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Draft Needs: Have Falcons Really Improved Depth at Wide Receiver?

April 29th, 2014 Comments off

The Atlanta Falcons signed wide receiver Devin Hester earlier this offseason, in a move that should bolster not only their special teams, but also their depth at wide receiver. But has that signing really made a substantial improvement to their depth at the latter position?

The Falcons depth at the position essentially boils down to whether or not they can rely on any of their current backups to step up if or when one of their starters goes down with an injury. Last year, the team’s top wideout Julio Jones missed the final 11 games due to a foot injury, which he is still recovering from. Last season long-time stalwart Roddy White, nursing ankle and hamstring injuries, did not look himself until a breakout performance against the Buffalo Bills in Week 13.

Harry Douglas filled in during both players’ absences. Douglas produced at a high level leading the team with 85 catches and 1,067 yards, but in the six games in which he was functionally their lead receiver, the team scored an average of 17.5 points. In the other 10 games played last season where either Jones or White were healthy and on the field, they averaged 24.8 points, a touchdown more. That may not seem like much, but a single touchdown per game essentially separates what would be considered a top 10 offense in the NFL from one at the very bottom.

In Chicago for the five years prior to 2013, the Bears tried to take advantage of Hester’s dynamic explosiveness as a returner on offense at wide receiver. It did not work effectively as Hester had a single 100-yard game over that span. In 2013, Hester opted to focus on special teams rather than continuing to strive to be an effective offensive weapon. Was a coincidence then that thanks to the emergence of second-year wideout Alshon Jeffery in Hester’s absence, the Bears offense scored more points this season than any other Bears offense ever? Probably not.

If Douglas and Hester’s past careers show us anything, it tells us that in the event of injuries that sideline both Jones and White, the Falcons offense will take a significant dip. That means that there is still room for improvement in terms of depth at wide receiver.

The 2014 draft class is considered one of the deepest ever at the wide receiver position. That certainly allows things to fall into place if the Falcons plan to address their depth at the position.

Targeting a player that can line up outside the numbers and help stretch the defense would bring something new to the roster. The Falcons already have plenty of guys that can line up inside in the slot. Douglas, Hester and Johnson are at their best playing inside, given their lack of size and struggles to beat press coverage outside. And White and Jones certainly have also made their share of plays when they’ve been asked to play in the slot over the years.

Another slot receiver would simply be overkill. The Falcons sorely missed a playmaker that could line up outside, beat press coverage and stretch the defense last year when Jones was out. White is slowing down and still occasionally provides those vertical plays, but is much more of a pure possession wideout at this point in his career.

In the event of another Jones injury, something that has occurred all three years he has been in the league, the Falcons should have someone on the roster that can do some of the things he can do. Few can do all of the things that he does, that’s what makes him Julio Jones. But a player that can at least mimic his role in the offense, which is a player that forces defenses to have to respect the deep ball can open up things for the other receivers that do the underneath stuff.

But any rookie added may not be able to make major contributions right away. Rookie receivers are notorious for a slow transition into the next level, having to refine their route-running and ability to read coverages, critical to success in the NFL.

But the earlier said player is added to the roster, the sooner he can eventually contribute. And even if he’s not able to make huge strides in 2014, he certainly can start to impact in 2015. White is no spring chicken, and even with a contract extension, he’ll be turning 33 in November. There may only be a few more years where he can be expected to contribute as a starter. If the Falcons can begin developing his heir apparent, by the time White might opt to hang it up a few years down the road, that player will have an easy and smooth transition into the starting lineup.

One thing is for certain, between Douglas, Hester, Johnson, and Davis that eventual replacement is not currently on the roster. It would be prudent of the Falcons to add him via this year’s draft.

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Draft Needs: Is Levine Toilolo Ready to Start?

April 28th, 2014 Comments off

The Atlanta Falcons are certain to add a tight end in next month’s 2014 NFL Draft. It’s not a question of if, but rather when.

That is purely based off the fact that Toilolo is the most experienced tight end on the roster, and he’s only been in the league one season. Mickey Shuler entered the league in 2010 and played six games with the Miami Dolphins that year, but hasn’t played a snap since. Toilolo played in every game as a rookie in 2013. Between the two of them, they have a combined 13 catches in the NFL.

They are tasked with replacing the greatest tight end in NFL history by the name of Tony Gonzalez. Impossible shoes to fill, but the Falcons will be certain to provide a little extra help in the draft.

