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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 24 Harry Douglas

July 17th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Harry Douglas

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 24th-ranked player: wide receiver Harry Douglas.

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

Total Score: 52/100

Last year’s rank: 31
Player Grade: 54/100
Teams he is starter: 10 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 1 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 30 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +3

Douglas is coming off a career-best season where he led the team in receptions and receiving yards, thanks largely due to the injuries to Julio Jones and Roddy White that kept both out of the lineup for two-thirds of the season.

With tight end Tony Gonzalez drawing double teams last year, Douglas was free to be Matt Ryan’s preferred target for the middle part of the season when both Jones and White were out.

It showed that Douglas’ lack of production over the years had a lot to do with the presences of better players around him like the aforementioned trio.

But Douglas’ extensive action as the team’s de facto No. 1 receiver also showed some of limitations that has plagued Douglas throughout his career. Outside his strong Week 7 performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, very little of Douglas’ production had a positive impact on the team’s ability to win games. Having just two receiving touchdowns were just one indicator of that.

Also, his 100-yard efforts against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8 and Buccaneers in Week 11 were largely thinks to production he had in garbage time when the game was out of hand.

Once White was healthy in the final month of the season, Douglas was once again relegated to being an afterthought in the offense.

However in 2014, Douglas will have to carry a heavier burden since he will be primarily tasked with filling the void left by Gonzalez’s retirement. The Falcons are expected to play a lot more three-wide receiver sets this year to try and compensate for that lost production in the passing game, with Douglas likely seeing as much as action as Jones and White will.

Douglas will have to show that he can be a more reliable and consistent playmaker, particular when the outcome of the game has yet to be decided.

A lot will be on offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to find ways of making Douglas more effective.

Douglas is not as effective when asked to win against man coverage, and should benefit from the presences of White and Jones to draw coverage and open up some throwing windows. Crossing routes and other shorter routes designed to maximize Douglas’ ability after the catch should be in regular usage by Koetter.

It’s going to be an important year for Douglas. His contract runs through the end of 2015, but his cap hit next year of roughly $4.4 million might become a bit prohibitive if his production is subpar this year.

Basically every impact play Douglas makes this year will decrease the chances that the Falcons seek to exploit the $3.5 million cap savings they could reap by cutting him next offseason.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 25 Jonathan Massaquoi

July 17th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Massaquoi

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 25th-ranked player: defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi.

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

Total Score: 52/100

Last year’s rank: 33
Player Grade: 52/100
Teams he is starter: 8 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 1 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 27 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +3
Positional Bonus: +4

There is a lot on Massaquoi’s shoulders this season, as in the eyes of many he’s expected to be the team’s top pass-rusher. A fairly tall order for a player with just four career sacks.

But due to the disappointment of Osi Umenyiora last season, many had hope that the Falcons would seriously address their pass rush this past offseason. But the team basically stood pat, suggesting there is a great deal of confidence in players like Massaquoi stepping up.

The hope is for that confidence to not be as misplaced as the team’s confidence was in some of its young offensive linemen last season.

But there is some cause for hope with Massaquoi. While not showing gawdy numbers last year as a pass-rusher, there were many instances where Massaquoi was a step or so away from making a play. And if he can be sped up in any way, he should be able to make up that ground and start turning those “almost” sacks, hits and pressures into actual ones.

That’s where the coaching of new defensive line coach Bryan Cox is expected to impact. If Cox can improve Massaquoi’s skills so that his hands are a bit quicker, that should allow him to disengage from blockers a beat or two faster, which can be all the difference in a game-changing play.

Massaquoi is expected to start over Umenyiora this year in the team’s base packages, relegating the latter to sub-packages. It should help both players as Massaquoi is the better run defender.

Last season, Massaquoi was a bit miscast on the strong side as a replacement for an injured Kroy Biermann. Massaquoi just doesn’t possess those sorts of abilities to be a combo end and linebacker. He’s more a true end, that should benefit from replacing Umenyiora on the weak side in the base package as he did down the stretch last year.

Massaquoi will be asked to play standing up this year certainly, but ideally it will be primarily to rush the quarterback rather than dropping into coverage, another area where he has routinely struggled over the past two years.

It’s a big year for Massaquoi and will determine his future in Atlanta. He could not show the growth expected and might be relegated to situational duties for the remainder of his time here. Or he could blossom under Cox’s tutelage and essentially become the first capable edge-rusher that the team has developed in the Mike Smith Era.

It really could go either way.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Tight End

July 17th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY

Levine Toilolo

For five seasons the Atlanta Falcons’ tight end position was one of the league’s best due to the presence of Tony Gonzalez, but now entering 2014 could have possibly morphed into one of the league’s weakest units.

