Archive for June, 2012

Falcons add Hope to secondary

June 29th, 2012 Comments off

Chris Hope

The team announced the signing of veteran safety Chris Hope, formerly of the Tennessee Titans today. The team made room for hope on the roster by waiving undrafted rookie wideout Cody Pearcy yesterday.

Hope is a ten-year veteran that has spent the past six with the Titans. In that span, he recorded 16 interceptions, 34 pass breakups, 4 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles as the Titans starting strong safety. Hope earned Pro Bowl honors in 2008 with the Titans, where he finished with 78 tackles and 4 interceptions. In 2011, Hope was slowed by injuries. He began the season nursing a bum shoulder, missing two games. In his second start of the year, he broke his arm and missed the next four contests. He returned in Week 10 as a reserve. He managed to end the year with 25 tackles and an interception in 10 appearances. Prior to joining the Titans, Hope played with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he started two out of his four total seasons in Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh, Hope was the starter at free safety, playing alongside Troy Polamalu. Originally, a third round pick out of Florida State in 2002. Hope has been noted throughout his career for his leadership skills. He’ll likely supplant both Shann Schillinger and Charles Mitchell as the team’s top safety reserve and his experience at either safety spot means that he can fill in the event of injury to either starters there.

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Camp Battles 2012: Running Backs

June 28th, 2012 Comments off
Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

Jacquizz Rodgers

The Falcons return all three of their tailbacks from a year ago. Jason Snelling is playing under a new three-year deal he signed this off-season. Jacquizz Rodgers is expected to take more reps as a reserve. And Michael Turner is still locked in atop the depth chart.

Turner will remain the Falcons start this year although they have made statements that he will be on a “pitch count” this year, limiting his reps to try and keep him fresh down the stretch. This has been something that the team has tried to do throughout the past three seasons to limited success. It remains to be seen how much better Dirk Koetter will be at it than previous offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.

The team is adamant they will be looking to mix more of Rodgers and Snelling in the lineup this year, who served as little more than third down backs that would get the occasional carry to spell Turner when he was tired. With the team expected to adopt a pass-heavier attack, the roles of Rodgers and Snelling should expand. Koetter will make ample use of screens in the offense, and Rodgers and Snelling’s quickness should make them the preferred options over Turner on those plays.

Rodgers and Snelling will be directly competing for who will be the top reserve behind Turner, but at the end of the day both players will be utilized extensively. But the team is likely leaning towards Rodgers, who they hope can blossom in the Koetter system, particularly on screens because of how effective he was at Oregon State. And if the team adopts more zone-blocking runs, that should also play to Rodgers’ favor.

At fullback there will be a new face, as Bradie Ewing is expected to take over for long-time lead blocker Ovie Mughelli. Ewing will get competition from Mike Cox, who replaced Mughelli last year after he went down with a knee injury. Cox was solid, but his upside is limited, which should give Ewing the edge in a camp competition. Koetter’s scheme is expected to reduce the overall workload of the blocking fullback from previous years, which means that Ewing may share reps with Snelling as well, who can fill in.

Cox will be among others competing for the fifth and final running back spot. That role will likely go to the player who provides the most on special teams. Antone Smith would be considered the incumbent. He shined as a gunner throughout the latter half of last season, and will also be expected to compete for the vacant kickoff returner spot. Offensively, Smith has shown some ability in the passing game and some explosiveness as a runner, although his primary contribution will remain on special teams.

Also in the mix will be Dimitri Nance, Robbie Frey, and fullback Lee Meisner. Nance gets the benefit of being recruited by Dirk Koetter to go to Arizona State. Nance is probably the superior runner of the group, but he’ll have to reaffirm himself capable in passing situations as well as on special teams. Frey was a solid kickoff returner in college, so that adds potential for special teams. Meisner is a converted linebacker, that will need to utilize those skills to work on coverage units in camp.

The fifth spot will likely go to Cox, Smith, or Nance simply because they do offer more ability on offense, and have experience playing special teams. Cox’s best chance is to beat Ewing for the starting fullback job, otherwise Smith is the top candidate. Frey and Meisner are more likely competing for practice squad spots, hoping that they can make enough of an impact to be carried there.

