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Team Needs: Defensive Tackle A Priority Due to Injuries and Free Agency

February 4th, 2014 1 comment

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Babineaux

The potential is high for turnover at defensive tackle for the Atlanta Falcons this offseason. Mainly because the team has all three of its primary players headed towards free agency.

It is likely that the Falcons will be able to retain at least one of the guys, with Corey Peters topping the list. Peters suffered a torn Achilles tendon at the end of the season, and while that might put the start of his 2014 in jeopardy, it probably enhances the chances that the Falcons re-sign him. The injury will likely eliminate a number of potential suitors in free agency and thus allow the Falcons to bring him back at a more modest salary than previously expected. Peters had a strong 2013 campaign prior to his injury, standing out as a run defender and occasionally as a pass rusher. He really found a home as the team’s nose tackle in their hybrid defensive scheme, due to his ability to hold leverage at the point of attack. While his injury may limit his effectiveness in 2014, there is good reason to believe that the 25-year old Peters still has plenty of good years ahead of him.

The player that is likely to be next on that priority is Jonathan Babineaux, although there could be complications in his return, namely salary. At 32 years of age, Babineaux is nearing the end. And similar to the situation with John Abraham a few years ago, the Falcons don’t want to be in a position to overpay a player that may only have one or two more years of solid production left. But everything suggests that the Falcons are definitely open to re-signing Babineaux, and the only potential sticking point is compensation. Babineaux once again seemed to defy time by having a solid, but unspectacular 2013 season. He is still the team’s best interior pass rusher due to his disruptive capabilities. There is good reason to believe that with a reduced role, his production should stay steady if not improve. Babineaux simply was forced to play too many snaps in 2013 and his ideal role would be a situational player with half the workload.

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Team Needs: Searching for the Next John Abraham at Defensive End

February 4th, 2014 Comments off

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Massaquoi

The pass rush of the Atlanta Falcons has been a problem area for a number of years.

Expectations were reasonably high that the Falcons could potentially upgrade their pass rush with the switch from defensive end John Abraham to Osi Umenyiora last year. Unfortunately, Umenyiora’s production wasn’t in the same ballpark as Abraham from the previous year. Falcon fans had to watch as Abraham put together a Pro Bowl season with the Arizona Cardinals, while the Falcons finished second-to-last in the NFL in sacks.

Upgrading that pass rush will likely be one of the team’s biggest priorities this offseason, alongside their needs on the offensive line. While the Falcons could opt to release Umenyiora due to the disappointing 2013 he had, it’s more than likely that they’ll retain him and move him into a situational role similar to what he had with the New York Giants prior to his arrival in Atlanta.

One reason to release Umenyiora is due to the presence of Jonathan Massaquoi, who midway through the year arguably started to play at a level on par with Umenyiora. Massaquoi wasn’t ready for the starting role that was thrust upon him last year due to the injury to Kroy Biermann, but as a situational player he could be a solid fit, and a much cheaper and younger one than Umenyiora. Of the young defensive ends on the roster, Massaquoi possesses the most upside and the teaching that new defensive line coach Bryan Cox could provide, could help bring that out of him in 2014.

Biermann is another player that the Falcons can count on to bolster their pass rush in 2013. He is coming off a torn Achilles that sidelined him for practically the entire season. While never a great pass rusher, his production as a pass rusher in previous years was pretty consistent and frankly, any little bit will help the Falcons.

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Takeaways from Super Bowl XLVIII

February 3rd, 2014 1 comment

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Wilson

Super Bowl XLVIII proved compelling if you find one-sided blowouts to be such. The Seattle Seahawks just decimated the Denver Broncos, who were masquerading as the ’90s era Buffalo Bills, in the 43-8 blowout on Sunday. However, what was compelling is the lessons that may be learned from the game.

Last year, I mused on the fact that there had been an unprecedented run of closely contested Super Bowls over the past decade. Fitting that streak came to an end yesterday.

Super Bowl XLVIII All About Seattle’s Defense

My initial expectation for the game was that Denver would not be able to cope with Seattle’s defense, headlined by their physical secondary and relentless pass rush. But apparently I over-thought it because I chose the Broncos to win the game, largely because I didn’t believe the Seahawks had enough offensive firepower.

Well, it was clear that the Seahawks defense was more than a match for the Broncos. The Broncos didn’t convert a first down until five minutes into the second quarter and were held scoreless until the final play of the third quarter. The Seahawks were able to set the tone early by winning the coin toss and electing to play defense first.

