Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 2 Matt Ryan

July 24th, 2014 No comments

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Matt Ryan

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with second-ranked player: quarterback Matt Ryan.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 91/100

Last year’s rank: 1
Player Grade: 84/100
Teams he is starter: 24 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 24 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +5

Ryan held the top spot last year and his slip in this year’s rankings had to do with so much happening in 2013 that exposed too many of his weaknesses.

Ryan has never been blessed with great arm strength and thus the vertical element of the team’s passing attack has always been limited. Like most quarterbacks not named Roethlisberger, Ryan also has a tendency to shy away from contact. Hitting him early and often can significantly quicken his trigger leading to a lot of checkdowns, making it even harder for the team to find the big passing plays necessary to excel. Ryan certainly took his fair share of heavy contact last year. Hopefully with the upgrades made on the right side of the offensive line with Jon Asamoah and Jake Matthews, it should eliminate that problem.

Last season it became clear by year’s end that Ryan was not the sort of quarterback that could significantly elevate the marginal receive talent he was given. Ryan is much more cerebral than someone that will fly by the seat of his pants. Unfortunately after wide receiver Julio Jones went down last year, the Falcons needed more of the latter style of play from their quarterback.

In 2012, Ryan acted as a distributor of the football, wheeling and dealing and letting his receivers: Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez make plays. In 2013, without that caliber of talent on the receiving end of his passes, the Falcons offense struggled to put points on the board.

Ryan had a great deal of trust in Gonzalez to win in traffic. Now the Falcons appear to be saddling him with Harry Douglas as his third option, a player that has routinely struggled to win in traffic. Newly added wide receiver Devin Hester was never a reliable receiving option in Chicago, and it’s unlikely that will change in Atlanta. And tight end Levine Toilolo is very unproven as a receiving option. Essentially, the Falcons still have a ways to go before Ryan’s supporting cast beyond Jones and White is worth writing home about.

Ryan’s main strengths are his intelligence, decision-making and ability to win before the snap at the line of scrimmage. Ryan can diagnose mismatches very well, and it’s why the Falcons offense is most effective when the team operates out of the no-huddle. It’s not a coincidence that in the middle of the season when injuries at wide receiver forced the team to scrap the no-huddle, Ryan struggled mightily. If Jones, White and Douglas remain healthy, the Falcons shouldn’t have any issue running the no-huddle this year. However, if one or more of them is injured, it remains to be seen if Hester, Toilolo and the rest of the receivers are ready to fill any void.

Ryan is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league and more than capable of bringing a Lombardi Trophy to Atlanta. If the Falcons want Ryan to excel at the highest levels, they need to do a much better job surrounding him with not just better, but the right kind of talent. He needs bigger, faster receivers and strong offensive line play. A stronger ground attack would also relieve much of the stress of Ryan having to carry the offense with his arm. That way if future injuries sap the team’s ability to run the no-huddle, the team can rely on the run game to keep the offense afloat.

While the Falcons have made several strides in these areas in 2014, they haven’t yet reached their full potential. Until they do, there’s going to continue to be a degree of disrespect directed Ryan’s way.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 3 Roddy White

July 24th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Roddy White

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with third-ranked player: wide receiver Roddy White.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 90/100

Last year’s rank: 4
Player Grade: 83/100
Teams he is starter: 32 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 25 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +3

The ink is barely dry on White’s new deal that has been promised since last fall. If the market value I dictated earlier this week is accurate, then it means technically the Falcons overpaid for White. But that may be a small burden to bear to make sure the best wide receiver in Falcons history never suits up for another NFL team.

White’s protege in Julio Jones is considered an elite receiver because he dictates opposing coverage on a consistent basis, something that no longer is the case with White. But that doesn’t mean that White still doesn’t have a ton of value for the Falcons.

Over the last few years, White has morphed into the classic definition of a possession receiver. His primary duty is to keep the offense on schedule and keep the chains rolling. It’s why he has the fifth-most receptions of 10 yards or less over the past six seasons in the NFL. White is still one of the best in the league at this due to his sharp route-running and physical playing style that helps him win at the line of scrimmage.

Those traits may become more important in 2014 due to the retirement of tight end Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez was a huge asset for the Falcons on third downs and in the red zone over the past five seasons. White was also a huge piece of that puzzle, and alongside Jones will have to take on the bulk of the offensive burden in Gonzalez’s wake.

