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2013 Key Player: Asante Samuel

June 30th, 2013 1 comment
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Samuel picks off Manning against the Giants

I’ve already outlined a few players that could be key players this year including Julio Jones and Steven Jackson on offense. But it’s time to look at one of the players in a key position to perform on defense: cornerback Asante Samuel.

One could make the argument that Samuel was the team’s most valuable player on defense last year. His candidacy is buoyed by the number of game-changing plays he had last year. His pick six against the Oakland Raiders essentially won the Falcons that game. Twice he intercepted quarterbacks on their first passes of the game, against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints as well as Eli Manning and the New York Giants. The latter of which set the tone for what would turn into a 34-point shutout for the defending Super Bowl champions.

Last year, I outlined that Samuel’s dynamic ball skills and ability to be left on an island against quality wideouts would be key factors in why he was a key player. He lived up to those expectations.

But this year, there will be different expectations. A year ago, he was expected to team with veterans in Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes to give the Falcons three top-notch corners for their nickel defense. Grimes went down with an injury in the season-opener and Robert McClain stepped in shortly thereafter to have the best season a Falcons nickel corner has had in recent memory.

This year however, he will be surrounded by youth. McClain is expected to retain his nickel spot, but opposite him will be a pair of rookies no doubt in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. That puts a different pressure on Samuel this year. That pressure is based off consistency.

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2013 Key Player: Akeem Dent

June 28th, 2013 Comments off
US PRESSWIRE

Akeem Dent

Last season linebacker Akeem Dent got the opportunity to replace long-time starting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. He didn’t exactly run away with that opportunity. Dent was the focus of many of my game reviews, noting several times how much he was struggling to impact against the run in 2012. That is going to have to change in 2013.

This upcoming season is going to be an important career marker for Dent. It’s likely going to be the year where shows enough that he could be counted on to become a significant contributor for the Falcons for years to come or one where he shows himself to be relegated to becoming a role player.

Dent does not have to come out and be an elite middle linebacker in 2013. But he does need to show significant improvement from a year ago. Dent struggled to make plays when the Falcons utilized their base package last year. He appeared in less than half (48.5%) of the team’s total defensive snaps last year (according to Pro Football Focus).

That led to the Falcons overuse of strongside linebacker Stephen Nicholas, whose Pro Football Focus coverage rating was the fifth-worst among all linebackers. Dent should be in a prime position to take reps from Nicholas. Dent is more athletic and has better hips than Nicholas. While Dent is no coverage maven, he should be an upgrade physically. The key will be the mental aspect of the position however.

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2013 Outlook: Chase Coffman

June 28th, 2013 Comments off
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Chase Coffman extends for a catch

Chase Coffman is in an interesting position heading into training camp. He has a chance to carve out a significant role on offense if he continues to have a good summer. He’s already gotten extensive reps with the first team during OTAs and minicamps due to the absences of Tony Gonzalez and Levine Toilolo, and taken advantage of it according to head coach Mike Smith. That should benefit him this summer as he seeks to carve out a roster spot.

Coffman won’t be guaranteed a roster spot, but the extra work with the starters this spring and summer should give him a significant leg up. The strength of Coffman’s game lies in his receiving ability. He has excellent hands and a very good catch radius. It was one of the reasons which prompted him to be 28th-ranked player in my 2009 draft preview and allowed him to make a key grab against the Seahawks in the playoffs.

But Coffman has struggled to find a role in the NFL because of his lacking abilities as a blocker. Coffman essentially played wide receiver during his days at Missouri, lining up in the slot and splitting out wide as a tight end. While such a player is en vogue nowadays in the NFL, Coffman simply doesn’t have the ideal speed and burst to be a guy that can really shine in that role in say the way that players like Delanie Walker, Jared Cook, Aaron Hernandez, or Dennis Pitta can.

This creates issue with him separating from coverage. That was the same problem that plagued Michael Palmer when he was in Atlanta. He just wasn’t a player that could reliably beat man coverage, which is necessary to be a consistent producer at the NFL level. Because of Coffman’s excellent hands, body control, and ability to go and get the ball, that is not as big a flaw in his game as it was in Palmer’s. But again, he hasn’t shown himself capable of being the type of player that can consistently do that in order to carve out a key role on offense.

