointed with his performance moving forward.

However, the one big move occurred with the team now having ex-Chicago Bear Devin Hester serve as return specialist. Hester is arguably the best return in NFL history and needs just one more score to sit atop the all-time leader board as far as non-offensive touchdowns go. Hester, 31, is not quite the dynamic threat he was in his prime, he’s still a very effective return threat that commands respect from opposing teams. Many teams still kick away from him because of his potential to take it the distance every time he touches the ball, although it’s not quite the death sentence it once was.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 2 Matt Ryan

July 24th, 2014 No comments

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Matt Ryan

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with second-ranked player: quarterback Matt Ryan.

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

Total Score: 91/100

Last year’s rank: 1
Player Grade: 84/100
Teams he is starter: 24 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 24 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +5

Ryan held the top spot last year and his slip in this year’s rankings had to do with so much happening in 2013 that exposed too many of his weaknesses.

Ryan has never been blessed with great arm strength and thus the vertical element of the team’s passing attack has always been limited. Like most quarterbacks not named Roethlisberger, Ryan also has a tendency to shy away from contact. Hitting him early and often can significantly quicken his trigger leading to a lot of checkdowns, making it even harder for the team to find the big passing plays necessary to excel. Ryan certainly took his fair share of heavy contact last year. Hopefully with the upgrades made on the right side of the offensive line with Jon Asamoah and Jake Matthews, it should eliminate that problem.

Last season it became clear by year’s end that Ryan was not the sort of quarterback that could significantly elevate the marginal receive talent he was given. Ryan is much more cerebral than someone that will fly by the seat of his pants. Unfortunately after wide receiver Julio Jones went down last year, the Falcons needed more of the latter style of play from their quarterback.

In 2012, Ryan acted as a distributor of the football, wheeling and dealing and letting his receivers: Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez make plays. In 2013, without that caliber of talent on the receiving end of his passes, the Falcons offense struggled to put points on the board.

Ryan had a great deal of trust in Gonzalez to win in traffic. Now the Falcons appear to be saddling him with Harry Douglas as his third option, a player that has routinely struggled to win in traffic. Newly added wide receiver Devin Hester was never a reliable receiving option in Chicago, and it’s unlikely that will change in Atlanta. And tight end Levine Toilolo is very unproven as a receiving option. Essentially, the Falcons still have a ways to go before Ryan’s supporting cast beyond Jones and White is worth writing home about.

Ryan’s main strengths are his intelligence, decision-making and ability to win before the snap at the line of scrimmage. Ryan can diagnose mismatches very well, and it’s why the Falcons offense is most effective when the team operates out of the no-huddle. It’s not a coincidence that in the middle of the season when injuries at wide receiver forced the team to scrap the no-huddle, Ryan struggled mightily. If Jones, White and Douglas remain healthy, the Falcons shouldn’t have any issue running the no-huddle this year. However, if one or more of them is injured, it remains to be seen if Hester, Toilolo and the rest of the receivers are ready to fill any void.

Ryan is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league and more than capable of bringing a Lombardi Trophy to Atlanta. If the Falcons want Ryan to excel at the highest levels, they need to do a much better job surrounding him with not just better, but the right kind of talent. He needs bigger, faster receivers and strong offensive line play. A stronger ground attack would also relieve much of the stress of Ryan having to carry the offense with his arm. That way if future injuries sap the team’s ability to run the no-huddle, the team can rely on the run game to keep the offense afloat.

While the Falcons have made several strides in these areas in 2014, they haven’t yet reached their full potential. Until they do, there’s going to continue to be a degree of disrespect directed Ryan’s way.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Safety

July 24th, 2014 No comments

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Lowery

The Atlanta Falcons safety position is one that is in flux, as free safety Thomas DeCoud will not be entering camp atop the depth chart for the first time in five summers. Finding a suitable replacement will be critical aspect of the team’s training camp.

The player most likely to fill DeCoud’s shoes is Dwight Lowery. Lowery went under the radar this offseason because the Jacksonville Jaguars cut him early during the 2013 season. Lowery suffered a concussion three weeks into the season, and the Jaguars in rebuilding mode opted to cut him outright. Lowery was not scooped up until the Falcons nabbed him in early April in one of the later waves of free-agent signings. That leaves many skeptics as to whether Lowery is capable of stepping in at free safety. Lowery’s obscurity in Jacksonville coupled with the long absence from the field fuels that skepticism.

