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Free Agent Focus: Offensive Line (Part 2)

January 30th, 2012 Comments off
ICON SMI

Carl Nicks

In the first part, we spent the bulk of the conversation discussing what the Falcons could or should do to address their need at left tackle. But not to be overlooked are the potential open holes on the interior at center and right guard.

While the Falcons have somewhat of an answer at center in Joe Hawley, they might not be completely comfortable entrusting the gig to him. It would be smart to bring in at least a veteran that can function as a reserve if not a direct competitor for the job. The team could also opt sign an established veteran that could definitely land the job because there is a strong group of free agents this off-season. Chris Myers (Houston), Scott Wells (Green Bay), Jeff Saturday (Indianapolis), Dan Koppen (New England), Andre Gurode (Baltimore). and Nick Hardwick (San Diego) headline the list of candidates.

Myers is likely to land a lucrative contract around $50 or so million that makes him one of the more highly paid centers in the league. Wells also being one of the younger options is likely to land a lucrative deal from Green Bay or another team on the market. Although he’ll probably be had for a slightly cheaper price than Myers.

Saturday is possibly a future Hall of Famer, but he may opt to retire this off-season. And while he would definitely be a great stopgap for a year or two in Atlanta, it would seem counter-intuitive given the Falcons desires to get younger. Koppen is no spring chicken, as he’ll turn 33 at the start of the 2012 season. He’s missed all but the first half of the Patriots Week 1 opener with a broken ankle. Although initial reports indicated that Koppen would only miss 4 months due to the injury, which would mean that he could be 100% by now or nearly there. He’s been a mainstay in New England since 2003, and it’ll be interesting to see if they let him walk.

Gurode played the bulk of this past year at left guard for the Ravens, after the Cowboys cut him this past summer. He’ll turn 33 in March and would definitely add a physical element up front. His ability to play guard or center could make an attractive target, but the Falcons definitely won’t break the bank to sign him.

Hardwick is also considering retirment, thanks in large part due to the issues that teammate Kris Dielman suffered due to concussion-related seizures. Hardwick is still relatively young, as he’ll be 31 when the season starts. He has been under the radar over most of his career in San Diego, rarely getting the accolades of others, but being a consistently good starter up front. If he still wants to play for a few more years, and departs San Diego he could be an option for Atlanta.

But if the Falcons don’t go after one of these bigger names, then someone such as Jamey Richard (Colts), Tony Wragge (Rams), Scott Mruczkowski (Chargers), or Geoff Hangartner (Panthers) who are serviceable reserves with some starting experience that could compete directly with Hawley, and be much cheaper options.

At right guard, the Falcons are probably a bit more likely to spend some big money than they are at center. Garrett Reynolds struggled early in the season, and Hawley was clearly outmatched for the job the rest of the way. While the team might hope that Mike Johnson can make a healthy return and push for the job, they should probably move forward under the expectation that Johnson is no longer a viable long-term option.

Carl Nicks is the top free agent, and most suspect he’ll price himself out of New Orleans. That would mean of course that if the Falcons pursue him, they would have to spend the cash to lure him here. It’ll be interesting to see if the Falcons can keep some of their own prominent free agents and also afford to make a strong play for Nicks. He would definitely beef up the Falcons interior and give them the sort of right guard that could push the pile as well as keep Matt Ryan’s jersey cleaner.

The next name on the list is Ben Grubbs, who is a solid to good guard for the most part. Grubbs will also be an expensive option, but as a Georgia native, might come somewhat cheaper than Nicks. What he lacks in size compared to Nicks, he makes up for with athleticism.

Philadelphia’s Evan Mathis is also a player that could find his bank account enhanced this off-season. He’s coming off a good year in Philadelphia, after spending years as a journeyman and backup mostly. He probably won’t be as expensive as either Nicks or Grubbs, making him arguably the best bang for your buck if he can reproduce his production in Philadelphia here in Atlanta.

Other options include Tennessee’s Jake Scott, who has been a steady, yet unspectacular starter for the Titans over the years. He’ll turn 31 this off-season, and really only makes sense if the Falcons cannot get one of the bigger names.

The rest of the class isn’t really filled with anybody that really makes the needle move, and the Falcons would probably be better off targeting options in the draft if they were not able to snag one of these four options at guard. It is a fairly deep class of guards for this draft, and subsequently the Falcons may try to find their long-term answer there.