There are unanswered questions heading into training camp at this position, centering mostly on whether Levine Toilolo is ready to take over for Gonzalez.

Toilolo was drafted in the fourth round of last year’s draft and tabbed as the heir apparent to Gonzalez. However, despite the team’s youth movement at most other positions in the second half of 2013, the Falcons never saw fit to really get Toilolo on the field. It raises questions about the level of confidence the team should have in the young tight end.

No one expects Toilolo to come close to filling Gonzalez’s shoes, but that doesn’t mean that expectations are low. Toilolo is currently penciled atop the Falcons depth chart at tight end, and thus should still at least act accordingly.

Toilolo won’t be one of the top starting tight ends in the league in 2014, but should at least look competent. And whether he can achieve that remains to be seen. The hope is that Toilolo eventually develops into a player similar to Marcedes Lewis, who Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter had in Jacksonville. Lewis has good size and is known mainly as one of the top blocking tight ends in the league, but is also an occasional playmaker and red-zone threat.

Toilolo has the tools to be that sort of player, but it might take some time before that sort of ability comes forth. It should be noted that Lewis got off to a slow start in his pro career. Toilolo will need a very strong preseason, something he lacked last summer, to allay any concerns about his immediate starting potential.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 26 Robert McClain

July 17th, 2014 No comments

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Robert McClain

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 26th-ranked player: cornerback Robert McClain.

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

Total Score: 50/100

Last year’s rank: 21
Player Grade: 49/100
Teams he is starter: 7 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 30 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +3
Positional Bonus: +4

Unlike other players that fell in this year’s rankings, it’s probably fair to say McClain’s drop from a year ago has a lot to do with his play in 2013. As one of the pleasant surprises from 2012, McClain fell back to Earth last season.

But despite this, McClain will still be counted upon to be the team’s nickel cornerback. However, now he will face stiff competition from Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas, free-agent pickups this offseason.

McClain has an edge in the competition simply because he’s a more known commodity to this coaching staff. He’s also a more effective corner when it comes to matchups against size and is probably the team’s best corner in run support. That latter ability is important for a nickel cornerback since he functionally replaces a linebacker on the field, making a team playing nickel a bit more vulnerable against the run.

Also despite a disappointing 2013, McClain also showcased his versatility particularly on special teams. After Harry Douglas was removed from punt returns and Robert Alford botched his first fielded return, McClain emerged as a breath of fresh air. He averaged 10.2 yards on 19 returns, a mark on par with the likes of Eric Weems and Tim Dwight from Falcons history.

Even if McClain loses the nickel job this summer, it’s still very likely that he’ll make the team given his versatility. Thus far in Atlanta, whatever the coaching staff has asked McClain to do: cover, tackle, play special teams, etc., he has done so with some gusto.

Those are the types of players that carve out long careers in the pros, even if they are considered nothing more than role players.

But obviously McClain hopes to be a little more year. Last year, there were dreams that he, Alford and Desmond Trufant could be solidified as the team’s long-term trio of corners. Those dreams are still alive, but they need to be reinvigorated by better play from McClain in 2014. Given that this season will also be a contract year for him suggests the odds are good that he will rebound.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 27 Joplo Bartu

July 17th, 2014 No comments

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Joplo Bartu

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 27th-ranked player: linebacker Joplo Bartu.

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

Total Score: 50/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 52/100
Teams he is starter: 12 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 21 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

Bartu essentially came from nowhere last season as an undrafted rookie who carved out a quick role in the team’s linebacker rotation, almost immediately stealing snaps in nickel situations from linebacker Stephen Nicholas.

And he wound up having a pretty solid rookie season in 2013 given his humble origins. But now, he will be asked to do a lot more given that Sean Weatherspoon is out for the season. Bartu is the main candidate currently on the roster expected to replace Weatherspoon and if he isn’t up to the task, the Falcons lack viable alternatives.

But there should be a great deal of confidence that Bartu will be ready. While Bartu lacks Weatherspoon’s natural gifts and experience, he is no slouch as the team’s second best athlete at linebacker. With capable hips and very good short-area closing speed, Bartu has what it takes to be an effective two-way linebacker versus both the run and pass. And given his history as a defensive end in college, there’s little doubt he can be an effective blitzer (3.5 sacks in 2013).

Bartu had some early growing pains last year, notably a breakdown in coverage against the Miami Dolphins that was arguably the back-breaking play for the Falcons in the final minutes. But as the season wore on, his play improved to the point that over the final few games when Weatherspoon was officially out for the season, Bartu was arguably the team’s best linebacker.

Bartu will carry a heavy burden in 2014, but it will be his opportunity to show that he has the potential to be a long-term fixture in the Falcons starting lineup.

