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Falcons Needs: Fullback

January 31st, 2013 Comments off
Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Bradie Ewing

The Falcons made a commitment to retain this position in their offense by drafting Bradie Ewing last April in the fifth round. Ewing missed all of his rookie season with an ACL tear, suffered in the preseason opener. While fullback won’t be a pivotal position in the Falcons offense, the team would not have deemed it necessary to draft Ewing if it wasn’t going to offer some value.

The team began the 2012 season with Lousaka Polite at fullback, but he quickly proved inadequate. The team brought back Mike Cox, who lost the competition to Polite during camp, and Cox played fairly well. Cox is by no means a great fullback, but he’s a competent lead blocker. He will be a free agent, and the Falcons will have to make a decision on whether to re-sign him or just to simply hand the keys over to Ewing.

If they opt to re-sign Cox, it should not require a significant investment, as he’s likely to be amenable to another one-year, minimum-level contract. That way the Falcons have an insurance policy in place if Ewing isn’t completely recovered from his knee injury or quite ready to be an NFL starter. More than likely the team would bring both players to camp and Ewing would be the favorite to win any competition between them.

The team can also tinker with moving Jason Snelling to the spot full-time if Cox is not retained. Snelling played well early in the year, when he was filling in for an injured Polite. If Snelling was again to be buried on the depth chart as the No. 3 running back in 2013, mixing him into the lineup at fullback would be a good way to get some production from him.

Overall, the Falcons need at this position isn’t very big due to the presence of Ewing, and the fact that the team has an in-house candidate in Snelling and an easy-to-retain free agent in Cox.

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Falcons FA Focus: Running Back

January 31st, 2013 Comments off
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

DeAngelo Williams

As noted when discussing the Falcons needs at the running back position, it is likely that the team will opt to go for a young back in the draft rather than free agency. If the Falcons are looking for a guy that can fill the mantle as the team’s feature back and sustain the team’s ground attack with a heavy workload, there will be better options come April in the draft than in the free agent market in March. But if the Falcons prefer someone that can split reps with Rodgers and Snelling to form more of a three-man committee system, they should have plenty of options in free agency.

The biggest names to hit the free agent market will likely be Steven Jackson (Rams) and Reggie Bush (Dolphins). Jackson is fast approaching the end of his career, as retirement talk has been broached. Jackson still has a bit left in the tank, but similar to the likely departing Michael Turner, he is a shell of the runner he once was. The value that Jackson brings is that he’s a veteran that is comfortable in the passing game, and still has retained some quickness and burst, certainly more than Turner. He would represent an upgrade, but not a significant one. The other downside of signing Jackson is the likelihood it’s probably only a one-year stopgap which would mean the Falcons would need to hope that Jacquizz Rodgers emerges as a viable lead back candidate in 2013 or be right back searching for someone else come 2014.

Bush is a big name due to his former high draft status and high profile in New Orleans for years, not particularly because he’s a blessed runner. Bush still has excellent quickness and speed to make the big plays. But in two years in Miami, he proved that he is not quite capable of being a lead back, and should return to the duties he held in New Orleans which was primarily a situational runner that provides value in the passing game. Besides his home-run potential, Bush at this point in his career doesn’t bring much more to the table than Rodgers.

Another free agent is Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall. But Mendenhall’s injury history, off-field issues, character, coupled with limited value in the passing game likely will keep him firmly off Atlanta’s radar.

Restricted free agent Chris Ivory (Saints) could draw attention. He’ll likely receive a second-round tender from the Saints, which may be a steep price to pay for him. Ivory has similar tools as Jason Snelling, except his superior footwork, balance, and burst probably make him a better candidate to be a lead back. But he’s limited in the passing game, which is the main reason why he has yet to flourish in New Orleans despite being consistently productive whenever he does get reps. While Ivory has some upside due to his youth, giving the division rival Saints a second round pick for his services seems too high especially given the fact that the Falcons could use that pick on a more well-rounded player in the draft.

