Archive

Archive for April, 2014

Draft Needs: Are Falcons Desperately Seeking an Edge-Rusher?

April 30th, 2014 Comments off
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Massaquoi

If you’re making a case for what is the Atlanta Falcons biggest draft need, it starts and ends with edge pass-rusher.

The lack of a significant pass rush has plagued the team for multiple seasons. The last time the team finished in the top 15 league-wide in sacks was 2008, and the last time they finished in the top 10 was in 2004 when they led the entire league with 48 sacks.

Frankly, the Falcons wasted the talents of John Abraham for the seven years he played in Atlanta as they were never able to surround him with a good enough supporting cast to create a consistently effective pass rush. The Falcons have watched team after team tee off on Matt Ryan over the past few seasons, yet have rarely done the same to opposing quarterbacks. It is long overdue that changes.

Thus, it was disappointing when the team opted to not make any major moves during free agency to improve the pass rush. Instead the team focused their attention on adding run defenders like Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson along with retaining the likes of Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry. While the latter three are solid players, they are simply part of the pass-rush-deficient problem that has plagued the team for multiple years.

So things now turn to the draft where the Falcons must find a way to improve the league’s worst third-down defense.

However that puts a lot of pressure on a rookie pass-rusher to essentially carry the unit, even if said rookie isas gifted as South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney.

But any rookie will get help from the likes of Jonathan Massaquoi, Kroy Biermann, Osi Umenyiora and Stansly Maponga. The Falcons are retaining their hybrid scheme, but may play with “more 3-4 flavor” than previously under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

Read more…

Draft Needs: More Beef Needed on Falcons Defensive Interior?

April 30th, 2014 1 comment
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Malliciah Goodman

An offseason priority for the Atlanta Falcons was “toughening up” their team, with an emphasis on bulking up on both lines of scrimmage. The team did just that when they opened up free agency by signing defensive tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson.

For many, it signaled that the Falcons were moving to a 3-4 scheme. Why else would would they guarantee $25 million to players that have spent the bulk of their careers playing in that defensive scheme? While Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has coached both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, prior to his arrival in Atlanta he had not coached a defense with a 4-3 as their base scheme in seven years. Nolan’s history signaled a clear preference for the 3-4 defense, and the signings of Soliai and Jackson appeared to be that preference finally coming to fruition in Atlanta after two years of a hybrid unit between the two schemes.

But Falcons head coach Mike Smith was quick to pump the brakes on those expectations, indicating that the team would still be utilizing a hybrid scheme. That makes sense given the team opted to bring back free agents Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry, who all were drafted by the Falcons originally to play in a 4-3 scheme.

Although it’s interesting that between the three of them, they are making less than $5 million in guaranteed money. So if money talks, then the Falcons will be tailoring their defense more towards the strengths of Jackson and Soliai, which should indicate more 3-4 “flavor” than 4-3 in their hybrid unit in 2014.

That should help a player like Malliciah Goodman, who has the ability to play in either scheme, but may project best in a 3-4 at defensive end. Goodman flashed good ability as a run defender as a rookie last year, and has reportedly bulked up considerably this offseason with the mindset of becoming a regular in the team’s base defense.

That development should benefit a player like Babineaux, who was the team’s top pass-rusher a year ago despite having a single sack. Per Moneyball game reviews which focus on All-22, Babineaux led the team with 13 “positive pass rushes,” which are sacks, quarterback hits and pressures combined. Babineaux also played the most of any Falcon defensive lineman last year with 924 snaps according to premium website Pro Football Focus. Only William Moore (1,064 snaps) and Desmond Trufant (1,022) played more on defense. Babineaux’s reps were the fourth-most of any interior defensive lineman in the league in 2013, and frankly way too much for a 32-year old player.

