Picking which Atlanta Falcons player was the most improved player on the roster came down to a handful of candidates. But in the end, I had to select offensive tackle Ryan Schraeder for his solidifying play down the stretch at right tackle.
Schraeder had the opportunity to start over the final month of the 2013 season, and struggled. While one could still say that even then he was an improvement over Jeremy Trueblood, but there was little doubt that he needed a lot more work before he could be trusted as a starter.
Then Schraeder lost the ocompetition with Lamar Holmes during the summer for the right tackle position, although I mused then that the gap between the two wasn’t significant. Holmes went down with injury early in the season, and the Falcons turned to veteran Gabe Carimi before permanently turning to Schraeder in Week 8.
Schraeder never looked back. He was an excellent fit in the team’s new-look blocking scheme that also made right guard Jon Asamoah into an effective blocker. His athleticism and ability to block on the move made him an effective run blocker, coupled with underrated power and strength.
Unfortunately for Schraeder, he struggled in the season finale which will leave a bad taste in the mouths of many heading into the offseason. But that single poor performance should not diminish what proved to be an excellent year for Schraeder.
The others that were considered included pass-rusher Jonathan Massaquoi and safety Kemal Ishmael.
Massaquoi was my choice at midseason, but a foot injury really held him back in the second half of the season. He garnered limited reps due to that injury and just was incapable of providing even the lowliest spark as an edge-rusher since his burst off the line of scrimmage was lacking. Halfway through the season, it looked like Massaquoi was potentially on the verge of emerging beside Desmond Trufant as one of the defense’s top players, but an injury sabotaged that dream.
Ishmael also deserved heavy consideration for this honor, considering that his 2013 season was practically non-existent. Ishmael spent most of his rookie season inactive, earning some time on special teams in four games. This year, he was forced into the lineup thanks to an early injury to strong safety William Moore.
While Ishmael had more than his fair share of lapses, particularly when it came to defending the deep pass this year, he did also have his fair share of big plays. A pick-six against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3 as well as a game-changing play against the New Orleans Saints in Week 16 were two of his more prominent highlights. He also proved to be one of the few steady defenders when it came to run support.
Other runners up that deserve mention when it came to improved play were cornerback Robert Alford, defensive end Stansly Maponga, center Joe Hawley, running back Antone Smith, running back Steven Jackson and defensive end Osi Umenyiora. The latter two especially deserve greater mention for making significant contributions to the team in 2014.