That might be the best plan for the Falcons: get immediate help at left tackle via free agency, but still try to cultivate a young guy at right guard if they cannot afford one of the premier free agents. Either way, you can expect some substantial additions to the Falcons offensive line to try and bolster this unit for 2012 and beyond.

Free Agent Focus: Offensive Line (Part 1)

January 30th, 2012 Comments off
AP Photo

Jared Gaither

Arguably the biggest priority for the Falcons this off-season is improving up front. This team got pushed around too much last year, and if they intend to make a championship run in the coming years that has to change. Their offensive line is going to have to go from a glaring weakness to an obvious strength.

The Falcons will first need to make decisions on whether to bring certain players back. Todd McClure is a free agent, and it appears he intends to keep playing. But McClure turns 35 in two weeks, and with the intense focus on improving in the trenches, the time seems ripe to move on and try to get younger here. The Falcons have Joe Hawley waiting in the wings. Hawley did not particularly shine at center early in the season, but the experience he added later in the year playing guard should help him improve there.

The Falcons will also need to make a decision on whether to bring back Sam Baker. Many are speculating that the Falcons will part ways with Baker due to his salary and the disappointing 2011 he had. Baker showed promise early in his career, playing well in his first two seasons, but has showed almost no improvement, if not regression over the past two seasons. The team tried him at right guard and as a blocking tight end late in the season, and neither position switch really worked. So it’s likely that the team will part ways, saving money and moving on.

If the team shows trust in Hawley to man the pivot spot, that will mean more than likely the team will focus on upgrading the left tackle position and right guard spot this off-season.

Will Svitek was a decent replacement for Baker at left tackle, but as he got more experience there he was exposed a bit more. The team should be on the lookout for a long-term solution at this position. But without a first round pick in the draft, it will be hard to find a good left tackle ready to start right away in the draft. That could mean the Falcons scour the free agent market looking for quality left tackle candidates.

A few players such as Jared Gaither (San Diego) and Demetrius Bell (Buffalo) rise to the top of the list. Although there is some talk that the Chargers could dump Marcus McNeill due to his high salary and his neck and back injuries, Gaither is probably not likely to return to San Diego. Back injuries also forced Gaither to miss all of the 2010 season and some of 2009. But prior to those injuries, he was considered one of the top young left tackles in the league. He signed with the Chiefs this past off-season to try and resurrect that reputation, but he did little besides serving as a third tackle and tight end. But when he was picked up by the CHargers in Week 13, he started to play well down the stretch.

Gaither’s past injury issues probably means that whatever team, Falcons included, should not break the bank for him. But he’s a big, physical player that if his strength is back is capable of going up against the better pass rushers in the league and a clear upgrade over what the Falcons have at the position.

Bell has also dealt with his share of injuries, missing a big chunk of this past year with a broken collarbone, before a knee injury put him on IR before the final game of the season. He also missed half of the 2009 season with knee problems. Bell looked like a player that was finally emerging into a capable left tackle this year before injuries sapped him. But he struggled in both previous seasons as the Bills left tackle. It appears the Bills want to keep him, but he may decide to move on because they intend to have him compete with second-year Chris Hairston for the starting job. Bell may opt to go to a team where he is more appreciated. Bell has always been noted for his athleticism, being the son of former NBA super star Karl Malone. The question the Falcons must ask is whether or not his issues with injuries are going to be a problem going forward, and whether he’s a one-year wonder that will pick up where he left off before getting hurt this season.

Another option to the Falcons may be to go after a player like Philadelphia’s King Dunlap. Dunlap has performed admirably in a handful of replacement starts for Jason Peters over the past few years. He’s a massive blocker that could be looking to emerge from the shadows as a legit starter. Because of his limited experience, he probably would be a much cheaper option for the Falcons to pursue.

Pittsburgh’s Max Starks might be worth a look, but he’ll likely miss most if not all of the spring due to suffered a torn ACL at the end of the year. Starks could be a cheap insurance policy if that injury drives his price down, that the Falcons could stash on the PUP until he’s healthy.

The Falcons could also try and go after a veteran like Jeff Backus who could be a decent stopgap for a year. The Lions appear to want Backus to return. But he too is coming off a biceps injury that may limit his ability to come in right away and man the starting spot.

