Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 34 Jacquizz Rodgers

July 16th, 2014 No comments

Josh D. Weiss-US PRESSWIRE

Jacquizz Rodgers

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 34th-ranked player: running back Jacquizz Rodgers.

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

Total Score: 44/100

Last year’s rank: 27
Player Grade: 49/100
Teams he is starter: 0 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 28 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +2
Positional Bonus: +3

Rodgers was pushed down in this year’s rankings thanks to additions the Falcons made in the offseason as well as the fact that a number of unproven players rose in the rankings from a year ago. But that does not mean that Rodgers doesn’t add significant value to the Falcons roster.

While he’ll face stiff competition from rookie running back Devonta Freeman this summer, Rodgers isn’t exactly going to lay down. He is one of the best third-down backs currently in the league, being one of only four players that ranked in the top 15 in premium website Pro Football Focus‘ pass-blocking efficiency and yards per route metrics for running backs in 2013.

But Rodgers likely hopes to expand his role as a rusher this season. He received a career-high 96 carries in 2013, including 58 carries during a five-week stint where starter Steven Jackson was sidelined with injury. Rodgers has yet to receive more than 10 carries in a game in which he was not filling in as a starter or the Falcons were involved in a rout. Earning those reps will become harder with Freeman on the roster, as the team envisions Freeman as capable of being a lead back, something that Rodgers has not been.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 35 Devin Hester

July 15th, 2014 No comments

Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Devin Hester

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 35th-ranked player: wide receiver Devin Hester

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

Total Score: 44/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 49/100
Teams he is starter: 0 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: 0
Positional Bonus: +3

Hester was brought in to primarily be the return specialist for the Falcons. In that capacity, he is arguably the best returner in NFL history. His 13 punts taken back for scores is the all-time mark, and he currently sits tied with Deion Sanders with most non-offensive touchdowns (19) in a career.

Hester’s always been a little more dangerous as a punt returner than kick returner, especially since new rules adopted by the league have limited the impact in the latter arena in recent seasons.

If there is any cause for concern with Hester, it’s that his penchant to go for the home run can lead to a few mistakes and turnovers. Hester fumbled 30 times over the course of eight years on 486 combined kickoff and punt returns for the Chicago Bears, or once every 16 returns. In contrast, during his tenure in Atlanta return specialist Eric Weems only fumbled three times in 190 total returns, or once every 63 returns.

But that risk is mitigated by the fact that Hester is and has been a far more explosive returner than Weems was. Only about eight percent of Weems’ punt returns as a Falcon went for 20 or more yards, while 21 percent of Hester’s returns did during his career as a Bear. Even in recent years where Hester has slowed down, that figure is still at 15.5 percent.

Not since the heyday of Allen Rossum (2002-04) have the Falcons sported a return specialist that was a threat to take it to the house every time he touched the ball.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 36 Javier Arenas

July 15th, 2014 No comments
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Javier Arenas

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 39th-ranked player: cornerback Javier Arenas.

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

Total Score: 43/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 48/100
Teams he is starter: 0 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 24 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +3
Positional Bonus: +4

Arenas is another addition made this offseason to help improve the back-end depth of the Falcons roster. However, he can only do that if he manages to make the team.

Arenas will have an opportunity to win the team’s nickel cornerback spot, pushing incumbent Robert McClain while also competing with veteran Josh Wilson. Arenas was primarily the Kansas City Chiefs’ nickel cornerback over his three seasons there, but also earned some reps starting outside in the second half of the 2012 season due to the benching of Stanford Routt. He was capable in both roles, but with the change in coaching staff in 2013, he was miscast in the new Chiefs defense which preferred more physical corners.

Arenas was then traded to the Arizona Cardinals, where he served primarily in dime sub-packages, playing both as a slot corner as well as a free safety in centerfield. That versatility should help Arenas in his bid to the make the Falcons roster in 2014.