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Falcons Needs: Running Back

January 31st, 2013 Comments off
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Turner

After highlighting the Falcons needs at the quarterback position, it’s time to move onto running back. It seems likely that the Falcons will cut Michael Turner in the off-season, a move that will come a year later than it should have. That will make running back one of the more immediate needs of the team.

Turner will leave a significant hole on the Falcons roster, as the lead back he was able to get about 250 touches this past year, even with a purposefully reduced workload. One of the issues that faced Turner in 2012 was the fact that his legs looked very worn and old. And thus it’s likely that the Falcons will opt for a runner with fresh legs. That leads one to believe the Falcons will opt for a draft pick instead of a free agent signing to fill Turner’s shoes.

While Jacquizz Rodgers flashed ability, the Falcons probably should not expect Rodgers to step up and be that lead back. Last season, Rodgers had 5 games in which he carried the ball 10 or more times. In those games, he rushed for a combined 202 yards on 51 carries with 1 touchdown. That’s good for nearly 4 yards per carry (3.96). But 65 of those yards came on two big runs: his 45-yard run against the Seahawks in the playoffs, and a 20-yard run against the Bucs in Week 12. Excluding those two runs, he was averaging about 2.80 yards on 49 carries. That’s not a figure that suggests Rodgers possesses the ability to be consistent if/when his workload doubles as the lead back.

Jason Snelling has shown himself to be a functional starter in the absence of Turner in past years. He looked relatively sharp when he was able to get a significant workload last year, but was rarely used until the final month of the season. Again, the Falcons can’t assume that either he or Rodgers will be able to step in and produce with an increased workload. The simple truth is that while both players flashed ability from time to time, their flashes were no less sporadic than Turner’s throughout the 2012 season.

Instead, the Falcons need to look for another back to at least split the workload with Rodgers and Snelling, if not surpass them as the lead rusher. The problem with signing free agents is that their window for production is much smaller because most are near the end of their primes, which ranges from about age 27 to 28 for NFL running backs.

One of the primary skills that the Falcons new running back should have is the ability to produce on third down. That was an area of weakness with Turner, and the Falcons should want their new runner to offer equal if not more value there than Rodgers and Snelling. Another area that the new back should excel in is his ability to generate explosive plays on the ground. During Turner’s early days in Atlanta, his explosiveness was a big key to his success and the offense’s success. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Falcons want a pure speed back, as they should be looking for someone that has the physicality to run effectively between the tackles and be able to take the pounding of getting 15-20 carries each week for a full season. All of those requirements likely lend itself to the Falcons drafting a back in the earlier rounds come April. The key is for the Falcons to have three largely interchangeable backs when it comes to their offensive attack, which will again primarily be a pass-first unit. But through at least competition, the goal will be that one player emerges as the go-to option that can be successful on early downs and help take pressure off the passing game on third downs and in the redzone.

Antone Smith is also a restricted free agent that will likely be retained due to his prowess on special teams.

Falcons FA Focus: Quarterback

January 30th, 2013 2 comments

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

David Garrard, ex-Jaguars QB.

After discussing where the Falcons can improve at the quarterback position, it’s now time to look at some potential options the Falcons may have this off-season to do so.

The free agent class of 2013 will be highlighted by Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, who will likely receive a long-term extension from the Ravens that will vie with the Falcons own Matt Ryan for the biggest contract of the off-season. After Flacco, the crop of free agents that will receive interest grows invariably thin. Matt Moore (Dolphins) and Jason Campbell (Bears) are the next best starting candidates. But both are in the same realm as players such as Chad Henne and Matt Flynn a year ago, where they are good enough to compete for a starting job, but not quite good enough to hand over the reins of a team to.

That could mean the Falcons pickings at the position could be slim if they wish to bolster competition this summer for the top reserve behind Matt Ryan. The Falcons might decide to re-sign Luke McCown and add another veteran to the mix to compete with him and Dominique Davis for the position.

