Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 14 Jake Matthews

July 20th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Matthews

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 14th-ranked player: offensive tackle Jake Matthews.

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

Total Score: 65/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 57/100
Teams he is starter: 21 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 2 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +5
Positional Bonus: +4

Matthews is the shining gem of the Falcons 2014 draft class and will have plenty of expectations on him, not only for this season but his career in Atlanta.

As the son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, arguably one of the great offensive linemen to ever play in the NFL, Jake is no stranger to expectations. Bruce played 19 seasons at guard, tackle and center and was voted to the Pro Bowl 14 times.

Frankly, if Jake is able to achieve half of those accomplishments, he’ll go down as one of the best Falcon blockers in team history.

But in many cases, we might be getting a bit ahead of ourselves with projecting Matthews’ career path. While there is no doubt that Matthews is a talented prospect, he’s also by no means a slam dunk to be a successful NFL player.

An area where Matthews will have to improve upon is his strength. While Matthews has some of the more polished footwork and technique I’ve seen over the past decade in a collegiate tackle, those things can only take you so far in the NFL. Being able to use your upper body and hands are just as important at the pro level due to the skill of edge-rushers he’ll face.

Matthews is pegged to be the team’s long-term left tackle, but at the outset he’ll be playing right tackle for the Falcons. It’s not really a question of whether he’ll win the job, since it’s already his, but how well he’ll handle the job as a rookie.

He’ll have some early tests in the regular season, which matchups against Cameron Jordan, Carlos Dunlap, Lamarr Houston and Elvis Dumervil. Later in the season, he could be facing the likes of Julius Peppers and Charles Johnson.

Thus, Matthews will have several opportunities to sink or swim. And while expectations are high, they should not be so high that people expect Matthews to come in right away and be great. That is a possibility but unlikely. As nearly all rookies suffer from, Matthews will likely have his ups and downs. How that balances out will be the thing to watch during Matthews’ rookie season.

Last season, we saw the top three tackles taken in the draft: Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson struggle early on. All three were playing right tackle in the pros after spending most of their college careers on the left side. The positive for Matthews is that he played right tackle for three years opposite Joeckel at Texas A&M, and thus his stint on the right side of the Falcons line should be like putting on an old shoe.

But it’s certainly possible that just like his predecessors, Matthews struggles initially in Atlanta. If he can manage to improve as the season wears on, then things are going to be right on track for his development.

Matthews forms a large piece of the Falcons’ puzzle when it comes to their revamping of the offensive line to try and protect quarterback Matt Ryan’s future. Ryan has blossomed into one of the league’s premier quarterbacks in recent years, which has also coincided with a significant downturn in play among the team’s offensive line. The hope is that the team can get even more from their quarterback if he can remain upright.

Matthews is the biggest part of that effort, and whether it’s at right tackle this year or left tackle in the years beyond, he’ll be that stabilizing force that can allow the team to better protect their $104 million asset.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 15 Dwight Lowery

July 20th, 2014 No comments

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Lowery

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 15th-ranked player: safety Dwight Lowery.

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

Total Score: 64/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 57/100
Teams he is starter: 20 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 10 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 31 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +2
Positional Bonus: +3

When the Falcons signed Lowery in early April, he appeared to be an afterthought for the team’s offseason plan to upgrade the free safety position after releasing Thomas DeCould in March.

Given the team’s need to find a suitable starter, Lowery appeared as a consolation prize. But he may be anything but.

Lowery is potentially an upgrade over DeCoud and not just the version of the former Falcons safety who played so poorly in 2013, but also the version that went to the Pro Bowl in 2012.

Lowery is an upgrade in several areas, particularly as a tackler. While Lowery would never be confused with an enforcer in run support, he takes good angles and consistently wraps up.

More importantly, Lowery is also an upgrade in man coverage, which will be critical for success in Mike Nolan’s defense. Lowery began his career as a cornerback with the New York Jets in 2008, serving as their nickel corner until injuries forced him to move to safety in 2010. He was then traded to the Jacksonville Jaguars the following year, where he was quietly one of their better defensive players over the next two seasons.

The main knock on Lowery is durability. He’s missed time every season since his rookie year, none more than last year when a blindside hit from Golden Tate caused a concussion that forced him out for the rest of the season. That led to his release and he became a player that snuck through the cracks in the initial weeks of free agency.