Signing injured players is not really in the best interest of the Falcons because they’ll need their new linemen to be able to come in the spring and summer and begin to gel as a unit. So that would make it doubtful that the team would look hard at guys like Backus and Starks, although Bell should not be out too long.

That likely means the Falcons will have to make a serious play for Gaither, who could be a fairly hot commodity on the open market for all the left tackle-needy teams that won’t be picking at the top of the draft. Teams like Arizona, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and Minnesota all might be making strong plays for a player such as Gaither. Which is thus why the Falcons may find themselves priced out of that sweepstakes, and a player like Dunlap more attractive to bring in to compete directly with Svitek.

In the next part, we’ll look at what the Falcons can do to upgrade their interior offensive line.

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Free Agent Focus: Tight End

January 29th, 2012 Comments off
Getty Images

Michael Palmer

After a short lay-off, it’s time to get back into what things to look out for in free agency at each position group. Now it’s time we take a look at the tight end position.

The Falcons were able to hold off on major shake-up at this position by extending Tony Gonzalez’s contract for one more year. It’s likely 2012 will be the swan song season for Gonzalez, who is desperately trying to win a championship, or at least a playoff game before he retires. Since it seems very likely that this upcoming season will be his last, the team must find a viable long-term replacement for Gonzalez.

It was once thought that could potentially be Michael Palmer. But Palmer has done little to justify such beliefs. While Palmer is a solid backup tight end, he has not shown the ability as a receiver to really justify any faith in him to be a viable starter going forward. He has a good set of hands, but has yet to show he can consistently beat man coverage, a requirement for any starting receiver. More than likely the Falcons can pencil in Palmer to perform a role similar to Justin Peelle which is a backup blocker, an area where he has shown improvement.

Reggie Kelly is a free agent, but he’s not expected back after contributing little for most of the season. This all should lead to the Falcons exploring their options to try and find some tight end depth this off-season with an eye towards a guy that can take over the reins from Gonzalez in 2013. It probably makes the most sense to target such a player in the draft but they could look at a few options in free agency.

The best player available is without question Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley. But most expect the Packers to slap the franchise tag on him, limiting his availability. The next best player is probably Washington’s Fred Davis. But he ended the season on a four-game suspension due to failing a drug test (marijuana), and is one more positive test away from a full-year’s suspension. That issue hanging over his head would likely hurt his marketability, making him a cheaper option for any team willing to take on that risk. But given the so-called Falcons Filter when it comes to issues of character, it’s unlikely they would be one of the teams willing to roll that dice.

The next group of starting-caliber tight ends are Martellus Bennett (Dallas), John Carlson (Seattle), and Joel Dreessen (Houston).

Bennett is a brash player known for some of his more out-spoken comments during his days in Dallas, but at the end of the day he’s a pretty good football player. He seems to be a player that is waiting for his opportunity to emerge from the shadow of Jason Witten, and his chance to hit the open market this off-season might be it. Unfortunately, Bennett is more of a blocker at this point in his career than a receiver despite excellent size and athleticism. His hands have been inconsistent at times, and he’s more in line with a good No. 2 than an effective No. 1 tight end. While he could represent a major upgrade over Palmer, it’s unlikely he could come close to filling the shoes of Gonzalez going forward.

Carlson missed all of this past year with a shoulder injury. Prior to the arrival of Pete Carroll, Carlson was a productive tight end in the passing game, tallying over 50 catches in his first two seasons in the league. But part of that may have stemmed from the lack of playmakers that the Seahawks have had on the outside. But he’s a player that can definitely be an effective starter and ideally an H-back, a role he did well with in Seattle. Dirk Koetter’s offense makes ample use of the H-back, and if the Falcons deem Carlson healthy, he might be a nice, solid option to pursue.

Dreessen has performed well as a replacement for an injured Owen Daniels over the past three years. Daniels has missed 14 combined games over the past three seasons, and in those games, Dreessen has combined for 43 catches, 561 yards (13.0 avg), and 3 touchdowns. Dreessen will turn 30 in July, but he’s a player that could fit very well in the H-back role here in Atlanta, although once again as a long-term replacement for Gonzalez, he might be limited.