Probably the player that makes the most sense is David Garrard. Like McCown, Garrard has experience in Dirk Koetter’s offense. And unlike McCown, Garrard possesses enough skill that he can potentially win a game for the Falcons if Ryan was to be out of the lineup. Garrard is a good vertical passer, something that McCown struggles to do. That means if/when Ryan is out of the game, the Falcons can still attack defenses vertically with wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White, rather than being forced to rely on a steady running game (which they currently lack) and a dink and dunk attack to score points. But the main question with Garrard is going to be price tag. Garrard hasn’t played a meaningful snap since the 2010 season, but may feel that he’s still worth a starting position. He’s not likely to settle for a lower-level backup contract. Players like Henne, Campbell, and Kyle Orton signed deals that averaged between $3.5 and $4 million last year. That is the going rate for a quality backup with extensive starting experience. It would be likely that Garrard’s rate will approach or begin there. He signed a one-year, $2.25 million deal with the Dolphins last year. If the Falcons could get him for a similar price tag, it would be a relative bargain. But that may ultimately be more than the Falcons are willing to spend on the position.

Another option on the open market could be Rex Grossman (Redskins). Like Garrard, Grossman is also comfortable throwing the football downfield and with the emergence of Kirk Cousins in Washington, likely won’t be in their future plans. Grossman isn’t likely to draw as much money as a player like Garrard could since it’s doubtful any teams will look for him as anything more than a backup. But again, that doesn’t mean he’ll be cheap. McCown could likely be re-signed by the Falcons for a one-year deal worth less than $1 million. Could Grossman be had at that price? Possibly, but it’s by no means a slam dunk.

There may also be a number of veteran players released this upcoming off-season. Notable names include Alex Smith (49ers), Mark Sanchez (Jets), and Ryan Fitzpatrick (Bills). Smith and Flynn are likely to get dealt to a team looking for a starter (New York Jets?). Sanchez’s contract is such that he’ll be hard to dump this off-season, but it’s possible that the Jets opt to cut their losses and start fresh with another player. Fitzpatrick is due a significant bonus in March, and if Doug Marrone & Co. feel that he is not the future starter of the team he could be cut. Fitzpatrick has had his moments over the years in Buffalo, but is an erratic passer with questionable decision making, accuracy, and sloppy mechanics. Due to his experience, he also will likely command the higher dollars available to backup quarterbacks if signed by another team. Other players that could find themselves cut or traded this off-season include Colt McCoy (Browns), Matt Hasselbeck (Titans), Matt Cassel (Chiefs), and John Skelton (Cardinals).

Of those players, Skelton is the only one that has potential as a vertical passer. Skelton has a strong arm, but his accuracy leaves a lot to be desired which is why he has not been particularly effective when throwing downfield over the years. He’s also a virtual statue in the pocket, which is not a great fit behind a mediocre Falcons offensive line. Hasselbeck could be a good fit, as he shares a wealth of similarities with Matt Ryan starting with his hailing from the same college (Boston College). Both are more precise pocket passers that win pre-snap as opposed to being blessed with great physical tools. But he, like Cassel and McCoy struggle to throw the ball downfield. Cassel is an effective game manager when he has a steady ground attack, but in a strict, dropback offense he tends to struggle with his decision making. McCoy is comfortable working a wide-open spread system, but struggles to read defenses due to his short stature. Interior pressure really gives him fits and he doesn’t have the arm strength to drive the ball downfield.

Overall, the best fit/candidate if the Falcons want to significantly upgrade the competition in camp remains Garrard. He’s by no means a perfect quarterback. He’s a gunslinger that will force some throws downfield, which can lead to turnovers. But unlike McCown or Chris Redman before him, Garrard can win games with his arm because he’s not going to be afraid to challenge defenses downfield. And given his starting experience (76 starts), he’s not going to be gunshy if/when the pressure is on. The same cannot be said for McCown.

If the Falcons simply want a backup quarterback that will manage the game and minimize mistakes, they will have plenty of options to choose from. If the Falcons are looking to save money, then they can simply settle for what they usually do and pick up a fourth arm via an undrafted guy after the draft. But if the Falcons want to get the most out of the backup quarterback position in 2013, then Garrard probably is the best option available.

