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 of the few weaknesses of Gonzalez was his inconsistency as a blocker. It’s likely that the Falcons will be able to get better there with whomever replaces him. Having a pair of tight ends, particularly ones that can both catch and block gives the offense versatility and makes them harder to defend.
Similar to the Colts and Ravens, if the Falcons adopt this strategy it also frees them up to use their first round pick elsewhere on a more pressing position, such as looking for a pass rusher. If you’re intention is to get two good players as opposed to one great player, then you can wait until the second or third day of the draft to address the tight end position.
In a perfect world, these pair of tight ends will complement each other. One will likely be more of the receiver and H-back player. Ideally, this player will be able to bring some explosive element to the Falcons offense, something that Gonzalez lacked during his Falcon tenure. The other will be more of an inline guy that can be more of the blocker, but also help move the chains on third down with the short and intermediate passing game that Gonzalez shined in. Neither will have to be great redzone targets as it is likely that Julio Jones and Roddy White will be asked to pick up most of that slack. But if they can add value there, then that certainly won’t be a negative.
In the end, it’s highly likely that the Falcons will see a significant downgrade at this position going into 2013. There was arguably no better option in the NFL on third downs and in the redzone than Gonzalez over recent seasons. And even if players like Jones and White step up, along with Harry Douglas, you can’t expect there not to be some drop-off in their production in those areas next year. The best the Falcons can hope is that whomever they bring in, can help minimize the issue. The Falcons have missed opportunities over the past four years to be proactive about this issue, but more than likely should correct that mistake this off-season.