Goodman missed two games due to injury last season, but wound up playing 305 snaps. If he can carve a bigger role in the rotation, particularly on run downs, it will allow the team to streamline Babineaux’s playing time on passing downs. That could potentially cut his snap count in half, and thus keep him fresher for this year and give him a better chance to play out the remainder of what is expected to be his final NFL contract.

Read more…

Falcons Exercise Fifth-Year Option on Julio Jones

April 29th, 2014 Comments off
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Julio Jones

Jay Glazer of FOX Sports tweeted this afternoon that the Atlanta Falcons were electing to exercise the fifth-year option on Julio Jones’ contract. As such, Jones’ 2015 base salary will become the average of the top 10 wide receivers in the league, projected at $10.176 million.

The fifth-year option was instituted in the NFL’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement enacted in 2011, where first-round picks could be kept for a fifth season rather than the standard four. Teams would have until the end of the players third season and May 3 before his fourth season to exercise the option. Thusly, the fifth-year salary would be guaranteed for injury only. If Jones is on the Falcons’ roster on opening day of 2015, however, his salary will be fully guaranteed for skill, cap and injury. Terms of the option are non-negotiable and automatically included in the contracts of all players selected in the first round.

The Falcons traded up 21 spots in 2011 to draft Jones. He is coming off a year where he only appeared in first five games due to a foot injury. But at the time of his injury, he was leading the NFL with 41 receptions. He was also second in the league at that time with 580 receiving yards, and also had a pair of touchdown catches. For his career, Jones has played in 34 games with 33 starts and caught 174 passes for 2,737 yards (15.7 avg) and 20 touchdowns. He earned a spot in the Pro Bowl in 2012.

Under the terms of his original contract signed in 2011, Jones is set to count roughly $5.15 million against the Falcons’ salary cap this season. His salary is fully guaranteed.

Categories: News Tags: ,

Draft Needs: Are Falcons Okay at Center?

April 29th, 2014 Comments off

The Atlanta Falcons seemingly solidified their center position by re-signing free agent Joe Hawley this offseason.

But the interesting thing about Hawley’s contract is that it is a significant commitment to the fifth-year pro, but also not really a commitment to him.

If Hawley doesn’t have a strong 2014 season, the team could move on from him rather easily in 2015 based off how his contract is structured. In 2015, the metaphorical keys could easily be tossed over to Peter Konz at center, when he could play out the final year of his contract in order to be given the opportunity to earn a second. At this point, it would seem Konz is unlikely to get a substantial second deal with the team in 2016, but that could change if he shows growth and development over the next year or two.

Given the added presence of Harland Gunn on the roster, the Falcons appear three-deep potentially at the center position. More than likely, they’ll let the competition between Hawley and Konz play out this year without bringing any major addition into the mix. They’ll certainly add at least one more body in undrafted free agency, but drafting a player seems doubtful.

Based off how Hawley and Konz performed this upcoming season, the Falcons could then determine if center is going to be a priority position in the 2015 offseason. The less faith Hawley or Konz instill in them this year, the more likely the team will go out of its way to upgrade the position next year.

Categories: Draft Central Tags: , , ,

Draft Needs: Should Falcons Add More Depth at Guard

April 29th, 2014 Comments off

The Atlanta Falcons stabilized their right guard position with the signing of former Kansas City Chiefs starter Jon Asamoah this offseason. There had been a revolving door at the position since the team opted to let Harvey Dahl go following the 2010 season.

Asamoah joins Justin Blalock as the most proven of the team’s five projected starters, making the interior of the line a potential strength.

But as the injury-riddled 2013 season showed, shoring up the depth at a strong position is a smart move. However, the Falcons do have some internal options.

The loser of the battle at center between Joe Hawley and Peter Konz could serve as a backup at that position. However, both Hawley and Konz were major contributors to the instability at right guard over the past three seasons since both are much more natural as centers. Moving forward, they should only be returned to the position as a last resort.