DeCoud’s poor play led to his release in February and the expectations are that his replacement will not just fill his shoes, but be an upgrade as well. Lowery has the potential to be that since he’s a more consistent tackler than DeCoud and also his past as a nickel corner with the New York Jets to start his career means he should translate better in man coverage. If that is the case, then it should pay dividends for the rest of the Falcons secondary.

Particularly in regards to strong safety William Moore, who is in no way fearful of his job being lost. While Moore is not coming off one of his best seasons, it feels more like it was one aberrant weak season among several good ones rather than the beginning of a new downward trend. With stronger play out of the free safety, Moore can play a little more fast and loose, which is more to his style of flying around, hitting opponents and picking off any tipped passes over the middle.

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Roster Talk: Five Falcons on the Bubble

July 24th, 2014 No comments
Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

Darius Johnson

After examining the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons roster, that still leaves 50 players that did not get such in-depth looks. Most of those top 40 players will wind up making the Falcons 53-man roster this year, leaving little more than a dozen roster spots for the remaining 50.

Let’s examine several of the players “on the bubble” that may struggle to make the cut. All five of the following players have been counted among contributors in the past, but may not be any longer. In examining each, I’ll break down what exactly are their best avenues of making the team.

Darius Johnson, Wide Receiver

Johnson played well last year considering he was an undrafted rookie, leapfrogging both Drew Davis and Kevin Cone on the depth chart, two third-year veterans. But that won’t earn him lingering credit if he doesn’t perform up to task this summer.

He’ll face steady competition from a group of young, explosive receivers like Bernard Reedy. What hurts Johnson is that he won’t be able to help himself much on special teams. Given his smaller stature, he’s not shown that he’s very effective when asked to cover punts and kicks.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: Recapping the Top 40

July 23rd, 2014 No comments

In case you missed any of the ongoing series of articles ranking the Top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons in 2014:

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 4 Desmond Trufant

July 23rd, 2014 No comments

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Desmond Trufant

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with fourth-ranked player: cornerback Desmond Trufant.

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

Total Score: 85/100

Last year’s rank: 18
Player Grade: 70/100
Teams he is starter: 32 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 19 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +4

Trufant was a player that I was not super high on when the Falcons drafted him with their top pick. While seeing him as a “solid” player, I never really suspected that he would be more than an above average to good corner, but certainly had no illusions that he’d step in and be great as a rookie.

Then his play last preseason did not exactly inspire me to change that opinion, and I expected Drew Brees to feast on him during the 2013 season-opener against the New Orleans Saints. That prediction proved wrong.

While Trufant did have his fair share of early struggles, at no point last year did he look out of his element. It was perhaps Trufant’s game against Vincent Jackson in Week 7 that most impressed me. While he got beat several times in that game, he never backed down at any point. It reminded me of Brent Grimes’ performance against Anquan Boldin in 2010. Up until that game I had never really bought into the Grimes “hype,” but despite giving up several big catches to a very physical Boldin, Grimes was always in position but just couldn’t make the play.

Soon thereafter, I became one of the biggest champions of Grimes and while I’m not sure I could say the same in regard to Trufant, he’s right on the brink. Trufant will get several more big tests early in 2014, with potential matchups against A.J. Green, Jackson and Brandon Marshall, all of whom are top 15 if not top 10 wide receivers in the NFL currently. And of course that could culminate in London in Week 8 against none other than Calvin Johnson.

So Trufant will be tested early and often, but if he picks up where he left off last year then there is every reason to believe he will prove himself as one of the league’s premier corners. Over the final six games last year, Trufant only blew three coverages (per Moneyball) despite being targeted 31 times (per Pro Football Focus). Comparatively speaking, over the first six games, Trufant blew nine coverages on 38 targets. It was visible on tape at the end of the season that quarterbacks were purposefully shying away from throwing at his side.

That’s the mark of a true No. 1 cornerback, which we’ve seen for stretches with Grimes and Asante Samuel before in Atlanta. I’m not quite ready to place Trufant on that level yet. But due to the tough matchups he’ll face this season, it may only take a few solid performances early on before I do put Trufant on that pedestal.