Also hurting Coffman’s potential to produce is simply the fact that he is surrounded by a ton of talent here in Atlanta, namely from the team’s top three receivers in Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez. Not to mention the presence of Harry Douglas and backs like Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers, on any given play Coffman is only likely to be the fifth and final option for Matt Ryan to throw to. At best that probably only allows for 1 or 2 targets to go Coffman’s way most weeks.

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2013 Key Player: Julio Jones

June 27th, 2013 Comments off
Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE

Jones runs by defenders for TD

For the Falcons offense to take the next step offensively, they may need wide receiver Julio Jones to take his game to new heights.

Jones marveled folks, including myself, in the NFC Championship game, catching 11 passes for 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns. All the while playing hurt, as Jones suffered some sort of injury during the second series when he took out a security guard along the sideline. But he didn’t miss a snap, and still proceeded to catch 7 more passes for 109 yards and a touchdown.

That sort of dominance is why the Falcons moved up to draft him. And myself being originally critic of that trade, it also compelled me to change my mind.

The Falcons offense looks like it should be able to provide a bit more balance on the ground with the addition of Steven Jackson this year. But the Falcons passing attack still doesn’t have a consistent vertical element to the offense. Due to the inability to run the ball effectively, the team had to trade off big plays for consistency trying to move the ball through the air. They finished last year ranked 29th in the league in terms of generating 20+ yard plays per pass attempt, not far removed from where they were in 2010 prior to the Jones when they were dead last in the league. If Jackson can help take pressure off the passing game to constantly be looking to move the chains, it should open more big play opportunities for Jones and the rest of the receivers.

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Could Eric Winston Help Falcons?

June 27th, 2013 Comments off
Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Eric Winston

It’s a question that has been raised by AJC columnist Jeff Schultz in his musing about which available free agents could come in and help the Falcons. The simple answer is yes, offensive tackle Eric Winston can help the Falcons. He is one of the premier right tackles in the league, but for whatever reason hasn’t been able to stick in his last two stops in Kansas City and Houston despite solid production.

Winston is basically a similar player to Tyson Clabo. Not a guy that is an overpowering player, but has good size, strength, and knows how to use leverage. He is also very adept in the zone-blocking scheme, consistently able to get downfield and hit his assignments, which has helped spring backs like Jamaal Charles and Arian Foster to generate big runs on the second level. Winston turns 30 in November, making slightly less than two years younger than Clabo, who the Falcons cut in early April.

Schultz discussed the possibility of defensive end John Abraham’s return to Atlanta in the same article. But in truth, while a pass rusher of Abraham’s skill would certainly help the Falcons in that arena, it would be done so with sacrificing development of younger players. It’s true that none of the Falcons young pass rushers that Abe would likely supplant, such as Cliff Matthews or Stansly Maponga, are likely to become as skilled as he is, even at his relatively ancient age of 35. But the Falcons won’t do it as Schultz notes because it would mean less snaps for players like Matthews, Maponga, as well as Jonathan Massaquoi and Malliciah Goodman, who many believe do have significant upside worth developing. The Falcons just don’t appear interested in investing the money it would take to keep Abraham for what is essentially a one-year solution.

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Takeaways from Last Week – June 24

June 24th, 2013 Comments off
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Patriots could lose both tight ends this year

Of course the biggest story in the NFL last week was the news surrounding New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, and his potential involvement in the homicide of Odin Lloyd.

Lloyd was found dead last Monday afternoon after confirmation that he was with Hernandez the preceding evening. As of Sunday night, a warrant had been issued for Hernandez on obstruction of justice charges, stemming from reports that he destroyed his cell phone, security system, and had his home cleaned by maids. Certainly raises suspicions about Hernandez’s guilt.