The team got solid production from Harland Gunn towards the end of last season, relative to what they saw earlier in the year. They also added Gabe Carimi this offseason, who showed promise in 2012 as a guard for the Chicago Bears. Both could prove capable fill-ins in the event of an injury, although neither are proven candidates as of yet. Gunn is a bit undersized for the position, and despite earlier promise, Carimi struggled in three starts at left guard for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013.

The team could also move backup right tackle Mike Johnson back to guard, particularly if they wind up using a high pick on an already cluttered offensive tackle position. Johnson has spent the past two summers working at right tackle after failing to earn his way onto the field at guard his first two seasons.

So the Falcons could get by with the players currently on their roster. While solidifying guard depth may not pay immediate dividends this season, it could prove worthwhile down the road.

Blalock has a cap hit that exceeds $7 million this year as well in the final two years of his contract thereafter. He is coming off arguably his best season since joining the Falcons in 2007, but if he is unable to maintain that level of play it’s possible he could find himself playing elsewhere. The Falcons can save nearly $4 million in cap space if they cut him next offseason, and $6 million the following spring. That could be enticing savings if there is any slip in Blalock’s play. Tyson Clabo was 32 when the Falcons cut ties with him, and Blalock will turn 31 at the end of 2014.

Adding a developmental guard that could potentially be in the mix to replace Blalock down the line would be a smart move by the Falcons, in case none of the current players on the roster earn that opportunity. You could expect such a player to be found on the third day of the draft given more pressing needs at other positions.

Categories: Draft Central Tags: , , ,

Draft Needs: Do Falcons Really Need Upgrade at Tackle?

April 29th, 2014 1 comment

Offensive tackle was a position that plagued the Atlanta Falcons throughout the 2013 season, and has been one long designated as an area that could use improvement.

So the answer to the question of whether the team needs an upgrade at the position in yes. But a better question may be, does the team need to use a high pick in order to make that upgrade? Particularly when looking at the right tackle spot where Lamar Holmes is expected to line up.

Holmes struggled throughout most of 2013, but there were points during the season where he was decent when he was filling in for an injured Sam Baker at left tackle. There was a seven-game stretch between Weeks 4 and 11, where Holmes only allowed one sack and four pressures according to Moneyball reviews. That sort of production over the course of an entire 16-game season would indicate that Holmes is more than capable of holding down a starting job permanently.

The premium at the offensive tackle position comes on the left side, with NFL teams investing considerably more in their left tackles than they do in their right ones. Looking at the grades on premium website Pro Football Focus, I looked at all the tackles that played at least 500 snaps in 2013 and broke them down based on what round they were drafted in. I then also looked at those who finished the season with a positive grade according to PFF’s metrics as they appear in the following tables under the “Good” category. Here’s how left tackles and right tackles broke down separately:

Left Tackles by Round

Round
Total
Pct.
Good
Pct.
1st1544%1362%
2nd618%314%
3rd39%00%
4th39%15%
5th00%00%
6th00%00%
7th26%15%
Undrafted515%314%

Right Tackles by Round

Round
Total
Pct.
Good
Pct.
1st824%633%
2nd618%422%
3rd26%16%
4th26%211%
5th412%16%
6th00%00%
7th26%16%
Undrafted927%317%

The numbers clearly delineate how much more NFL teams invest in left tackles than right tackles, with nearly half the regulars at left tackle in 2013 being former first-round picks. They also show how that teams that invest high picks (first and second-rounders) in either position tends to pay dividends with better production. In both cases, more than 70 percent of the regular tackles on both sides that were first or second-round picks wound up receiving positive grades from Pro Football Focus. It became much more hit and miss thereafter.

It suggests that if the Falcons want to upgrade either tackle position, they would be smart to invest a first or second-round pick in them.

But the better question may not be whether the Falcons should invest a high pick in a right tackle to upgrade Holmes, but rather whether they should be looking to improve the left tackle position. Sam Baker has been anything but reliable over the past six years, missing a combined 26 games due to injury. That trend cannot continue, and a first-round pick at tackle could go a long way to address that problem.