In fact, the void for Gonzalez is so large, that the Falcons could presumably draft two tight ends and wouldn’t even come close to filling it.

Toilolo was a forgotten man for large chunks of 2013. Even when the Falcons went with a young movement in the final month of 2013 at several other positions, Toilolo’s playing time stayed about the same. The team knew that Gonzalez was set to retire, and trying to mix in Toilolo to get more reps to see if he could be an adequate replacement made a ton of sense at the time. Yet they chose not to do so.

That raises questions about how much confidence the team has in Toilolo. Last year, they had every reason to play him and did not. If that lack of confidence carries over into 2014, it signals that the team will make a significant addition at tight end to upgrade not only their depth, but also to add someone that can challenge Toilolo as a starter.

If that is the case, it would seem the second day is a likely point in the draft where they could address this position. Particularly if the player the team targets is supposed to contribute as a pass-catcher. The premium at the tight end position remains guys that can make plays in the passing game as those guys get snatched up quickly in the early rounds of any draft.

If the Falcons want someone that can be a reliable option for Matt Ryan in the passing game, they may be hard-pressed to find him after the third or fourth round.

Not only could the team be looking for someone that can help as a pass-catcher, but also a player as a blocker. If the Falcons deemphasize the fullback position, as previously postulated, they will need to shore up their depth at tight end. If the Falcons are going to use more two tight-end sets, then they need to have at least three they trust can play.

So even if the Falcons were to take a tight end in the second or third round, it would not be surprising if they double-dipped at the position and took someone that can block later in the draft. It’s notable that since the team traded for Gonzalez, most of the tight ends added to the roster have been known primarily as blockers: Toilolo, Shuler, Michael Palmer, Tommy Gallarda, Adam Nissley, Andrew Szczerba.

It suggests a preference for the traditional “Y” tight end that lines up beside a tackle and is asked to block inline rather than the “H” tight end that can be flexed out as a receiver or lines up in the backfield. So even if the team adds a pass catcher early in the draft, it would not be surprising if that prospect also has extensive experience as an inline blocker.

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Draft Needs: Do the Falcons Need to Draft a Fullback?

April 28th, 2014 Comments off

When the Atlanta Falcons opted to release the oft-injured Bradie Ewing this offseason, it certainly created a void at the fullback position. That void is currently filled by Patrick DiMarco, who was serviceable in the absence of Ewing last season. But is DiMarco capable of filling that void in 2014 and beyond?

The Falcons certainly will add fullbacks to bolster competition in camp, but the question remains whether they will draft one.

I’ve outlined in the past why drafting fullbacks has garnered little value for NFL teams over the years. My research shows that drafting a fullback adds marginal value over signing one as an undrafted free agent.

Could the team afford to wait until after the draft before addressing the position? The research says it would be prudent. But it’s understandable that given so many picks the team would be hard-pressed to not address a vacancy at fullback with one of them.

But whether or not the Falcons feel compelled to add that player could depend on whether they address another position early in the draft: tight end.

The team certainly has a need at tight end, and if they are successful in using a high pick on the position, that player is going to be expected to play quite a bit as a rookie. Thus it would appear the Falcons could transition to using more two tight end sets with a rookie and Levine Toilolo. That transition would deemphasize the fullback’s role in the offense, and thus make it a little less necessary to draft one later.

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Draft Needs: Can the Falcons Add Steven Jackson’s Successor?

April 28th, 2014 Comments off

The retirement of running back Jason Snelling certainly will affect the Atlanta Falcons depth at running back. Coupled with the strong possibility that Steven Jackson is playing his last season with the team, there appears to be a compelling need at the position headed into next month’s draft.

Jackson has one more year left on his contract beyond this season, but carries nearly a $5 million cap hit in 2015. He’ll be 32 entering that season, and only three running backs have rushed for 1,000 yards at that age over the past 15 seasons. And it’s far from a given that Jackson will have that sort of production in 2014 to even merit that expectation next year. While playing roughly 11.25 games in 2013, Jackson had 543 yards, which extrapolates to 772 yards over 16 games.

Given that, it would seem very doubtful that Jackson is going to be a Falcon beyond this season even if he has the desire to continuing playing. It makes no sense to pay a guy $5 million if he’s not capable of breaking 1,000 yards rushing.