Arenas’ chances of sticking are also bolstered by his ability to perform on special teams. While the Falcons have a proven returner in Devin Hester, Arenas gives them a very good insurance policy in the event of an injury. While a very productive returner in college, Arenas has been unable to translate that into great success in the NFL, but he’s at least competent in the kicking game. He’s also shown that’s capable in coverage and likely will get an opportunity to cover kickoffs for the Falcons this season.

But ultimately Arenas’ ability to stick on the Falcons will depend on his abilities in coverage. It’s another area where he’s shown competence, and if McClain and/or Wilson struggle, Arenas is more than capable of filling in for the Falcons.

The biggest knock on Arenas is his lack of size limits his potential. He’s essentially a career backup type, but one that can add value as depth. He’s probably ideally suited to be the Falcons’ fourth cornerback rather than their third, and given his relative youth and special teams ability, it seems likely that he will earn that spot this summer.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 37 Levine Toilolo

July 15th, 2014 No comments
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Levine Toilolo

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 37th-ranked player: tight end Levine Toilolo.

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

Total Score: 42/100

Last year’s rank: 32
Player Grade: 48/100
Teams he is starter: 3 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 3 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 15 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

This season could prove to be a very interesting season for Toilolo as it may wind up being his one and only shot to prove he merits a starting position with the Falcons. Tasked with the unenviable task of filling the shoes of the greatest tight end in NFL history by the name of Tony Gonzalez, there will be a certain degree of expectations on Toilolo this season.

It’s not fair to expect Toilolo to be anywhere close to the player that Gonzalez was, but it is certainly fair to think that he should at least be a serviceable and occasionally good starter. The player that Toilolo is in 2014 might only be a sample of the player he could grow into.

Toilolo has tools to work with, particularly his size and athleticism. He could make a very good target over the middle with more ability to stretch a defense down the seam than Gonzalez did in his time in Atlanta. That was exactly where Toilolo excelled at doing in his days at Stanford when he was catching passes from Andrew Luck.

Toilolo also can be a big factor in the red zone. This was an ability that the Falcons took advantage of on occasion during his rookie season in 2013, but certainly not to the liking that I would have preferred. But the team will likely have a lot more opportunities in 2014.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Fullback

July 15th, 2014 No comments

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick DiMarco

When the Atlanta Falcons released former draft pick Bradie Ewing this offseason, it signaled that the team’s investment in the fullback position was diminishing.

That could be reflected in the fullback competition this summer, as the team has a trio of players competing for what likely will be only one roster spot.

Patrick DiMarco is the incumbent, filling in for an injured Ewing a year ago and performing well. DiMarco is an effective lead blocker that can also contribute on special teams, meaning that his fate is not exclusively tied to the fullback position.

That’s important, since it’s plausible that the team could opt to do away with the position entirely this year. Reports indicate the Falcons will play more three-wide receiver sets which will likely be at the expense fo the fullback.

They could adopt more two-tight end looks that have players like Bear Pascoe or Jacob Pedersen lining up at H-back instead of the traditional fullback. Pascoe’s played fullback in the past and is good enough that he could be perfectly functional in a pinch.

But because DiMarco also can contribute on special teams, it gives him added value when it comes to earning a roster spot. It may very well prove that during the regular season, whoever plays fullback will see more reps on special teams than he does on offense.

DiMarco will face competition from a pair of undrafted rookies in Roosevelt Nix and Maurice Hagens.

Nix is an interesting case because he played defensive tackle at Kent State, where he was very productive at that position. But his lack of size limited his NFL potential there, and the team hopes to take advantage of his physicality on offense.

Hagens is a big body at the position and could also make waves. It’ll be important for both undrafted rookies to show they can also cut it on special teams.

Ostensibly this position is a wide open competition, with any of the three having decent odds to stick. This is also a position where the Falcons could just as easily seek other options elsewhere when cuts occur later this summer.

DiMarco is the safest bet to make the team, but it’s the most wide open position on the team.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 38 Devonta Freeman

July 15th, 2014 No comments
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Devonta Freeman

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 38th-ranked player: running back Devonta Freeman.