But I won’t really comment on the legal side of things. I am neither a policeman nor a lawyer. We have a justice system in this country, and as far as I am concerned it says that a man is innocent until proven guilty. So I won’t speculate on whether Hernandez is guilty of anything besides probably picking a bad day to destroy items that would be very helpful in a murder investigation.

But I suspect regardless of how Hernandez’s legal situation plays out, we won’t be seeing him suit up for the Patriots in 2013. Given Roger Goodell’s penchant for slamming down the hammer regardless of whether a player is guilty of anything, makes me believe that before Patriots training camp starts at the end of July, we’ll see him receive an indefinite suspension until his legal situation is resolved. This happened with Michael Vick back in 2007 after he was indicted following federal dogfighting charges. We also saw the same with Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent following his indictment on manslaughter charges following his December car accident that resulted in the death of teammate Jerry Brown. Now in both cases, the common denominator is indictment. We’ll see what happens with Hernandez, but I suspect even if an indictment is not reached before July 25, when the Patriots open up camp, Goodell will ask him to simply stay away from the team as was the case with both Vick and Brent.

Well that’s about as far as I care to venture down the legal hole in terms of Hernandez’s situation, and now I’d like to switch gears to how it affects the football side of things. We already know that Rob Gronkowski’s recent back surgery puts his start to the 2013 season in jeopardy. It wouldn’t be that shocking if he too doesn’t play for the Patriots this year due to this injury. Gronkowski had an unrelated back ailment coming out of Arizona in 2010, and has had a number of injuries since joining the team. If Gronk does wind up playing this year, I don’t expect he’ll be at his previous level. And if he does return to form, it probably won’t be until the latter half of the season. Regardless, at best Gronk probably only gives the Patriots 50% of what he did in previous seasons.

That leaves the Patriots without the top three weapons from last year’s team going into 2013. They lost Wes Welker via free agency, replacing him with Danny Amendola. But their offensive identity was really built around the pair of tight ends in Hernandez and Gronkowski, that created such matchup problems with opposing defenses. It really is the equivalent if the Falcons lost Julio, Roddy, and Tony all the span of a five months.

It likely means that the Patriots offensive identity might have to switch more towards being a run-first team. Opposing defenses won’t be put in the quandary of trying to figure out how to match up with their passing attack if Hernandez and Gronkowski aren’t on the field. Gronk was the inline tight end, but was without question the best in the league the past two seasons. You couldn’t cover him with a safety or linebacker, as he was too fast, and he was too physical for a corner. Hernandez was a jack of all trades type of player that would be used like a wide receiver, tight end, H-back, and fullback at times. His role was reminiscent to Reggie Bush’s in New Orleans, where he wasn’t the best player on the field, but you always had to account for him. And because of the different alignments he could appear in, it made it very difficult to game plan against them.

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Who says the Falcons lack killer instinct?

June 20th, 2013 Comments off

I recently discovered the awesomeness that comes with sharing tables imported from Pro Football Reference.com. So every now and then if I stumble across a pretty cool or interesting stat involving the Falcons, I now have an easy way of sharing it with the world.

For this one, I first came across this a few months ago following the loss to the 49ers where many accusations were floating around about the Falcons lacking a “killer instinct” to finish games. Well, here’s my counter-argument to that nonsense.

Here are the records for teams since 2008 in one-score regular season games:

Rk Tm From To W L T W-L% ? Count
1 Atlanta Falcons 2008 2012 29 12 0 0.707 41
2 Indianapolis Colts 2008 2012 31 13 0 0.705 44
3 New York Giants 2008 2012 21 13 0 0.618 34
4 Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 2012 28 19 0 0.596 47
5 Denver Broncos 2008 2012 22 16 0 0.579 38
6 New England Patriots 2008 2012 19 14 0 0.576 33
7 Baltimore Ravens 2008 2012 23 18 0 0.561 41
8 New York Jets 2008 2012 19 15 0 0.559 34
9 San Francisco 49ers 2008 2012 20 16 1 0.554 37
10 Arizona Cardinals 2008 2012 21 17 0 0.553 38
11 New Orleans Saints 2008 2012 21 17 0 0.553 38
12 Houston Texans 2008 2012 22 19 0 0.537 41
13 Chicago Bears 2008 2012 23 20 0 0.535 43
14 Tennessee Titans 2008 2012 19 17 0 0.528 36
15 Miami Dolphins 2008 2012 23 21 0 0.523 44
16 Oakland Raiders 2008 2012 19 18 0 0.514 37
17 Minnesota Vikings 2008 2012 19 20 0 0.487 39
18 Jacksonville Jaguars 2008 2012 20 22 0 0.476 42
19 Washington Redskins 2008 2012 25 29 0 0.463 54
20 Green Bay Packers 2008 2012 18 21 0 0.462 39
21 Dallas Cowboys 2008 2012 21 25 0 0.457 46
22 Cincinnati Bengals 2008 2012 20 24 1 0.456 45
23 Carolina Panthers 2008 2012 15 18 0 0.455 33
24 San Diego Chargers 2008 2012 18 23 0 0.439 41
25 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2008 2012 17 23 0 0.425 40
26 Philadelphia Eagles 2008 2012 16 22 1 0.423 39
27 Kansas City Chiefs 2008 2012 16 23 0 0.410 39
28 Cleveland Browns 2008 2012 17 25 0 0.405 42
29 Seattle Seahawks 2008 2012 11 17 0 0.393 28
30 Buffalo Bills 2008 2012 13 23 0 0.361 36
31 Detroit Lions 2008 2012 14 27 0 0.341 41
32 St. Louis Rams 2008 2012 10 23 1 0.309 34
Total 2008 2012 630 630 4 .500 1264
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/20/2013.

 

So if the Falcons win more close games than any other team in the league under Mike Smith and Matt Ryan, then apparently every other team in the league also lacks a killer instinct…

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Scouting Report: Osi Umenyiora

June 19th, 2013 Comments off
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Osi Umenyiora

Last week, I broke down Falcons free agent pickup in running back Steven Jackson. This week it’s time to look at the team’s other big off-season addition in defensive end Osi Umenyiora.

Umenyiora has big shoes to fill, because most are expecting him to take the mantle from John Abraham as the team’s top and most feared pass rusher. Abraham gave the Falcons six and a half excellent seasons, logging 68.5 sacks, which tops their all-time list among official stats. Claude Humphrey, unofficially has 94.5 career sacks in a Falcons uniform, but his career ended before sacks became an official stat in 1982.

Umenyiora is coming off a down year in New York with only 6 sacks, tying his career low since he became a starter in 2004. But the Falcons are optimistic that he can have a resurgence with a change in scenery, particularly given that Atlanta is the place that Osi calls home in the off-season. Similar to Abraham, a native of South Carolina, after moving down from the Big Apple, playing in front of friends and family was perhaps a factor in his success.

But first we should take a look at Osi’s skillset. Here’s my breakdown, with a grading system based on a ten-point scale: 1-pathetic, 2-poor, 3-weak, 4-below average, 5-average, 6-above average, 7-good, 8-very good, 9-excellent, 10-elite.

SKILLS

Strength: 5.5 – He knows how to convert speed to power in order to bull rush off the edge. He shows the ability to use that power move to work the unsuspecting tackle back into the quarterback. But he’s not overly strong and struggles to disengage from blocks, particularly in the run game. His lack of strength shows when he is facing bigger tackles that are also technically sound.

Quickness: 7.5 – Osi still possesses a good first step off the edge that is maximized when he can line up in wider techniques. When he can pin his ears back, he is a formidable speed rusher off the edge that does most of his damage that way. But he no longer has the explosive burst he once did and isn’t a threat to beat the better tackles in the league purely with his speed.

Pass Rush: 8.0 – He makes his money as a pass rusher that has an array of moves to get to the quarterback. As mentioned before, he shows he can bull rush from time to time. He also has showcased an inside counter move, which is often a spin. It’s not quite on par with say Dwight Freeney, but it can be effective from time to time. He’s at his most comfortable rushing the quarterback when his ears are pinned back and he can go out and hunt using his edge speed.