Jacquizz Rodgers is Jackson’s primary backup, but has done little in his three seasons with the team to suggest that he is ready to take over the full-time duties. Rodgers is entering his contract year with his future also in some doubt. Helping Rodgers retain long-term value however is that he is one of the better third-down backs in the league. That’s a role and skill set that isn’t likely to diminish for many years given Rodgers is only 24 years old.

But it’s certainly possible that Rodgers could be a free agent next year, and another team could value his third-down abilities far more than the Falcons and sign him. Therefore, he too could be playing in his final season with the team.

Fellow backups Antone Smith and Josh Vaughan are also set to be free agents after this season. This means that beyond 2014, the Falcons running back position is completely unknown. So it makes perfect sense to draft a running back to add some stability for the future.

The first priority is replacing Jackson. While there is no guarantee that the Falcons re-sign Rodgers, there is certainly a much higher chance of that happening than Jackson discovering the fountain of youth in 2014. There is every reason to believe that any rookie drafted can be expected to form a one-two punch with Rodgers beyond this year.

It does appear that the running back prospects the Falcons have shown the most interest in this offseason are in that mold of lead back. Prospects like Terrance West, Carlos Hyde, Jeremy Hill and Storm Johnson all are bigger, powerful runners in the mold of Jackson and his predecessor Michael Turner.

Any rookie added is probably only going to be used sparingly in 2014, just as Snelling was a year ago. Snelling played 233 snaps last year (according to premium website Pro Football Focus), 61 percent of which came between Weeks 2 and 8 when Jackson was injured. Basically in games where both Jackson and Rodgers were healthy, Snelling averaged about 6.6 offensive snaps per game. Essentially, any rookie added will be asked to redshirt this year, learn the offense if things go according to plan.

But in the NFL, things rarely go according to plan. And injuries happen, and any draft pick would also give the team insurance in the event of their occurrence since he’d offer greater potential than either Smith or Vaughan could.

So while the Falcons don’t have to draft a running back, it makes little sense not to.

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…

Draft Needs: Do Falcons Need Another Backup Quarterback?

April 27th, 2014 Comments off

While it’s clear the Falcons are set at the starting quarterback with Matt Ryan, there is an adage in the NFL that you’re only as good as your backup at that position.

Earlier this offseason, I discussed the team’s need at quarterback, mentioning the possibility that there is significant room for improvement in terms of their backup situation at the position.

Dominique Davis has talent worth developing but is he ready to become a starter in the unfortunate event that Ryan misses significant time?

It would be ironic that given the improvements the Falcons could make to their offensive line with the signing of guard Jon Asamoah potentially coupled with the use of a high pick on an offensive tackle, that Ryan could get injured this year. But that’s often how the cookie crumbles in the NFL as things rarely go according to plan.

Davis has struggled with his mechanics and his accuracy on intermediate and deep passes, which isn’t a great recipe for success if he’s forced to play more than a couple of series. Sean Renfree, a seventh-round pick last season, has struggled to stay on the field due to injuries dating back to his days at Duke. And in his first preseason with the team looked very rusty in limited reps.

I don’t expect the Falcons to draft a quarterback this year given the investments already made in Davis and Renfree. But this summer, if neither Davis nor Renfree show significant growth, then the Falcons may have to look in a new direction come 2015.

If a talented quarterback slips into the late rounds of the draft, given the high number of picks the team may have, they might be able to afford to draft another passer. But it’s likely any such player will still be a developmental guy that will take time to develop. That certainly could pay off down the road, but there is a more immediate concern at the position on whether the current backups are ready to produce if thrust into the lineup.

One positive is that Davis and Renfree remain eligible for the practice squad, along with any rookie added. Thus the Falcons could still manage to retain all three under certain circumstances.

But it still remains a longshot that the Falcons would address this position seriously in the 2014 draft.

Categories: Draft Central Tags: , , ,

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…

Falcons Pro Day Round-Up 4/27

April 27th, 2014 Comments off

It was a busy week for the Falcons as they worked out a number of top prospects and had them visit team facilities.