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Falcons Needs: Quarterback

January 30th, 2013 Comments off

The Falcons have needs at every position, or at least they have room to improve their roster across the board. I want to look at every position group to see what areas where the Falcons can improve. Let’s start first with quarterback.

It is expected that the Falcons will begin contract extension talks with Matt Ryan at some point this off-season. Ryan is signed through the 2013 season, and thus the Falcons don’t want to get into a situation next off-season where they are in a protracted contract stalemate with Ryan. If the Falcons can get Ryan locked up to a long-term deal, then it will alleviate many of the issues they have at this position.

Next on the Falcons to-do list is going to be addressing the No. 2 spot on the roster. Luke McCown was signed just before the start of the regular season to replace Chris Redman and John Parker Wilson, both of whom struggled in the preseason. McCown can be a competent reserve when the conditions around him are ideal, namely when he has a ground game, playmakers at wide receiver, and doesn’t have to play from behind. Those conditions could be met in Atlanta if the Falcons can get their ground game back on track but they don’t want to be in a situation where McCown will be asked to start multiple games in the event of a Ryan injury.

McCown is a free agent, and he could be retained fairly easily. It’s unlikely he’ll get anything more than a one-year, near-minimum deal on the open market, so if the Falcons offer the same it’s likely he’ll remain in Atlanta. But the Falcons need at quarterback will be bringing in more competition. Dominique Davis will represent the third quarterback on the roster and will be in the competition, but the team needs a fourth arm. Traditionally the Falcons have relied on undrafted talent to fill this part of the depth chart, but it might be time that the team delves into free agency or the draft to try and find more than your run of the mill undrafted prospect.

The ideal fit for the Falcons will be someone that is somewhat familiar with Dirk Koetter’s scheme. But also from a skill standpoint, they probably want to look for someone that is comfortable with a vertical passing game. It remains to be seen whether or not the Falcons running game makes significant strides next year, and thus the team may still be reliant on the explosiveness of their passing game to potentially win games if Ryan were to go down. There’s an obvious candidate that fits both requirements: David Garrard.

While the Falcons could look for talent in the middle to late portion of the draft, the presence of Davis on the roster probably mitigates their desire for another young, developing quarterback. Davis possesses a big arm and mobility, which if he can polish up his mechanics and become more comfortable making his progressions could develop into a capable No. 2.

Whether the Falcons choose to retain McCown or move in another direction, the key is that they bring in some arms that can bolster competition in camp. Whoever fills the backup spot in 2013 should be in for an open, intense competition, and settling for retaining an average McCown and green Davis won’t be enough to provide that.

How Do You Replace Gonzalez?

January 30th, 2013 Comments off
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Gonzalez leaves the field for possibly the final time.

While there still remains a chance that Tony Gonzalez opts to give it one more year before ending his illustrious career, it is a very small chance. And frankly the powers that be in Atlanta cannot operate under that assumption that he returns. Even if Gonzo decides that 2013 will be his last season in the league, the Falcons need to start looking for a contingency plan for when he does hang it up.

When the Falcons acquired Gonzalez in 2009, they were aware of the possibility that could have been his last season. And the following spring with one of the deepest tight end classes in draft history coming out, it made sense to try and find his eventual replacement then. But instead the Falcons opted to go with a pair of undrafted free agents in Michael Palmer and Colin Peek. Palmer made the roster and still remains a Falcon. And while a valuable reserve, he’s never emerged as a prime candidate to supplant Gonzalez. And for each of the following two drafts, most assumed the Falcons would try and bring in Gonzalez’s heir apparent. The Falcons did not do so.

So even if the Falcons receive word from Gonzalez in the next month or so that he wants to come back to Atlanta, the Falcons can’t escape this off-season without having a succession plan. Which of course begs the question of what exactly that plan should be.

How do you replace Tony Gonzalez? Well, you can’t really. He’s inarguably the greatest tight end in NFL history, and even though his skills have diminished over the course of his 16-year NFL career, he’s still one of the premier receiving tight ends in the league. He’s coming off his best season since joining the Falcons, thus the expectation that someone else can come in and allow a smooth transition is foolhardy at best.