Camp Battles 2012: Quarterbacks

June 24th, 2012 Comments off

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Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan is entering a pivotal year for his future in Atlanta. He has two years left on his contract including the 2012 season, and with him coming off his third consecutive playoff loss, there are questions whether Ryan is capable of leading the Falcons to the next level. Fortunately for Ryan, he’s not the first prominent quarterback to lose his first three playoff games. Somebody by the name of Peyton Manning entered his sixth season with an 0-3 postseason record, then helped lead the Colts to two playoff wins in 2003 with an eventual loss in the AFC Championship game to the New England Patriots. That 2003 season also marked Manning’s first MVP season, earning co-MVP honors alongside Steve McNair. While such expectations could be considered lofty for Ryan in 2012, it certainly means that the door hasn’t closed on Ryan’s ability to lead this team to greater overall success.

Hopefully helming that success will be new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Ryan has progressed and improved as an NFL passer each season he has been in the pros, and that is expected to continue under Koetter. The question remains how much improvement will Ryan have. Koetter intends to adopt more of a pass-oriented offense than under previous coordinator  Mike Mularkey, now head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Reports indicate that Koetter will make continued use of the no-huddle offense that Ryan shined in under Mularkey. One of the key areas where Ryan must improve is on the deep passes. Ryan really struggled there throughout 2011, and a hallmark of Koetter’s scheme is the four verticals. It stresses vertical routes from the receivers which help open up opportunities underneath as well. But it is not very effective if the threat of the vertical strike is not present. Without significant improvement in that area, there will be a firm cap on how much progress and production Ryan can show in the new offense.

While there are questions about Ryan’s potential, there are none about his role as the starter. The Falcons brought back Chris Redman as a free agent, who is a strong bet to resume his fifth season as the primary backup to Ryan. The Falcons adopted the growing trend in the NFL last year by carrying two quarterbacks at the start of the season. Although the team did add a third passer to roster midway through the season in John Parker Wilson. Wilson served as the No. 3 quarterback in 2009 and 2010, but began last year on the practice squad. It remains to be seen if he will land the third spot on the roster  this year. He remains still eligible to be on the practice squad in 2012. Wilson did not show a lot of progress last summer in his third year in the Mularkey offense, which likely led to the decision to cut him at the end of camp. He’ll have to show more this summer in Koetter’s offense to stick again. When the team first picked up Wilson as an undrafted rookie in 2009, it was likely with the intent to develop him as the long-term replacement for Redman. But that plan has yet to come to fruition, and without a strong summer the team could abandon that plan completely.

Hoping to alter their plans is undrafted rookie Dominique Davis out of East Carolina. Davis is a raw prospect with good arm strength and athleticism. But his footwork and mechanics are raw, and accuracy erratic, and he’s likely a long-term developmental prospect. But his ability to extend and make plays with his legs could be an intriguing asset for the Falcons. If Davis can showcase that athleticism during the preseason, he could certainly earn a practice squad spot. But he probably has only a slim chance of making the final roster as the No. 3 quarterback unless he has a really strong summer. Otherwise, Davis should be able to clear waivers and make it to the practice squad.

He and Wilson will be competing directly for the third spot, but there is no guarantee that the Falcons keep either player. Redman was only signed to a one-year deal and thus the priority for the Falcons could be looking to see if either Wilson or Davis are potentially ready to assume the role as No. 2 in the near future. If the answer is no, then it’s quite possible the Falcons pass on both and look elsewhere for a developmental backup.

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2015 Falcons: Special Teams

June 21st, 2012 Comments off
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

Matt Bosher

Come 2015, there is only one current Falcon that remains on their special teams unit. That player is punter Matt Bosher. From underwhelming beginnings in 2011, Bosher has turned into one of the league’s better punters by 2015. His ability as a kickoff specialist also gives him value. No one confuses him with being among the best guys like Andy Lee or Shane Lechler, but he is quietly consistent and solid.