My expectation that the Seahawks offense wasn’t good enough did seem to be fairly accurate through the early going of this game. I would say that Seattle’s offense was solid, but unspectacular. For the Seahawks, 21 of their points were generated off turnovers, including a pick-six by linebacker Malcolm Smith. The other two gave them favorable field position near midfield or in Bronco territory to score points. And the Seahawks took the opening kickoff of the second half for six.

Factoring in all those points that were directly responsible by the defense or special teams, the Seahawks only scored 13 points in the game. And that touchdown was set up by an onside kick that once again gave Seattle favorable field position to start their drive. Really, the only success the Seahawks offense had that was generated on their own was a pair of drives that ended in field goals in the red zone in the first quarter.

So I feel better that at least half of my prediction came true. It was a game where field position, special teams, and defense were the deciding factors. A stark change from previous years, which was a main reason why the other half of my prediction was so wrong. I expected the Seahawks defense to have a good game, but I never expected them to stymy the Broncos as thoroughly as they did.

Absolutely nothing went right for Denver, and this game ultimately will probably become a referendum on whether defense still matters in today’s offensive-driven league. Really, it should not be a revelation that it still does. But it just shows that even still, an excellent defense can have the advantage over an excellent offense despite all the rule changes in favor of the latter.

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Pudge’s Picks – Super Bowl

February 1st, 2014 Comments off
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Peyton Manning cements his legacy on Sunday

Thus far in this playoffs, I’ve done a lot better picking games than I did in the regular season. I have correctly picked the winners in nine out of the 10 playoff games (curse those Eagles!), and are 7-2-1 when picking against the spread.

Here’s my pick for the final game of the 2014 season: Super Bowl XLVIII.

Seattle Seahawks (15-3) vs. Denver Broncos (15-3)
Sunday, February 2 at 6:25 pm ET on FOX

*Line: Broncos (-2.0)

I have been waffling back and forth for the past two weeks about who to take in this game. In the latest podcast, I picked the Seahawks but now I’m going away from that pick.

Initially, I felt that the Broncos were in for a rude awakening facing the Seahawks defense. Denver hasn’t really faced a defense like Seattle’s, and the last time they played a team with a similar scheme (Jacksonville), their offense was contained very effectively. But with more thought, the more I began to feel that Denver was the more complete team.

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Team Needs: Falcons Need Upgrade of Size and Speed at Wide Receiver

January 30th, 2014 Comments off

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Harry Douglas

The Atlanta Falcons offense was limited in 2013 due to major injuries suffered at the wide receiver position. The Falcons two most prominent weapons in Julio Jones and Roddy White essentially played five games each this year. Jones played in the first five games before a foot injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. And White was nursing various injuries throughout the year and didn’t appear close to healthy until the final games of the year. That left the team without a true No. 1 weapon for the middle third of the year.

Harry Douglas did his best to try and fill those shoes, but it became abundantly clear throughout the 2013 season that the task was far too much for the six-year veteran. Douglas was able to put up very good production this past year, catching career-highs of 85 catches, 1,067 yards and 2 touchdowns, leading the team in the two former categories. However, a lot of Douglas’ production came at points in games where the outcome was already decided, resulting in “hollow” production. Dropped passes, inconsistency and turnovers seem to follow Douglas throughout the season. Roughly half (eight) of Matt Ryan’s 17 interceptions were initially targeted at Harry Douglas.

Douglas will likely return to his role as the third receiver in 2014 with the healthy returns of Jones and White. But in reality, Douglas is probably better suited to being the team’s fourth receiver. Jones has missed time prior to 2013 due to injuries, and while Douglas has been a capable short-term fill-in for him, the lack of long-term value was exposed this past year. Douglas simply doesn’t do any of the things that Jones provides to the offense. Very few receivers do, but the Falcons could at least attempt to find someone that is in the same area code as Jones.

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Team Needs: Toilolo Would Benefit from a Running Mate at Tight End

January 30th, 2014 Comments off
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Levine Toilolo

The Atlanta Falcons will be attempting to move on from the greatest tight end of all time this offseason in Tony Gonzalez, which is rife with challenges.

Obviously the team will struggle to replace the production that Gonzalez has given that position over the past five years, where he combined to catch 409 passes and 35 touchdowns, resulting in the Falcons losing roughly a quarter of their passing production.

While the return of a healthy Julio Jones, and retention of veterans Roddy White and Harry Douglas at wide receiver can help fill some of that void, it will likely lead to a net loss for the Falcons offense with Gonzalez’s departure. Backup Levine Toilolo got limited snaps during his rookie season and it will be a tall order for him to try and fill the void as the starter.