White still manages to stretch the field from time to time, but he no longer displays the track speed that led to his selection in the first round of the 2005 draft. Most of his big plays over the past few seasons have come against nickel corners, safeties or linebackers. Ryan has done a good job of finding those mismatches and exploiting them. He may have a tougher time doing that this season since Gonzalez’s departure likely will force defense to pay more attention to White.

But nonetheless, White should endure in 2014 as he works to rebound from an injury-riddled 2013 campaign. Hindsight offers us that perhaps the Falcons would have been better able to salvage their season had they rested White’s high ankle sprain at the outset of 2013. White did not appear to be playing at his normal level until a 10-catch, 143-yard effort against the Buffalo Bills in Week 13. But White showed his trademark toughness in trying his best to gut through the injury through the first five weeks, but he was largely a decoy and the Falcons offense could not quite capture their 2012 magic without him at full strength.

While a healthy start to 2014 for White may not get the Falcons offense to their 2012 level, it certainly will bring them a few steps closer as the Falcons strive to quiet naysayers with a playoff-run this season.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Safety

July 24th, 2014 No comments

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Lowery

The Atlanta Falcons safety position is one that is in flux, as free safety Thomas DeCoud will not be entering camp atop the depth chart for the first time in five summers. Finding a suitable replacement will be critical aspect of the team’s training camp.

The player most likely to fill DeCoud’s shoes is Dwight Lowery. Lowery went under the radar this offseason because the Jacksonville Jaguars cut him early during the 2013 season. Lowery suffered a concussion three weeks into the season, and the Jaguars in rebuilding mode opted to cut him outright. Lowery was not scooped up until the Falcons nabbed him in early April in one of the later waves of free-agent signings. That leaves many skeptics as to whether Lowery is capable of stepping in at free safety. Lowery’s obscurity in Jacksonville coupled with the long absence from the field fuels that skepticism.

DeCoud’s poor play led to his release in February and the expectations are that his replacement will not just fill his shoes, but be an upgrade as well. Lowery has the potential to be that since he’s a more consistent tackler than DeCoud and also his past as a nickel corner with the New York Jets to start his career means he should translate better in man coverage. If that is the case, then it should pay dividends for the rest of the Falcons secondary.

Particularly in regards to strong safety William Moore, who is in no way fearful of his job being lost. While Moore is not coming off one of his best seasons, it feels more like it was one aberrant weak season among several good ones rather than the beginning of a new downward trend. With stronger play out of the free safety, Moore can play a little more fast and loose, which is more to his style of flying around, hitting opponents and picking off any tipped passes over the middle.

Read more…

Falcons and White Agree to New Contract Extension

July 24th, 2014 No comments
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Roddy White

The Atlanta Falcons announced what ESPN’s Adam Schefter first reported, in that wide receiver Roddy White has agreed to a new three-year contract extension. White, who was entering the final year of his contract agreed to ink a four-year deal worth reportedly $30 million this morning. Other parameters of the deal including $10 million in guaranteed money, with $11 million payout this year and $18 million over the next two years, a substantial increase from those that I predicted Tuesday.

White will turn 33 this fall and this deal should lock him up in Atlanta through the end of his career. White, originally a first-round pick of the Falcons in 2005, is alongside defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux as the currently oldest tenured Falcons on the roster now that they are entering their ninth seasons with the team.

White is coming off an injury-riddled 2013 season where he missed three games. However, White did not appear fully healthy until the Falcons Week 13 matchup against the Buffalo Bills, where he caught 10 passes for 143 yards. White finished the year with 63 catches for 711 yards and three touchdowns, his lowest production totals since his second season. Prior to 2013, White had caught over 80 passes for at least 1100 yards and six touchdowns in six consecutive seasons from 2007-12. A four-time Pro Bowler, White has been considered one of the premier wide receivers in the league over the past seven years.

The Falcons had indicated as early as last November that they wanted to extend White’s contract rather than let him hit free agency next offseason. Contract talks were tabled at one point this offseason due to the team allowing White to deal with family issues stemming from the murder of his brother in May.