But the Falcons invested a significant contract in Baker last offseason and are seemingly stuck with him for at least another season. If he doesn’t rebound this year, then the team may be forced to part ways with him next offseason. So the best strategy for the Falcons may be using a high pick on a player that can be plugged in immediately at right tackle, but eventually move to the left side. That could give Holmes more time to develop and hone his skills. And also give the team a very good insurance policy in case Baker does not bounce back and have a good year in 2014.

The Falcons cannot cut Baker without eating a significant amount of dead money until 2016. But if a rookie tackle shows promise his first year, the team might decide to take that penalty and move on in 2015. The chances of that happen increase exponentially if the Falcons take a tackle in the first two rounds of this year’s draft.

Categories: Draft Central Tags: , , , ,

Draft Needs: Have Falcons Really Improved Depth at Wide Receiver?

April 29th, 2014 Comments off

The Atlanta Falcons signed wide receiver Devin Hester earlier this offseason, in a move that should bolster not only their special teams, but also their depth at wide receiver. But has that signing really made a substantial improvement to their depth at the latter position?

The Falcons depth at the position essentially boils down to whether or not they can rely on any of their current backups to step up if or when one of their starters goes down with an injury. Last year, the team’s top wideout Julio Jones missed the final 11 games due to a foot injury, which he is still recovering from. Last season long-time stalwart Roddy White, nursing ankle and hamstring injuries, did not look himself until a breakout performance against the Buffalo Bills in Week 13.

Harry Douglas filled in during both players’ absences. Douglas produced at a high level leading the team with 85 catches and 1,067 yards, but in the six games in which he was functionally their lead receiver, the team scored an average of 17.5 points. In the other 10 games played last season where either Jones or White were healthy and on the field, they averaged 24.8 points, a touchdown more. That may not seem like much, but a single touchdown per game essentially separates what would be considered a top 10 offense in the NFL from one at the very bottom.

In Chicago for the five years prior to 2013, the Bears tried to take advantage of Hester’s dynamic explosiveness as a returner on offense at wide receiver. It did not work effectively as Hester had a single 100-yard game over that span. In 2013, Hester opted to focus on special teams rather than continuing to strive to be an effective offensive weapon. Was a coincidence then that thanks to the emergence of second-year wideout Alshon Jeffery in Hester’s absence, the Bears offense scored more points this season than any other Bears offense ever? Probably not.

If Douglas and Hester’s past careers show us anything, it tells us that in the event of injuries that sideline both Jones and White, the Falcons offense will take a significant dip. That means that there is still room for improvement in terms of depth at wide receiver.

The 2014 draft class is considered one of the deepest ever at the wide receiver position. That certainly allows things to fall into place if the Falcons plan to address their depth at the position.

Targeting a player that can line up outside the numbers and help stretch the defense would bring something new to the roster. The Falcons already have plenty of guys that can line up inside in the slot. Douglas, Hester and Johnson are at their best playing inside, given their lack of size and struggles to beat press coverage outside. And White and Jones certainly have also made their share of plays when they’ve been asked to play in the slot over the years.

Another slot receiver would simply be overkill. The Falcons sorely missed a playmaker that could line up outside, beat press coverage and stretch the defense last year when Jones was out. White is slowing down and still occasionally provides those vertical plays, but is much more of a pure possession wideout at this point in his career.

In the event of another Jones injury, something that has occurred all three years he has been in the league, the Falcons should have someone on the roster that can do some of the things he can do. Few can do all of the things that he does, that’s what makes him Julio Jones. But a player that can at least mimic his role in the offense, which is a player that forces defenses to have to respect the deep ball can open up things for the other receivers that do the underneath stuff.

But any rookie added may not be able to make major contributions right away. Rookie receivers are notorious for a slow transition into the next level, having to refine their route-running and ability to read coverages, critical to success in the NFL.

