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Training Camp: Day 6 Report

July 31st, 2013 Comments off

The Falcons will have today off from practice. League rules enacted after the new CBA prohibit teams from practicing after six consecutive days of practice. But here is the buzz emerging from the Falcons on their sixth day of practice from various media outlets:

  • Julio takes on Deion. ‘Nuff said.
  • Rookie offensive tackle Ryan Schraeder has been generating some buzz as he’s worked against the backup defensive line. I should note that Schraeder is a player I pegged to make the Falcons final roster.
  • The Falcons got their first glimpse of the injury bug. Running backs Antone Smith and Bradie Ewing were held out of Tuesday’s practice and are expected to miss between five and ten days with unspecified injuries. Also cornerback Saeed Lee went down with a serious right leg injury and needed to be helped off the field. The nature of the injury also was unspecified and it’s likely more updates will come today or tomorrow.
  • Daniel Cox gives his five observations from Day 6. Among them he notes that tight ends Chase Coffman and Levine Toilolo have heeded the advice from veteran Tony Gonzalez and getting extra work after practice. Gonzalez is noted for his practice routine which includes catching passes before and after practice, and on the veteran’s instruction, Coffman has added that to his repertoire:

    “When Tony was here for the first couple of days he told us to make sure we are getting our catches in when he leaves and get in the extra work we need.”

  • Thomas Dimitroff gave folks on 790thezone an update (via the AJC) about the Falcons salary cap situation. He indicated that the team did not have any current plans to use their cap space to sign a veteran like defensive tackle Richard Seymour, instead opting to use that space in the event of injuries down the road.

Ranking the Falcons: No. 28 Bradie Ewing

July 14th, 2013 Comments off
Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE

Bradie Ewing

Here is the scoring system and now it’s time to look at the 28th-ranked player in fullback Bradie Ewing.

Total Score: 44

Player Grade: 49 out of 100
Teams he could start for: 11 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 5 out of 32
Teams he could find role on: 11 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +2

Ewing is a relative unknown after tearing his ACL on the first special teams play of last summer’s preseason opener. He never played a snap on offense before going down with the injury. Now, he’ll be counted back to come back in 2013 stronger than ever and be a contributor as a Falcons starter.

Fullback is a dying position in the NFL, but Ewing should still be able to carve out a fine career in Atlanta and potentially elsewhere in the league.

Ewing is not a road-grading fullback in the way that he’s going to blow up linebackers at the line of scrimmage, a common sight during the heyday of Ovie Mughelli in Atlanta. But he can still be a capable lead blocker. At Wisconsin, he was very consistent when it came to locating and hitting his assignments, which makes him more efficient than impactful per se. The Falcons won’t rely on the fullback position as much this year and presumably moving forward as they did in the past. Gone is the ground and pound staple of the offense with Mughelli and Michael Turner. While the Falcons won’t shy away from running the ball, it won’t be the bread and butter of their offense. Instead, they are building the offense around quarterback Matt Ryan and largely your value on offense is based around how effectively you can make him better.

Ewing won’t contribute there as much as others like Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Jacquizz Rodgers, and Steven Jackson obviously, but he can still contribute. A capable receiver, the big key for him is to become proficient in pass protection. That means he can get reps when the Falcons spread the field and go with four wideouts, a role that Mughelli occasionally held. If you can trust your fullback to keep your quarterback’s jersey clean and allow your other backs to get a rest, that adds increased value. That impact in the passing game was something that the Falcons missed last year with Mike Cox. While Cox was a capable blocker, his limitations in the passing game made him less valuable, and thus why the Falcons are more willing to turn the keys over to Ewing.

Another area where Ewing is expected to carve out a significant role will be on special teams. He was able there at Wisconsin. Cox also added limited value in that realm.

So while Ewing may not develop into the next Mughelli or Vonta Leach, he won’t really have to in order to make a home on this roster moving forward. If he’s only competent (and I think he has the upside to be more than that) and can contribute occasionally in the passing game as well as special teams, he’ll have a chance to move up these rankings down the road.

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Camp Battles 2013: Running Back

July 13th, 2013 Comments off
Josh D. Weiss-US PRESSWIRE

Antone Smith’s roster spot is vulnerable

The top of the Falcons depth chart at this position is fairly set in stone. Newcomer Steven Jackson will be the feature back and likely get the brunt of the workload in 2013. Behind him will be Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling. How much either player is worked in the lineup will be dependent on Jackson’s early season production as well as their own. Both players are excellent third down options, but Jackson also is adept in that role. But given that the Falcons will likely want to try and save Jackson somewhat for the stretch run in December and January, they could try and mix in both Rodgers and Snelling as reserves here and there.