At kicker, the Falcons replaced Matt Bryant following the 2014 season with Nate Kaeding. Bryant gave the Falcons a lot of consistent kicking over the years, but it was time to go with a younger leg. While Kaeding has never been the most reliable kicker, the team is confident that kicking in the reliable indoor environment of the Georgia Dome will make him one of the league’s most accurate long ball kickers. It was the deterioration of Bryant’s leg strength that was the primary reason why the team decided to move on. Kaeding is no spring chicken at age 33 when 2015 rolls around, but given that Bryant was able to produce until he was 39, the team is confident that they can get at least four or five good years from Kaeding.

Snapping for both specialists is Josh Harris, their undrafted free agent out of Auburn in 2012. While Harris did not win the job outright in a camp competition with Joe Zelenka that summer, he did impress the team enough that when they opted to part ways with Zelenka the following spring, he was the first guy they called to replace him. Harris has since snapped well in his two seasons as the Falcons snapper, and they believe he has the potential to continue to do well for another decade in a Falcon uniform.

As mentioned with the discussion of the defensive backs and receivers, Jordan Poyer and Cody Pearcy are the team’s pair of returners. Poyer works on punts, and Pearcy primarily on kickoffs.

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Falcons worked out TE Graham

June 20th, 2012 Comments off

Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston tweets that the Falcons worked out free agent tight end Daniel Graham yesterday as their most recent mini-camp opened. Graham was cut last week by the Tennessee Titans after one season with the Titans. Graham has made his career primarily as a blocking tight end.

Graham was originally a first round pick by the New England Patriots in 2002. He spent five seasons with the Patriots before joining the Denver Broncos in 2007. He spent four seasons as a starter with the Broncos before signing with the Titans last season. For his career, Graham has caught 224 passes for 2,490 yards and 25 touchdowns over the course of ten seasons with 117 starts and 142 total games played.

If the Falcons opted to sign Graham, he would likely become the front-runner for the third tight end position behind Tony Gonzalez and Michael Palmer with the team having a number of unproven and untested young players there.

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2015 Falcons: Secondary

June 20th, 2012 Comments off

William Moore

The Falcons secondary has undergone notable changes in the years leading up to 2015.

One of the few names still around is Brent Grimes, who received a long-term extension following another strong 2012 season. In 2015, Grimes at age 32 is not as spry as he once was but has been a consistent force and leader in the Falcons secondary over the years. The Falcons bid farewell to both Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel but the Falcons have replaced them with players that they are optimistic can have similar value.

Starting opposite Grimes is former New York Jet Kyle Wilson. Instead of re-signing a 34-year old Samuel in 2015, the team opted for the 28-year old Wilson. In the years since 2011, Wilson developed into one of the league’s best slot corners with the Jets, and hoping to get sustained production from that spot the Falcons snatched him up in free agency.

Adding depth behind Grimes and Wilson are Dominique Franks and Jordan Poyer. The same off-season when the team parted ways with Robinson, they gave Franks an extension to serve as the No. 3 corner. In nickel situations, Wilson kicks inside and Franks enters on the outside. But the team is optimistic that their 2013 draftee out of Oregon State, Poyer, will push Franks for that role. The team fell in love with Poyer, a former third round pick, due to his intensity, toughness, playmaking ability, and return skills. Poyer has spent most of his time during his first two years with the Falcons returning punts. But now that he is entering his third season with the team, they are hopeful he can make major strides defensively to push Franks and give the Falcons four quality corners. Also on the roster is Darrin Walls, who has carved out a nice niche as one of the team’s top special teams cover men.

At safety, the unit is still anchored by William Moore on the strongside. Moore got an extension following the 2012 season. And while he is not considered an elite safety, he is valued as one of the top enforcers in the league. His hard-hitting ways have earned him quite the reputation on the back-end of the field.

The team picked up free safety Nickoe Whitley out of Mississippi State in the second round of the 2014 draft. Whitley sat behind Thomas DeCoud for his rookie season, but the team cut DeCoud due to their belief that Whitley is poised for a breakout season in his second year. Whitley’s aggressiveness mirrors that of Moore, but his ball skills and potential as a centerfielder gives him more upside at free safety.

