Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 21 Osi Umenyiora

July 18th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Osi Umenyiora

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 21st-ranked player: defensive end Osi Umenyiora.

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

Total Score: 54/100

Last year’s rank: 8
Player Grade: 57/100
Teams he is starter: 10 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 1 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 30 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +4

When the Falcons brought in Umenyiora as a free agent last offseason, they likely envisioned him as a younger, cheaper option than long-time Falcons pass-rushing stalwart John Abraham.

Umenyiora was after all more than three years younger than Abraham and over the course of the two-year deal he signed with the Falcons was expected to only count $8.5 million against their cap. Abraham on the other hand, was slated to count roughly $12.3 million against the team’s cap over the course of 2013 and 2014, making Umenyiora roughly a two-thirds of the cost.

Thus when Umenyiora finished 2013 with 7.5 sacks, about three-quarters of the average of Abraham (9.8 sacks) over his seven seasons in Atlanta, it seemed superficially like a successful bargain. However, diving a bit deeper below the surface revealed that Umenyiora’s production was significantly less than Abraham.

Using the metrics of Moneyball, my own review system, Umenyiora finished the season 12.5 “positive pass rushes” or PPRs, which include sacks, pressures and hits.

In contrast, Abraham earned 33 PPRs in his final season in 2012. That came off seasons of 31.5 PPRs in both 2009 and 2011, with 23 in 2010. So while the Falcons were paying two-thirds of the cost, they were more closely getting one-third of the production. And that lack of production contributed significantly to the fact that the Falcons finished dead-last in third-down defense in 2013.

The Falcons appear hopeful that Umenyiora will be better in 2014. At the tail end of last season, he was relegated to a situational pass-rusher coming onto the field in nickel situations. Unlike the rest of the Falcons defenders, who will alternate between three and four-man sets, Umenyiora’s role will strictly be a defensive end in a four-man front.

The goal being that should keep him fresher, which should equal more production. Whether it is effective remains to be seen. Umenyiora had a similar role with the New York Giants in 2012, but it did not pay dividends and prompted the team to let him walk after the season.

If the Falcons can’t get increased production from Umenyiora and others this year, it’s very likely that there will be a dramatic revamp of the pass-rush unit next season. And then Umenyiora’s brief time in Atlanta will draw more comparisons to that of Ray Edwards than Abraham.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Offensive Tackle

July 18th, 2014 No comments

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Baker

The major questions surrounding the Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle position center on their pair of starters: left tackle Sam Baker and right tackle Jake Matthews.

Those questions mainly are whether Baker can rebound after a 2013 season depleted by injuries and poor play, and whether Matthews can make an impact as a rookie. And those questions won’t get answered until the regular season, regardless how this summer turns out.

As for the first question about Baker, there isn’t a lot of room for optimism. In six years in Atlanta, Baker has managed to stay fully healthy for two seasons (2010 and 2012) and only in the latter year did he perform at a high enough level to merit distinction.

If there is reason for hope, it is that Baker’s performance against Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy in Week 9 was good, especially relative to his three appearances at the outset of 2013.

The hope is that in 2014, Baker can potentially string 16 starts together similar to his performance against Carolina. Otherwise, his future will be limited in Atlanta due to the presence of Matthews on the other side.

There’s little doubt the Falcons envision Matthews as the long-term blindside protector for quarterback Matt Ryan. The son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, Jake has the potential to be a long-term fixture. If his career is just half as successful as his father’s, then fans can expect Matthews to play a decade in Atlanta.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 22 Kroy Biermann

July 18th, 2014 No comments

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Kroy Biermann

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 22nd-ranked player: outside linebacker Kroy Biermann.

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

Total Score: 53/100

Last year’s rank: 19
Player Grade: 54/100
Teams he is starter: 15 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 26 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +4

Despite hardly playing last season, Biermann’s ranking goes largely unchanged. Mainly because while Biermann is by no means a star, he’s a very effective role player that could carve out a starting spot for roughly half the teams in the league, mostly at strong-side linebacker.

Biermann has developed over his tenure in Atlanta, being one of the few, true success stories among their late-round picks selected under general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

Biermann has grown for a situational rusher to a full-fledged starter at strong-side linebacker. While Biermann has no outstanding skill set in his repertoire, under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, he has blossomed in a versatility starter for the team.

If there is any strength to Biermann’s game, it’s likely his run defense which is surprisingly good considering he’s only 260 pounds. Biermann understands how to get leverage, using his smaller frame to get lower than opposing blockers and get stops there.

2014 potentially marks the final season of Biermann in Atlanta. Coming off a torn Achilles tendon, unless he can bounce back to his 2012 level as an asset in Nolan’s defense, he could be hard-pressed to earn a substantial contract from Atlanta in 2015, especially if a young linebacker like Tyler Starr shows growth in his rookie season.

