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Is Zeke Motta An Option For Falcons at Safety?

March 18th, 2014 1 comment
David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Zeke Motta makes a tackle

Two weeks ago, I discussed some excerpts from Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s appearance on the Rich Eisen Podcast.

Included in their discussion centering on the Combine, was a brief discussion of safety Zeke Motta. And it made me think that the Falcons are much higher on Motta than probably his play may merit.

Is it possible that the reason why the Falcons did not successfully land a free safety to replace the recently released Thomas DeCoud is because they believe Motta is capable of competing for the starting position?

But first, let’s take a look at what exactly Dimitroff said. This comes in the portion of the podcast where Eisen was asking whether or not the workouts done at the Combine influence teams’ draft boards.

Eisen: Does your board change now?
Dimitroff: No question. It changes and yet we’re very mindful of it not changing drastically. But there will be movements up and down. And quite honestly as much as we don’t want to talk about and we don’t want the agents to hear about it, when someone runs a truly horrible 40 time, it’s amazing how quickly a player can plummet.
Eisen: Just the one 40-yard dash?
Dimitroff: It’s amazing. One of the guys last year that we acquired through the draft was Zeke Motta from Notre Dame. Your guy Mike Mayock loved him and he didn’t run a good time at the Combine unfortunately. We drafted him in the seventh round and there was no way he should have been a seventh rounder. He fell quite a bit and we like what we have in him now. Some people just don’t run good times. They’re not good 40 time guys but they play a lot faster.
Eisen: So here you are using an example of how a guy dropped because of a 40 and yet he’s a football player that is more than useful to the Atlanta Falcons organization. So why read so much into somebody’s 40-yard dash?
Dimitroff: We talk about it all the time and the league is a matchup league. And that part of the matchup is so important. You can have the most athletic and smooth, fluid individual running routes, catching balls, doing whatever but if they can’t stay in phase, meaning they can’t stay with that player. Whether that’s a defensive back and a receiver or an O-lineman mirroring a D-lineman they have no chance in this league. So from a speed standpoint at his position it’s very important for him to have range and people pass him up. There are those situations where guys are football and game-speed fast and not on the fly.

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Takeaways From Last Week – March 17, 2014

March 17th, 2014 2 comments
John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Tyson Jackson

It’s not fun being so negative.

Which makes my negative reaction to the Atlanta Falcons initial free-agent moves doubly worse.

Are the Falcons a better team after signing guard Jon Asamoah, defensive tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson? Aboslutely.

Are they a significantly better team? No, not really.

At least not in some areas. Sure, they beefed up the run defense. But was the run defense that huge a need? Perhaps it’s selective memory, but outside Bobby Rainey’s Week 11 romp, I don’t recall that many instances where I felt like the defense getting the ball run down their throat.

I do remember the Falcons getting run on and run on a lot, but it never felt like it was something “out of control” to the degree to prompt swift and decisive action at the outset of the free-agent market. I think a lot of the poor run defense had more to do with the fact that they were so young at linebacker, coupled with shoddy tackling in the secondary. It seemed more like long runs were killing the Falcons, evidenced by the 28 runs of 15 or more yards they gave up last season, which was tied for the fourth-highest total allowed in the league.

Not to suggest that upgrading the run defense shouldn’t have been a priority for the Falcons, just not the priority.

I try not to be the guy that acts like the “armchair GM” that all his decisions are the right decisions. I’m very aware that I’m often wrong about things, and that there are several methods to the madness that is building successful NFL teams.

So when looking at the Falcons’ moves, I always try to see them from the team’s perspective. And if I can follow their logic and thinking, then I can usually accept, if not approve their decision-making.

So from the team’s perspective, it’s very clear they wanted to upgrade both lines. They re-signed two offensive lineman in Joe Hawley and Mike Johnson and added Asamoah. They went after defensive linemen by re-upping Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux while adding Soliai and Jackson.

It’s clear that the focus was on the interior of both lines, to add beef and “toughen up” the unit just like they had indicated was their plan all along. I mentioned Soliai as a potential target back in February, albeit with the expectation that he’d be a relatively cheap addition.