Toilolo during his days at Stanford shined in a two-tight end offense, where a combination of him and players like Zach Ertz and Coby Fleener would attack the seams in Stanford’s run-oriented, vertical offense. Toilolo’s height and length can make him an effective downfield threat because he can extend to catch high passes that most defenders cannot. That height also serves Toilolo well in the red zone, where he was underutilized as a target this past season. Toilolo was targeted six times this past season in the red zone, scoring a pair of touchdowns which was the highest percentage of touchdowns to targets on the Falcons. The underutilization becomes apparent when compared to White and Douglas, who scored just once on 26 combined targets in the red zone in 2013. But Toilolo is by no means a dynamic weapon, since he is more an outlet option than someone that can be the centerpiece of an offense much like Gonzalez was.

That is why the Falcons will need to bolster this position in some way this offseason, whether via the draft or free agency, or both. Chase Coffman is an impending unrestricted free agent and his return at this point is negligible. Coffman has had a few brief moments during his short stint with the Falcons, but essentially is a third tight end and should not be expected to carve out a significantly bigger role in 2014 than he currently has. Instead, the Falcons must turn to other options if they intend to try and fill some of the void left by Gonzalez.

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Team Needs: Fullback Has Diminished Value

January 30th, 2014 Comments off

The role of the fullback in the Atlanta Falcons offense has diminished over the years. But even in that diminished role, there are still unanswered questions that need to be solved in 2014.

Bradie Ewing has had two injury-riddled seasons in his brief NFL career. After missing his entire rookie season in 2012 with a knee injury, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the team’s second game of 2013. Ewing needs to show that he can come back strong and make it through an entire season healthy. If he can, then he’ll answer one of two question marks surrounding him: durability.

The other question centers on just how good a player Ewing can be. He showed some promise this past summer in the preseason before being injured. But in his absence over the past two years, the Falcons have gotten decent production at fullback from Mike Cox in 2012 and again Patrick DiMarco this past season. Ewing, being a fifth round draft choice, needs to prove not only that he can stay healthy but also that he can be an upgrade over either player.

Otherwise, it is indicative of the diminished value this position has taken over the years. As noted previously in discussion of the team’s need at running back, the Falcons may be looking to beef up their ground game in future years. And this season will be pivotal for Ewing to showcase he’s capable of helping them in that regard. If not, then the team will need to start looking elsewhere in 2015.

Because the team is likely going to give Ewing the opportunity to prove he’s capable of filling that niche, it is unlikely that the Falcons will make any major additions to the roster at this position. With DiMarco also still under contract, the team has a viable option in case Ewing struggles or re-injures himself. Outside adding an undrafted free agent or two that can compete in training camp and push DiMarco for the reserve spot, it’s doubtful the Falcons pay serious attention to this position. Also, the presence of Jason Snelling on the roster gives them added depth. However, Snelling’s status may be up in the air for 2014 and thus the Falcons could lose a versatile backup if they choose to make him a cap casualty this spring.

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Team Needs: Falcons Take Risk Without a Backup Quarterback

January 27th, 2014 Comments off

If polled, a majority Atlanta Falcons fans would probably tell you that it was by some miracle that quarterback Matt Ryan made it through the entire 2013 season healthy. According to Advanced NFL Stats, Ryan was hit 90 times, the fifth most allowed of any team in the NFL this past season. That was up from 83 hits he suffered in 2012 over 18 games, and continued the now six-year trend of ever-increasing punishment suffered by Ryan. When Ryan first arrived in Atlanta in 2008, he was hit just 43 times, which was the second lowest number allowed in the league that season. In the time since, Ryan has been put on the turf more with each subsequent season.

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Dominique Davis and Matt Ryan

The time when a quarterback takes a hit that prompts an injury is essentially random. That’s illustrated by the fact that Ryan managed to absorb 90 hits during the course of the 2013 season without being forced to leave the field, while Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo injured his ribs upon taking his first hit of the season in Week 1. But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that the more shots you take, the more exposed you are to injury.

Obviously, the best way to protect Ryan is to improve the blocking up front. But the Falcons as an organization aren’t just tasked with protecting Ryan to the best of their abilities, but also protecting themselves by solidifying their depth at quarterback. Even if the team dramatically decreases the number of hits Ryan takes next season, any one of those shots could be the one that puts him out of the game for an extended period of time.