If the Falcons are looking to try and find a better No. 2 option than Palmer to team with Gonzalez, they could do so in this free agent market. But in terms of strong candidates to be permanent long-term replacements for Gonzalez next year and beyond, this market appears limited. How important that No. 2 TE is could also be determined by how the team handles the fullback position. If Koetter favors more of a two-tight end based offense that marginalizes the need for a blocking back, it’s quite possible the Falcons could try to make a splash in free agency for an H-back, but also go after the heir apparent to Gonzalez via the draft as well. The Falcons definitely have options worth exploring in free agency, but more than likely will focus on the draft when it comes down to it.

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Falcons hire Hill to coach OL

January 29th, 2012 Comments off
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Pat Hill

The Falcons announced the hiring of Pat Hill as the team’s new offensive line coach yesterday. Hill will replace the departed Paul Boudreau, whose contract was not renewed by the team earlier this month. Hill comes to Atlanta after fifteen seasons as the head coach of Fresno State. There he accumulated an 112-80 record and made 11 bowl appearances. Prior to taking the job at Fresno State in 1997, Hill spent five years as an offensive line coach with the Cleveland Browns (1992-95) and Baltimore Ravens (1996). In Cleveland, he served under New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

Hill coached current Falcons safety James Sanders and guard Andrew Jackson during his time at Fresno State. Jackson is one of four former Fresno State offensive linemen currently in the league. Logan Mankins and Ryan Wendell both play for Belichick in New England, while Kenny Wiggins is currently a member of the Ravens practice squad.

Prior to taking the job with the Browns, Hill was the offensive coordinator at the University of Arizona for two seasons. That followed a six-year stint as an assistant at Fresno State where he primarily coached the offensive line. In 1983, he worked with the offensive linemen for the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL. Prior to that he served as the offensive line coach at UNLV (1981-82), Utah (1977-80), and L.A. Valley College (1974-76).

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2012 Mock Draft – 2 Rounds

January 28th, 2012 3 comments

This is my second mock draft, to follow up my last one. Before I took a look at the Top 46 picks, going all the way to the Falcons pick in Round 2. I will do the same here, but instead I’ll go all the way to the end of the second round. An asterisk (*) denotes an underclassman. Note that picks 8 and 9, along with 11 and 12 have yet to be determined due to a coin flip.

FIRST ROUND

1. Indianapolis Colts – QB Andrew Luck, Stanford*
While you’ll hear some discussion and debate on whether Griffin is the better prospect, the reality is going to come down to the fact that Luck still has him beat. People will talk up Griffin’s athleticism and arm strength, but forgotten is that Luck grades very well in both as well. People constantly compare Luck to Peyton Manning, but his playing style much more mirrors that of Aaron Rodgers in terms of his ability to move around the pocket and make plays with his legs when need be. At the end of the day, Luck is going to be the No. 1 pick.

TRADE!
2. Miami Dolphins (from St. Louis) – QB Robert Griffin III, Baylor*
Ultimately, I think somebody will swap picks with the Rams to move up to get Griffin. While Luck is better, Griffin is a very good prospect that I personally think is at this point a better prospect than Cam Newton was a year ago. Griffin still needs some polish, but he does have a lot of upside based off how much improvement you’ve seen him make over the last year and his collegiate career. I think the Dolphins among the Redskins, Browns, and Seahawks are probably the most likely to bite on Griffin because those other three teams have decent stopgaps already in place, but Miami does not. While the Dolphins will probably sniff around Matt Flynn, I think they’ll ultimately favor going with Griffin. Trade Terms: Rams get Miami’s 1st (#9), 2nd, 4th in 2012, and their 2nd in 2013.

3. Minnesota Vikings – OT Matt Kalil, Southern California*
It would not surprise me if Iowa’s Riley Reiff moves past Kalil on many boards. But at this point, I’ll go with Kalil here. The Vikings need a left tackle after dumping Bryant McKinnie, and Charlie Johnson was no less atrocious for the Vikings as he was for the Colts. If/when Steve Hutchinson moves on, they can slide Johnson into his more natural left guard spot, plug Kalil in at left tackle and they should be able have a solid left side.

4. Cleveland Browns – WR Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State*
The Browns will be an interesting team to watch since they could easily jump into the Robert Griffin sweepstakes, but probably won’t be willing to offer the Rams quite as much as other teams since they won’t have to move up as high. They also have a decent young QB in Colt McCoy, so they probably could with two first round picks concentrate more on surrounding him with talent than starting fresh with a new QB. They need a No. 1 receiver, and while it might be smarter to try to find a veteran free agent, it’ll be hard to pass up on a good receiver like Blackmon here. Blackmon is not an elite WR prospect like A.J. Green or Julio Jones, but he’s a good one that should be a good fit in their version of the West Coast offense.