But Lowery’s presence should become more of a stabilizing force beside strong safety William Moore, whose play is geared towards aggression. When Moore can be aggressive, he’s at his best. But it was hard for him to be so in 2013 with the Falcons due to the poor performance of DeCoud.

If Lowery can be the ball-hawking, assignment-sound sort of free safety that DeCoud was in 2012, then it will free up Moore to be able to make more plays.

Lowery is operating under a one-year deal with the Falcons, so he seemingly is only viewed as a stopgap. But that could turn into something greater if he has a successful season. While the Falcons are poised to develop 2014 third-round pick Dezmen Southward long-term, there’s no reason why a productive Lowery can’t be brought back for another year to compete with him. It will be similar to the team’s decision to keep Erik Coleman in 2010 after both Moore and DeCoud had earned the starting jobs.

If Lowery doesn’t perform up to task, then the Falcons can move on with Southward and/or another option. In the end, he’s a relatively low risk for the Falcons that hope can pay big dividends this season.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Defensive End

July 20th, 2014 No comments


Tyson Jackson

The Atlanta Falcons are undergoing a revamp of their defensive fronts this year, and it will begin with the defensive end position.

Under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons have employed a multiple defense, which means it is not strictly a 4-3, nor is it a 3-4 scheme. It’s a hybrid between the two and for the most part over the two years that Nolan has been in Atlanta, it could be most accurately termed a 4-3 scheme with 3-4 principles.

But things might change in 2014 as the Falcons may flip it, opting for a 3-4 scheme with 4-3 principles instead. That change is signaled by the team’s expensive additions up front this offseason, including defensive end Tyson Jackson.

Jackson spent the past five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs playing in a 3-4 scheme, and is the second-highest paid defensive lineman on the roster behind only nose tackle Paul Soliai. Given that level of investment and the fact that Jackson has little experience playing in a 4-3, it does appear that at least for the team’s base packages, the Falcons will feature a lot more three-man fronts.

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FalcFans Weekly – July 20, 2014

July 20th, 2014 No comments

Julio Jones

Once again recapping the highlights that was the past week of the Atlanta Falcons.

In case you missed anything on FalcFans.com this past week, here are all the links to catch you up:

Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 16 Matt Bryant

July 19th, 2014 No comments

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Bryant

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 16th-ranked player: kicker Matt Bryant.

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

Total Score: 61/100

Last year’s rank: 11
Player Grade: 60/100
Teams he is starter: 19 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 19 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 19 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +0
Positional Bonus: +2

Originally signed late in 2009 to replace the struggling Jason Elam, Bryant has been the epitome of consistency since joining the Falcons.

He has made 91 percent of his field goal tries in the Georgia Dome and has been outstanding in the clutch.

The only real issue concerning Bryant is age. At 39 years old, he’s reached the same age that Elam was during his final, disastrous season in Atlanta. And it’s only a matter of time before things go awry for Bryant as Father Time is undefeated.

But there’s no telling when that point will arrive. It could happen this year or it could happen three years from now.

This upcoming season marks the final year on Bryant’s current contract and it remains to be seen if he’ll continue playing beyond this year. But it’s probably a good bet that this will mark Bryant’s last season as a Falcon and the team will go with a younger option next season.

The hope is that Bryant can stave off Father Time for at least one more season and buy the Falcons a bit more time before they have to make a decision about the future of their kicking position.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 17 Joe Hawley

July 19th, 2014 No comments

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Hawley

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 17th-ranked player: center Joe Hawley.

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

Total Score: 60/100

Last year’s rank: 26
Player Grade: 53/100
Teams he is starter: 11 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 10 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

No different than teammate Peter Konz, 2014 will mark a very important season in the career of Joe Hawley.

It will be his first legitimate opportunity to hold down the Falcons’ starting center spot after spending most of the past two years looking over Konz’s shoulder.

Hawley stepped in over the final seven games of 2013 as the team’s starting center after the Falcons grew tired of Konz’s poor play. While Hawley wasn’t great, he played mostly well and was one of the few blockers that left positive feelings from his performance in 2013.

The goal will be for Hawley to pick up where he left off (although not exactly where he left off) from a year ago and continue solid to strong play in 2014.

It’s one thing to be an upgrade over one of the league’s worst centers for seven games, and it’s another to show that you can play at a relatively high level for a full slate of 16 games.

