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Free Agent Focus: T.J. Ward

February 24th, 2014 Comments off
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

T.J. Ward

With news that the Buffalo Bills plan to place the franchise tag on Jairus Byrd, T.J. Ward of the Cleveland Browns becomes the consensus top safety potentially available in free agency come March.

The Atlanta Falcons are a team that could be in the market for a safety if they decide to dump free safety Thomas DeCoud before the start of the league year on March 11. DeCoud is set to have $2.25 million of his $4.2 million 2014 base salary become guaranteed on March 15, which could prompt the Falcons to dump him and target a player like Ward to replace him.

Ward played mostly strong safety the past few years with the Cleveland Browns. With the introduction of defensive coordinator Ray Horton this past year, he saw a lot more time playing up in the box where he was essentially used as a sub-package linebacker. In previous years, he spent a bit more time on the back-end playing in more Cover-2 looks.

The Browns have plenty of cap space to re-sign Ward, and may also opt to franchise tag him if need be. He’ll be competing for that distinction alongside center Alex Mack. Both players are ones that the Browns strive to re-sign.

But if Ward manages to hit the open market, NFL teams are going to find a steady, reliable safety that can do multiple things. He missed half of the 2011 season with a sprained foot. He was well on his way to being one of the highest-rated safeties in the league that year by Pro Football Focus, rating as their 13th-best safety. He’s rebounded the past two years to earn top six safety grades from PFF.

Strengths:

  • Good speed and range to make plays in zone coverage
  • Has a good nose for the ball in run support and comfortable playing in the box
  • Able to cover tight ends and does a good job keeping things in front of him
  • Steady all-around safety that can blitz off the edge

Weaknesses:

  • Undersized and will miss some tackles due to being overpowered
  • Will tackle too high at times and doesn’t consistently break down and wrap up
  • Lacks top speed or hips to be left on an island in coverage
  • Doesn’t make a ton of big plays

How He Fits in Atlanta…

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Takeaways from Last Week – February 24, 2014

February 24th, 2014 Comments off
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Jadeveon Clowney speaks at the Combine on Saturday

Discussion of the possibility of the Atlanta Falcons trading up made headlines this past weekend following general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s press conference on Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. And of course the dots are being connected to the possibility that South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is the primary target.

But I’m going to pump the brakes on getting too “icky-balooky” over Dimitroff’s revelation. Because frankly, it wasn’t much of one. Dimitroff said nothing in his presser that he hasn’t said leading up to the past two drafts. The only real difference is that Dimitroff made these comments not in April but in February at the Combine, a place where a record number of media members have gathered. Of course it’s going to create headlines and generate buzz when you have such a magnified media presence.

It’s no different than the revelation that Clowney is interested in being a Falcon. Of course he is as Clowney should be interested in any team that is going to take him very high in the draft.

Does this mean that a Clowney-Atlanta marriage is one made in heaven? Perhaps, but there is still a long way to go in the draft process before we reach that fateful evening on May 8.

I indeed hope the Falcons find a way to get Clowney, as he is a once in a generation sort of prospect. I can recall three times in the past where I have been exuberant about a Falcons draft selection. The first was in 2001 when the team’s move to trade up for Michael Vick was first announced. The second came when the team selected Matt Ryan in 2008. And the third was when the team traded up for Julio Jones in 2011. While I didn’t initially approve of that trade, Jones’ talent was to a degree that had me excited about the potential he could bring to the team.

But it is that Jones trade that has me currently hesitant about another move to climb the boards to get Clowney. Unfortunately, when revisiting the Jones trade, there is a tendency to draw a line in the sand with people on either side suggesting that it was all good or alternatively all bad for the Falcons. It’s much more complicated than that, with both costs and benefits to the trade.

I have little doubt that the Falcons would not have achieved the highs of 2012 without making the move to acquire Jones. But at the same time, I don’t think the lows of 2013 would have been quite as bad in the absence of the trade either.

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Pre-Combine Two-Round 2014 Mock Draft

February 19th, 2014 4 comments
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Blake Bortles

With my first mock draft done roughly two weeks ago, it was carefully thought out but utterly pointless. As I’ve noted before, mock drafts done before free agency are nothing more than a shot in the dark because free agency is a big part of the process. A team like Kansas City, that I predict takes a safety with their first-round pick could easily go out and sign a free agent like Jairus Byrd, thus nixing that notion.

This time I won’t say that I didn’t give it careful consideration, but I made a concerted effort to mix things up. I didn’t want to just shuffle a handful of picks and act like I had given you something new to consider. So I made a significant effort to not have any of the teams select the same player that I projected in my first mock draft. However, I didn’t fully succeed, as four teams wound up picking the same player again.