5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – CB Morris Claiborne, LSU*
Claiborne is not quite on par with former teammate Patrick Peterson as an NFL prospect, but he is not a far cry from him. Claiborne has excellent combination of size, speed, and his ball skills are second to none. New Bucs head coach Greg Schiano knows the value of a good cover corner, having coached the McCourty Bros. at Rutgers. The off-field issues of Aqib Talib, potential retirement of Ronde Barber, and the utter lack of solid depth at this position makes a player like Claiborne a smart pickup.

6. Washington Redskins – QB Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M
The reason why there is not much buzz on Tannehill right now is because a foot injury kept him out of the Senior Bowl. But when all is said and done you can bet that Tannehill will be a Top 10 pick. His game combines arm strength and athleticism similar to Aaron Rodgers, and while he’s still young and raw, his upside is very good given how solid he’s been despite only playing a year and a half as Texas A&M’s starting QB. His presence will be one of the reasons why a team like Washington won’t go too crazy trying to move up to get Griffin.

7. Jacksonville Jaguars – OT Riley Reiff, Iowa*
New head coach Mike Mularkey is going to have to find a way to keep Blaine Gabbert upright, as the young quarterback’s pocket presence is some of the worst I’ve ever seen. Improving the protection is a key, and plugging in Reiff on the right side makes sense. Eben Britton has struggled due to injuries, and Reiff briefly played some right tackle as a sophomore where he went up against the likes of Derrick Morgan, and contained him. If the Jaguars want to continue to work MJD as their primary weapon on offense, they have to get better up front.

8. St. Louis Rams (coin flip/from Miami) – RB Trent Richardson, Alabama*
The Rams certainly are happy to move down, picking up some extra picks and plugging multiple holes. Moving down, they will likely target offensive line help, but also with Richardson sitting here, it’s too good to pass up. The team needs to find the heir apparent to Steven Jackson, and Richardson is the perfect fit. His combination of speed and power, along with his potential in the passing game make him the most complete running back prospect in the draft since Adrian Peterson.

9. Carolina Panthers (coin flip) – DT Michael Brockers, LSU*
Brockers is a high-upside guy who was only a sophomore at LSU, but showed good potential. The Panthers run defense was atrocious this past year and rookies Terrell McClain and Sione Fua did little to suggest they are going to be big-time pieces going forward. Brockers was a stand-out run stuffer at LSU, manhandling guards in the SEC. He also flashes potential as a pass rusher, although he’s raw there. But he has the sort of talent to be a force in the middle that the Panthers haven’t seen since the heyday of Kris Jenkins.

10. Buffalo Bills – DE Quinton Coples, North Carolina
The Bills need to solidify their defense and try to find ways to stop teams. Coples is a good prospect to try and help them do that. A big, athletic specimen that flashes the ability to be on par with guys like Julius Peppers and Mario Williams, that also hailed from his neck of the woods. Coples, alongside a healthy Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus could give Buffalo one of the most formidable fronts in the entire league if he can be developed. He’s a boom/bust prospect, but there’s no doubt someone is going to gamble on his potential high in the draft.

Read more…

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Tracking the Falcons 2012 Senior Bowl Interest

January 25th, 2012 Comments off

As has been the case in past years, we’ll be looking at which players have reportedly talked to the Atlanta Falcons during the week of practices for the Senior Bowl, a collegiate all-star game that will be played on Saturday, January 28, 2012.

Sources for this information, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Twitter.

  • CB Brandon Boykin, Georgia
  • TE Ladarius Green, Louisiana-Lafayette
  • WR Brian Quick, Appalachian State

As more information becomes available, we’ll continue to update this list.

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Free Agent Focus: Wide Receiver

January 25th, 2012 Comments off

AP Photo

Harry Douglas

The Falcons will have to make a decision on whether to keep or let Harry Douglas go in free agency. And you could make the case for either happening. The Falcons are expected to install a vertical offense under Dirk Koetter. And playing the vertical game is really not a strength of Douglas. He’ll make the occasional play down the field, but his bread and butter is really the shorter and intermediate routes where he can use his quickness and burst after the catch to make plays. So in that sense, it would make sense for the Falcons to pass on Douglas and find someone that is a better fit for the scheme.