But the earlier said player is added to the roster, the sooner he can eventually contribute. And even if he’s not able to make huge strides in 2014, he certainly can start to impact in 2015. White is no spring chicken, and even with a contract extension, he’ll be turning 33 in November. There may only be a few more years where he can be expected to contribute as a starter. If the Falcons can begin developing his heir apparent, by the time White might opt to hang it up a few years down the road, that player will have an easy and smooth transition into the starting lineup.

One thing is for certain, between Douglas, Hester, Johnson, and Davis that eventual replacement is not currently on the roster. It would be prudent of the Falcons to add him via this year’s draft.

Categories: Draft Central Tags: , , , , ,

Draft Needs: Is Levine Toilolo Ready to Start?

April 28th, 2014 Comments off

The Atlanta Falcons are certain to add a tight end in next month’s 2014 NFL Draft. It’s not a question of if, but rather when.

That is purely based off the fact that Toilolo is the most experienced tight end on the roster, and he’s only been in the league one season. Mickey Shuler entered the league in 2010 and played six games with the Miami Dolphins that year, but hasn’t played a snap since. Toilolo played in every game as a rookie in 2013. Between the two of them, they have a combined 13 catches in the NFL.

They are tasked with replacing the greatest tight end in NFL history by the name of Tony Gonzalez. Impossible shoes to fill, but the Falcons will be certain to provide a little extra help in the draft.

In fact, the void for Gonzalez is so large, that the Falcons could presumably draft two tight ends and wouldn’t even come close to filling it.

Toilolo was a forgotten man for large chunks of 2013. Even when the Falcons went with a young movement in the final month of 2013 at several other positions, Toilolo’s playing time stayed about the same. The team knew that Gonzalez was set to retire, and trying to mix in Toilolo to get more reps to see if he could be an adequate replacement made a ton of sense at the time. Yet they chose not to do so.

That raises questions about how much confidence the team has in Toilolo. Last year, they had every reason to play him and did not. If that lack of confidence carries over into 2014, it signals that the team will make a significant addition at tight end to upgrade not only their depth, but also to add someone that can challenge Toilolo as a starter.

If that is the case, it would seem the second day is a likely point in the draft where they could address this position. Particularly if the player the team targets is supposed to contribute as a pass-catcher. The premium at the tight end position remains guys that can make plays in the passing game as those guys get snatched up quickly in the early rounds of any draft.

If the Falcons want someone that can be a reliable option for Matt Ryan in the passing game, they may be hard-pressed to find him after the third or fourth round.

Not only could the team be looking for someone that can help as a pass-catcher, but also a player as a blocker. If the Falcons deemphasize the fullback position, as previously postulated, they will need to shore up their depth at tight end. If the Falcons are going to use more two tight-end sets, then they need to have at least three they trust can play.

So even if the Falcons were to take a tight end in the second or third round, it would not be surprising if they double-dipped at the position and took someone that can block later in the draft. It’s notable that since the team traded for Gonzalez, most of the tight ends added to the roster have been known primarily as blockers: Toilolo, Shuler, Michael Palmer, Tommy Gallarda, Adam Nissley, Andrew Szczerba.

It suggests a preference for the traditional “Y” tight end that lines up beside a tackle and is asked to block inline rather than the “H” tight end that can be flexed out as a receiver or lines up in the backfield. So even if the team adds a pass catcher early in the draft, it would not be surprising if that prospect also has extensive experience as an inline blocker.

Categories: Draft Central Tags: , ,

Draft Needs: Do the Falcons Need to Draft a Fullback?

April 28th, 2014 Comments off

When the Atlanta Falcons opted to release the oft-injured Bradie Ewing this offseason, it certainly created a void at the fullback position. That void is currently filled by Patrick DiMarco, who was serviceable in the absence of Ewing last season. But is DiMarco capable of filling that void in 2014 and beyond?