It’s not to say that he’s expected to take his rightful place among the league’s best linebackers in 2014, but if he can build off a solid rookie year while showing improvement and eliminating some mistakes, then there’s a lot of promise that Bartu will become a familiar name to Falcons fans for years to come.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 28 Lamar Holmes

July 17th, 2014 2 comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Lamar Holmes

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 28th-ranked player: offensive tackle Lamar Holmes.

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

Total Score: 50/100

Last year’s rank: 25
Player Grade: 49/100
Teams he is starter: 9 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 27 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

Holmes was thrust into the fire in 2013 following the injury to Mike Johnson. And his play early on at right tackle showed that he was not ready for the responsibility. Through his first two starts, he allowed only one sack but also gave up five pressures and seven hurries (per Moneyball reviews). But Holmes did improve once he made the switch to left tackle following the early-season injury to Sam Baker. Over his next seven games at left tackle, he gave up no sacks, four pressures and 10 hurries.

Had Holmes been able to maintain that level of play, there would have been little issue with him retaining a starting position. But Holmes did not finish 2013 well, giving up seven sacks, four pressures and 10.5 hurries in the final six games at left tackle.

There certainly was the possibility this offseason that the Falcons would give Holmes a chance to redeem himself with another year starting at right tackle. With the addition of offensive line coach Mike Tice and an assumption that Holmes could revert to 2013 mid-season form, there was a reasonable hope that Holmes could have been more than competent as a starter this year.

With the selection of Jake Matthews in the first round this past May, any chance that Holmes would remain in the starting lineup evaporated. Holmes will instead be expected to compete for the swing tackle spot this summer and thus will get at least another year to develop before he’s asked to start again.

That time should be beneficial to Holmes, whose biggest issue last season was inconsistent technique and hand use. Holmes has the size and athleticism to be an effective starter, but needs to be more consistent with his technique and leverage.

But given the injury history of Baker, there’s also a decent chance that Holmes will log significant reps in 2014 should Baker miss time. But with Matthews on the roster, Holmes’ best chance at sticking long-term will stay at right tackle. Baker’s contract could become prohibitive down the road, prompting the Falcons to move Matthews to left tackle. Then, there will be a void at right tackle that will need to be filled.

How Holmes develops this year and performs if given the opportunity will determine if the Falcons still pencil him in to fill that void. He’s not quite there yet, but the potential is there and it just may need another year or two for it to developed. And now in light of the Falcons’ moves made this offseason, Holmes should get that much-needed time to refine his game and live up to his third-round billing.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 29 Mike Johnson

July 16th, 2014 No comments
Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Mike Johnson

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 29th-ranked player: offensive lineman Mike Johnson.

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

Total Score: 48/100

Last year’s rank: 22
Player Grade: 48/100
Teams he is starter: 11 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 1 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 25 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +2
Positional Bonus: +3

Johnson is the highest-ranked Falcon on this list that is firmly on the roster bubble this summer. He will be tasked with competing with the likes of Gabe Carimi and Harland Gunn for what may prove to be one reserve guard spot.

Helping Johnson’s chances is the fact that he’s been somewhat a journeyman on the Falcons depth chart over the years. Originally drafted to be a developmental guard in the third round of the 2010 draft, Johnson has bounced around to offensive tackle the past few years. He’s even received a handful of snaps here and there as a center during his time in Atlanta, making him potentially capable of playing all five roster spots. That certainly adds significant value when it comes to earning a roster spot as a reserve with the Falcons.

Despite receiving limited playing time over the course of four seasons with the Falcons, Johnson earns relatively higher grades than other Falcons blockers thanks to his ability. That is ability that he has not had the good fortune to show on the field due to untimely injuries.

In 2011, while on the verge of beating out Garrett Reynolds for the starting right guard spot, Johnson suffered an injury that allowed Reynolds to take the majority of first-team reps throughout training camp. Johnson then suffered a season-ending injury midway through that season. He came back in 2012 and made the move to tackle to make room for rookie Peter Konz, and eventually served as the team’s sixth lineman and blocking tight end during the regular season.

In 2013, after outworking Lamar Holmes in the offseason to win the starting right tackle spot, Johnson suffered a season-ending injury midway through camp. Who knows whether Johnson would have proven to be a significantly improved option at that spot than Holmes was early in the year.

Johnson should benefit to returning to his more natural position at guard this summer, where his less than ideal athleticism and footwork are far less hindrances. The key for Johnson may simply be staying healthy this summer since he’s mostly been effective when he’s been on the field.

While Johnson is by no means guaranteed a roster spot, all the adversity he’s faced throughout his career might have made him a lot more versatile than other options the Falcons could choose, ultimately earning him a job for another year.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 30 Peter Konz

July 16th, 2014 No comments
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Peter Konz

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 30th-ranked player: offensive lineman Peter Konz.