So on the face of things, I cannot fault the Falcons. In fact, I applaud them. They correctly identified the two biggest weaknesses of the team in both lines and addressed them with upgrades.

But once you go beyond that superficial layer, things start to fall apart.

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Breaking Down Joe Hawley and His Contract

March 14th, 2014 Comments off
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Hawley

ESPN’s Vaughn McClure already posted the numbers of the new deal that center Joe Hawley signed with the Atlanta Falcons on Tuesday. However, I’m going to talk about what those numbers really mean from a roster standpoint.

Here’s a basic overview of what Hawley got from the Falcons:

Contract: two years, $6 million with an additional $500,000 available through incentives
Guarantees: $3 million ($2 million signing bonus and $1 million base salary in 2014)

Cap Hits:

2014: $2 million ($1 million base salary + $1 million bonus proration)
2015: $4 million ($3 million base salary + $1 million bonus proration)

Pay close attention to those cap hits, particularly Hawley’s 2015 number. That’s a fairly high number for a center. Comparing that to Todd McClure, who in the final year (2011) of his extension signed in 2006 counted just $2.3 million against the cap. It’s also worth noting that the 2015 cap hit for Hawley is currently tied with Jason Kelce for the 10th highest at the position. Kelce just signed a lucrative six-year contract extension.

The point is that Hawley won’t be allowed to make that sort of money as a backup or even an underwhelming starter. Hawley not only will need to win the starting center spot in any potential competition with Peter Konz this summer, but he’ll have to play at a level in 2014 where there is zero doubt that he deserves the same role in 2015.

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Takeaways from Last Week – March 10, 2014

March 10th, 2014 Comments off
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Jon Asamoah

This weekend the NFL instituted it’s second “legal tampering” signing period, allowing free agents to begin negotiating with prospective teams before the official free agency period starts on Tuesday afternoon, March 11.

Already the Atlanta Falcons have been linked to a number of potential free agents, including guard Jon Asamoah, safety Mike Mitchell, and cornerback Champ Bailey.

But the Asamoah linkage seems strongest with multiple outside sources indicating that the Falcons interest in Asamoah is high.

While I like Asamoah quite a bit as a player, I’m not sure that he is a good fit in Atlanta. But apparently it seems like I’m in the minority in that regards.

As for Caplan’s assessment, I would have to respectfully disagree. Asamoah is a player that ideally fits in a zone-heavy blocking scheme because he’s very athletic, but not overly powerful.

The Falcons have incorporated more zone-blocking into their ground attack under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter the past two years, but still primarily a man-blocking team.

The Falcons have made an effort to emphasize size with their line acquisitions in recent years, evidenced by additions like Terren Jones, Lamar Holmes, Phillipkeith Manley and Peter Konz the past few years since Koetter joined the team. If you’re trying to be an offense that features a lot of zone-blocking, targeting plus-sized linemen, many of whom weigh in excess of 330 pounds is largely counterintuitive.

And the lines that Mike Tice and Wade Harman coached in Chicago and Baltimore respectively emphasized size and/or man-blocking.

Could the team’s interest in Asamoah suggest a shift in their blocking? Perhaps, but more than likely the answer is no.

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Free Agent Focus: Lamarr Houston

March 5th, 2014 Comments off

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Lamarr Houston

As mentioned earlier this week, the next of potential free agent targets for the Atlanta Falcons worth examining is Oakland Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston.

Houston doesn’t distinguish himself as the best available pass-rusher this offseason, but is probably the best fit for the multiple defense run by Mike Nolan here in Atlanta.

Houston spent the bulk of his first three seasons in Oakland playing left defensive end, where he excelled as a run defender. He finished in the top 10 according to Pro Football Focus’ run-stopping grades among 4-3 defensive ends in those years, with top 5 finishes in each of the past three seasons.

But Houston’s role in 2013 changed. In their attempts to feature him more as a pass-rusher, the Raiders switched Houston to the right side of the defense where he no longer rushed with his hand on the ground. Instead he spent the bulk of the season playing with his hand off the ground. Essentially Houston was transformed into the league’s largest rush linebacker.