Lining up next to Jackson is expected to be second-year fullback Bradie Ewing. Ewing went down with an ACL tear in the preseason opener before getting any real action on offense, so he is relatively an unknown commodity. But the Falcons had a lot of confidence in him going into last summer, and it would be a major upset if he didn’t open the season as the starter. If there is any real competition behind him, it likely rests in Patrick DiMarco, who played for the Kansas City Chiefs last season. DiMarco was productive as a late season starter, after injuries forced him into the lineup. The Falcons won’t be afraid to play DiMarco over Ewing if he proves to have the better summer, but it would likely take an extraordinarily good preseason from DiMarco and an unexpectedly lackluster one from Ewing for that to become the case. More than likely DiMarco’s best route to the roster will be showcasing value on special teams.

Traditionally the Falcons have kept five running backs on the roster, with the fifth spot serving primarily as a special teams role. That has been filled by Antone Smith the past three seasons, who has settled in nicely on special teams. His 10 special teams tackles over the past two seasons is third highest among current Falcons behind Akeem Dent (20) and Shann Schillinger (11). Helping Smith potentially retain his grip on the roster spot is the fact that he’s a known commodity. But he’s vulnerable due to the fact that he’ll be counting $662,500 against the Falcons 2013 salary cap. The Falcons could potentially save over $250,000 against their cap by going with one of the young undrafted backs: Ronnie Wingo or Donald Russell.

For both players, not only will they need to showcase potential as ballcarriers and receivers on offense, but they will need to shine on special teams. That will be their best routes to giving Smith a run for his money. If they can showcase immediate value on special teams, the savings the Falcons could garner might be enough to give either a shot on the roster. More than likely, strong preseason performances will lead to spots on the practice squad rather than the final roster for either player.

Special teams ability might give Josh Vaughan the best potential odds among the backs to make the roster over Smith. Vaughan was a productive special teams player for the Carolina Panthers in 2011. The Falcons won’t reap huge savings for opting for Vaughan over Smith (roughly $110,000), but it could be worthwhile if Vaughan shows enough upside on offense. He differentiates himself from Smith by being a more powerful, downhill runner. If he can show value in the passing game, particularly in pass protection, and have a strong preseason then he has a chance to earn a spot.

Undrafted fullback Devonte Campbell was an effective blocking tight end at Maryland last year and too will more than likely be trying to impress his way onto the eight-man practice squad, since he’s a roster longshot.

Takeaways from Last Week – June 17

June 17th, 2013 Comments off
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Osi goes through drills during OTAs

This past week, I posted a scouting report and a breakdown of why Falcons new running back Steven Jackson will be a key player for the team this season. I think this week I’ll do the same for the team’s other big free agent acquisition: defensive end Osi Umenyiora.

But in watching more tape of Osi’s 2012 season with the New York Giants, I keep coming away confused. Not because Osi isn’t a good player, since he is. But I just can’t understand why the Falcons think adding him is an upgrade over former end John Abraham.

It’s not really a knock on Osi, but I think at best he’s a lateral move. Last year, Abraham finished the year with 8 sacks, 18.5 pressures, and 6.5 hits according to Moneyball, good enough for 33 “positive pass rushes” or PPRs. That’s a really solid number. But there was a drop-off in Abe’s production as the season wore on, where he was essentially a non-entity in terms of production over the final month. In the first half of the season he recorded 22 PPRs. In the third quarter of the season, that number was 8.5. In the final 4 games, it was just 2.

So in that sense I get why the Falcons cut Abe. For whatever reason, it was clear he had lost a step by the end of the year, regardless of the injury that occurred in Week 17. I made this statement after reviewing the Falcons Week 16 win over the Lions:

My hope is that John Abraham’s slip in production is because he’s saving himself for the playoffs, not because he’s hit some sort of wall and/or has not adapted well to playing with his hand off the ground as he’s done for most of the past 10 games. But if the Falcons are going to have a deep run, they are going to need him to step up.

The Falcons probably figure that Osi will give them steadier production over the course of the entire season. For Osi, a year where he gets 25-30 PPRs is a solid season. 35 or more would be a very good season, and anything about 40 is extremely good. I wouldn’t put money on him reaching the latter benchmark, but even at my most pessimistic in regards to Osi I still think he’s definitely capable of getting 25-plus.

The reason why I call it a lateral move is because I think the Falcons potentially face the same problem they did in 2012, which is not getting enough production from the rest of the players.