The Falcons certainly will add fullbacks to bolster competition in camp, but the question remains whether they will draft one.

I’ve outlined in the past why drafting fullbacks has garnered little value for NFL teams over the years. My research shows that drafting a fullback adds marginal value over signing one as an undrafted free agent.

Could the team afford to wait until after the draft before addressing the position? The research says it would be prudent. But it’s understandable that given so many picks the team would be hard-pressed to not address a vacancy at fullback with one of them.

But whether or not the Falcons feel compelled to add that player could depend on whether they address another position early in the draft: tight end.

The team certainly has a need at tight end, and if they are successful in using a high pick on the position, that player is going to be expected to play quite a bit as a rookie. Thus it would appear the Falcons could transition to using more two tight end sets with a rookie and Levine Toilolo. That transition would deemphasize the fullback’s role in the offense, and thus make it a little less necessary to draft one later.

Categories: Draft Central Tags: , , ,

Draft Needs: Can the Falcons Add Steven Jackson’s Successor?

April 28th, 2014 Comments off

The retirement of running back Jason Snelling certainly will affect the Atlanta Falcons depth at running back. Coupled with the strong possibility that Steven Jackson is playing his last season with the team, there appears to be a compelling need at the position headed into next month’s draft.

Jackson has one more year left on his contract beyond this season, but carries nearly a $5 million cap hit in 2015. He’ll be 32 entering that season, and only three running backs have rushed for 1,000 yards at that age over the past 15 seasons. And it’s far from a given that Jackson will have that sort of production in 2014 to even merit that expectation next year. While playing roughly 11.25 games in 2013, Jackson had 543 yards, which extrapolates to 772 yards over 16 games.

Given that, it would seem very doubtful that Jackson is going to be a Falcon beyond this season even if he has the desire to continuing playing. It makes no sense to pay a guy $5 million if he’s not capable of breaking 1,000 yards rushing.

Jacquizz Rodgers is Jackson’s primary backup, but has done little in his three seasons with the team to suggest that he is ready to take over the full-time duties. Rodgers is entering his contract year with his future also in some doubt. Helping Rodgers retain long-term value however is that he is one of the better third-down backs in the league. That’s a role and skill set that isn’t likely to diminish for many years given Rodgers is only 24 years old.

But it’s certainly possible that Rodgers could be a free agent next year, and another team could value his third-down abilities far more than the Falcons and sign him. Therefore, he too could be playing in his final season with the team.

Fellow backups Antone Smith and Josh Vaughan are also set to be free agents after this season. This means that beyond 2014, the Falcons running back position is completely unknown. So it makes perfect sense to draft a running back to add some stability for the future.

The first priority is replacing Jackson. While there is no guarantee that the Falcons re-sign Rodgers, there is certainly a much higher chance of that happening than Jackson discovering the fountain of youth in 2014. There is every reason to believe that any rookie drafted can be expected to form a one-two punch with Rodgers beyond this year.

It does appear that the running back prospects the Falcons have shown the most interest in this offseason are in that mold of lead back. Prospects like Terrance West, Carlos Hyde, Jeremy Hill and Storm Johnson all are bigger, powerful runners in the mold of Jackson and his predecessor Michael Turner.

Any rookie added is probably only going to be used sparingly in 2014, just as Snelling was a year ago. Snelling played 233 snaps last year (according to premium website Pro Football Focus), 61 percent of which came between Weeks 2 and 8 when Jackson was injured. Basically in games where both Jackson and Rodgers were healthy, Snelling averaged about 6.6 offensive snaps per game. Essentially, any rookie added will be asked to redshirt this year, learn the offense if things go according to plan.

But in the NFL, things rarely go according to plan. And injuries happen, and any draft pick would also give the team insurance in the event of their occurrence since he’d offer greater potential than either Smith or Vaughan could.

So while the Falcons don’t have to draft a running back, it makes little sense not to.