He responded with a career-high six sacks and two forced fumbles and matched his career-high of 69 tackles from 2012. Clearly those numbers don’t indicate a world-class pass-rusher, but Houston is able to consistently get pressure despite not tallying a bunch of sacks. He has totaled 126 pressures (according to Pro Football Focus) combined over the past four years, compared to the 107 that current Falcon edge-rusher Osi Umenyiora has accumulated.

Listed at 300 pounds, it’s likely that Houston played at something closer to 280 this past season. He looked very similar in his build to Jonathan Babineaux back when he was listed at 285 in his younger days in Atlanta.

Strengths:

  • Good first step that does a good job bull-rushing because he can convert speed to power.
  • Adept at getting leverage against the run and making stops in pursuit.
  • Athletic and rangy for a big man that is comfortable dropping into coverage and playing in space.

Weaknesses:

  • Complementary rusher that is not a guy that you want anchoring a pass rush as the “top dog.”
  • Doesn’t have the bulk or size to consistently hold up inside against bulkier guards.
  • Lacks top-end burst and quickness to beat premier left tackles.

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Free Agent Focus: Jon Asamoah

March 3rd, 2014 Comments off
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Jon Asamoah

Ranking just behind his Kansas City Chiefs teammate Geoff Schwartz on a lot lists about the top free agent guards in 2014 is Jon Asamoah, making him a potential target for the Atlanta Falcons this offseason.

Asamoah (pronounced AH-suh-MO-uh) is not coming off his most successful season, losing his starting job at right guard to Schwartz towards the end of the year. But that doesn’t really portray the reality of how Asamoah’s career in Kansas City could potentially end if he walks in free agency.

Asamoah lost his job due to both injury and less than ideal play. He suffered a shoulder injury in Week 11 against the Denver Broncos, being limited the following week in practice. Schwartz replaced him as the starter at right guard, and his performance against the San Diego Chargers in Week 12 led to his keeping the job for the remainder of the season.

But Asamoah gave the Chiefs mostly solid production over the past three seasons since assuming the starting right guard spot after the departure of long-time veteran stalwart Brian Waters. His +8.9 Pro Football Focus grade in 2011 was second-best on the team behind only left tackle Branden Albert that year. He followed that up with a +15.0 grade in 2012, tying right tackle Eric Winston for the best on the roster. While there was a decline from Asamoah in 2013, his +7.9 grade still earned him third-highest on the roster and better than all but 19 of 80 other guards with significant playing time last year.

And it’s more than likely the decline of Asamoah had more to due with a shift in blocking scheme installed by new head coach Andy Reid than any decline in skill. Clearly, his Pro Football Focus grades indicate Asamoah fared well in the zone-blocking scheme employed under the previous regime. While the Chiefs didn’t completely scrap zone-blocking under Reid, there was more of an effort to become more of a straight-ahead smash mouth rushing attack, which is more in line with what Reid had in Philadelphia.

Over the years, the Eagles offensive lines under Reid featured massive blockers such as Tra Thomas, Jon Runyan and Jason Peters at offensive tackle and Shawn Andrews, Jermane Mayberry, Jamaal Jackson and Todd Herremans inside at guard and center, all of whom are north of 320 pounds and some over 340. When Reid made the decision late in his tenure to switch to a smaller group coached by Howard Mudd, it resulted in disaster for the Eagles.

The lighter, 305-pound Asamoah just doesn’t fit that sort of style as well as the 340-pound Schwartz.

Any questions surrounding Asamoah center on whether he could fare better with the Falcons, a team in desperate need of upgrading the play at right guard.