But it could be hard to get rid of Biermann next year, even at age 30. Even if it’s not as a starting outside linebacker for the Falcons, again Biermann adds value as a rotational run-defender and situational pass-rusher. His versatility means that he can play both linebacker and defensive end for the team.

And while he’s never looked like an impact pass-rusher outside maybe the first few weeks of the 2009 season, he does show relatively consistent ability as a complementary rusher. Ideally, Biermann would be the third or fourth guy in a team’s rotation. However in Atlanta, for much of his career he has been counted upon to be the second option.

If other young pass-rushers show enough growth this season, it may lead to the ironic conclusion that when Biermann is finally poised to settle into the role he should have always been in, he will no longer be on the team.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 23 Tyson Jackson

July 18th, 2014 No comments
John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Tyson Jackson

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 23rd-ranked player: defensive end Tyson Jackson.

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

Total Score: 52/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 58/100
Teams he is starter: 13 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 1 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 22 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +2
Positional Bonus: +3

Jackson was one of the Falcons big, splash signings at the outset of free agency this year. He was brought in likely because he is an experienced 3-4 defensive end that he can beef up the Falcons run defense.

Jackson had a slow start to his career, and it would not be unfair to call him one of the bigger draft busts in recent memory. The Kansas City Chiefs envisioned their own version of Richard Seymour when they selected him third overall in the 2009 NFL Draft.

Jackson never lived up to that billing, struggling during his first two seasons when he got on the field. But things started to click by 2011 and he started to carry his own weight.

Now Jackson comes to Atlanta, where he’s presumably expected to be a bridge until players like Malliciah Goodman and Ra’Shede Hageman are ready to take on his role. The five-year contract he signed with the Falcons make it so that it’s unlikely he’ll make it to the third season when his cap hit bloats to $6.35 million.

In the meantime, the Falcons will likely expect Jackson to add value by his ability to shield linebackers from blockers and clog running lanes. His pass-rush ability is limited due to a lack of quickness and limited array of moves.

Ideally, and this was the case in Kansas City, he’ll be pulled off the field in nickel situations. Unfortunately, unless defensive tackle Corey Peters is healthy for most of the year, the Falcons may give Jackson a significant portion of pass-rush snaps because there may not be better options right now. Jackson would likely play inside in a four-man front next to Jonathan Babineaux in those situations, where perhaps what limited quickness he does possess might be functional against slow-footed guards.

But essentially Jackson is nothing more than a highly-paid role player, that is a good enough run stopper that he adds some value in a 3-4 scheme, but not enough where he is going to be as an essential piece of a good defense.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 24 Harry Douglas

July 17th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Harry Douglas

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 24th-ranked player: wide receiver Harry Douglas.

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

Total Score: 52/100

Last year’s rank: 31
Player Grade: 54/100
Teams he is starter: 10 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 1 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 30 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +3

Douglas is coming off a career-best season where he led the team in receptions and receiving yards, thanks largely due to the injuries to Julio Jones and Roddy White that kept both out of the lineup for two-thirds of the season.

With tight end Tony Gonzalez drawing double teams last year, Douglas was free to be Matt Ryan’s preferred target for the middle part of the season when both Jones and White were out.

It showed that Douglas’ lack of production over the years had a lot to do with the presences of better players around him like the aforementioned trio.

But Douglas’ extensive action as the team’s de facto No. 1 receiver also showed some of limitations that has plagued Douglas throughout his career. Outside his strong Week 7 performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, very little of Douglas’ production had a positive impact on the team’s ability to win games. Having just two receiving touchdowns were just one indicator of that.

Also, his 100-yard efforts against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8 and Buccaneers in Week 11 were largely thinks to production he had in garbage time when the game was out of hand.

Once White was healthy in the final month of the season, Douglas was once again relegated to being an afterthought in the offense.

However in 2014, Douglas will have to carry a heavier burden since he will be primarily tasked with filling the void left by Gonzalez’s retirement. The Falcons are expected to play a lot more three-wide receiver sets this year to try and compensate for that lost production in the passing game, with Douglas likely seeing as much as action as Jones and White will.

Douglas will have to show that he can be a more reliable and consistent playmaker, particular when the outcome of the game has yet to be decided.

A lot will be on offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to find ways of making Douglas more effective.

Douglas is not as effective when asked to win against man coverage, and should benefit from the presences of White and Jones to draw coverage and open up some throwing windows. Crossing routes and other shorter routes designed to maximize Douglas’ ability after the catch should be in regular usage by Koetter.

It’s going to be an important year for Douglas. His contract runs through the end of 2015, but his cap hit next year of roughly $4.4 million might become a bit prohibitive if his production is subpar this year.

Basically every impact play Douglas makes this year will decrease the chances that the Falcons seek to exploit the $3.5 million cap savings they could reap by cutting him next offseason.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 25 Jonathan Massaquoi

July 17th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Massaquoi

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 25th-ranked player: defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi.

