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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 13 Sam Baker

July 20th, 2014 No comments

Fernando Medina-US PRESSWIRE

Sam Baker

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 13th-ranked player: offensive tackle Sam Baker.

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

Total Score: 67/100

Last year’s rank: 15
Player Grade: 62/100
Teams he is starter: 22 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 5 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +2
Positional Bonus: +4

2014 will mark a very important season for Sam Baker’s career. After six mostly impressive seasons with the Falcons, Baker is up against the wall.

Throughout the first four years of his career, Baker battled injuries and inconsistency. But the Falcons continued to show faith in their 2008 first-round pick.

Baker managed to have a breakthrough season at the right time, in a contract year in 2012. That landed him a $41 million contract the following offseason, but Baker rewarded the Falcons’ loyalty with another injury-plagued and poor 2013 season.

Now, Baker will have to bounce back and play at a level comparable to his 2012 level or else face the proposition of finding a new team with Falcons rookie Jake Matthews looking over his shoulder.

Baker carries a cap hit of $7.3 million in 2015, which is pretty pricey for an underachieving left tackle, especially if you have a potential upgrade already on the roster in Matthews. The Falcons would have to eat $9.2 million in dead money if they release him next year, seemingly protecting Baker for another year. However, if the Falcons opted to cut Baker as a post-June 1st release, they would only have to take on $2.8 million in dead money meaning the team could reap $4.5 million in savings.

That’s a pretty big carrot to dangle in front of the Falcons, and thus it’s paramount that Baker plays well in 2014. Frankly considering Baker’s history, his play is going to have to be outstanding to merit being kept on given those potential cap savings.

Injuries have been a big part of Baker’s inconsistency, but it has also hurt Baker that he has never been an ideal fit in the team’s blocking scheme over the years. The Falcons have primarily been a man-blocking team that relied on their individual blockers to create space and push in the run game. Baker spent the entirety of his collegiate career at Southern California playing in a zone-blocking scheme, where it was movement that was there to create space.

Baker struggled with the man-blocking system for the first four years of his career, but things started to click in 2012. It’s possible that with additions like Matthews and Asamoah the Falcons could feature a bit more zone-blocking this year, as that style could benefit them as well. If so, then Baker has an opportunity to stop being the liability in the run game that he was his first four years with the team.

But more importantly, Baker’s status will depend heavily on his ability in pass protection. As the team’s left tackle and quarterback Matt Ryan’s blindside protector, those have been his primary duties. Providing hope that Baker could be improved there is the fact that he did a solid job containing the likes of Greg Hardy in the Falcons Week 9 loss to the Carolina Panthers last season.

Basically Baker needs to have several games at that level this year to maintain his hold on a roster spot. It’s not just his future in Atlanta that is at jeopardy, but also his future in the league. An injury-prone, underachieving left tackle that has only played left tackle in the NFL is not that valuable a commodity elsewhere, except on teams that are bottom feeders.

Baker is capable of stepping up his play, but it’s just a matter of will he actually do so. If his body of work over the past six years are what we are judging by, then there isn’t much room for optimism.

Categories: Features Tags: , ,

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.

Read more…

FalcFans Podcast – Ep. 70 “Do You Remember Where You Were When Courtney Roby Signed?”

July 8th, 2014 1 comment

Allen and I are joined by The Falcoholic staff writer, Matt Chambers to discuss our favorite NFL team: the Atlanta Falcons once more. Matt’s fifth appearance on the podcast includes discussion of newly signed wide receiver Courtney Roby and the injury to Drew Davis. We also dive into Hard Knocks and training camp storylines along with some possible emerging undrafted rookies. Sean Weatherspoon, Paul Worrilow, Prince Shembo and Sam Baker are also discussed along the way.

Episode 70: Do You Remember Where You Were When Courtney Roby Signed? [Download]

Duration: 1 hour, 7 minutes

Allen covers the Falcons for Pro Football Spot. His twitter handle is: @Allen_Strk.

Matt Chambers can be found on twitter: @FalconsM5, and also writes for The Falcoholic.

If you have any questions and comments, you can hit us up on Twitter, post in the forums in the podcast thread, or drop an e-mail at: pudge@falcfans.com.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, and be sure to rate us there! For Android users, DoubleTwist is a good app to listen as well. You can also subscribe directly to our feed at the following URL: http://feeds.feedburner.com/falcfans/LXSt

Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – May 19, 2014

May 19th, 2014 Comments off
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Matthews

I really like the Jake Matthews pick.

I’m optimistic that he’s going to be one of those foundation players for the Atlanta Falcons offense for years to come. The team’s offense will be known primarily by quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and Matthews.

