Okay, I talked about the skill positions yesterday, now it’s on to my assessments and recommendations for both the offensive and defensive lines…
My Assessment: One of the benefits of all the injuries we’ve had this year was that we have been able to develop our depth and get some young guys some much needed reps. If injuries are to occur down the road, these same players should be better. But overall, this unit has too many guys that are too old or too young. And what shape this unit takes in the future will depend heavily on what blocking scheme the new coach/coordinator brings in. Petrino begun the transition to a power-oriented man scheme after several years as an “finesse” zone scheme. Right now, we’re somewhere stuck in the middle between that transition, and the next coach will determine which side we veer towards.
If Weiner can bounce back from injury, could have another year or two left in him. I give Weiner some credit, he played left tackle for like the first time in almost a decade, and handled himself. In a zone scheme, he can move back to right tackle. If power is where we are headed, then perhaps the team can tinker with moving him inside to guard. But that will be dependent on if we can find a proper right tackle to replace him. I think we might have the answer(s) already on the roster. I think Renardo Foster might have a reasonably bright future at that position, considering he was mostly an afterthought as an undrafted rookie. In his brief appearance, I was impressed with his run blocking. Tyson Clabo has filled in well for Weiner, but I think he’s better suited to play guard. I can envision Clabo and Foster being a pretty solid run blocking pair on the right side in the future. Quinn Ojinnaka has struggled at left tackle, but again like Foster he is playing out of position. He is better suited to play on the right side, but probably too would make a better inside player than outside tackle. Probably his ideal fit is as a utility reserve that can play more than one position in a pinch. Between these guys, I think we might have our potential long-term answer at right tackle and possibly right guard as well.
Left tackle is much less settled. Gandy is probably done without the injury, so you know with it it’s a tall order for him to return. Age and salary now coupled with injury makes for a very bad mix. And right now, any viable replacement is not on this roster. The Falcons will need to find this player because unless we land a southpaw at quarterback this off-season (Mark Brunell?) this position is going to take a precedent that it hasn’t seen since forever, probably since Mike Kenn joined the team.
Inside, I’m still hopeful for Blalock despite a very rocky rookie season. He has struggled mightily and has added little power in the ground game, and hasn’t fared any better as a pass protector. He wouldn’t be the first rookie to struggle in Year One and then bounce back in Years Two and Three, but he is going to need to show significant progress next season, or that dread “b word” is going to get thrown around. Hopefully, any scheme tweaking shouldn’t really affect him. At Texas, he played in a primarily zone-blocking scheme.
At right guard, Kynan Forney hasn’t been significantly better. But that’s mainly because he’s not a good fit for a power scheme. And if the Falcons decide to stay the course in terms of power blocking, it’s time to forgo Forney. He’s only got one year left on his contract, so cutting him this off-season won’t be an issue as far as the cap is concerned. And replacing him shouldn’t be a problem with Weiner, Clabo, or Ojinnaka potentially replacing him. Forney’s fate it would seem is tied directly to the new head coach.
As far as depth is concerned, D’Anthony Batiste I guess has been okay. He’s big, which is good, but I haven’t seen much in these past two weeks to tell me he’s got real potential as a building block. So far, the best I can say is maybe he makes a decent backup.
As for the rest: Pennington, Dahl, Leffew, Quarterman, and McCoy, short of them showing something significant in these final three games, I’m not going to put too much stock in them. They can all be brought to camp next summer and hope that they show something then.
At center, McClure is only valuable due to his experience. But if the team wants to continue to go with a power blocking unit, he’s expendable. Wilkerson is just a stopgap as his backup, and neither he nor Datish look like really strong options to replace him. At least Datish has one thing going for him. As a rookie, McClure got hurt early in training camp, and then came back and by the midpoint his second season was the starting center. And has held it for seven seasons since. Perhaps lightning can strike twice.
To summarize, if we go power blocking, I think we are relatively set at left guard, right guard, and right tackle. If we go back to zone blocking, I think we are relatively set at those same positions, just throw in center as well.