Strengths:

  • Athletic and very effective blocking on the move on stretch plays and getting downfield on the second level
  • Has good feet and does a nice job staying in front of speed in pass protection
  • Young, developing player with still room to grow

Weaknesses:

  • Not very big or powerful to create consistent push off the line
  • Will give up ground to powerful interior pass rushers
  • Has had a few nicks and bruises the past two years causing some slight durability concerns

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Free Agent Focus: Geoff Schwartz

March 3rd, 2014 Comments off
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Geoff Schwartz

There’s no doubt the Falcons need an upgrade at right guard, and Kansas City Chiefs guard Geoff Schwartz might be able to provide that. He is considered the top-rated guard this offseason by Pro Football Focus, Yahoo Sports! Shutdown Corner and Rotoworld.

Schwartz has had an interesting career, serving as a journeyman with three separate teams after being a seventh-round pick out of Oregon by the Carolina Panthers in 2008. He spent his rookie season on the Panthers practice squad, unable to make the final roster behind first-round pick Jeff Otah and veteran backups Jeremy Bridges and Frank Omiyale. But the following year with Bridges and Omiyale elsewhere, Schwartz got the opportunity to backup Otah. He wound up starting the final three games of that season as an injury replacement for Otah.

In 2010, Schwartz picked up where he left off the previous season starting the first five games at right tackle as Otah missed the entire season due to injury. Then the poor play of Mackenzy Bernadeau at right guard prompted Schwartz to switch to that position thereafter. He finished the season starting the remaining 11 games at right guard and earned the second-highest grade among Panthers linemen according to Pro Football Focus behind only left tackle Jordan Gross.

However, Schwartz’s career got off track in 2011 as he missed the entire year with a hip injury. In his stead, Geoff Hangartner started at right guard while Byron Bell filled in at right tackle for a once-again injured Otah. With Schwartz hitting free agency after the season, the Panthers opted to keep Hangartner at guard, and also were willing to give Otah another shot to return healthy to compete with Bell at right tackle. Thus Schwartz walked via free agency and signed with the Minnesota Vikings. That decision did not prove fruitful for Carolina, as Hangartner struggled in 2012 and would be replaced a year later at that spot. Otah was unable to get healthy and was traded to the New York Jets in July, but failed his physical, voiding the trade. He would be cut by the Panthers shortly thereafter and has yet to get another opportunity in the NFL.

Meanwhile, Schwartz managed to split snaps with right guard Brandon Fusco for a couple of games in 2012 with the Vikings. But the Vikings opted to let Schwartz walk after the season and he signed a one-year deal with the Chiefs for the veteran minimum.

It proved to be a fortuitous turn of events for the Chiefs. While Schwartz began last year as a backup, his steady play over the course of the year won him the starting job at right guard and a chance to return to the Chiefs at a much higher salary.

Schwartz started the 2013 season-opener for the Chiefs at right guard since regular Jon Asamoah was nursing a calf injury. He got his second start in Week 4 at left guard due to a groin injury to Jeff Allen. But in Week 11, the Chiefs opted to replace Asamoah at right guard with Schwartz and the latter finished out the season there. Schwartz also got reps in Week 17 at right tackle when Eric Fisher went down with a groin injury.

Schwartz is looking for stability with a long-term deal from some team this offseason, whether that’s with the Chiefs or another. He obviously could find that in Atlanta, as well as a number of places that are looking for upgrades at their guard position.

A 6-6, 340-pound guard like Schwartz, noted for his effectiveness both as a run blocker and pass protector should be highly coveted by a number of teams. And that could lead to a bidding war for Schwartz if he manages to hit the open market, driving up his price.

While most don’t expect Schwartz to garner a deal on par with what the Tennessee Titans gave Andy Levitre last offseason (six years, $46.8 million), if multiple teams get involved in seeking Schwartz, it’s certain that he’ll make a lot more than the $665,000 he earned in 2013.

The Falcons should have the ability to spend this offseason, which means they should certainly be in the mix if money talks in regards to Schwartz.