The Falcons are going to need Matthews to hit the ground running as far as his transition to the NFL goes. There is a leadership void in regards to their offensive line thanks to the recent departures of center Todd McClure and offensive tackle Tyson Clabo, and Matthews will be counted upon to fill some of that void in the coming years.

And whether or not he can fill that void will depend on him playing well, and doing so relatively soon.

I have a great deal of optimism that Matthews will be a Falcon for a very long time, assuming he can stay healthy, similar to McClure, who played 14 years with the team.

Like Other Quality Tackles, Matthews Could Fly Under Radar

As I said in my scouting report of Matthews, I’m not convinced he’ll be one of the premier offensive tackles in the league but I do believe he’ll settle himself to become one of the better ones.

Read more…

Takeaways from 2014 NFL Draft – May 12, 2014

May 12th, 2014 1 comment
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Falcons 2014 Top Selection: Jake Matthews

Normally I write my weekly takeaways column on Sunday afternoon or evening with the intention of it being posted first thing Monday morning around 8:00 a.m. This week, that was no the case.

That’s partly to blame for the fact that it was Mother Day’s weekend, and instead of doing all the things I normally would have done on a Sunday afternoon/evening to get this weekly column posted, I decided to spend time with my mother, who had driven four hors from Virginia to North Carolina to witness my sister-in-law’s graduation from grad school. In the interest of being a good son, my mother took precedent over this column.

Secondly, I had not watched all of the Atlanta Falcons 2014 draft picks play yet. And the column after the draft is the one devoted to my thoughts on whether I believe the Falcons’ draft was a good one or not.

Because unlike most people, I try to be informed before giving my opinions. If you want to know my take on any of the Falcons undrafted free agents, I don’t have one because I haven’t seen any of them play. Until I do, which will be in the first preseason game, my opinion on them will remain largely non-existent.

I was born in 1983, so I spent a significant portion existing in a world without the internet. That was a world where people couldn’t post their opinions, thoughts or insights with the click of a button on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or in Yahoo! News comments.

Back in those times, the only people that were given a platform to express opinions were people that had earned that right to be called experts in their give fields. There was a filter, and it was one that you had to work hard to break through.

The idea that Courtney Love could be involved in finding a missing plane in that time was laughable at best. Instead of social media, people expressed their opinions to companions and family members in their respective living rooms, kitchen dinner tables or bars.

But that age doesn’t exist anymore, and now people are free to give their opinions with no filter. Today, everything is thrown at the wall, and it’s only a matter of what sticks.

Why am I telling you this? Because one of the things I find fascinating is how everybody, including those least informed, will give their opinions on the draft. Besides watching a YouTube highlight clip and reading a bunch of online scouting reports, most people aren’t informed about most of these players with their own eyes.

It often leads to people have overly optimistic expectations about a particular draft prospect, or overly pessimistic ones. There is no longer a middle ground. And people should know that most things fall into that middle area.

I’m saying all this because I believe it will take time to see how these draft prospects develop. Patience is really the key, and while it won’t stop me from having an opinion today, I’m at least aware of the fact that what my opinion today is relatively meaningless in the big picture. That big picture will be determined by where the Falcons 2014 draft picks are three to five years from now.

What will this column will entail from this point is my best guess on where those players will be at that point. While that guess is an educated one based off informed analysis from watching these guys play a handful of collegiate games, it is still a guess nonetheless.

Read more…

Matthews to Play Right Tackle in 2014, Left Tackle Beyond

May 9th, 2014 Comments off

The Atlanta Falcons made Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews their top selection in the 2014 NFL Draft last night, making a significant splash to upgrade their offensive line. Matthews brings a certain pedigree to the unit that has been certainly missing over the years, being the son of NFL great Bruce Matthews, and hailing from a football family that includes three active members in the NFL and more to come.

But with the selection of Matthews comes the question of where he will play immediately. The Falcons took him with the sixth overall pick, and given the track record under Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith, first-round picks are expected to play and start immediately. So where will Matthews wind up? We got our answer late last night from Jay Adams of Atlanta Falcons.com:

This decision makes perfect sense. Matthews began his career at Texas A&M as a right tackle, starting his first 33 games there over the course of three years. The reason for that was largely due to the fact that across from him was Luke Joeckel, a three-time all-conference player, that ultimately was selected second overall in the 2013 NFL Draft. Once Joeckel was in the pros, Matthews made a seamless transition to the left side and started 13 games there as a senior.

A similar transition will probably be made for Matthews in Atlanta, eventually. But he’ll be penciled in right away to play right tackle over the likes of Lamar Holmes, Mike Johnson, Gabe Carimi or Ryan Schraeder.

Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Matthews

While it could be argued that Matthews could potentially represent an upgrade at left tackle over Sam Baker given the latter’s erratic play over the past six seasons, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to move Baker. Baker has played his entire career at left tackle dating back to his beginnings at USC a decade ago. When the Falcons moved him to right guard briefly in 2011, it was to disastrous results. While Baker could possibly kick over to the right tackle position, he’s a very unknown commodity there. And the Falcons don’t want to run the risk of him losing a battle to Holmes or someone else, and now have a $41 million anchor on the bench.

Frankly if for nothing else but to protect their investment, the Falcons won’t mess with Baker at left tackle in 2014. The hope will be that Baker will play at a level comparable to his performance in 2012, where he was a decent to good starter for most of the year. If that is the case and Matthews has a good rookie season at right tackle, then that would represent the best combination they could have at the tackle spots.

If Baker has a solid 2014, then he should be relatively safe for 2015. Per Over the Cap.com, Baker is set to count $7.3 million against the Falcons 2015 salary cap. If he is released, he will assume a dead money hit of $9.2 million, meaning the Falcons will take an extra $1.9 million hit on their cap if Baker is gone. If Baker is bad in 2014, then I believe the Falcons will eat that dead money and release him in order to plug Matthews in at left tackle. In that event, the Falcons would likely designate Baker a post-June 1 release, and potentially lower the amount of dead money they would have to eat in 2015. However if Baker is decent to good this season, he should be kept for 2015 with Matthews projected to take over in 2016.

2016 is really the first year in which the Falcons can cut Baker and not take a major cap penalty, as his release that offseason before June 2 could net them about $1.65 million in cap savings. So essentially Baker is playing for his job beyond this year.

That should give Matthews at least a year or two to acclimate himself to the NFL as a right tackle. Such a transition from right to left tackle is relatively common in the NFL. It’s expected that Joeckel will make that transition this year in Jacksonville. The Falcons did it in the past with Bob Whitfield manning the right tackle position for three seasons before taking over for long-time Falcon great Mike Kenn at left tackle. Jammal Brown, Michael Roos, Jordan Gross and Joe Staley are all recent examples of players that began at right tackle and made the eventual switch to the left side. If Matthews follows a similar career path as some of those players, the Falcons will extremely happy with this pick.

Categories: Features Tags: , ,

Draft Needs: Do Falcons Really Need Upgrade at Tackle?

April 29th, 2014 1 comment

Offensive tackle was a position that plagued the Atlanta Falcons throughout the 2013 season, and has been one long designated as an area that could use improvement.

So the answer to the question of whether the team needs an upgrade at the position in yes. But a better question may be, does the team need to use a high pick in order to make that upgrade? Particularly when looking at the right tackle spot where Lamar Holmes is expected to line up.

Holmes struggled throughout most of 2013, but there were points during the season where he was decent when he was filling in for an injured Sam Baker at left tackle. There was a seven-game stretch between Weeks 4 and 11, where Holmes only allowed one sack and four pressures according to Moneyball reviews. That sort of production over the course of an entire 16-game season would indicate that Holmes is more than capable of holding down a starting job permanently.

The premium at the offensive tackle position comes on the left side, with NFL teams investing considerably more in their left tackles than they do in their right ones. Looking at the grades on premium website Pro Football Focus, I looked at all the tackles that played at least 500 snaps in 2013 and broke them down based on what round they were drafted in. I then also looked at those who finished the season with a positive grade according to PFF’s metrics as they appear in the following tables under the “Good” category. Here’s how left tackles and right tackles broke down separately:

Left Tackles by Round

Round
Total
Pct.
Good
Pct.
1st1544%1362%
2nd618%314%
3rd39%00%
4th39%15%
5th00%00%
6th00%00%
7th26%15%
Undrafted515%314%

Right Tackles by Round

Round
Total
Pct.
Good
Pct.
1st824%633%
2nd618%422%
3rd26%16%
4th26%211%
5th412%16%
6th00%00%
7th26%16%
Undrafted927%317%

The numbers clearly delineate how much more NFL teams invest in left tackles than right tackles, with nearly half the regulars at left tackle in 2013 being former first-round picks. They also show how that teams that invest high picks (first and second-rounders) in either position tends to pay dividends with better production. In both cases, more than 70 percent of the regular tackles on both sides that were first or second-round picks wound up receiving positive grades from Pro Football Focus. It became much more hit and miss thereafter.

It suggests that if the Falcons want to upgrade either tackle position, they would be smart to invest a first or second-round pick in them.

But the better question may not be whether the Falcons should invest a high pick in a right tackle to upgrade Holmes, but rather whether they should be looking to improve the left tackle position. Sam Baker has been anything but reliable over the past six years, missing a combined 26 games due to injury. That trend cannot continue, and a first-round pick at tackle could go a long way to address that problem.

