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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
Josh D. Weiss-US PRESSWIRE

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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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 12 Corey Peters

July 20th, 2014 No comments

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Corey Peters

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 12th-ranked player: defensive tackle Corey Peters.

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

Total Score: 68/100

Last year’s rank: 14
Player Grade: 59/100
Teams he is starter: 23 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 12 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 31 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +2
Positional Bonus: +3

Peters’ ranking is high based on the possibility that he’s fully healthy in 2014, which recent discussions indicate may be the case.

He suffered a torn Achilles tendon at the end of last season, an injury that has been one that took 18 months to recover. While players were able to return in less time, they did not appear to look close to their former selves until after that 18-month deadline.

However recent breakthroughs in medical science have the conventional wisdom all twisted. Falcons linebacker Kroy Biermann suffered the same injury last September and has shown no limitations thus far this offseason. Former Falcon cornerback Brent Grimes suffered the same injury a year prior, and was no worse for wear last season with the Miami Dolphins.

How such an Achilles injury effects a massive body like Peters however could be different. New England’s Vince Wilfork and Dallas’ Tyrone Crawford are defensive linemen that suffered the same injury last season as well. Former New York Jet defensive end Ropati Pitoitua missed all of 2010 with a torn Achilles, but came back in 2011 and picked up where he left off.

So there is certainly reason to be optimistic for Peters in the immediate future. If Peters manages to pick up where he left off, he could be considered the team’s best defensive lineman.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 13 Sam Baker

July 20th, 2014 No comments

Fernando Medina-US PRESSWIRE

Sam Baker

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 13th-ranked player: offensive tackle Sam Baker.

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

Total Score: 67/100

Last year’s rank: 15
Player Grade: 62/100
Teams he is starter: 22 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 5 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +2
Positional Bonus: +4

2014 will mark a very important season for Sam Baker’s career. After six mostly impressive seasons with the Falcons, Baker is up against the wall.

Throughout the first four years of his career, Baker battled injuries and inconsistency. But the Falcons continued to show faith in their 2008 first-round pick.

Baker managed to have a breakthrough season at the right time, in a contract year in 2012. That landed him a $41 million contract the following offseason, but Baker rewarded the Falcons’ loyalty with another injury-plagued and poor 2013 season.

Now, Baker will have to bounce back and play at a level comparable to his 2012 level or else face the proposition of finding a new team with Falcons rookie Jake Matthews looking over his shoulder.

Baker carries a cap hit of $7.3 million in 2015, which is pretty pricey for an underachieving left tackle, especially if you have a potential upgrade already on the roster in Matthews. The Falcons would have to eat $9.2 million in dead money if they release him next year, seemingly protecting Baker for another year. However, if the Falcons opted to cut Baker as a post-June 1st release, they would only have to take on $2.8 million in dead money meaning the team could reap $4.5 million in savings.

That’s a pretty big carrot to dangle in front of the Falcons, and thus it’s paramount that Baker plays well in 2014. Frankly considering Baker’s history, his play is going to have to be outstanding to merit being kept on given those potential cap savings.

Injuries have been a big part of Baker’s inconsistency, but it has also hurt Baker that he has never been an ideal fit in the team’s blocking scheme over the years. The Falcons have primarily been a man-blocking team that relied on their individual blockers to create space and push in the run game. Baker spent the entirety of his collegiate career at Southern California playing in a zone-blocking scheme, where it was movement that was there to create space.

Baker struggled with the man-blocking system for the first four years of his career, but things started to click in 2012. It’s possible that with additions like Matthews and Asamoah the Falcons could feature a bit more zone-blocking this year, as that style could benefit them as well. If so, then Baker has an opportunity to stop being the liability in the run game that he was his first four years with the team.

But more importantly, Baker’s status will depend heavily on his ability in pass protection. As the team’s left tackle and quarterback Matt Ryan’s blindside protector, those have been his primary duties. Providing hope that Baker could be improved there is the fact that he did a solid job containing the likes of Greg Hardy in the Falcons Week 9 loss to the Carolina Panthers last season.

Basically Baker needs to have several games at that level this year to maintain his hold on a roster spot. It’s not just his future in Atlanta that is at jeopardy, but also his future in the league. An injury-prone, underachieving left tackle that has only played left tackle in the NFL is not that valuable a commodity elsewhere, except on teams that are bottom feeders.

Baker is capable of stepping up his play, but it’s just a matter of will he actually do so. If his body of work over the past six years are what we are judging by, then there isn’t much room for optimism.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 14 Jake Matthews

July 20th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Matthews

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 14th-ranked player: offensive tackle Jake Matthews.

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

Total Score: 65/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 57/100
Teams he is starter: 21 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 2 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +5
Positional Bonus: +4

Matthews is the shining gem of the Falcons 2014 draft class and will have plenty of expectations on him, not only for this season but his career in Atlanta.

As the son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, arguably one of the great offensive linemen to ever play in the NFL, Jake is no stranger to expectations. Bruce played 19 seasons at guard, tackle and center and was voted to the Pro Bowl 14 times.

Frankly, if Jake is able to achieve half of those accomplishments, he’ll go down as one of the best Falcon blockers in team history.

But in many cases, we might be getting a bit ahead of ourselves with projecting Matthews’ career path. While there is no doubt that Matthews is a talented prospect, he’s also by no means a slam dunk to be a successful NFL player.