The main concern with Trufant is a “sophomore slump.” That may not mean that he plays poorly this year, but his performance this season could be more reminiscent of the player that he looked like through the first half of the season than he did in the latter half. It won’t mean that he won’t be a better player than he was then, but simply given the level of competition, it would only be reasonable that he could be a little more inconsistent to start 2014 than he was when he finished 2013. And another reason why sophomore slumps occur, is the much higher expectations that come after a strong rookie campaign. It may be that some will put Trufant on an even loftier pedestal than Grimes or Samuel, and those may be expectations he’s not prepared to live up to.

But regardless, it’s clear that Trufant has the ability and potential to be one of the best corners in the league. It’s only a matter of whether his play on the field will bear that out this season.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Cornerback

July 23rd, 2014 No comments
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Alford (left) and Desmond Trufant

The Atlanta Falcons seem pretty secure as far as their starting cornerbacks go heading into the 2014 season, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of questions surrounding the position.

The first questions do center on their starters and how effective they’ll be now that the team lacks a true safety net at the position. A year ago, the team had long-time veteran Asante Samuel in that role. Now Samuel is gone and the team will be reliant upon starters Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford to rise to the occasion.

There is less question on whether Trufant can accomplish that task. Trufant is coming off a very promising rookie season where his play particularly down the stretch has many considering him one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Trufant regularly displayed his ball skills and disruptive capabilities at the cornerback position, breaking up or intercepting a pass in 13 out of 16 games last season including nine consecutive games to open the season.

If there is any concern, it’s the fear against a sophomore slump for Trufant. Such slumps can be precarious because they typically are not caused by a significant downturn in play, but by the much higher expectations placed on a player after a successful rookie season. There’s no doubt that expectations are high for Trufant this year, and his play in camp will likely determine whether or not he’s set to meet them.

Opposite him will be Alford, who has a few more questions to answer. Alford supplanted Samuel down the stretch last year thanks to the team’s abysmal record leading the coaching staff to install a youth movement on defense. Alford had his fair share of bright spots, but also several head-scratching ones. A talented athlete, Alford still needs to refine the technical aspects of playing the cornerback position. He certainly has the talent to impact this year, particularly if he can balance some of his inevitable mistakes with big plays.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 5 William Moore

July 23rd, 2014 No comments

Josh D. Weiss-US PRESSWIRE

William Moore

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with fifth-ranked player: safety William Moore.

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

Total Score: 82/100

Last year’s rank: 9
Player Grade: 69/100
Teams he is starter: 30 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 25 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +3

Moore gets a slight bump in the ratings thanks to the departures of Asante Samuel and Tony Gonzalez, coupled with the slips of Sean Weatherspoon, Jonathan Babineaux and Osi Umenyiora.

But expectations should be that Moore’s performance should improve from a year ago. Coming off a Pro Bowl year in 2012, Moore fell well short of that standard in 2013. He should be poised for a rebound year if he can get improved play at the free safety position from Dwight Lowery. If Lowery can be a stabilizing force in coverage and against the run, then it should allow Moore to get back to what he was best at in 2012: being aggressive.

Moore isn’t blessed with great coverage ability. In fact, under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons have gone out of their way to mask Moore’s coverage flaws by limiting the number of opportunities he’s matched up in man coverage against quality receivers and tight ends. This has put added stress on the free safety position to pick up the slack in coverage, which is why Lowery’s performance is important.

Instead, Moore excels as an enforcer against the run. He’s one of the hardest-hitting strong safeties in the league and has made his fair share of highlight-reel hits over the years. Many of those hits have also led to a number of forced fumbles over the years. His eight forced fumbles over the past four seasons is tied for the sixth-most among NFL defensive backs.

He’s also very opportunistic when he’s playing in coverage over the top, with a knack for intercepting tipped passes. In fact, nine of Moore’s 14 career interceptions have been as a result of tipped passes or overthrows.

Although already a defensive leader, Moore will take on a heavier burden this season given the injury to former collegiate teammate and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. Moore will have to find a balance between aggressiveness and discipline given a young, relatively unproven group of Falcons linebackers in front of him.

It’s an important year for Moore and how he performs could solidify him as one of the league’s premier safeties and be a critical factor in any Falcons defensive resurgence in 2014.

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