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Roster Talk: Five Falcons on the Bubble

July 24th, 2014 No comments
Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

Darius Johnson

After examining the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons roster, that still leaves 50 players that did not get such in-depth looks. Most of those top 40 players will wind up making the Falcons 53-man roster this year, leaving little more than a dozen roster spots for the remaining 50.

Let’s examine several of the players “on the bubble” that may struggle to make the cut. All five of the following players have been counted among contributors in the past, but may not be any longer. In examining each, I’ll break down what exactly are their best avenues of making the team.

Darius Johnson, Wide Receiver

Johnson played well last year considering he was an undrafted rookie, leapfrogging both Drew Davis and Kevin Cone on the depth chart, two third-year veterans. But that won’t earn him lingering credit if he doesn’t perform up to task this summer.

He’ll face steady competition from a group of young, explosive receivers like Bernard Reedy. What hurts Johnson is that he won’t be able to help himself much on special teams. Given his smaller stature, he’s not shown that he’s very effective when asked to cover punts and kicks.

Read more…

Ranking the Falcons 2014: Recapping the Top 40

July 23rd, 2014 No comments

In case you missed any of the ongoing series of articles ranking the Top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons in 2014:

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 4 Desmond Trufant

July 23rd, 2014 No comments

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Desmond Trufant

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with fourth-ranked player: cornerback Desmond Trufant.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 85/100

Last year’s rank: 18
Player Grade: 70/100
Teams he is starter: 32 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 19 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +4

Trufant was a player that I was not super high on when the Falcons drafted him with their top pick. While seeing him as a “solid” player, I never really suspected that he would be more than an above average to good corner, but certainly had no illusions that he’d step in and be great as a rookie.

Then his play last preseason did not exactly inspire me to change that opinion, and I expected Drew Brees to feast on him during the 2013 season-opener against the New Orleans Saints. That prediction proved wrong.

While Trufant did have his fair share of early struggles, at no point last year did he look out of his element. It was perhaps Trufant’s game against Vincent Jackson in Week 7 that most impressed me. While he got beat several times in that game, he never backed down at any point. It reminded me of Brent Grimes’ performance against Anquan Boldin in 2010. Up until that game I had never really bought into the Grimes “hype,” but despite giving up several big catches to a very physical Boldin, Grimes was always in position but just couldn’t make the play.

Soon thereafter, I became one of the biggest champions of Grimes and while I’m not sure I could say the same in regard to Trufant, he’s right on the brink. Trufant will get several more big tests early in 2014, with potential matchups against A.J. Green, Jackson and Brandon Marshall, all of whom are top 15 if not top 10 wide receivers in the NFL currently. And of course that could culminate in London in Week 8 against none other than Calvin Johnson.

So Trufant will be tested early and often, but if he picks up where he left off last year then there is every reason to believe he will prove himself as one of the league’s premier corners. Over the final six games last year, Trufant only blew three coverages (per Moneyball) despite being targeted 31 times (per Pro Football Focus). Comparatively speaking, over the first six games, Trufant blew nine coverages on 38 targets. It was visible on tape at the end of the season that quarterbacks were purposefully shying away from throwing at his side.

That’s the mark of a true No. 1 cornerback, which we’ve seen for stretches with Grimes and Asante Samuel before in Atlanta. I’m not quite ready to place Trufant on that level yet. But due to the tough matchups he’ll face this season, it may only take a few solid performances early on before I do put Trufant on that pedestal.

The main concern with Trufant is a “sophomore slump.” That may not mean that he plays poorly this year, but his performance this season could be more reminiscent of the player that he looked like through the first half of the season than he did in the latter half. It won’t mean that he won’t be a better player than he was then, but simply given the level of competition, it would only be reasonable that he could be a little more inconsistent to start 2014 than he was when he finished 2013. And another reason why sophomore slumps occur, is the much higher expectations that come after a strong rookie campaign. It may be that some will put Trufant on an even loftier pedestal than Grimes or Samuel, and those may be expectations he’s not prepared to live up to.

But regardless, it’s clear that Trufant has the ability and potential to be one of the best corners in the league. It’s only a matter of whether his play on the field will bear that out this season.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Cornerback

July 23rd, 2014 No comments
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Alford (left) and Desmond Trufant

The Atlanta Falcons seem pretty secure as far as their starting cornerbacks go heading into the 2014 season, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of questions surrounding the position.