As it stands, Dominique Davis and Sean Renfree are the team’s lone backup quarterbacks. Davis showed promise as an undrafted rookie in 2012, but showed little progress in his second training camp. Renfree struggled after missing much of the offseason recovering from a chest injury, and then promptly suffered a shoulder injury at the end of the summer which forced him to miss the entire season. That is now three major injuries that Renfree has suffered to his throwing arm in the 12 months: elbow, torn pectoral and now shoulder. One of my major concerns with Renfree when I scouted him last year was his durability. Coupled with a subpar first preseason, it doesn’t bode well for him developing into the sort of competent backup quarterback the Falcons need.

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Takeaways from Last Week – January 27

January 27th, 2014 Comments off
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame’s Zack Martin was one of the bright spots of the Senior Bowl

This past week represented a big one for the Atlanta Falcons, as they are fresh off coaching the North team in the Senior Bowl, the premiere college all-star game, in Mobile, Alabama on Saturday.

As mentioned in last week’s column, direct access to the Senior Bowl players should help the Falcons get a leg up on their evaluations of individual prospects for the upcoming 2014 NFL Draft.

You have probably heard or will be hearing a lot about particular players the Falcons may have liked while spending time down in Mobile last week, but in reality it’s really inconsequential for the time being. At least from my perspective, it won’t be worth paying attention to until we get into March and April when the Falcons start traveling to pro days and working out individual players where any Senior Bowl connections will be significant.

I suspect the Falcons will be looking hard at several of the players they coached in the Senior on the second and third days of the draft. As noted a week ago, the Falcons have historically gone heavy on Senior Bowl players in the first round of the draft, but that doesn’t seem likely this May. Simply because there were no real prospects that merit as high a selection as the No. 6 overall pick. Perhaps Notre Dame’s Zack Martin will piggyback a strong Senior Bowl week and tear up the combine similarly to Eric Fisher did a year ago, prompting his rise from the latter portion of Round One to the No. 1 overall pick. But I doubt it, since Martin will struggle to overcome his subpar stature and short arms to climb into the top 10 picks. Perhaps if teams like Buffalo or Detroit, who pick ninth and tenth respectively this May, see him as an elite guard prospect he might be able to climb that high. But if the Falcons are looking to take Martin with their first pick, it almost certainly will necessitate a trade back.

It does seem that the Falcons are open to such a move. Although it’s very easy to say you’re open to a move in January, as I’m sure all 32 NFL teams are open to trading up or back at this point in the calendar. It’s still very early in the process and would be silly for any team to be eliminating options by saying they are against trading at this point in time.

Whether the Falcons should trade back remains to be seen. I’ve been contacted by many Falcon fans that seem to be of the mindset of “Jadeveon Clowney or Bust,” meaning that unless Clowney is there at No. 6 or the Falcons try to move up to get him, their next best strategy would be to trade back in the draft.

Firstly, I think it’s far too early to start to pigeon-hole yourself for one prospect or the other. A lot of things can and will happen between now and May 8 that can affect that opinion. And secondly, I think it’s overlooking two potentially excellent prospects in Matt Kalil Jake Matthews and Von Miller Khalil Mack.

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Takeaways from Championship Weekend 2013

January 20th, 2014 Comments off

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Smith gets chance to coach up some draft prospects at Senior Bowl

This week will be all about the Senior Bowl for the Atlanta Falcons as the team is tasked with coaching the North squad in the prestigious annual college football all-star game.

The potential boost coaching the Senior Bowl could give to the team drafting this May could be significant. It is by no means a guarantee that the team will be able to draft well, but it does give Atlanta a potential leg up. They will get to know the many players that they will be coaching during the course of the week better than several other teams.

The Falcons will get a first-hand look at how players react to hard coaching, decipher information, and just interact with teammates and competition in general. Much of this information a team can discover with painstaking research about a particular draft prospect, but it would all be second-hand based and can’t be completely trusted.

This week will definitely help in the team’s draft evaluations, even if the team doesn’t fully take advantage by targeting players they coach. But in all likelihood, the Falcons will take advantage thanks to their history under general manager Thomas Dimitroff of targeting Senior Bowl players. Since taking over the team in 2008, Dimitroff and the Falcons have drafted 14 players that participated in the Senior Bowl:

Falcons Senior Bowl Picks (since 2008)

Year
Player
Team
Round
2008Baker, SamNorth1
2008Jackson, ChevisSouth3
2008Douglas, HarrySouth3
2008DeCoud, ThomasNorth3
2009Jerry, PeriaSouth1
2009Moore, WilliamNorth2
2009Sidbury, LawrenceSouth4
2009Walker, VanceSouth7
2010Weatherspoon, SeanNorth1
2010Johnson, MikeSouth3
2012Ewing, BradieNorth5
2013Trufant, DesmondNorth1
2013Alford, RobertSouth2
2013Goodman, MalliciahSouth4

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