But here’s my second mock with a second-round projection added on to give you something even more to consider.

I also wanted to post this before this weekend’s Scouting Combine because it probably will help illustrate my point later on how many moving parts there are to the draft process. I’m not sure if I’ll do another mock before free agency or wait until after, but it’s going to be interesting to see how much shakeup in draft prognostication occurs from now until then.

1. Houston Texans – QB Blake Bortles, Central Florida*
New Texans head coach Bill O’Brien was beat by Bortles and UCF in State College this past year, which is one link many are drawing to why they believe the team will prefer Bortles over the other quarterbacks in this draft. In that game, Bortles did play very well. I simply don’t see the Johnny Manziel links given O’Brien’s system since he needs a pocket passer to run his system, not a scrambler like Manziel. And I could understand why somebody might look at Bortles and favor his upside due to his mobility and size over Teddy Bridgewater, who is by all accounts more polished.

2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington) – WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson*
It would have been easy for me to switch up this pick from Greg Robinson to Jake Matthews, but I went with a bit more of a left-field selection. Ultimately because the Rams really need a player like Watkins. GM Les Snead has said the team doesn’t need a No. 1 receiver, but they really do, if they have any hope of salvaging Sam Bradford’s career. He has shown himself to be the sort of quarterback that won’t elevate average receivers, but needs at least one dynamic weapon like Watkins that can help elevate him.

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Takeaways from Last Week – February 17, 2014

February 17th, 2014 Comments off

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Fisher’s strong Combine workout benefited him greatly in 2013

This week, the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off in Indianapolis. Next to draft weekend and the first week of free agency, this week represents one of the more pivotal points of the NFL’s offseason.

It’s the first time that all 32 NFL teams are going to be in one place. Sure, all NFL teams sent representatives to Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl in January, but that is primarily for scouts. Not to mention, two teams were busy with their Super Bowl preparations, limiting their ability to have a large presence in Mobile. That is not the case for Indianapolis, where the Combine signals that the beginning of free agency is right around the corner (March 11).

This is where teams can really start to talk shop about potential moves that are forthcoming in the offseason. While trades won’t become official until March 11, teams can start to sniff around about possible moves at the Combine. I’m sure that with the trades that sent Alex Smith to Kansas City last March and the rights to Robert Griffin III to Washington the year before, talks began in earnest or picked up steam during the week of the Combine.

Agents are also putting out feelers for their respective clients that are on the verge of hitting free agency. It’s that sort of furtive tampering that resulted in the NFL adopting the three-day window before the start of the league year that allows teams to openly negotiate with prospective free agents.

It’s also during this period that NFL teams can begin to designate certain free agents as franchise or transition players. That also means that negotiations for players and teams that want to avoid using the franchise or transition tag really pick up in earnest during the week of the Combine.

All in all, it’s a big week for NFL teams with a lot of things that go on behind closed doors that fans like you and me aren’t privy to and can only guess at. But that doesn’t mean that the Combine doesn’t have value to the everyday fan like ourselves.

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Free Agent Focus: Michael Johnson

February 16th, 2014 1 comment

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Johnson

Over the coming days and weeks leading up to free agency, I want to look at some of the top free agents that will be available that could be linked to the Atlanta Falcons.

I want to start out with Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, where rumors emerged during Senior Bowl week that he was on the Falcons’ radar. Johnson played his college ball in Atlanta at Georgia Tech and signing with the Falcons would represent a homecoming for him.

He’s been a regular starter for the Bengals since midway through his second season (2010). He only started five games in 2011, losing snaps to Frostee Rucker on run downs, but he still logged the second-most snaps of any defensive lineman that season behind only Geno Atkins.

Johnson has grown a lot over his time in Cincinnati, beginning his career as a talented, but raw third-round pick in 2009. He’s steadily improved each year, and having just turned 27, he has developed into a solid, all-around defensive end.

Johnson is coming off a down year in terms of his sack production. After tallying 11.5 sacks in a breakout 2012 campaign, his total fell to 3.5 in 2013. But per Pro Football Focus, he saw an increase in his combined hits and hurries, improving from 42 to 58. But Johnson has not consistently shown he’s a sack artist throughout his career, suggesting that 2012 was the outlier rather than the norm. Over the past 55 games where he’s logged starter’s reps, Johnson has tallied a total of 23 sacks, which extrapolates to about 6.5 for every 16 games.