The team still has managed to retain Charles Mitchell as a reserve. Moore’s hard-hitting has cost him a few games over the years due to injuries, and while Mitchell has never developed into that much of a cover guy, he has filled in ably in run support for the short periods that Moore has missed.

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2015 Falcons: Linebackers

June 20th, 2012 Comments off

Sean Weatherspoon

As mentioned in the discussion about the future of the Falcons defensive line, the team now employs a hybrid defense, being able to shift from 3-4 to 4-3 at a moment’s notice.

That bears out in how the Falcons linebacker corps looks come the year 2015. Leading the unit is Sean Weatherspoon who has become the leader and anchor of the Falcons defense. Much of their defensive success over the past few seasons has been due to the strong play of Spoon, who has earned two Pro Bowl bids in the past three seasons. Weatherspoon plays on the weakside of the defense, lining up on the outside when the team utilizes the 4-3, but plays inside when they switch to the 3-4.

Beside Weatherspoon at the middle linebacker spot is Akeem Dent. Over the past three seasons, Dent has never truly been a full-time starter but is counted among their key role players. But 2015 is the first time that Dent is expected to be a true starter. Part of the reason why the Falcons have never handed the keys fully to Dent over the years is the presence of veteran Daryl Smith, whom the team signed in 2014. Smith a savvy and underrated veteran from Jacksonville first joined the team as an upgrade on the strongside. But his versatility to play all three linebacker positions made him a valuable piece in the team’s nickel defense as well as in their switch to a 3-4 defense. Smith now 33 going into the 2015 is near the end, the team is expecting Dent to take over full-time at the middle linebacker position.

Keeping in with their 3-4 looks, the team used top pick in 2015 on Georgia pass rusher Ray Drew, who they intend to see become one of the league’s more feared edge rushers. Drew will also play on the strongside in their 4-3 looks, but the plan at least as a rookie is for him to split reps with Smith there. Even though Drew won’t be an everydown player right away, the team is confident that he can have an Aldon Smith-like impact even as a situational rusher coming off the edge as a rookie.

Stephen Nicholas is still around because of his ability to provide depth and also give the team a competent pass rusher on the outside, making him able to work in both 4-3 and 3-4 looks. He’ll also be in the mix on the strongside in certain situations.

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Falcons add kicker

June 18th, 2012 Comments off

New York Jets kicker Nick Folk tweeted earlier tonight that the Falcons had signed his younger brother, Erik, an undrafted free agent kicker out of Washington. The Falcons had a roster spot open from cutting long snapper Corey Adams last week.

Folk spent three seasons as the Huskies’ primary field goal kicker and kickoff specialist. He was a Lou Groza Award semi-finalist as a senior, making all 56 extra points and connecting on 11 of 16 field goals, with a long of 53. He also had 8 touchbacks on 76 kickoffs as a senior. For his career, Folk made all 124 extra point attempts in his career. He was 42 of 57 (73.7%) on field goals, and had 15 touchbacks on 196 kickoffs for his career. Folk will be expected to push Matt Bryant for his kicking job, but also compete with Matt Bosher on kickoffs.

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2015 Falcons: Defensive Line

June 18th, 2012 Comments off

Bjoern Werner

The Falcons defensive front has undergone some notable changes in the years leading up to 2015. Gone is defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who helped revamp the Falcons front into an improved unit. Replacing Nolan in 2015 is Joe Danna, formerly the Falcons secondary coach. Nolan helped bridge the gap from the Falcons 4-3 days to a 3-4 scheme. But the Falcons still implement a hybrid scheme, being able to switch easily between schemes depending on the situation.

The anchor of the front is no longer John Abraham, as he and the Falcons parted ways after 2013. They used their top pick the following spring on Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner. Werner’s combination of size and quickness made the team see him as a potential Justin Smith-type of player, capable of playing at a high level in either scheme.