An area where Matthews will have to improve upon is his strength. While Matthews has some of the more polished footwork and technique I’ve seen over the past decade in a collegiate tackle, those things can only take you so far in the NFL. Being able to use your upper body and hands are just as important at the pro level due to the skill of edge-rushers he’ll face.

Matthews is pegged to be the team’s long-term left tackle, but at the outset he’ll be playing right tackle for the Falcons. It’s not really a question of whether he’ll win the job, since it’s already his, but how well he’ll handle the job as a rookie.

He’ll have some early tests in the regular season, which matchups against Cameron Jordan, Carlos Dunlap, Lamarr Houston and Elvis Dumervil. Later in the season, he could be facing the likes of Julius Peppers and Charles Johnson.

Thus, Matthews will have several opportunities to sink or swim. And while expectations are high, they should not be so high that people expect Matthews to come in right away and be great. That is a possibility but unlikely. As nearly all rookies suffer from, Matthews will likely have his ups and downs. How that balances out will be the thing to watch during Matthews’ rookie season.

Last season, we saw the top three tackles taken in the draft: Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson struggle early on. All three were playing right tackle in the pros after spending most of their college careers on the left side. The positive for Matthews is that he played right tackle for three years opposite Joeckel at Texas A&M, and thus his stint on the right side of the Falcons line should be like putting on an old shoe.

But it’s certainly possible that just like his predecessors, Matthews struggles initially in Atlanta. If he can manage to improve as the season wears on, then things are going to be right on track for his development.

Matthews forms a large piece of the Falcons’ puzzle when it comes to their revamping of the offensive line to try and protect quarterback Matt Ryan’s future. Ryan has blossomed into one of the league’s premier quarterbacks in recent years, which has also coincided with a significant downturn in play among the team’s offensive line. The hope is that the team can get even more from their quarterback if he can remain upright.

Matthews is the biggest part of that effort, and whether it’s at right tackle this year or left tackle in the years beyond, he’ll be that stabilizing force that can allow the team to better protect their $104 million asset.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 15 Dwight Lowery

July 20th, 2014 No comments

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Lowery

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 15th-ranked player: safety Dwight Lowery.

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

Total Score: 64/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 57/100
Teams he is starter: 20 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 10 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 31 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +2
Positional Bonus: +3

When the Falcons signed Lowery in early April, he appeared to be an afterthought for the team’s offseason plan to upgrade the free safety position after releasing Thomas DeCould in March.

Given the team’s need to find a suitable starter, Lowery appeared as a consolation prize. But he may be anything but.

Lowery is potentially an upgrade over DeCoud and not just the version of the former Falcons safety who played so poorly in 2013, but also the version that went to the Pro Bowl in 2012.

Lowery is an upgrade in several areas, particularly as a tackler. While Lowery would never be confused with an enforcer in run support, he takes good angles and consistently wraps up.

More importantly, Lowery is also an upgrade in man coverage, which will be critical for success in Mike Nolan’s defense. Lowery began his career as a cornerback with the New York Jets in 2008, serving as their nickel corner until injuries forced him to move to safety in 2010. He was then traded to the Jacksonville Jaguars the following year, where he was quietly one of their better defensive players over the next two seasons.

The main knock on Lowery is durability. He’s missed time every season since his rookie year, none more than last year when a blindside hit from Golden Tate caused a concussion that forced him out for the rest of the season. That led to his release and he became a player that snuck through the cracks in the initial weeks of free agency.

But Lowery’s presence should become more of a stabilizing force beside strong safety William Moore, whose play is geared towards aggression. When Moore can be aggressive, he’s at his best. But it was hard for him to be so in 2013 with the Falcons due to the poor performance of DeCoud.

If Lowery can be the ball-hawking, assignment-sound sort of free safety that DeCoud was in 2012, then it will free up Moore to be able to make more plays.

Lowery is operating under a one-year deal with the Falcons, so he seemingly is only viewed as a stopgap. But that could turn into something greater if he has a successful season. While the Falcons are poised to develop 2014 third-round pick Dezmen Southward long-term, there’s no reason why a productive Lowery can’t be brought back for another year to compete with him. It will be similar to the team’s decision to keep Erik Coleman in 2010 after both Moore and DeCoud had earned the starting jobs.

If Lowery doesn’t perform up to task, then the Falcons can move on with Southward and/or another option. In the end, he’s a relatively low risk for the Falcons that hope can pay big dividends this season.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Defensive End

July 20th, 2014 No comments

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Tyson Jackson

The Atlanta Falcons are undergoing a revamp of their defensive fronts this year, and it will begin with the defensive end position.

Under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons have employed a multiple defense, which means it is not strictly a 4-3, nor is it a 3-4 scheme. It’s a hybrid between the two and for the most part over the two years that Nolan has been in Atlanta, it could be most accurately termed a 4-3 scheme with 3-4 principles.

But things might change in 2014 as the Falcons may flip it, opting for a 3-4 scheme with 4-3 principles instead. That change is signaled by the team’s expensive additions up front this offseason, including defensive end Tyson Jackson.

Jackson spent the past five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs playing in a 3-4 scheme, and is the second-highest paid defensive lineman on the roster behind only nose tackle Paul Soliai. Given that level of investment and the fact that Jackson has little experience playing in a 4-3, it does appear that at least for the team’s base packages, the Falcons will feature a lot more three-man fronts.

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FalcFans Weekly – July 20, 2014

July 20th, 2014 No comments
US PRESSWIRE

Julio Jones

Once again recapping the highlights that was the past week of the Atlanta Falcons.

In case you missed anything on FalcFans.com this past week, here are all the links to catch you up:

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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