But the Falcons invested a significant contract in Baker last offseason and are seemingly stuck with him for at least another season. If he doesn’t rebound this year, then the team may be forced to part ways with him next offseason. So the best strategy for the Falcons may be using a high pick on a player that can be plugged in immediately at right tackle, but eventually move to the left side. That could give Holmes more time to develop and hone his skills. And also give the team a very good insurance policy in case Baker does not bounce back and have a good year in 2014.

The Falcons cannot cut Baker without eating a significant amount of dead money until 2016. But if a rookie tackle shows promise his first year, the team might decide to take that penalty and move on in 2015. The chances of that happen increase exponentially if the Falcons take a tackle in the first two rounds of this year’s draft.

Categories: Draft Central Tags: , , , ,

Takeaways from Last Week – April 28, 2014

April 28th, 2014 Comments off
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Ed Werder kicked off a firestorm this past week

The buzz this past week centered around whether the Atlanta Falcons would trade up for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

This isn’t anything new if you’ve been around the Falcons for the past few months. Clowney has been on the tip of every Falcon fan’s tongue since November when it was clear the team would finish the year with a poor and subsequently a high first-round draft pick. Would it be high enough for the team to get Clowney? That question fractured the fan base into two groups: the tankers and the anti-tankers. The former group wanted the Falcons to lose as many games as possible to secure the highest possible draft pick, while the latter group wanted to see their beloved Falcons scrap it out and finish the 2013 season as strongly as possible.

Two guesses as to which group I fell into.

But now the media is a few months late to the party. I first began writing about trading up for Clowney during February’s Combine. But soon afterward, things went by the wayside and the Falcons went back to where they’ve been for most of the franchise’s existence: obscurity and irrelevance.

But now that rumors that the Houston Texans are keen on moving back from their No. 1 overall selection, the Falcons are now thrust back into the limelight. Given the team’s recent history for bold draft-day moves, their open admiration of Clowney, it makes perfect sense to link them as the likeliest trade partner for the Texans.

And now we find the fan base once again fractured into two groups: those that want the Falcons to do whatever is necessary to get a talent like Clowney, and those wishing the avoid Clowney like the plague. We’ll call them traders and anti-traders.

However, that’s probably an over-generalization. Instead, the majority of Falcons fans would probably be very interested in acquiring Clowney, but are cautious about the amount of compensation a trade with the Texans or any other team at the top of the draft the Falcons would require.

Clowney Adds Significant Talent to Falcons Defense Read more…

FalcFans Weekly – April 27, 2014

April 27th, 2014 Comments off

Much of the news surrounding the Atlanta Falcons this week centered on rumors about whether the team would trade up for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Reports swarmed that the Falcons could swap picks with the Houston Texans, who hold the No. 1 overall selection in the 2014 draft.

On Friday, Clowney worked out for the team in what wasn’t quite a normal workout, rather a biomechanical “force plate” test. Pro Football Talk has the scoop on what exactly went down. It appears that the test used on Clowney is far from a new development with the Falcons.

Vaughn McClure of ESPN indicates that the Falcons won’t make the trade up. D. Orlando Ledbetter of the AJC is also suggesting that a trade up isn’t smart on the Falcons behalf as it may be a smokescreen.

In a related article, CBS Sports’ Will Brinson writes about the economics of trading up for the No. 1 pick.

***

The 2014 regular season schedule was also announced this week, and the Falcons are set to open up the season at home against their biggest rival, the New Orleans Saints. The war of words has already begun as Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan had some choice words for the Falcons offensive line.

When it comes to the Falcons-Saints matchup on September 7, in the immortal worlds of Bart Scott, “Can’t wait!

***

Podcast co-host Allen Strk analyzes the schedule for Pro Football Spot.

***

The Falcons offseason program began this week. Mike Smith, Matt Ryan, Sean Weatherspoon and William Moore all spoke to the media on Tuesday and Wednesday and the official site provides the video.
Read more…

FalcFans Podcast – Ep. 64 “Not To Totally Get Into the Draft”

April 24th, 2014 Comments off

Allen and I are back to give our initial thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons 2014 regular season schedule. We go through each week and give a quick breakdown of the opponent. Later, we discuss the free-agent pickups of Josh Wilson and Dwight Lowery, ageism in the NFL, the direction the Falcons are headed in the 2014 NFL Draft as well as Allen’s expectations for attending the draft spectacle in New York. At the very end of the podcast, there is some explicit NSFW language.

Episode 64: Not To Totally Get Into the Draft [Download]

Duration: 1 hour, 2 minutes

Allen covers the Falcons for Pro Football Spot. His twitter handle is: @Allen_Strk.

If you have any questions and comments, you can hit us up on Twitter, post in the forums in the podcast thread, or drop an e-mail at: pudge@falcfans.com.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, and be sure to rate us there! You can also subscribe directly to our feed at the following URL: http://feeds.feedburner.com/falcfans/LXSt