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

Total Score: 41/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 47/100
Teams he is starter: 0 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 23 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +3
Positional Bonus: +3

Freeman sports potential to be an impact running back thanks to his abilities as a receiver and a capable pass protector given his size. In today’s NFL where passing is the premium, these skills ensure that Freeman should have a long, productive career.

The biggest concerns and question marks surrounding Freeman is how effective a runner he will be. There is no doubt that at the very least, he should be a capable change-of-pace and complementary back in the NFL, but the Falcons hope that he becomes much more than that.

Freeman possesses good speed and quickness, and runs hard for a player with his smaller stature and frame, but similar statements were made about Jacquizz Rodgers when he came into the league three years ago. While Rodgers has been a productive backup in Atlanta, he has done little to date to suggest that he has the potential to be a lead back for an NFL team.

At the very least, Freeman should be in a position to fill the shoes of retired running back Jason Snelling as an occasional change-of-pace back that will give starter Steven Jackson and Rodgers a breather.

Last year, Snelling saw the majority of his playing time during a five-week period where Steven Jackson was injured. During that span, Snelling averaged about 28.4 snaps per game according to premium website Pro Football Focus. In the other nine games he played, Snelling averaged 10.1 snaps and only a tenth of those snaps required him to tote the rock. In 2012, Snelling averaged about 14.5 snaps per game as the Falcons’ third-string tailback. Overall, Snelling was an underused player in Dirk Koetter’s offense.

Snelling performed in other areas that made up for his lack of usage on offense, namely on special teams. It remains to be seen whether or not the Falcons will employ Freeman frequently in that area. Rodgers has been a regular on the Falcons’ special teams units since his arrival in Atlanta, but given the fact that down the road the team envisions Freeman for a much bigger role, perhaps they would see the need for him to earn his place on special teams as unnecessary. If that is the case, coupled with his being utilized in a similar fashion as Snelling, it could make for a relatively quiet rookie season for Freeman.

But on the other hand, he could just as easily have a big year if he can fully take advantage of whatever opportunities come his way. It’s just as conceivable that if Freeman can add the home-run element to the Falcons ground attack, by year’s end he could be seeing significantly more reps than Rodgers does. To a point where he could be challenging Jackson for the biggest workload in a fashion similar to how Giovani Bernard saw more playing time than BenJarvus Green-Ellis did with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013. While Green-Ellis handled the majority of the carries, Bernard earned more overall playing time due to his versatility to contribute in the passing game and that he always seemed a big play waiting to happen. While Jackson is a significantly better player on third downs than Green-Ellis is, the simple reality is that Jackson’s prowess in that arena is not what it once was. And if that’s the case, there’s an opportunity for Freeman, who clearly has a future in Atlanta, to make his mark. If he’s in any way reminiscent of Bernard, then you can expect the Falcons to take full advantage.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 39 Malliciah Goodman

July 15th, 2014 No comments
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Malliciah Goodman

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 39th-ranked player: defensive end Malliciah Goodman.

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

Total Score: 40/100

Last year’s rank: 34
Player Grade: 49/100
Teams he is starter: 3 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 14 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

Goodman just missed the cut last year, as he finished 34th in my rankings. While it would appear he fell in the rankings this year, that has more to do with the Falcons doing a better job filling in the back-end of their roster rather than because Goodman is somehow worse.

Goodman has the potential to really climb these rankings this season. While he’s not expected to be a starter, he should earn significant reps in the team’s defensive line rotation. Jonathan Babineaux is getting up in age and the Falcons will need to find ways of keeping him fresh in 2014. Goodman is likely to be a big factor in their endeavors to do so.

The bulk of Goodman’s playing time a year ago came in the second half of the season when the team went for a youth movement on defense. After averaging just 10.6 snaps per game over the first five games, that number increased to 28 over the final nine games. It’s likely that Goodman’s playing time at the outset of 2014 will be closer to the latter figure.