When the Falcons employ their 4-3 set, on the opposite side of the field from Werner, the team has used both Lawrence Sidbury and Jonathan Massaquoi in a rotation. Both players over the years have learned how to drop into coverage, and can freely move from playing with their hand on the ground or off it when the need arises.

On the inside, the team parted aways with Jonathan Babineaux after his contract expired in 2014. The team replaced him by signing former Jaguars defensive tackle Tyson Alualu. Alualu’s experience playing in a 3-4 at Cal, and a 4-3 in Jacksonville made him an excellent fit in the Falcons hybrid scheme. Playing alongside him in their four-man front is still Corey Peters who signed an extension the same off-season Babineaux was let go. When the Falcons need to beef up their front, Peters gives way to a rotation of Sylvester Williams and Travian Robertson. Williams was the team’s fourth round pick in 2013 out of North Carolina. Williams has the bulk (320 pounds) and motor that in conjunction with Robertson, they form a nice pair of nose tackle for their three-man fronts in the middle.

As has been the norm under Mike Smith, the Falcons make a heavy use of a rotation to get the job done up front. The Falcons hope that with Danna taking over for Nolan, that the team can elevate their front to a new level. There are no superstars on the Falcons front, but they think Werner has the potential to develop into one of the better defensive linemen in the league, and they hope he starts to live up to those expectations come 2015.

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2015 Falcons: Offensive Line

June 17th, 2012 Comments off

Peter Konz

The Falcons offensive line come 2015 is considered one of the strengths of the team, given the teams new-found emphasis on the position that begins in 2012.

The Falcons 2015 line consists of the same unit that it started beginning in 2013, which features left tackle Lamar Holmes, left guard Justin Blalock, center Joe Hawley, right guard Peter Konz, and right tackle Tyson Clabo. What begin as a bit of a shaky unit has now blossomed into a strong group up front now that they’ve built some continuity with each other. Also in the mix is a Pat Hill favorite in guard Andrew Jackson, who hopes that now in his fifth season in the league can crack a permanent place in the starting lineup at guard.

The anchor of the unit is Konz, who thanks to Hawley’s solid play in his first season as a full-time starter in 2013 hasn’t been asked to kick inside to center yet. Hawley was good enough that the team opted to re-sign him following the 2013 season with a modest three-year deal and hasn’t regretted the decision as he has developed into a solid starting center thanks to his toughness and aggressiveness. At the other guard spot is the old veteran Justin Blalock, whose Falcon career is beginning to wind down. While Blalock has yet to earn a trip to the Pro Bowl in his career, he’s considered to be a solid guard. But the team is looking for Jackson to potentially push him for the starting spot. They are also hopeful that even if he doesn’t beat out Blalock, that Jackson has improved enough that he could be plugged in at right guard, which will allow Konz to play his more natural center position. Jackson has managed to fill in at various times over the past three seasons when others have been out with injuries. He has been cross-trained to play all three interior positions, although Konz remains the primary backup at center. But the team feels its interior of the line is the strength of the unit.

Outside, Lamar Holmes and Tyson Clabo form the bookends. By 2015, Clabo appears to be on his last legs. He’s entering the contract year of his deal that he signed in 2011, and most expect him to hang it up after the year is done. But he wants to give it one more go with this team to try and push them over the top. The team has already drafted his heir apparent and potential replacement in the rookie out of Iowa, Brandon Scherff. On the opposite side, Holmes has grown into a solid player. While he’s not considered to be one of the top left tackles in the league, he is considered capable of getting the job done of protecting Matt Ryan’s blindside. Holmes had a shaky start in his first year as a starter in 2013, but in the subsequent years has shown improvement each season so that now in 2015, he is considered a solid asset for the unit. His career arc mirrors that of previous left tackles such as Donald Penn, Duane Brown, and Jermon Bushrod, of guys that got off to questionable starts, but showed steady improvement each year. He is in line for a big extension after 2015 if he can show continued growth.

Due to their renewed focus on maintaining a strong front, the Falcons have used a multitude of their late round picks over the past few drafts to build depth.