Point of Attack: 5.0 – Umenyiora is not particularly strong or good at the point of attack. While he can be effective using his hands to disengage from tight ends and make stops there, most of his plays against the run come in pursuit and out in space. He’s not a guy you want trying to hold or set the edge when teams run at him, because he rarely makes plays there.

Recognition: 6.0 – At times he seems to be a bit too dialed in trying to get upfield and will misread some plays, such as draws and screens. He has enough athleticism to drop into coverage and be effective in the flat and able to keep things in front of him, but he doesn’t have quite the experience or awareness to think he’d be very effective doing that to a large degree.

Motor: 5.5 – Osi’s motor seems to run hot and cold at times. There are times when he’s dialed in and he’s running all over the field, and there are other times where you see him jogging quite a bit and seems disinterested, especially when he’s asked to try and play the run a lot. It’s not to suggest his motor is poor, it’s just that he’s not going to be relentless and is more willing to pick and choose his spots.

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Falcons pick up tight end Cloherty

June 18th, 2013 Comments off

ESPN’s Adam Schefter first reported the Falcons signing of tight end Colin Cloherty to a two-year contract. Cloherty has played 8 games over the past four seasons since entering the league as an undrafted free agent out of Brown University. For his career, he has caught 5 passes for 59 yards.

He originally signed with the Indianapolis Colts in 2009, playing in their season finale and catching a single pass for 2 yards. In 2010, he played 2 games with San Francisco where he played predominantly on special teams where he had 2 tackles. In 2011, he joined the Jacksonville Jaguars, starting 1 games in 4 appearances and catching 4 passes for 57 yards. He also scored a touchdown on a blocked punt and added 3 stops on special teams. In 2012, he played in the Jaguars’ season opener, but was cut and out of football the rest of the season.

Cloherty could add depth at H-back for the Falcons, able to compete for reserve tight end spot in Atlanta. Having experience in Dirk Koetter’s offense, as well as being an adept special teams could potentially give him a leg up over some others competing for a spot behind Tony Gonzalez and rookie Levine Toilolo.

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Takeaways from Last Week – June 17

June 17th, 2013 Comments off
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Osi goes through drills during OTAs

This past week, I posted a scouting report and a breakdown of why Falcons new running back Steven Jackson will be a key player for the team this season. I think this week I’ll do the same for the team’s other big free agent acquisition: defensive end Osi Umenyiora.

But in watching more tape of Osi’s 2012 season with the New York Giants, I keep coming away confused. Not because Osi isn’t a good player, since he is. But I just can’t understand why the Falcons think adding him is an upgrade over former end John Abraham.

It’s not really a knock on Osi, but I think at best he’s a lateral move. Last year, Abraham finished the year with 8 sacks, 18.5 pressures, and 6.5 hits according to Moneyball, good enough for 33 “positive pass rushes” or PPRs. That’s a really solid number. But there was a drop-off in Abe’s production as the season wore on, where he was essentially a non-entity in terms of production over the final month. In the first half of the season he recorded 22 PPRs. In the third quarter of the season, that number was 8.5. In the final 4 games, it was just 2.

So in that sense I get why the Falcons cut Abe. For whatever reason, it was clear he had lost a step by the end of the year, regardless of the injury that occurred in Week 17. I made this statement after reviewing the Falcons Week 16 win over the Lions:

My hope is that John Abraham’s slip in production is because he’s saving himself for the playoffs, not because he’s hit some sort of wall and/or has not adapted well to playing with his hand off the ground as he’s done for most of the past 10 games. But if the Falcons are going to have a deep run, they are going to need him to step up.

The Falcons probably figure that Osi will give them steadier production over the course of the entire season. For Osi, a year where he gets 25-30 PPRs is a solid season. 35 or more would be a very good season, and anything about 40 is extremely good. I wouldn’t put money on him reaching the latter benchmark, but even at my most pessimistic in regards to Osi I still think he’s definitely capable of getting 25-plus.

The reason why I call it a lateral move is because I think the Falcons potentially face the same problem they did in 2012, which is not getting enough production from the rest of the players.

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