Strengths:

  • Good size and strength to get consistent position and push as a run blocker
  • Has good feet for his size plus strength makes him effective in pass protection
  • Versatile and has started at three different positions (LG, RG, RT) in NFL

Weaknesses:

  • Lacks elite feet and athleticism which can lead to struggles against quicker interior rushers
  • Not as dominant a power blocker as size would merit
  • More of an inline blocker and not quite as effective when asked to block on the move or in space

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Takeaways from Last Week – March 3, 2014

March 3rd, 2014 1 comment
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Thomas Dimitroff addresses the media at the Combine

After hearing general manager Thomas Dimitroff on the Rich Eisen Podcast this past week, I’m thinking that the Atlanta Falcons may not be as intent on upgrading the pass rush as much as they are with other areas of their roster, including their offensive line. Most of their conversation centered on the value of the Combine and how teams assess the things they see or don’t see in Indianapolis in the final evaluations of things.

Here are some interesting excerpts with my commentary. Editor’s Note: Dimitroff’s initial excerpted comments were taken from the middle of his conversation with Eisen, while the latter one was taken from the end. But since they are related, I feel they work together in context.

Eisen: Let’s talk about your Falcons right now. For the lack of a better way to put it, what in the world happened with the Falcons last year?
Dimitroff: Oh wow. 4-12. You think about that, going from 13-3 to 4-12, what an incredible decline. We know that. Someone mentioned that it was an historical decline. I believe there were a number of things that were going on with our season and no one wants to complain about the injuries. Everyone’s dealt with injuries. Interestingly enough we were handling the injuries to a spot and then when Julio went down, we dropped into a pit that we weren’t able to pull ourselves out of. That was unfortunate, that was something that was disheartening to me because I thought our resiliency and our ability to do something like that was much stronger given the five, six, and seven-year talent that we had versus the earlier years when we had first and second-year guys. So that was tough. I’ve also said and I’ve said this publicly, I really believe that it was a mis-assessment and a misevaluation of the readiness of that offensive line to come together for Matt. Because in the end we still have stuff to do on our D-line. But if we’re not protecting the guy spinning the ball, to our point earlier, we’re not going to be a prolific offense and we’re not going to be an elite football team. So we didn’t protect him properly and Matt was not able to step up in the pocket and throw. I thought he did an admirable job dealing with what he had to. He was waylaid many, many times as you know. But he is such a fantastic leader. I’m happy with how he responded.

Eisen: So in reading into your comments about the Falcons…offensive line? I know I don’t want you to show your cards here, because obviously there are many weeks to go before this May draft. Offensive line? Would that be an easy concept to target what you’re looking at in the draft this year?
Dimitroff: You know I looked at many and we have looked at many positions and many opportunities to look at free agency. I’ve always said this, you know that: free agency, look at the draft, see where we can get the best value and the best football player. Again, no mystery that we need to fortify both fronts. That’s going to be important for us. So, you look at O-line, you look at D-line, you look at our linebackers. You can rush the passer as a linebacker as well. You can do certain things that can protect our offensive threat, i.e. Matt Ryan in many ways. But we know as well as anyone if you don’t have stoutness in front of a quarterback and you don’t provide the pocket, you have little chance of being successful in this league.

It’s comments like these that make me think the Falcons using their top draft selection on a pass rusher is anything but a forgone conclusion. It’s very interesting that besides injuries, the first thing that Dimitroff mentioned in response to what went wrong with the Falcons in 2013 was offensive line play.

What that says is that the Falcons may see their pass protection as the bigger priority in regards to upgrading this offseason versus the pass rush. Now, that could manifest in a number of ways. But more than likely, it would appear that the team won’t simply settle on Gabe Carimi as the lone upgrade to the unit this offseason.

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Free Agent Focus: Charles Tillman

March 2nd, 2014 Comments off
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Charles Tillman

Next on my list of impending free agents that I want to take a deeper look at is Chicago Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman.

Tillman just turned 33 last weekend and is coming off a rough, injury-shortened season. But that advanced age coupled with his injury makes me believe that Tillman is going to be undervalued this offseason in free agency. It is similar to Charles Woodson a year ago, who missed nine games in 2012 at age 36. It led to Woodson garnering almost zero interest last offseason until the Oakland Raiders scooped him up at the end of May.

The Raiders were rewarded with the 28th-ranked safety in the league last season according to Pro Football Focus on a relatively modest one-year deal. I believe the odds are fairly good that a similar windfall could come for the team that signs Tillman.