Read more…

Falcons Needs: Fullback

January 31st, 2013 Comments off
Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Bradie Ewing

The Falcons made a commitment to retain this position in their offense by drafting Bradie Ewing last April in the fifth round. Ewing missed all of his rookie season with an ACL tear, suffered in the preseason opener. While fullback won’t be a pivotal position in the Falcons offense, the team would not have deemed it necessary to draft Ewing if it wasn’t going to offer some value.

The team began the 2012 season with Lousaka Polite at fullback, but he quickly proved inadequate. The team brought back Mike Cox, who lost the competition to Polite during camp, and Cox played fairly well. Cox is by no means a great fullback, but he’s a competent lead blocker. He will be a free agent, and the Falcons will have to make a decision on whether to re-sign him or just to simply hand the keys over to Ewing.

If they opt to re-sign Cox, it should not require a significant investment, as he’s likely to be amenable to another one-year, minimum-level contract. That way the Falcons have an insurance policy in place if Ewing isn’t completely recovered from his knee injury or quite ready to be an NFL starter. More than likely the team would bring both players to camp and Ewing would be the favorite to win any competition between them.

The team can also tinker with moving Jason Snelling to the spot full-time if Cox is not retained. Snelling played well early in the year, when he was filling in for an injured Polite. If Snelling was again to be buried on the depth chart as the No. 3 running back in 2013, mixing him into the lineup at fullback would be a good way to get some production from him.

Overall, the Falcons need at this position isn’t very big due to the presence of Ewing, and the fact that the team has an in-house candidate in Snelling and an easy-to-retain free agent in Cox.

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Falcons add Polite and Coffman

August 12th, 2012 Comments off

The team announced on Saturday that they had signed veteran fullback Lousaka Polite and tight end Chase Coffman. In addition to the move to place fullback Bradie Ewing on injured reserve, the team waived/injured tight end Adam Nissley and waived punter Dawson Zimmerman to make room for the players. Alongside Ewing, Nissley suffered an injury during Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens.

Polite, 30, was originally an undrafted free agent out of Pittsburgh for the Dallas Cowboys in 2004 has bounced around the league with several teams over the years. He played three seasons with the Cowboys, then had a brief stint with the Chicago Bears (2007) before landing with the Miami Dolphins the following year. Three seasons with the Dolphins, and he was cut last summer. He wound up working out for the Falcons in October following the injury to Ovie Mughelli, but ultimately the Falcons settled on signing Mike Cox. Polite finished the year with the New England Patriots, signing with them prior to the final week of the regular season. The Patriots cut him this past March. For his career, Polite has appeared in 76 games over eight seasons, with 27 starts. He has rushed 95 times for 296 yards (3.1 avg) and 1 touchdown, and caught 41 passes for 233 yards (5.7 avg) and a touchdown.

Coffman, 25, was a highly productive tight end when he came out of Missouri, helping him to become a third round pick with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2009. But he struggled transitioning from the Missouri spread system to the pro game, as well as dealt with injuries causing him to only appear in 6 games in two seasons with the Bengals. He spent most of the 2010 and 2011 seasons on that team’s practice squad. Following last year, he was picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but was cut this past Monday. His father, Paul, was a Pro Bowl tight end primarily with the Green Bay Packers from 1978-88. For his career, Coffman has 3 catches for 30 yards, which he achieved in 2010.

Coffman’s addition is interesting in the sense that most of the reserve tight ends competing for the No. 3 spot behind Tony Gonzalez and Michael Palmer are known as blockers, while Coffman is primarily known as a pass-catching tight end. Both Polite and Coffman will attempt to beat the odds of players added during the middle of training camp that can make the final roster.

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Questions Remain at Fullback

August 11th, 2012 Comments off

The injury to Bradie Ewing, while not devastating to the Falcons offense, it certainly doesn’t leave it in good shape. The Falcons made the decision to part ways with Ovie Mughelli in May, thanks in large part due to his advanced age and hefty pricetag. They wanted to get younger at the position, and their plans were embodied in Ewing, a player they envisioned growing into a top-notch lead blocker similar to how Mughelli had been the past four years.

But now Ewing is done for the year, and next year will be coming off a more severe knee injury than Mughelli was attempting this year. Mughelli is now with the Rams and they hope there he opens holes for Steven Jackson as well as he did for Michael Turner here in Atlanta.

It’s interesting to gauge how much this will affect the Falcons offense. For the first part of the 2011 season, Mughelli played on a bum knee and it was clear that he was not nearly the same as a blocker. And while Mike Cox was able to fill in competently, it was clear that he was not anywhere close to the Pro Bowl player that Ovie was a year before.