Strengths:

  • Has a good first step to provide effective speed rush off the edge
  • Athletic with long arms and ideal frame and build for NFL DE
  • Can play with his hand off the ground, as well as drop into coverage vs. TEs
  • Can make plays against the run, particularly when working in pursuit

Weaknesses:

  • Lacks elite speed to be an effective edge rusher against top-level OTs
  • Limited array of effective pass rush moves. Bull rush is largely ineffective and tends to overly rely on speed and first-step quickness
  • Despite athleticism, not overly comfortable or natural when working in space
  • Can get pushed around at the point of attack when playing the run

How He Fits in Atlanta…

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Takeaways from Last Week – February 10, 2014

February 10th, 2014 Comments off
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Tony Gonzalez points to the fans in his final game in Atlanta

You think like a fan, not like a man.

And I’m referring to the portion of the Atlanta Falcons fanbase that became critical of tight end Tony Gonzalez in light of the excerpts from Seth Wickersham’s article that appeared in this week’s ESPN the Magazine.

That article shed a light on the frustration that Gonzalez felt during the course of the Falcons 2013 season. It was supposed to be a year where the team was in contention for the Super Bowl. Instead, it became a year in which the Falcons were contending to be the worst team in the NFL.

Any man (or woman) would be frustrated in that scenario. Nothing Gonzalez expressed in Wickersham’s article was any more negative than what I myself have vocalized about the Falcons this year, or heard a litany of other fans say. Thus, being upset with Gonzalez probably makes you a hypocrite.

Gonzalez came out of retirement to win a Super Bowl, not for the glory of the Atlanta Falcons. And his venting over not being able to win that Super Bowl doesn’t make him a villain, but simply a human like the rest of us.

Frankly the only negative thing I can say about Wickersham’s piece is mistaking Jarrett Bush for Morgan Burnett.

I recommend picking up a copy of the magazine and reading it if you can. If not, Gonzalez went on CBS Radio with Doug Gottlieb on Friday and expressed the same sentiments during that interview.

Now if you read or listen and still come away upset with Gonzalez, then so be it. But the issue probably isn’t Gonzalez, it’s probably you.

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Team Needs: Falcons Could Upgrade Special Teams in Return Game

February 9th, 2014 Comments off
Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Bosher (left) and Bryant celebrate a win

The Atlanta Falcons special teams was perhaps the only aspect of their team that consistently played at a high level in 2013. Thus there won’t be any imperative drive to try to make substantial changes this offseason.

Matt Bryant, at age 38, showed he is still kicking strong. He is entering the final year of his contract and thus the only major concern for the Falcons is thinking about his eventual replacement in 2015 and beyond. It’s doubtful that the Falcons will try to replace Bryant this year since he’s been so effective in clutch situations as well as whenever he’s kicking inside the Georgia Dome. He’s made 21 of his last 22 field goal attempts kicking at home.

But the team should at least give a long look to a young kicker in training camp just to plan ahead to 2015 when it’s possible that Bryant could decide to hang it up. The Falcons tried this strategy over a decade ago when they carried Jake Arians on the practice squad in Morten Andersen’s final season in 2000. Arians was eventually beat out by Jay Feely the following summer for the kicking job, but the strategy is still a relatively sound one. The Falcons need to start prepping for the future and that begins this offseason.

The Falcons don’t have to do such preparation at punter as Matt Bosher is blossoming into one of the better young punters in the NFL. Bosher continues to make strides both as the team’s kickoff specialist and as a punter. His big leg proved an asset several times last year when the team struggled to move the ball offensively, to help flip field position and give the Falcons’ struggling defense a fighting chance. The only real issue moving forward with Bosher is when the Falcons plan to start talking contract extension. 2014 also represents the final year on his contract, and there’s little doubt the team at some point in the next 12 months will lock him up for a lucrative long-term deal.

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Team Needs: Falcons Will Decide DeCoud’s Future at Safety

February 8th, 2014 Comments off

The safety position for the Atlanta Falcons is potentially in flux this offseason as the team has a decision to make in determining whether or not to keep starting free safety Thomas DeCoud.

That decision will need to be made by March 15, as that is the day in which $2.25 million of his $4.2 million base salary becomes fully guaranteed. If that day comes to fruition, the team will lock in DeCoud for one more season as the starter and hope he bounces back to the form he showed in 2012 when he made the Pro Bowl with a team-leading six interceptions. But it doesn’t seem likely given that in the majority of his five seasons as the team’s starting free safety, DeCoud has rarely risen above mediocrity. And he’s also coming off a 2013 campaign that was by far the worst of his career. Instead, the Falcons could opt to cut ties with DeCoud and free up $3 million in cap space for 2014 (per Over The Cap).