But at the same time, it’s not like you’re going to run 3 or 4 verticals every snap of the game, and having a nice outlet option underneath to make teams pay if they set their coverages too deep is a valuable commodity.

Ultimately the main issue with Douglas is the price. For the right price, the team should want him back. But at the wrong one, it’s probably best if the team lets him walk. And that’s going to be the big question surrounding this year’s free agent market at wide receiver.

Last summer, the market wasn’t very big for a lot of players. Outside Sidney Rice and Santonio Holmes, no one really got paid that much. Now making $2-3 million a year is not chump change, but a lot of young receivers were expecting to cash in with lucrative long-term deals and did not. If that repeats this off-season, then a lot of players like Douglas could be left out in the cold. And that would make the chances that the Falcons can get Douglas for a modest price very high. And it seems based off deals that players like Earl Bennett and Jordy Nelson signed this past fall/winter, it doesn’t seem like teams are willing to break the bank for these complementary receivers.

If the Falcons are looking for a receiver that is a better fit in their more vertical-oriented passing attack, targeting someone with size and speed would be best. There are a number of players that sort of fit that mold as guys that are good going down the field. The ideal player would likely be Brandon Lloyd (St. Louis), but he’s likely to price him out of the Falcons range since Lloyd should be looking for starter’s money. The same could probably be said of Pierre Garcon (Indianapolis).

Next on the Falcons list would probably be Mario Manningham (NY Giants) and Robert Meachem (New Orleans). But both are quasi-starters for their respective teams, and will probably be looking for more lucrative deals and playing time. But with both, they have proven they are good No. 3 receivers and able to make big plays downfield, their primary roles with their respective teams.

Another pair of cheaper options I like are Chaz Schilens (Oakland) and Devin Aromashodu (Minnesota). Schilens is more big than fast, but his size allows him to make plays downfield because he can be so valuable on the jump balls. Aromashodu has a better mix of size and speed. The good thing about both is that it’s very likely both will come fairly cheap because neither have had more than 29 receptions in a single year. Frankly, if the Falcons could keep Douglas as well as sign one of them, it would be a good move for their wide receiver corps.

One issue the Falcons may face if they do choose to retain Douglas, is that whoever could potentially join the team as the fourth receiver would need to be able to play on special teams. That is a role that none of the previously mentioned free agents have really done. It’s a role that Douglas has performed little of. And it’s why the team has valued players like Eric Weems and Kerry Meier in recent years. That could make a player like Devin Thomas (NY Giants) a bit more attractive. Of course Thomas has been plagued with inconsistency throughout his career and has made minimal contributions on offense. If the Falcons signed him, it might be too lofty of expectations to think he will make any significant contributions on offense. It could be similar to when the Jaguars signed Kassim Osgood a year ago to be more of an offensive playmaker than he was in San Diego, and that did not work out so well.

Either way, the Falcons will have to address their receiver depth this off-season. If none of those free agents can be had at the right price, they might turn their attention to getting bigger and faster via the draft.

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Fullbacking Future

January 24th, 2012 Comments off

ICON SMI

Is Ovie done in Atlanta?

To be honest, when I wrote up the free agent focus article on the running back position, I completely ignored the fullback position. It was an error on my part because it’s a position that is often overlooked, but in the case of the Falcons it certainly will be worth watching this off-season.

New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter by many accounts prefers to use more two-tight end sets rather than using the traditional fullback position. But from what I’ve read, it seemed that in Jacksonville Greg Jones was so good as a lead blocker that he couldn’t really phase him out like he normally would. For much of the Mike Smith/Mike Mularkey Era, Ovie Mughelli has widely been considered the best or one of the best lead blockers in the game. But that all changed last year. If I’m not mistaken, Mughelli injured his knee early against the Bears (perhaps on the opening kickoff), but proceeded to continue playing with the injury until he was placed on injured reserve in October. That injury could explain why Mughelli was largely ineffective as a lead blocker through the first month or so of the season. Or it could be age starting to catch up with him. But Mughelli was only 31 this past year, and other top fullbacks similar to him like Lorenzo Neal, William Henderson, Mack Strong, and Tony Richardson were able to continue playing at a high level into the mid-to-late thirties.

But all of this raises questions about his future with the team. Mughelli is coming off season-ending knee surgery, entering the final year of his contract which will pay him $3 million in base salary. That’s a hefty price to pay for a fullback, even one as good as Mughelli. Especially if the Falcons shake up the running back position as much as they potentially could.