But the Falcons can do certain things to ease the blow of Gonzalez’s eventual departure. This off-season features a number of solid free agent tight ends. Martellus Bennett (Giants), Jared Cook (Titans), Fred Davis (Redskins), and Dustin Keller (Jets) top the list of potential free agent candidates. All have their concerns however. Bennett is coming off a breakout year with the Giants, but he was marginal in Dallas, and the Giants offense has historically made average tight ends look pretty good (see Jake Ballard and Kevin Boss). So there is a buyer’s beware there. Cook has out of this world physical skills, but has never been a consistent threat in Tennessee’s offense over the years. Davis is coming off an Achilles tear and has some off-field issues. Keller had a 2012 season shortened by an ankle injury and while his production has been solid over the years in New York, he’s never really been described as an impact player. There are a number of red flags with these players that suggest long-term investing from the Falcons is not ideal.

More than likely, that means the Falcon will be looking at draft prospects. While this year’s tight end class does not feature a large number of future NFL superstars at tight end, there are a number of good tight ends that have the potential to be solid, productive starters at the next level. The group is highlighted by Tyler Eifert (Notre Dame) and Zach Ertz (Stanford), both of whom are considered possibilities in the latter part of the first round. The group got enhanced by the introduction of a number of juniors in Florida’s Jordan Reed, Michigan State’s Dion Sims, San Diego State’s Gavin Escobar, and Stanford’s Levine Toilolo.

Perhaps the best strategy for the Falcons given the lack of a clear-cut option may be to double up at this position. Similar to what the Colts did a year ago by adding Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen in Rounds 2 and 3, and the Ravens did years ago with Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta in the 2010 draft class. There may not be a single player that can slide in and take Gonzo’s spot, but a pair of guys double the chances that at least one emerges into a competent starter.

With teams like New England, Baltimore, and San Francisco featuring a lot of two-tight end sets, it’s become even more popular for offenses to feature a pair of guys. In fact, the Falcons are one of only three teams this past year to not have a second tight end that played in at least 200 snaps this year (Jacksonville and Oakland are the others).

Given the Falcons need to improve their running game, getting two tight ends makes a lot of sense. One of the reasons why teams like New England, Baltimore, and San Francisco are so good working with a pair of tight ends is due to the fact that it is a formation that you can run and pass out of easily. One Read more…

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Moneyball 2012 – Week 20 Review

January 24th, 2013 Comments off

The Falcons offense got off to a roaring start, making the 49ers defense look silly. Frankly, the 49ers never really stopped them. Nearly all of the Falcons shortcomings and failures on offense were self-inflicted wounds.

They just didn’t take advantage of their opportunities in the second half, turning the ball over twice in 49er territory after driving down the field and were likely going to get some points.

Matt Ryan played very well. Besides his fumble on the botched snap, there is really no room to complain. He earned $19 of his total earnings in the first half. His interception was due to Roddy slipping, not because of a poor throw or read. Julio Jones went off in this game, and it’s interesting because you could tell that Jones was a little shaken up on the second series. He still managed to catch 7 more passes for 109 yards and another touchdown after his injury. The 49ers really did not have an answer for the Falcons weapons.

The offensive line did a good job protecting Ryan. Aldon Smith was able to beat Baker a couple of times, but giving up just 1 pressure and 1 hurry represents a solid performance for Baker. Their run blocking was a little mixed, but mostly it was solid relative to their performances for much of the year. I thought McClure had a good game, and if it’s his final game as a Falcon and it probably will be, then I’m glad he went out well.

Overall, a very good offensive performance from the Falcons despite the fact that they were shut out in the second half.