Factoring into that decision will likely be the Falcons’ determination on whether they can find a better replacement this offseason. As it currently sits, the team is unlikely to find that upgrade already on the roster. Rookie Zeke Motta replaced an injured DeCoud for two games this past year and struggled. He looked a step slow in coverage, a no-no for any potential starter at free safety. Fellow 2013 draft pick Kemal Ishmael appeared in only a handful of games solely on a special teams, a role he may be ideally suited for. But it’s unlikely the team would give a serious nod to an untested player like him.

Thus if the Falcons are going to find an upgrade, it will have to be either in free agency or the draft. There should be plenty of options in free agency with some promising younger players as well as older veterans that could solidify the position. Given the Falcons are likely to go young at cornerback, it might be smart to add a more experienced hand at safety. But the team could easily decide that the youth trend should continue on the back-end of the secondary as well and look for a draft pick to try and solidify the position long-term.

Team Needs: Falcons Need Size and Experienced Depth at Cornerback

February 7th, 2014 1 comment

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Alford (23) and Desmond Trufant (21)

The recent release of Asante Samuel has created a hole at cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons when there wasn’t one before. That hole should be filled with a veteran corner that can upgrade the unit with some much-needed size.

As the team sits today, only two cornerbacks are under contract: Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, both entering their second seasons. Well, technically Jordan Mabin and Saeed Lee are both also under contract, although neither are expected to figure significantly into the team’s plans in 2014. Mabin and Lee probably can only be expected to compete for the fifth cornerback spot, indicating that the Falcons will need to add at least two more cornerbacks this offseason.

One of those spots almost certainly will go to impending restricted free agent Robert McClain. McClain is a valuable reserve due to his ability to play in the slot, as well as the fact that he played well as a punt returner late last season. McClain also is the team’s most accomplished cornerback in terms of run support, an area where both Trufant and Alford were inconsistent during their rookie seasons.

But in terms of pass coverage, Trufant certainly was far from inconsistent. By year’s end, his play had become the steadiest of anybody on the defensive roster. Alford had his fair share of ups and downs, but showed enough promise that the team is confident that he can enter 2014 penciled in as Samuel’s replacement in the starting lineup.

The Falcons might opt to keep Dominique Franks, an unrestricted free agent, as the fourth cornerback. However, the team should be able to find a better option than Franks this offseason. While Franks has shown the ability to play in the dime sub package in the past, he would be an inferior option to McClain in such a role, and also is a very limited contributor on special teams. Franks has flashed ability in the past as a reserve on defense, showing the capability that he is at least competent there. That makes his primary value only worthwhile in the event of an injury to one of the starters, where he’d likely be promoted to the nickel role.

Such an injury is likely given the Falcons history, as the team has not had two corners start all 16 games in the same season since Ray Buchanan and Ashley Ambrose did in 2001. If that trend continues, then it’s imperative the team attempt to upgrade their depth in 2014.

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Team Needs: Falcons Need More Athletes at Linebacker

February 6th, 2014 1 comment

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Joplo Bartu

The adversity the Atlanta Falcons faced at linebacker in 2013 should benefit the team in 2014.

The team was without stalwarts Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon for much of last season. Nicholas dealt with injuries in training camp, and ultimately lost his job as the team looked at younger, more athletic options in Joplo Bartu at strong-side linebacker position. Weatherspoon missed most of the regular season with an injury, and it thrust Paul Worrilow into the limelight after a promising summer.

Both undrafted rookies, Bartu and Worrilow, got a wealth of experience playing significant roles with the team in 2013. So much so that it is very likely that both will open up this offseason in starting roles with Bartu manning the strong side and Worrilow starting in the middle as Weatherspoon resumes his duties at weak-side linebacker.

Now Nicholas has since been released, and the team is searching to upgrade their depth at linebacker. Particularly in Bartu, the Falcons finally got another “plus” athlete on the roster besides Weatherspoon, and needs to continue that trend into 2014. Nicholas could once be described that, but time and age really started to catch up to him in 2012 where he was continually abused by opposing tight ends. Despite the upgrade in terms of athleticism from Bartu, the Falcons still struggled to check opposing tight ends in 2013. But one hope is that with a year’s worth of experience under his belt, there will be improvement from Bartu moving forward.

Worrilow was so good as Weatherspoon’s replacement at weak-side linebacker that he eventually replaced Akeem Dent as the team’s starting middle linebacker roughly a third of the way through the season. While Dent did show improvement after a lackluster 2012 season, his limited speed, range, and coverage ability just proved to be too much of a liability. While not the world’s greatest athlete himself, Worrilow proved an upgrade in those areas. But more importantly, he was a far more instinctual defender in his first season in Atlanta than Dent had showed in three years. But Dent is expected to return and help out on special teams, an area where he’s excelled at in the past, and add depth in the middle.

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