Last year, Cox had 110 total run blocking opportunities (per Pro Football Focus) and ended up with 10 key blocks, making for a percentage of 9.1%. That is essentially equal to the percentage that Mughelli had in 2010, where on 280 run blocking opportunities, he finished with 25.5 key blocks. That was an improvement from Mughelli earlier in the season, who had a key block percentage of around 6.5% (6 key blocks on 93 opportunities). The issue with Cox last year was how often he missed he blocks. He missed a total of 5.5 blocks, for a percentage of 5.0%. That was a decline from Mughelli in 2011 (3.2%), but a huge decrease from Ovie in previous years, where in 2010 his missed block percentage was at 2.1%, and 0.4% in 2009.

The other interesting stat is looking at Turner’s own production when working out of the I-formation. Here are the numbers from the past four seasons:

Read more…

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Falcons rookie Ewing out for the year

August 10th, 2012 Comments off

The Falcons announced that rookie fullback Bradie Ewing is out for the season with a knee injury. Josina Anderson of ESPN reports that Ewing suffered a torn ACL. Ewing suffered the injury during last night’s preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens. Ewing went down during the first quarter while working on special teams. His injury occurred as he was blocking for Dominique Franks on a 45-yard punt return.

Ewing was a fifth round pick by the Falcons this past April, and was expected to compete with Mike Cox for the starting fullback position, after the team decided to release Ovie Mughelli in early May. Ewing’s injury leaves only Lee Meisner as the remaining fullback on the roster behind Cox.

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Falcon Players to Watch Tonight vs. Ravens

August 9th, 2012 Comments off

Here is a list of several Falcon players that are worth paying some extra attention to if and when they get on the field tonight against the Baltimore Ravens in the team’s preseason opener. Typically in the first game of the preseason, the majority of the Falcons starters will only get a series or two of work. Then the reserves come in and remain in for the remainder of the game. The second half of the game typically will be full of players that don’t have a firm grip on the roster.

Typically fans will try and draw strong conclusions from that first series or so when both teams’ first team units are in. And while scoring a touchdown is certainly a positive development and should be a goal, people should not be too judgmental over things in an exhibition game where neither team has game-planned against the other. A typical regular season game will have a team having up to a dozen offensive possessions, and trying to extrapolate the performance of one or two series to that makes little sense when the overarching themes of tonight when it comes to the starters will be to avoid injury and not tip one’s hand. If you’re going to want to judge the first unit offense and defense, wait until the second and third preseason games for a better litmus test.

However, the first preseason game is a prime opportunity for many of the second and third unit players to shine and potentially take an early lead or make up one in some of these position battles. Roughly two-thirds of the final 53 that will make the Falcons this year is fairly set in stone, but that latter third which will be filled primarily with those that can shine on special teams is relatively wide open. Strong performances tonight can build off each other in subsequent practices and preseason games, and thus go a long way for some to make the team.

 

  • Antone Smith – While Smith has been labeled a darkhorse candidate for the kickoff returner spot, it seems that it makes the most amount of sense if he wins the job outright. That way, the Falcons won’t be forced to activate a fifth receiver on gamedays (such as James Rodgers), and won’t have to expose Jacquizz Rodgers to greater potential for injury. So it will be interesting to see if Smith or any of the other candidates on the roster can perform and make an impression as returners in tonight’s game.
  • Garrett Reynolds – With the Falcons seemingly comfortable with Sam Baker at left tackle, the only contested starting position on the entire offense is right guard. Reynolds is currently the starter and has been praised by the coaching staff and training camp observers alike this summer. While most of the offensive starters will likely only get a single series of reps tonight, traditionally the Falcons leave the starting offensive line in for a few more series. It should give them a longer look at Reynolds to see how much improvements he’s made last year. The key to watch for Reynolds will be whether he’s improved his technique, which will be determined by how low he plays. Reynolds’ height is a disadvantage inside at guard, and he’ll need to play much lower than he did throughout 2011 where he struggled in pass protection.
  • Akeem Dent – Similar to Reynolds, Dent is expected to be the lone major change in the defensive starting lineup this year. It’s unlikely he’ll get a ton of a playing time against the Ravens, but it would greatly alleviate the concerns of many Falcon fans if during that time he can make a couple of nice stops and tackles.
  • Peria Jerry – With Corey Peters out with a foot injury and no set time-table for when he could return, Jerry finds himself with a prime opportunity to excel. Essentially the door is open for Jerry to take back the starting job that he lost in 2010 when he himself was coming off a major injury. The key for Jerry that he will need to show this summer is if much of the explosiveness he lost due to that knee injury has returned now that he’s nearly three years removed from it. As well has he improved his hand use and technique that will allow him to better get leverage against the run and beat blockers will moves as a pass rusher.
  • John Parker Wilson – This summer marks the last chance for Wilson to make an impression as a passer. He’ll need to play well tonight, assuming he gets reps in the second half. The team carried two quarterbacks on the roster last season, with Wilson spending the first half of the year on the practice squad. But without a better effort this summer than he had last summer, it’s doubtful he’ll even get that opportunity. He’s entering his fourth summer in the NFL, and should be showing much better command and anticipation when running the Falcons offense than he has shown to date.
  • Bradie Ewing – Ewing has an opportunity to start this year, but needs to hit the ground running in his first preseason game. He’ll need to perform in three phases this summer to usurp Mike Cox as the starter: 1) as a lead blocker 2) as a receiver and 3) on special teams. Ewing is capable in all three areas and certainly offers more upside than Cox, but he’ll need to prove it starting with tonight’s game. Another key area to watch is pass protection. Will he handle his opportunities there with ease and hit his assignments.
  • Kerry Meier – The time is now if Meier is going to emerge as anything more than a special teams player. Meier has always displayed that he has good hands, but the key for him will be to show he can separate and get open against man coverage. He needs to have a good summer as a receiver to reassure fans that the team doesn’t have a depth problem at wide receiver. Meier’s primary role this season will be on special teams, but in the event of an injury to Jones, White, or Douglas, he’s going to be called upon to perform a big role on offense. Against the caliber of talent he’ll be facing this summer, he should be more productive offensively than he has shown thus far.