Part of the equation will be how the Falcons felt about Mughelli’s replacement, Mike Cox. Cox will be a free agent, and he certainly had his moments as a lead blocker, but he certainly didn’t come close to playing at the level that Ovie has been known to play at over the years. But if Koetter intends to minimize the role of the lead blocker, then it’s probably smarter to go with a cheap but solid guy like Cox, rather than the more expensive Mughelli. One certainly expects that Cox can be re-signed for considerably less than the $3 million the team would be paying Ovie. Retaining Jason Snelling also would give them another alternative option.

The Falcons also need help at tight end, and likely will target some young guy in the draft to groom as the heir apparent to Tony Gonzalez. And it will be interesting to see if they target someone that is more of an H-back type than your traditional inline tight end. If that is the case, then it would de-emphasize Mughelli’s role and value as well.

At this point, I would probably be pleasantly surprised if Ovie Mughelli returns to the Falcons in 2012. Just the sheer combination of age, injury, salary, and the fact that the team has two decent alternatives in Cox and Snelling, probably puts Ovie behind the eight ball. I would personally love to see him return because I still think a healthy Ovie can be a very effective player on this team and within this offense. But I can certainly understand if the Falcons brass decide to move in a different direction.

Free Agent Focus: Running Back

January 24th, 2012 1 comment
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Jacquizz Rodgers

I’ve already discussed that I believe the Falcons should be parting ways with Michael Turner this off-season. And if that were to happen, then it would leave a pretty large hole atop the team’s depth chart at the running back.

One hope would be that Jacquizz Rodgers can fill that hole or at least a large part of it. Rodgers was underutilized by the Falcons this past year, and he could blossom in Dirk Koetter’s offense. Koetter maximized the abilities of Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville, and there are many similarities between the two players. But more than likely, the Falcons aren’t going to want to thrust such a huge responsibility on Rodgers. And by no means should the Falcons put all of their eggs in that basket.

Turner’s potential departure should improve the odds that Jason Snelling should return to the Falcons. Snelling is by no means great, but he’s a consistently solid and is versatile due to his ability to play a multitude of roles as a runner, receiver, blocker, and on special teams. He’s proven in the past to be a capable replacement starter for Turner, and thus should get another opportunity to showcase that ability.

But what the Falcons really need to do is go after someone that is in a position to potentially take over the No. 1 spot and be the sort of workhorse that receive up to 250 carries next year.

The big names on the market are Baltimore’s Ray Rice, Chicago’s Matt Forte, and Houston’s Arian Foster. But it’s been well-known since October that Rice and Forte will receive the franchise tag from their respective teams, and Foster is just a restricted free agent. So barring the Falcons packaging players and both of their Day 2 draft picks in a trade, they won’t have the opportunity to even sniff at any of them.

But the free agency cupboard still is not barren after those guys, just there is nobody that is clearly a top back. Cedric Benson (Cincinnati), Michael Bush (Oakland), Tashard Choice (Buffalo), Justin Forsett (Seattle), Ryan Grant (Green Bay), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (New England), Tim Hightower (Washington), Peyton Hillis (Cleveland), Thomas Jones (Kansas City), Marshawn Lynch (Seattle), and LaDainian Tomlinson (NY Jets) are some of the backs in that next group of runners.

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DB coach Reynolds won’t be back in 2012

January 23rd, 2012 Comments off

The team announced that secondary coach Alvin Reynolds won’t return to the Falcons in 2012, joining former offensive line coach Paul Boudreau as another assistant that the Falcons opted not to renew their contracts with the team. Reynolds came over to the Falcons with Mike Smith in 2008 after several years as the defensive backs coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Falcons hired Tim Lewis two years ago to help improve their secondary play, and presumably he will take over full duties of that position group with Reynolds departing.

On the potential front of replacing Boudreau, the Falcons were reportedly interested in Jaguars OL coach Andy Heck, who served with both Dirk Koetter and Mike Smith in Jacksonville since 2006. In Jacksonville, Heck replaced Boudreau that year. But according to Tania Ganguli of the Florida Times-Union, Heck will be retained by the Jaguars under new head coach and former Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. Boudreau has since been hired by the St. Louis Rams, the same team he served prior to joining the Falcons in 2008.

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