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

Total Score: 52/100

Last year’s rank: 33
Player Grade: 52/100
Teams he is starter: 8 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 1 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 27 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +3
Positional Bonus: +4

There is a lot on Massaquoi’s shoulders this season, as in the eyes of many he’s expected to be the team’s top pass-rusher. A fairly tall order for a player with just four career sacks.

But due to the disappointment of Osi Umenyiora last season, many had hope that the Falcons would seriously address their pass rush this past offseason. But the team basically stood pat, suggesting there is a great deal of confidence in players like Massaquoi stepping up.

The hope is for that confidence to not be as misplaced as the team’s confidence was in some of its young offensive linemen last season.

But there is some cause for hope with Massaquoi. While not showing gawdy numbers last year as a pass-rusher, there were many instances where Massaquoi was a step or so away from making a play. And if he can be sped up in any way, he should be able to make up that ground and start turning those “almost” sacks, hits and pressures into actual ones.

That’s where the coaching of new defensive line coach Bryan Cox is expected to impact. If Cox can improve Massaquoi’s skills so that his hands are a bit quicker, that should allow him to disengage from blockers a beat or two faster, which can be all the difference in a game-changing play.

Massaquoi is expected to start over Umenyiora this year in the team’s base packages, relegating the latter to sub-packages. It should help both players as Massaquoi is the better run defender.

Last season, Massaquoi was a bit miscast on the strong side as a replacement for an injured Kroy Biermann. Massaquoi just doesn’t possess those sorts of abilities to be a combo end and linebacker. He’s more a true end, that should benefit from replacing Umenyiora on the weak side in the base package as he did down the stretch last year.

Massaquoi will be asked to play standing up this year certainly, but ideally it will be primarily to rush the quarterback rather than dropping into coverage, another area where he has routinely struggled over the past two years.

It’s a big year for Massaquoi and will determine his future in Atlanta. He could not show the growth expected and might be relegated to situational duties for the remainder of his time here. Or he could blossom under Cox’s tutelage and essentially become the first capable edge-rusher that the team has developed in the Mike Smith Era.

It really could go either way.

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Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Tight End

July 17th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY

Levine Toilolo

For five seasons the Atlanta Falcons’ tight end position was one of the league’s best due to the presence of Tony Gonzalez, but now entering 2014 could have possibly morphed into one of the league’s weakest units.

There are unanswered questions heading into training camp at this position, centering mostly on whether Levine Toilolo is ready to take over for Gonzalez.

Toilolo was drafted in the fourth round of last year’s draft and tabbed as the heir apparent to Gonzalez. However, despite the team’s youth movement at most other positions in the second half of 2013, the Falcons never saw fit to really get Toilolo on the field. It raises questions about the level of confidence the team should have in the young tight end.

No one expects Toilolo to come close to filling Gonzalez’s shoes, but that doesn’t mean that expectations are low. Toilolo is currently penciled atop the Falcons depth chart at tight end, and thus should still at least act accordingly.

Toilolo won’t be one of the top starting tight ends in the league in 2014, but should at least look competent. And whether he can achieve that remains to be seen. The hope is that Toilolo eventually develops into a player similar to Marcedes Lewis, who Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter had in Jacksonville. Lewis has good size and is known mainly as one of the top blocking tight ends in the league, but is also an occasional playmaker and red-zone threat.

Toilolo has the tools to be that sort of player, but it might take some time before that sort of ability comes forth. It should be noted that Lewis got off to a slow start in his pro career. Toilolo will need a very strong preseason, something he lacked last summer, to allay any concerns about his immediate starting potential.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 26 Robert McClain

July 17th, 2014 No comments

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Robert McClain

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 26th-ranked player: cornerback Robert McClain.

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

Total Score: 50/100

Last year’s rank: 21
Player Grade: 49/100
Teams he is starter: 7 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 30 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +3
Positional Bonus: +4

Unlike other players that fell in this year’s rankings, it’s probably fair to say McClain’s drop from a year ago has a lot to do with his play in 2013. As one of the pleasant surprises from 2012, McClain fell back to Earth last season.

But despite this, McClain will still be counted upon to be the team’s nickel cornerback. However, now he will face stiff competition from Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas, free-agent pickups this offseason.

McClain has an edge in the competition simply because he’s a more known commodity to this coaching staff. He’s also a more effective corner when it comes to matchups against size and is probably the team’s best corner in run support. That latter ability is important for a nickel cornerback since he functionally replaces a linebacker on the field, making a team playing nickel a bit more vulnerable against the run.

Also despite a disappointing 2013, McClain also showcased his versatility particularly on special teams. After Harry Douglas was removed from punt returns and Robert Alford botched his first fielded return, McClain emerged as a breath of fresh air. He averaged 10.2 yards on 19 returns, a mark on par with the likes of Eric Weems and Tim Dwight from Falcons history.