PLAYER
PASS
RUSH
REC
BLK
SPEC
PEN
TOTALS
Matt Ryan$24$0$0$0$0-$1$23.00
Julio Jones$0$0$15$0$0$0$15.00
Tony Gonzalez$0$0$6$0.5$0$0$6.50
Roddy White$0$0$6$0$0$0$6.00
Jacquizz Rodgers$0$5-$1$0$1$0$5.00
Tyson Clabo$0$0$0$4$0$0$4.00
Michael Turner$0$4$0$0$0$0$4.00
Todd McClure$0$0$0$3$0$0$3.00
Justin Blalock$0$0$0$2$0$0$2.00
Harry Douglas$0$0$2$0$0$0$2.00
Peter Konz$0$0$0$2$0$0$2.00
Jason Snelling$0$2$0$0$0$0$2.00
Mike Cox$0$0$0$0.5$0$0$0.50
Sam Baker$0$0$0$0$0$0$0.00

Defensively, the Falcons did not play well. They looked very good in the first quarter, but after that they really did nothing to stop the 49ers offense. You could see the disparity between a really dominant run blocking line for the 49ers and the Falcons own offensive line. Up front, our D-linemen were getting pushed around quite a bit, and guys were able to get downfield with ease and get after all three linebackers.

There were really no standout performances. I thought Babineaux had a decent game, and Corey Peters also did some very good things early on. Besides that, I can’t say anybody else had a good game. Biermann and Abraham were invisible for the most part. Linebackers had a tough day. Both Dent and Spoon struggled all game taking on and getting off blocks. Many of Nicholas troubles came in coverage, and he may have had his worst game as a Falcon.

Vernon Davis ran amok through the Falcons secondary, and continued to the Falcons problems covering tight ends. Well at least they were consistent right? But they weren’t faring much better against Crabtree and Moss. It did seem like the Falcons blew some coverages because they were overly concerned with the read-option, focusing on Kaepernick and losing sight of their assignments in coverage and against the run.

Overall, no pressure and poor run defense is not a good recipe for success.

PLAYER
DEF
SPEC
PEN
TOTALS
Matt Bosher$0$3$0$3.00
William Moore$1$0$0$1.00
Corey Peters$1$0$0$1.00
Vance Walker$1$0$0$1.00
Matt Bryant$0$1$0$1.00
Kroy Biermann$0$0$0$0.00
Thomas DeCoud$0$0$0$0.00
Akeem Dent$0$0$0$0.00
Dunta Robinson$0$0$0$0.00
Asante Samuel$0$0$0$0.00
John Abraham-$1$0$0-$1.00
Robert McClain-$1$0$0-$1.00
Sean Weatherspoon-$1$0$0-$1.00
Jonathan Babineaux-$2$0$0-$2.00
Cliff Matthews-$1$0-$2-$3.00
Stephen Nicholas-$4$0-$2-$6.00

Advanced Stats from Week 20:

Poor Throws (3): Ryan
Drops (1): Rodgers
Key Blocks (4): Clabo (2), McClure (1), Cox (0.5), Gonzalez (0.5)
Sacks Allowed (0)
Missed Blocks (1): Baker
Pressures Allowed (1): Baker

Tackles For Loss (2): Dent, Walker
QB Sacks (1): Peters
QB Pressures (0)
QB Hits (0)
Passes Defended (3): DeCoud, Moore, Peters
Blown Coverages (7): Nicholas (2), DeCoud (1), McClain (1), Moore (1), Robinson (1), Weatherspoon (1)
Missed Tackles (3): Babineaux, DeCoud, Nicholas
Key Blocked (5): Abraham, Dent, Matthews, Nicholas, Peters

DeCoud, Moore to Pro Bowl; Ryan, Gonzalez to sit out

January 24th, 2013 Comments off
Josh D. Weiss-US PRESSWIRE

DeCoud congratulates Moore

Falcons safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore were added to the NFC Pro Bowl roster in the wake of the San Francisco 49ers going to the Super Bowl. They will be replacing 49er safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner in this Sunday’s all-star game.

Also, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan will sit out the game due to a shoulder injury he suffered late in the Falcons loss to the 49ers last Sunday in the NFC Championship Game. Ryan suffered a sprained AC joint in his left non-throwing shoulder. The injury will require up to a month for recovery, but will not require surgery.