The first questions do center on their starters and how effective they’ll be now that the team lacks a true safety net at the position. A year ago, the team had long-time veteran Asante Samuel in that role. Now Samuel is gone and the team will be reliant upon starters Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford to rise to the occasion.

There is less question on whether Trufant can accomplish that task. Trufant is coming off a very promising rookie season where his play particularly down the stretch has many considering him one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Trufant regularly displayed his ball skills and disruptive capabilities at the cornerback position, breaking up or intercepting a pass in 13 out of 16 games last season including nine consecutive games to open the season.

If there is any concern, it’s the fear against a sophomore slump for Trufant. Such slumps can be precarious because they typically are not caused by a significant downturn in play, but by the much higher expectations placed on a player after a successful rookie season. There’s no doubt that expectations are high for Trufant this year, and his play in camp will likely determine whether or not he’s set to meet them.

Opposite him will be Alford, who has a few more questions to answer. Alford supplanted Samuel down the stretch last year thanks to the team’s abysmal record leading the coaching staff to install a youth movement on defense. Alford had his fair share of bright spots, but also several head-scratching ones. A talented athlete, Alford still needs to refine the technical aspects of playing the cornerback position. He certainly has the talent to impact this year, particularly if he can balance some of his inevitable mistakes with big plays.

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Julio Jones Cleared for Training Camp Practices

July 23rd, 2014 No comments
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Julio Jones

D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones has been cleared medically to participate in training camp practices. Camp commences on Friday for the Falcons. Jones is recovering from a foot injury that sidelined him for the final 11 games of the 2013 season. Per Falcons head coach Mike Smith however, Jones will be kept on a strict snap count with the goal of him remaining healthy until the Falcons regular season starts in September.

Last season Jones broke the screw that was placed in his right foot back in 2011 prior to his entry into the league as the Falcons’ No. 1 pick. Jones originally broke the foot during his days at Alabama.

He has been limited throughout the offseason after undergoing an experimental procedural to help promote healing in the affected area. Jones had bone marrow removed from his hip and injected into his foot coupled with the insertion of another larger screw.

Jones is the Falcons’ top offensive weapon, as he was the league leader in receptions (41) and second in receiving yards (580) at the time of his injury last season. His continued good health may be the biggest factor in the Falcons success in 2014.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 5 William Moore

July 23rd, 2014 No comments

Josh D. Weiss-US PRESSWIRE

William Moore

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with fifth-ranked player: safety William Moore.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 82/100

Last year’s rank: 9
Player Grade: 69/100
Teams he is starter: 30 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 25 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +3

Moore gets a slight bump in the ratings thanks to the departures of Asante Samuel and Tony Gonzalez, coupled with the slips of Sean Weatherspoon, Jonathan Babineaux and Osi Umenyiora.

But expectations should be that Moore’s performance should improve from a year ago. Coming off a Pro Bowl year in 2012, Moore fell well short of that standard in 2013. He should be poised for a rebound year if he can get improved play at the free safety position from Dwight Lowery. If Lowery can be a stabilizing force in coverage and against the run, then it should allow Moore to get back to what he was best at in 2012: being aggressive.

Moore isn’t blessed with great coverage ability. In fact, under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons have gone out of their way to mask Moore’s coverage flaws by limiting the number of opportunities he’s matched up in man coverage against quality receivers and tight ends. This has put added stress on the free safety position to pick up the slack in coverage, which is why Lowery’s performance is important.

Instead, Moore excels as an enforcer against the run. He’s one of the hardest-hitting strong safeties in the league and has made his fair share of highlight-reel hits over the years. Many of those hits have also led to a number of forced fumbles over the years. His eight forced fumbles over the past four seasons is tied for the sixth-most among NFL defensive backs.

He’s also very opportunistic when he’s playing in coverage over the top, with a knack for intercepting tipped passes. In fact, nine of Moore’s 14 career interceptions have been as a result of tipped passes or overthrows.

Although already a defensive leader, Moore will take on a heavier burden this season given the injury to former collegiate teammate and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. Moore will have to find a balance between aggressiveness and discipline given a young, relatively unproven group of Falcons linebackers in front of him.

It’s an important year for Moore and how he performs could solidify him as one of the league’s premier safeties and be a critical factor in any Falcons defensive resurgence in 2014.

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