We reported earlier in the week about which players were expected to visit, but that was far from a comprehensive list. Here are the known visitors and they day in which they found themselves at team facilities this past week:

Monday:

  • Dee Ford, DE, Auburn

Tuesday:

  • Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
  • Storm Johnson, RB, Central Florida
  • Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
  • Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
  • Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State

Wednesday:

  • Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
  • Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU
  • Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State
  • Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
  • Terrance West, RB, Towson

Thursday:

Friday:

  • Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina (on campus in Columbia, SC)
  • Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina (on campus in Columbia, SC)

Saturday:

  • Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU (Source: ESPN)

Unknown Date:

  • Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
  • Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M

We also learned of the Falcons’ interest in several other prospects this past week:

NFL.com’s Gil Brandt reports that the Falcons have met with Mississippi wide receiver Donte Moncrief. Aaron Wilson of the National Football Post reports that the Falcons have met with Kansas State safety Ty Zimmerman. Wilson also reports the team has conducted private workouts with Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith and Liberty cornerback Walt Aikens previously. Whether or not any of those players were in town this past week is unknown.

 

 

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Trading Away Future Picks Rarely Works Out

April 25th, 2014 Comments off
William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER via US PRESSWIRE

Two-time Super Bowl winner Eli Manning is the exception, not the rule to trading future first-round picks

I’d rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

It’s a statement that is often used in reference to the possession of a firearm, but I also believe should apply to the possession of draft picks, particularly the more valuable ones at the top of the draft.

I’ve written multiple times over the course of this offseason about whether or not the Atlanta Falcons should trade up for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. And in light of recent reports it does seem that possibility is beginning to gain steam as we inch closer to May 8, the first night of the 2014 NFL Draft.

It has been hinted that the Falcons may need to part ways with a first-round pick in order to secure the rights for Clowney at the top of the draft, which is something that probably won’t work out in their favor if history is the judge.

This belief on the value of draft picks is based largely on past observations of when teams move up in the draft, particularly when it comes to parting ways with future first-round selections. I’ve outlined several trades over the past decade in which teams gave up a future first-round pick. There were of course multiple picks involved in these trades, but I want to remain focused on the first round:

In 2004, the Buffalo Bills traded back into the first round in order to select quarterback J.P. Losman. They gave up their 2005 first-round pick to Dallas Cowboys, who selected defensive Marcus Spears.

  • Losman started 33 games over five seasons in Buffalo, posting a 10-23 record as a starter with 33 touchdowns and 34 interceptions.
  • Spears played eight seasons with the Cowboys, serving as a regular starter for six of them. He collected 10 sacks in that span.

In 2004, the New York Giants gave up their 2005 first-round pick to the San Diego Chargers as part of their package to trade for the rights of quarterback Eli Manning. The Chargers would take outside linebacker Shawne Merriman in 2005.

  • Manning has started 151 games over ten years with the Giants, posting an 85-66 record as a starter and a career passer rating of 81.2. He has earned three Pro Bowl berths and won two Super Bowls as a Giant.
  • Merriman began his career with three Pro Bowl seasons in which he combined for 39.5 sacks, but injuries sapped him and he was cut midway through his sixth year in San Diego. In his final five NFL seasons, he appeared in just 33 games and had five sacks.

Read more…

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Falcons To Test Clowney, Work Out Ellington

April 25th, 2014 Comments off
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Jadeveon Clowney

Multiple reports emerged yesterday afternoon that indicated the Atlanta Falcons were the team “most likely” to trade up with the Houston Texans for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Coupled with the news that the Falcons would be traveling to South Carolina today to conduct a workout with defensive end Jadeveon Clowney following his visit to team facilities on Wednesday made for easy dot-connecting that the Falcons were on the verge of pulling off another blockbuster draft-day trade.

Clowney’s agent, Bus Cook, made headlines earlier this month by declaring that the prospect would no longer be working out for prospective NFL teams due to an injury suffered by Clemson offensive lineman Brandon Thomas during such a workout. Cook indicated that Clowney may do a five-minute private workout for one team that wouldn’t risk injury. That created even more dot-connecting that the Falcons were the one team and today’s visit was the one workout that Clowney was planning.

However, other details given the initial buzz fell through the cracks. Per NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, the Falcons would also be conducting a private workout of South Carolina wide receiver Bruce Ellington. Later reports also emerged that confirmed that Cook’s earlier statements were in reference to biomechanical and aptitude tests that the Falcons were planning to conduct. Those tests would only last five minutes, which is unlikely to be worth the three-plus hour drive that it would take Falcons brass to get from Atlanta to Columbia, SC for the visit.

Read more…

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