My Recommendation: I recommend that we focus heavily on upgrading the left tackle position. As far as I’m concerned, we don’t have anybody that can play that position on this roster at a level compliant with NFL standards. I’d also recommend not giving a free agent $50 million to fill this position, like other teams have spent on some not-so-great blockers the past two off-seasons. If you can get a guy relatively on the “cheap” (I know, when did $20 or $30 million become a bargain?) that fits whichever scheme, then target him. For a power-blocking scheme, I’m thinking about Flozell Adams or Jonas Jennings (if the 49ers release him), and for a zone scheme, Travelle Wharton. But more than likely, the team is going to need to use one of its first three picks on this position, and any veteran signed may just be a stopgap for a year or two. Jake Long (Michigan), Jeff Otah (Pittsburgh), and Chris Williams (Vanderbilt) are three players that I’m going to keep an extra eye on during the postseason workouts and all-star games. I’d also recommend the team signing a cheap free agent guard that can push for a starting position, in the same vein the did last year with Toniu Fonoti. Just to bring some competition to camp, particularly for Blalock. At center, drafting somebody won’t be a high priority, but if there is a good player available at some point in the draft, don’t pass on him. But McClure is okay for now and getting his “heir apparent” is not as immediate a need as getting a player that can play left tackle today.
My Assessment: Abraham has played very well this season. He’s worn down seemingly at the end, but through 10 games had 7 sacks, which says a lot about his ability still being there. But he needs help. Jamaal Anderson as a pass rusher has been a disappointment. He’s managed to make a few plays versus the run, which is about the only positive so far this year from him. No need to label him a bust by any means. Patrick Kerney didn’t do much his first two years in the league. But Anderson does need to step it up next year if not these final three weeks as a pass rusher. Chauncey Davis has simply outplayed him, and it seems at this point the only reason why Anderson is still the starter is because the team wants to develop him, not because he’s the better player. But the team needs to get more help from the left end position, particularly on third downs. At the very least, the team needs to be able to bring pressure on one down from both sides. In the middle, injuries have hurt us. Trey Lewis played well in his brief stint as a starter at the nose. Although I’m not ready to proclaim him yet as a great player, I do think if he is properly platooned he can be an effective starter. Which means the team needs to try and improve depth. Montavious Stanley is a guy that can be effective for 15-20 snaps a game, but beyond tha
t he isn’t very good. Tim Anderson has shown some things as a pass rusher, but he’s not about to make people forget about Rod Coleman. And speaking of Coleman, where is he at? Do we blame injuries or age for his recent demise? Or is it a combination of both. The answer was always when he’s healthy, he still is a very good player. But I’m not sure that’s the case this year, even though he never probably was ever 100%. Jonathan Babineaux began the season well, but has tailed off in recent weeks. He looks like he can be a good situational guy, but not sure if he’s ready to succeed Coleman as a starter anytime soon and be productive. This entire unit is one that has talent, but there are still too many question marks for the team to be satisfied with them. But the problem is that there are so many other areas that represent bigger question marks, this unit might have to take its place on the back burner.
In the chance we hire a coach/defensive coordinator that wants to make the conversation to the 3-4 scheme, I’d be very concerned with this position. At this point, nobody really fits that scheme. Abraham can move to linebacker and be effective, but he’s no longer a young man, so he’s not as quick as he used to be. Davis and Anderson look like they might be functional as ends in that scheme, but only if they add another 10-20 pounds to their frames. None of the tackles truly fit as nose tackles in that scheme, so they are depth at best. Basically, if the 3-4 is the way to go, then we really have nothing currently on the roster that is really worth working with. We’ll have to start from scratch.
My Recommendation: If you’re sitting at the top of round one, and one of the premier defensive linemen are sitting there, I would seriously consider taking them over a quarterback or any other position. I’m referring mostly to Chris Long (Virginia), Glenn Dorsey (LSU), or Vernon Gholston (Ohio State). Of course, I might be thinking differently by April, but these three players are potentially so good that immediately they might be the best player on this unit, including John Abraham. All three players have the potential to be the best players at their positions within a few years in the NFL. But otherwise, I would only look at the draft for depth. And I’d recommend that the we target depth in free agency. Think about adding a purely situational pass rusher to potentially offset Anderson if he doesn’t make significant progress next year. If you can get a good replacement for him (perhaps by trading for Dewayne Robertson?), I would think about cutting Coleman. But that’s a move I’d make only after we’ve secured someone better than Babineaux. We definitely need a playmaker at that position, and if there is one available in free agency that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, I’d think about making the move. And if we transition to a 3-4 scheme, then I say then we are going to have buy a brand new starting lineup, and hopefully find a decent nose tackle in the draft. Few 3-4 teams ever solve their nose tackle problems via free agency.
Next, I’ll do the back seven: linebackers and defensive backs, and also the special teams.