Hawley re-signed with the Falcons this past offseason on a two-year contract. And if he doesn’t play well this year, it will be harder for the Falcons to justify his return in 2015 with a cap hit of $4 million. It’s not an exorbitant figure, but it’s a lot more than a team would prefer to pay for a starting center who is not producing.

Years ago when Justin Tuck labeled the Falcons offensive line a bunch of dirt bags, it was likely Hawley that was the primary cause of that reputation.

With a penchant for playing beyond the whistle, Hawley has shown that he’s an able run blocker, but needs to solidify his pass protection.

Hawley turns 26 in October, and potentially could have a long career ahead of him if he can elevate his play to that next level.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 18 Paul Worrilow

July 19th, 2014 No comments

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Worrilow

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 18th-ranked player: linebacker Paul Worrilow.

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

Total Score: 60/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 56/100
Teams he is starter: 18 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 31 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

Worrilow certainly qualifies as the player that made the biggest leap in this year’s rankings considering his humble origins as an undrafted free agent last year. Expected to be a camp body last summer, Worrilow is now going to be counted upon to be a key difference-maker in the Falcons defense.

That has been largely brought on by the recent season-ending injury to fellow linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. But even before Weatherspoon went down, Worrilow was expected to be a big part of the team’s defensive resurgence in 2014.

Worrilow impressed last summer and coupled with the shoddy play of Akeem Dent, made a swift and prompt move into the starting lineup at middle linebacker.

One of the reasons why Worrilow was so impressive as a rookie was his natural feel for the game and instincts. He certainly showed a better knack for diagnosing plays and being in proper position than Dent, who had more than two years worth of NFL experience on him.

But there were still several times last season where Worrilow looked and played like a rookie. Yet, the Falcons remain optimistic that many of those issues can be ironed out.

Not blessed with great size and strength, Worrilow has bulked up this offseason to improve his tackling.

Another area where he’ll need to improve is in coverage. Last season, he wasn’t asked to play a ton of man coverage and there will be more opportunities this year. And it’s a question of whether Worrilow or opposing teams will take advantage of those increased opportunities.

Worrilow has the potential to grow into one of the better inside linebackers in the league, and should be helped by the beef the Falcons have provided in front of him that should better shield him from blockers and take advantage of those instincts to make plays.

As a second-year player, Worrilow is going to be asked to be the stabilizing force for the middle of the Falcons defense. He’s certainly capable of being that player, but it’s now going to have to be displayed on the field. Had Weatherspoon been aligned beside him, it would have made Worrilow’s job easier. But in the face of adversity, some plays will rise while others will fall. In the case of Worrilow, he now has to be the former.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 19 Steven Jackson

July 19th, 2014 No comments

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Steven Jackson

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 19th-ranked player: running back Steven Jackson.

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

Total Score: 59/100

Last year’s rank: 13
Player Grade: 59/100
Teams he is starter: 12 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 9 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +0
Positional Bonus: +3

Jackson has spent the bulk of his career as one of the league’s most consistent running backs. That consistency coupled with his durability were two of the main reasons why the Falcons were attracted by Jackson last offseason as their most notable free-agent signing.

But durability became a problem in 2013 as Jackson suffered a hamstring injury against his former team, the St. Louis Rams, in Week 2. He missed the next four games and then spent a few more games shaking off the rust before the Falcons started to see the player they had paid for.

However, Jackson still did not quite live up to the billing.

Coupled with a prolific passing attack, the Falcons intended to have Jackson finish games for them with his hard-running style and toughness to salt away leads. However, due to the injuries suffered at the wide receiver position, those plans were nixed early in the year. In the second half of 2013, Jackson wound up being asked to be the guy that drives the metaphorical bus for the Falcons offense.

Last season, Jackson was not capable of being that sort of player and really hasn’t been since 2011.

However, it certainly did not help Jackson’s cause that the Falcons offensive line was so porous, coupled with a defense that could not get enough stops to build leads.

And while time won’t rewind for Jackson, the hope is that improvements made in both those areas will give Jackson more opportunities to shine in 2014.

Jackson’s durability will also be very important for the team this year. He’s currently the only running back on the roster that has shown he’s capable of getting the tough, interior yards that are necessary in the NFL. So while there is certainly a decline in Jackson’s play in recent years, his value to the Falcons may have only increased.

Jackson will need to showcase that value this year due to the probability that it may be his last season in Atlanta. While signed through 2015, it’s going to be increasingly harder for the Falcons to justify keeping Jackson, who will be 32 next year and costing the team nearly $5 million in cap space.