Tight end Tony Gonzalez will also not be appearing in this weekend’s Pro Bowl due to personal reasons. He has been replaced by Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph. Gonzalez is expected to be mulling over his NFL future as he is finishing his 16th season in the league. Prior to last Sunday’s loss to the 49ers, reports indicated that Gonzalez was leaning closer to retirement after indicating at the outset of the year that he was 95 percent certain that 2012 would be his final year. Gonzalez’s contract expired once the Falcons season ended.

Wide receiver Julio Jones is the other Falcon player voted to the Pro Bowl team.

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Falcons add eight off practice squad

January 24th, 2013 Comments off

The Falcons announced on Monday the signing of eight players to future contracts. Each were signed off the team’s eight-man practice squad, including wide receivers Marcus Jackson and James Rodgers, guard Jacques McClendon, defensive tackle Micanor Regis, linebacker Pat Schiller, tight end Andrew Szczerba, cornerback Peyton Thompson, and running back Josh Vaughan.

Jackson, Rodgers, Regis, Schiller, and Thompson were all undrafted rookie free agents with the Falcons this summer that were signed to the practice squad at the outset of the regular season. Josh Vaughan was with the Carolina Panthers this past summer before being added to the Falcons practice squad in late September. Both McClendon and Szczerba were added in November. McClendon is a second-year player that was with the Detroit Lions in training camp, while Szczerba was an undrafted rookie with the Dallas Cowboys.

Terms of their deals were not disclosed, but a year ago players such as Robert McClain, Drew Davis, and Tommy Gallarda were signed to future contracts that were two years in length. That likely means that the eight players signed Monday have contracts that expire following the 2014 season.

Takeaways from Championship Weekend

January 23rd, 2013 2 comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan deserves a new deal.

I was late in posting the recap of the Falcons-49er game partially because of my attendance at the game didn’t really give me access to a computer afterwards. That was followed up by my car breaking down Monday on my return trip to North Carolina, which consumed all my energy then and the following day. All in all, it was not a great weekend for me.

But I really needed some time and energy to digest the loss. I was never distraught over it, but it was highly disappointing. While some may label the Falcons as chokers, I don’t see it that way. Did they blow the game? Yes. They had a lead, didn’t hold it, but they had an opportunity at the end of the game to win it. They just didn’t. I’m not going to sit here like many have done over the past 72 hours and try and find a scapegoat. The 49ers were widely considered to be a better team than the Falcons, and thus their win over the Falcons is not a surprise. The Broncos were 10-point favorites over the Ravens. Their loss was a chokejob especially given the outright impossibility of the now infamous Rahim Moore blown coverage. The Broncos played uncharacteristic in that game. Peyton Manning looked a little gun shy, Champ Bailey looked old, and they even got a pair of special teams touchdowns, which had never happened in a playoff game. Teams with a pair of special teams touchdowns since 1970 are 31-7 in games. That was a chokejob.

With the Falcons being the underdogs in the game, I don’t think they choked. They had ample opportunities to win the game, they did not.

It’s more disappointing because of what I wrote about in mid-November. This was likely the Falcons best chance to be in the Super Bowl in the foreseeable future. I still believe that. Matt Ryan played the best football we’ve seen him play. What’s interesting to me is that after posting that piece, I think we started to see a significant decline in Ryan’s game, and he sort of “reverted” back to his older self as opposed to playing at the MVP level he was for the first half of 2012. I think that reversion began with his 5-interception performance against the Cardinals. Now don’t get me wrong, a “reverted” Matt Ryan is still a Top 10 quarterback, so if you hear or see any Falcon fans complaining about Matt Ryan, then my suggestion is to punch them in the face. Matt Ryan may not be as good as Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, or Tom Brady, but anybody that is unsatisfied with his performance over the past five years or this past season is a lunatic. Anybody that is still questioning Ryan’s ability to win in January, should only look at those four quarterbacks and their recent playoff success (or lack thereof). Even the great ones play poorly in January, and Ryan certainly outperformed those elite guys this past January.