Even if McClain loses the nickel job this summer, it’s still very likely that he’ll make the team given his versatility. Thus far in Atlanta, whatever the coaching staff has asked McClain to do: cover, tackle, play special teams, etc., he has done so with some gusto.

Those are the types of players that carve out long careers in the pros, even if they are considered nothing more than role players.

But obviously McClain hopes to be a little more year. Last year, there were dreams that he, Alford and Desmond Trufant could be solidified as the team’s long-term trio of corners. Those dreams are still alive, but they need to be reinvigorated by better play from McClain in 2014. Given that this season will also be a contract year for him suggests the odds are good that he will rebound.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 27 Joplo Bartu

July 17th, 2014 No comments

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Joplo Bartu

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 27th-ranked player: linebacker Joplo Bartu.

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

Total Score: 50/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 52/100
Teams he is starter: 12 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 21 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

Bartu essentially came from nowhere last season as an undrafted rookie who carved out a quick role in the team’s linebacker rotation, almost immediately stealing snaps in nickel situations from linebacker Stephen Nicholas.

And he wound up having a pretty solid rookie season in 2013 given his humble origins. But now, he will be asked to do a lot more given that Sean Weatherspoon is out for the season. Bartu is the main candidate currently on the roster expected to replace Weatherspoon and if he isn’t up to the task, the Falcons lack viable alternatives.

But there should be a great deal of confidence that Bartu will be ready. While Bartu lacks Weatherspoon’s natural gifts and experience, he is no slouch as the team’s second best athlete at linebacker. With capable hips and very good short-area closing speed, Bartu has what it takes to be an effective two-way linebacker versus both the run and pass. And given his history as a defensive end in college, there’s little doubt he can be an effective blitzer (3.5 sacks in 2013).

Bartu had some early growing pains last year, notably a breakdown in coverage against the Miami Dolphins that was arguably the back-breaking play for the Falcons in the final minutes. But as the season wore on, his play improved to the point that over the final few games when Weatherspoon was officially out for the season, Bartu was arguably the team’s best linebacker.

Bartu will carry a heavy burden in 2014, but it will be his opportunity to show that he has the potential to be a long-term fixture in the Falcons starting lineup.

It’s not to say that he’s expected to take his rightful place among the league’s best linebackers in 2014, but if he can build off a solid rookie year while showing improvement and eliminating some mistakes, then there’s a lot of promise that Bartu will become a familiar name to Falcons fans for years to come.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 28 Lamar Holmes

July 17th, 2014 2 comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Lamar Holmes

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 28th-ranked player: offensive tackle Lamar Holmes.

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

Total Score: 50/100

Last year’s rank: 25
Player Grade: 49/100
Teams he is starter: 9 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 27 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

Holmes was thrust into the fire in 2013 following the injury to Mike Johnson. And his play early on at right tackle showed that he was not ready for the responsibility. Through his first two starts, he allowed only one sack but also gave up five pressures and seven hurries (per Moneyball reviews). But Holmes did improve once he made the switch to left tackle following the early-season injury to Sam Baker. Over his next seven games at left tackle, he gave up no sacks, four pressures and 10 hurries.

Had Holmes been able to maintain that level of play, there would have been little issue with him retaining a starting position. But Holmes did not finish 2013 well, giving up seven sacks, four pressures and 10.5 hurries in the final six games at left tackle.

There certainly was the possibility this offseason that the Falcons would give Holmes a chance to redeem himself with another year starting at right tackle. With the addition of offensive line coach Mike Tice and an assumption that Holmes could revert to 2013 mid-season form, there was a reasonable hope that Holmes could have been more than competent as a starter this year.

With the selection of Jake Matthews in the first round this past May, any chance that Holmes would remain in the starting lineup evaporated. Holmes will instead be expected to compete for the swing tackle spot this summer and thus will get at least another year to develop before he’s asked to start again.

That time should be beneficial to Holmes, whose biggest issue last season was inconsistent technique and hand use. Holmes has the size and athleticism to be an effective starter, but needs to be more consistent with his technique and leverage.

But given the injury history of Baker, there’s also a decent chance that Holmes will log significant reps in 2014 should Baker miss time. But with Matthews on the roster, Holmes’ best chance at sticking long-term will stay at right tackle. Baker’s contract could become prohibitive down the road, prompting the Falcons to move Matthews to left tackle. Then, there will be a void at right tackle that will need to be filled.

How Holmes develops this year and performs if given the opportunity will determine if the Falcons still pencil him in to fill that void. He’s not quite there yet, but the potential is there and it just may need another year or two for it to developed. And now in light of the Falcons’ moves made this offseason, Holmes should get that much-needed time to refine his game and live up to his third-round billing.

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