Camp Battles 2012: Running Backs

June 28th, 2012 Comments off
Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

Jacquizz Rodgers

The Falcons return all three of their tailbacks from a year ago. Jason Snelling is playing under a new three-year deal he signed this off-season. Jacquizz Rodgers is expected to take more reps as a reserve. And Michael Turner is still locked in atop the depth chart.

Turner will remain the Falcons start this year although they have made statements that he will be on a “pitch count” this year, limiting his reps to try and keep him fresh down the stretch. This has been something that the team has tried to do throughout the past three seasons to limited success. It remains to be seen how much better Dirk Koetter will be at it than previous offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.

The team is adamant they will be looking to mix more of Rodgers and Snelling in the lineup this year, who served as little more than third down backs that would get the occasional carry to spell Turner when he was tired. With the team expected to adopt a pass-heavier attack, the roles of Rodgers and Snelling should expand. Koetter will make ample use of screens in the offense, and Rodgers and Snelling’s quickness should make them the preferred options over Turner on those plays.

Rodgers and Snelling will be directly competing for who will be the top reserve behind Turner, but at the end of the day both players will be utilized extensively. But the team is likely leaning towards Rodgers, who they hope can blossom in the Koetter system, particularly on screens because of how effective he was at Oregon State. And if the team adopts more zone-blocking runs, that should also play to Rodgers’ favor.

At fullback there will be a new face, as Bradie Ewing is expected to take over for long-time lead blocker Ovie Mughelli. Ewing will get competition from Mike Cox, who replaced Mughelli last year after he went down with a knee injury. Cox was solid, but his upside is limited, which should give Ewing the edge in a camp competition. Koetter’s scheme is expected to reduce the overall workload of the blocking fullback from previous years, which means that Ewing may share reps with Snelling as well, who can fill in.

Cox will be among others competing for the fifth and final running back spot. That role will likely go to the player who provides the most on special teams. Antone Smith would be considered the incumbent. He shined as a gunner throughout the latter half of last season, and will also be expected to compete for the vacant kickoff returner spot. Offensively, Smith has shown some ability in the passing game and some explosiveness as a runner, although his primary contribution will remain on special teams.

Also in the mix will be Dimitri Nance, Robbie Frey, and fullback Lee Meisner. Nance gets the benefit of being recruited by Dirk Koetter to go to Arizona State. Nance is probably the superior runner of the group, but he’ll have to reaffirm himself capable in passing situations as well as on special teams. Frey was a solid kickoff returner in college, so that adds potential for special teams. Meisner is a converted linebacker, that will need to utilize those skills to work on coverage units in camp.

The fifth spot will likely go to Cox, Smith, or Nance simply because they do offer more ability on offense, and have experience playing special teams. Cox’s best chance is to beat Ewing for the starting fullback job, otherwise Smith is the top candidate. Frey and Meisner are more likely competing for practice squad spots, hoping that they can make enough of an impact to be carried there.