Ryan certainly deserves to get a big-time extension this off-season. And my expectation is that it will make him one of the five highest-paid quarterbacks in the league. That likely will exceed $16 million per year, and possibly approach $18 or $19 million per year, which would put him just behind Drew Brees ($20M/yr.) and Peyton Manning ($19.2M/yr.) (per Spotrac) as the highest paid QBs in the league. His guaranteed money will probably be in the $40 to $50 million range. It’s a very high premium, but when you think about the stability it potentially provides the Falcons for the next 5-7 years it is well worth it in my opinion. And it actually should help alleviate cap space for the Falcons as Ryan’s cap hit of $10 million in 2013 could potentially be cut in half if the Falcons structure the new deal appropriately.

The downside of such a deal means that the Falcons cap space will be limited in future years, and thus they will have to recommit to the draft which they have not done in recent years. They have traded a first or second round pick in each of the past three drafts. That can’t happen, as the Falcons won’t be able to spend as much on the open market in future years due to the high price that will be annually paid to Ryan. But that is not too much of a downside, because I think that’s exactly how Thomas Dimitroff likes it. It just means that the margin for error grows even smaller, and the Falcons can’t have any more Peria Jerry picks.

As for what the Falcons do in the off-season, nothing really has changed in terms of assessing how the year ended. We’ve known all year long that the Falcons need to become a more balanced offense by improving the ground attack. Michael Turner is likely gone. The Falcons should look to replace him with some fresh legs in the draft. The offensive line held up better down the stretch than I certainly expected after a fairly lackluster regular season. So the Falcons don’t need to make sweeping changes there. They should look to get a new right guard, as I still think Peter Konz is better suited to playing center. Maybe they can find someone in free agency, such as Buffalo’s Andy Levitre. They need to find a young replacement for Tony Gonzalez, which we’ve known for several years was a move that was inevitable.

Defensively, the Falcons need to upgrade their pass rush. Their inability to cover tight ends probably also means they need to look into getting a good coverage linebacker. Stephen Nicholas did an admirable job, but similar to Curtis Lofton he’s just not cut out to be an everydown player. But ever since Darren Sproles made Sean Weatherspoon look silly, we’ve known we needed upgrades there. And the Falcons will need to make a decision about the relative futures of Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes. Grimes is a free agent and Robinson is due a high $8 million salary, $3 million of which becomes guaranteed if he’s on the team as of the fifth day of the new league year (approximiately March 16). Do the Falcons want to keep either one or go in a new direction with another young corner? I think Robert McClain had a good season, but I don’t think the Falcons should turn over a starting position to him just yet. Considering that Asante Samuel is also up there in age, I think McClain instead should be groomed as his long-term replacement. McClain is a restricted free agent following 2013, and dependent on his performance this upcoming season will determine if he’s in the long-term plans of the team. Again, given Samuel’s age, probably the smart strategy is try to get younger. The free agent market isn’t overly strong, so it probably behooves the Falcons to look for a corner on either the first or second day of the draft come April.

Of their own free agents, William Moore and Sam Baker are the two guys that they probably cannot afford to let walk. Alongside Spoon, Moore is the only impact player on the defensive side of the ball that is in the prime of his career. Baker has played well enough to earn a new contract. I’m not 100% sold that he won’t revert back to his subpar pre-2012 form, but I think his play certainly merits a new deal. And the Falcons can still develop Lamar Holmes as an insurance policy, and give him the much-needed time I believe he needs before he’s ready to be a starter.

Those are basically the needs the Falcons need to address this off-season. Will they be able to solve all of those problems this off-season? Probably not. I personally would prioritize upgrading the offensive line at right guard, but it would not surprise me if the Falcons instead opt to make additions at running back and tight end bigger priorities offensively given they could probably live with a combination of Konz, Hawley, and/or Mike Johnson at center and right guard next year. Defensively, their priority is going to be upgrading the pass rush which could be either by adding a young edge rusher as the heir apparent to John Abraham, or an interior presence to succeed Jonathan Babineaux. Babineaux and Corey Peters are both entering the final years of their contracts, while both Abraham and Biermann have two years left. So don’t be surprised if the Falcons are more interested in defensive tackles this spring in the pre-draft process than edge rushers.