And the only way that could be justified is if Jackson eclipses 1,000 yards and is every bit the player the team envisioned when they signed him. But even then, that may not be enough.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Interior Offensive Line

July 19th, 2014 No comments

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Hawley

The Atlanta Falcons finally stabilized the interior of the offensive line this offseason by signing Kansas City guard Jon Asamoah to handle right guard duties. Since the team allowed Harvey Dahl to depart via free agency three seasons ago, there has been a revolving door of one poor player after another stuck at that position.

The addition of Asamoah gives the team an accomplished player that will do well to bolster their pass protection, something that should greatly benefit quarterback Matt Ryan. If there are any issues surrounding Asamoah, it’s the run blocking that is a relatively minor concern.

Asamoah made his bones in Kansas City as a productive starter mainly with his athleticism and ability to block on the move in their zone-blocking scheme. That has not been the style of blocking the Falcons have preferred over the course of the Mike Smith Era, thus raising the question of how much, if any, adapting the Falcons will do for Asamoah.

Opposite Asamoah at left guard, Justin Blalock returns and was the team’s best blocker a year ago. But given the Falcons had one of the league’s worst lines, that might not be saying a lot.

But 2013 was one of Blalock’s better seasons as a Falcon and if he can carry that momentum in 2014, it should give the Falcons the best pair of starting guards that they’ve had in more than a decade. While Blalock has never blossomed into one of the league’s premier guards, he has become relatively consistent with above average to good play each year as he enters his eighth season in the league.

Contrasting with Blalock, there is a lot more uncertainty surrounding Joe Hawley at center. While Hawley played mostly well down the stretch as a replacement for Peter Konz at center, that does not automatically mean that given the opportunity to start every game this year will automatically translate to equal or greater success.

This summer will be an important one for Hawley, as he is getting his first legitimate chance to be the team’s long-term option at center. Initially drafted as the heir apparent to Todd McClure in 2010, Hawley was leap-frogged when the team drafted Konz in 2012.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 20 Robert Alford

July 18th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Alford

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 20th-ranked player: cornerback Robert Alford.

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

Total Score: 56/100

Last year’s rank: 24
Player Grade: 50/100
Teams he is starter: 15 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 1 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +3
Positional Bonus: +4

After watching both Alford and fellow cornerback Desmond Trufant in college, I felt that Alford had the greater upside as an NFL corner due to superior physical tools. With what appeared on tape to be better speed, length and ball skills, Alford has the makings of a top NFL corner.

However, one of the drawbacks to being a corner with unique athletic gifts is that such a player has a tendency to rely solely on those gifts. Prime examples of recent Falcons that were in a similar boat were DeAngelo Hall and Dunta Robinson. Both Hall and Robinson were two of the premier corners in the league their first few seasons in the league but as time passes, such players begin to lose that athleticism. And without the technical foundation to rely upon, they quickly can become liabilities.

Obviosuly, for a second-year player like Alford that sort of issue is a long way off. But is still relatable to what he can do in 2014.

As a rookie, Alford had his brighter moments where his natural gifts were an asset in coverage. But there were also times where Alford looked a bit lost, and that lack of technical foundation showed. His key for success in 2014 will be improving that technique by playing with better balance, footwork and awareness.

If he can improve in those areas, that inconsistency can begin to be eliminated. And while I’m optimistic Alford will make significant progress this season, it’s likely to come with him taking a few lumps as well.

Another area where improvement must be made is in run support. That weakness was not exposed to any great deal in 2013 due to the fact that the majority of his reps came in the nickel (i.e. obvious passing situations). But as the Falcons’ presumed starting cornerback opposite Trufant, it’s likely he’ll see more than twice as many snaps where he’ll have to play the run in 2014.

Alford has a fairly bright future ahead of him, but the big question remains whether or not he will hit the ground running this season. It’s been a long time since the Falcons were able to say that they got good play out of both starting cornerbacks in the same season. Usually if one excels, the other does not. That’s a trend that dates back to the heyday of Ashley Ambrose and Ray Buchanan in 2001.

Getting good play from Alford as well as Trufant could really be a huge boost for the Falcons this season. Given the probability that the team won’t be able to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback, the defense may be largely reliant on turnovers to get stops. And if you have a pair of ball-hawking corners as opposed to one, it makes generating such turnovers a lot easier.

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