Goodman flashed good ability as a run defender, although his pass-rushing was sporadic. It’s unlikely that will change much this year, as he has reportedly bulked up to over 290 pounds. That weight gain won’t help him add any quickness, but does mean that he should be better holding the point of attack as a five-technique defensive end when the team goes to a three-man front. Long-term, that will be Goodman’s role, and he is well suited to be the long-term replacement for Tyson Jackson at one of the end spots.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 40 Bear Pascoe

July 15th, 2014 No comments
May 28, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons tight end Bear Pascoe during organized team activities at the Falcons Training Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Bear Pascoe

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s begin with 40th-ranked player: tight end Bear Pascoe.

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

Total Score: 38/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 48/100
Teams he is starter: 2 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 2 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 16 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +3

Pascoe is a new pickup for the Falcons this offseason after having played five seasons with the New York Giants. In Atlanta, Pascoe will fill the same role he did in New York which is as a blocking tight end. That’s a role he could serve on half the teams in the league where he offers an upgrade over their current backups.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: Scoring System

July 15th, 2014 No comments

logoLast year, I ranked the top 33 players on the Atlanta Falcons. This year, I’m expanding it to the best 40 players currently on the team.

Rather than simply subjectively listing the players in an order that I deem, I have come up with a scoring system. It is the same as last year’s and is my attempt to try and measure a player’s overall value.

My scoring system includes a basic grade on each player from 0-100. A score of 50 is considered to be an average player with some starting potential.

But I also factored in whether each Falcon player could start on the other 31 NFL teams as another way to measure how a player stacks up league-wide. I also included whether or not a player would be considered the best player at his position group on each team, to better factor in those positions where there are more than one starter (e.g wide receiver). I also factored whether the player could be a role player on all 32 NFL teams. In the NFL, on average there are basically 36 players that get regular reps on offense and defense on any given Sunday and thus I considered a role player to be a guy that could potentially crack that group. For example, the starting quarterback and his backup would be among that 36-man group, while the top four cornerbacks on the depth chart would also be included. An offensive linemen that could be a starter or one of the two reserves normally active on Sundays would be also be considered a role player and so on and so forth for other position groups.

These figures are then factored together in a formula to give a player a grade from 1-100.

But there were also up to ten bonus points added that would factor in a player’s youth and the position they played. Up to five points were based purely off their position. All starting quarterbacks earned a bonus of five points, while backups got four. Premium positions such as left tackle, edge-rusher and cornerback also received four bonus points. Most other positions earned three points, with the exception of kickers, punters and fullbacks.

For youth, I factored in what I considered the number of “peak” years of production left for a player. For quarterbacks, I deemed that a quality starter like Matt Ryan can maintain a high level of production until age 38. For every two years left until reaching that peak, players received one bonus point. For example, Peyton Manning is 38 years old and thus received no bonus. While Aaron Rodgers, who is only 30 years old, received four bonus points for peak production. On a different end of the spectrum, running backs were deemed to have peak potential until age 28 or 29.

It probably sounds more complicated than it was, but in the end a player should have a grade somewhere between 1-100 to determine their value although in the case of elite quarterbacks like Manning and Rodgers, their total grades reached 103 and 104, respectively.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Running Back

July 15th, 2014 No comments
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Devonta Freeman

The biggest questions surrounding the Atlanta Falcons running back position are less about who will make the team, but how the team will stack its depth chart.

Steven Jackson returns as the unquestioned incumbent starter at the position. Jackson missed a significant chunk of his first year with the Falcons due to a hamstring injury, but finished the year relatively strong. Jackson rushed for 392 yards in the final seven games, which extrapolates to just shy of 900 for a full 16-game slate.

Although it’s worth noting that low figure likely has a lot to do with the fact that the Falcons rarely had opportunities to run the ball in the second halves of games down the stretch due to getting behind early. Over the final seven games, the team ran the ball on 35.6 percent of first-half plays, but only on 30.6 percent of second-half plays.

Jackson also saw his production dip significantly in those second halves, averaging just 2.4 yards per carry versus 4.8 yards in the first halves of the final seven games.

The team is hopeful that there will be more balance with their running game this year given improvements made along the offensive line as well as on defense which should prevent the team from getting too far behind early.

Behind Jackson may be the most notable competition at the position, which will feature a battle between Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie Devonta Freeman for the right to be the team’s primary third-down back.

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