It’s also interesting because there is talk that Tillman should move to safety at this point in his career, which centered around Woodson two years ago. Although I’m confident that Tillman will be able to make that transition and extend his NFL career a couple of seasons by doing so like Woodson has, I’m not sure that move is yet needed. Tillman has already indicated his reluctance to move to a new position.

He spent much of last season nursing knee and groin injuries, as he was unable to fully participate in a practice for the Bears between Weeks 2 and 9 last season. Then he tore his triceps once he managed to recover from those injuries, and finished the season on injured reserve.

The injuries definitely limited him. He gave up a couple of big plays when healthy to A.J. Green in the season opener, but also had a pair of interceptions in that game. He then battled injuries and got exposed quite a bit by the quicker Antonio Brown in Week 3. But once he was healthy again, he showcased his stuff against Calvin Johnson in Week 10.

Strengths:

  • Has good size and length, making him a very effective press corner
  • Physical run defender that will deliver hits and make open field tackles
  • Has a knack for creating turnovers with good ball skills

Weaknesses:

  • Diminished speed causes problems when defending the deep routes
  • Has a history of getting safety help over the top due to Bears defensive scheme
  • Durability is a concern due to advanced age

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Will Joe Hawley Be Hard to Re-Sign?

March 1st, 2014 Comments off
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Hawley

On Friday, ESPN’s Vaughn McClure wrote that he expects Atlanta Falcons center Joe Hawley to be a priority target to re-sign among the team’s impending free agents. Given the struggles of Peter Konz last year at the position, and Hawley’s expected to be a relatively cheap option for the team, it makes sense that bringing him back shouldn’tt be too difficult for the Falcons.

But last week, Tony Pauline of TFY Draft Insider cited sources at the Combine that indicated that the chances of Hawley’s return to Atlanta was considered “50-50.” That initial prognostication flies in the face of what McClure wrote, so which is it?

Unfortunately, Pauline did not go into detail exactly why the chances of Hawley returning could go either way. Whether that is due to him likely finding greener pastures elsewhere in the league or not being considered a priority by the Falcons, was not indicated. However, it probably refers to the latter since the former seems less likely.

Pro Football Focus rates Hawley as their seventh-best center among the impending free agents. Hawley played about 530 snaps this past season at center, mostly coming in the final seven games where he proved to be an upgrade over a disappointing Konz. He saw 230 snaps in 2011 at the position as an injury replacement for Todd McClure during the first four games. Hawley did wind up playing over 900 snaps that season, but the majority of the remainder came at right guard, a role he struggled in.

It means that Hawley in total in his career has less than 800 snaps played at center, which doesn’t even represent a full season’s worth of games. It’s hard to imagine an NFL team coveting a player that is as unproven, relatively speaking, as Hawley is at the position. His past playing right guard adds versatility, but considering that Hawley was a poor fit at the position makes that added value minimal.

If there is one asset that Hawley possesses that other teams may want, it is youth. He is only 25, when most of the other free agent centers around the league are 28 or above. However, age isn’t as big a negative with centers as it can be at other positions in free agency, since centers tend to have the longest careers of anybody on the offensive line. McClure retired just after his 36th birthday and impending free agent Brad Meester of the Jacksonville Jaguars is hanging it up just before he turns 37 this offseason. Such longevity would mean that if Hawley is good enough, he could wind up playing a decade or more as a starter with the Falcons or another team. But it also means that team’s don’t have to avoid a free agent on the wrong side of 30 because such a player could still play several years for them. However, there are enough good centers that will be free agents that are on the right side of the 30: Alex Mack, Brian De La Puente, Evan Dietrich-Smith and Ryan Wendell to name several. And all have more experience than Hawley playing the position.

Those factors are why I think it’s more likely that Pauline’s source refers to the idea that the Falcons may not be completely sold on bringing Hawley back as the reason why his return is only given a 50 percent chance of occurring.

If that is the case, then I’m not sure why the Falcons have come to that conclusion.

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