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

Total Score: 47/100

Last year’s rank: 16
Player Grade: 47/100
Teams he is starter: 4 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 4 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 24 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

Peter Konz blew a fantastic opportunity last year to become the team’s long-term starter at center. Now he’s behind the eight ball heading into 2014, as he will be the backup behind Joe Hawley.

While there will be a competition between the two, Konz would have to play exceptionally well or Hawley would have to struggle mightily for Konz to leapfrog him on the depth chart.

Konz struggled last year thanks to a litany of issues including poor footwork, hand usage and an utter lack of an aggressive edge in his play. The Falcons are hopeful that new offensive line coach Mike Tice can help address some of these issues to help salvage Konz’s career. Because at this point, his career is on the brink.

While Konz’s high draft status as a former second-round pick should keep his roster spot relatively safe this year, beyond this year remains to be seen. That will largely depend on what if any improvements Konz can make this season, as well as whether or not Hawley plays well. If Hawley can play well and increase the gap between him and Konz by year’s end, it could result in Konz being firmly on the roster bubble heading into the 2015 season.

But that is still a ways away, and for the time being Konz needs to be focused on this summer and season. Reports indicate that Konz has been “living” in the weight room this offseason, strong indications that he’s not taking his roster status for granted. That’s an important first step for Konz to make to salvage his career, but the rest will have to be proven on the field.

Konz will likely serve as the team’s top interior backup, due to his ability to play both center and guard. He’s struggled mightily at the latter position when asked to play there. That’s why players like Mike Johnson and Harland Gunn will likely receive reps at center this summer, as if either perform well there, it could cost Konz his status as their preferred option as a swing center/guard.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 31 Josh Wilson

July 16th, 2014 No comments
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Wilson

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 31st-ranked player: cornerback Josh Wilson.

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

Total Score: 47/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 49/100
Teams he is starter: 5 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 29 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +4

Alongside Javier Arenas, Wilson is another free-agent addition made by the Falcons this offseason to bolster their cornerback depth. Like Arenas, Wilson will be competing with incumbent Robert McClain for the team’s nickel cornerback position.

What Wilson brings to the table more so than the other is experience and toughness. While he’s never been blessed with ideal size, Wilson has always been the type of corner that played with a chip on his shoulder to best compensate. Unfortunately, at age 29 Wilson has begun to show the signs of slowing down. He had an abysmal performance last season against the San Francisco 49ers where he was repeatedly torched by Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis.

Wilson served as a starter for the Washington Redskins the past three seasons, but was also tasked with playing in the slot in the nickel last season for the first time as a Redskin. For his efforts, Wilson was one of the lowest-graded slot corners according to premium website Pro Football Focus, allowing 75 percent of passes against him completed, 8.6 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 114.8 in the slot. Fortunately for him, McClain did not fare any better in Atlanta last year: allowing 78.4 percent completions, 11.1 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 132.4. So there is certainly room for improvement as far as the Falcons nickel spot goes, which Wilson’s experience could earn him.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Wide Receiver

July 16th, 2014 No comments

Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE

Julio Jones (left) and Roddy White

The Atlanta Falcons head into the 2014 season with the same basic trio that they have sported for the past three seasons, yet for perhaps the first time ever in that span there are some causes for concern.

The biggest being the health of Julio Jones. Jones is recovering from a foot injury that cost him the final 11 games of the 2013 season and has been rested for all of the offseason.

While the word all offseason long has been that the team is resting Jones in preparation for training camp, there is no guarantee that he’ll even see much action when camp does arrive.

The Falcons have been clear that they won’t rush Jones back, which could lead to him missing all or most of the preseason if he’s not 100 percent within the first week or two of camp. Expectations are that Jones will return for the regular season opener against the New Orleans Saints, but the Falcons probably won’t risk jeopardizing that even if it means playing Jones at 98 percent.

That translates to the possibility that Jones will sit out all of the preseason with the possible exception of the third game against the Tennessee Titans. If Jones is not 100 percent by mid-August, it likely means that he will skip that Titans game and go into the regular season with limited work in pads.

In the meantime, the Falcons should have Roddy White and Harry Douglas to fill any void. White also missed much of the offseason as he was dealing with a family matters due to the murder of his brother. But expectations are that White will be back for training camp and may have a new contract as well.

Douglas is coming off a career-high season in which he led the Falcons in receptions and yards. His play this summer will be a big factor as he is the team’s primary option to fill the void left by the retirement of tight end Tony Gonzalez. The Falcons are expected to employ three wide receivers significantly more to try and compensate for Gonzalez’s loss. Douglas played in 59 percent of the team’s offensive plays in 2012, but that figure increased to 86 percent in 2013 (per premium website Pro Football Focus). It’s likely that his workload in 2014 will mirror his 2013 one.

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