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Free Agent Focus: Geoff Schwartz

March 3rd, 2014 Comments off
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Geoff Schwartz

There’s no doubt the Falcons need an upgrade at right guard, and Kansas City Chiefs guard Geoff Schwartz might be able to provide that. He is considered the top-rated guard this offseason by Pro Football Focus, Yahoo Sports! Shutdown Corner and Rotoworld.

Schwartz has had an interesting career, serving as a journeyman with three separate teams after being a seventh-round pick out of Oregon by the Carolina Panthers in 2008. He spent his rookie season on the Panthers practice squad, unable to make the final roster behind first-round pick Jeff Otah and veteran backups Jeremy Bridges and Frank Omiyale. But the following year with Bridges and Omiyale elsewhere, Schwartz got the opportunity to backup Otah. He wound up starting the final three games of that season as an injury replacement for Otah.

In 2010, Schwartz picked up where he left off the previous season starting the first five games at right tackle as Otah missed the entire season due to injury. Then the poor play of Mackenzy Bernadeau at right guard prompted Schwartz to switch to that position thereafter. He finished the season starting the remaining 11 games at right guard and earned the second-highest grade among Panthers linemen according to Pro Football Focus behind only left tackle Jordan Gross.

However, Schwartz’s career got off track in 2011 as he missed the entire year with a hip injury. In his stead, Geoff Hangartner started at right guard while Byron Bell filled in at right tackle for a once-again injured Otah. With Schwartz hitting free agency after the season, the Panthers opted to keep Hangartner at guard, and also were willing to give Otah another shot to return healthy to compete with Bell at right tackle. Thus Schwartz walked via free agency and signed with the Minnesota Vikings. That decision did not prove fruitful for Carolina, as Hangartner struggled in 2012 and would be replaced a year later at that spot. Otah was unable to get healthy and was traded to the New York Jets in July, but failed his physical, voiding the trade. He would be cut by the Panthers shortly thereafter and has yet to get another opportunity in the NFL.

Meanwhile, Schwartz managed to split snaps with right guard Brandon Fusco for a couple of games in 2012 with the Vikings. But the Vikings opted to let Schwartz walk after the season and he signed a one-year deal with the Chiefs for the veteran minimum.

It proved to be a fortuitous turn of events for the Chiefs. While Schwartz began last year as a backup, his steady play over the course of the year won him the starting job at right guard and a chance to return to the Chiefs at a much higher salary.

Schwartz started the 2013 season-opener for the Chiefs at right guard since regular Jon Asamoah was nursing a calf injury. He got his second start in Week 4 at left guard due to a groin injury to Jeff Allen. But in Week 11, the Chiefs opted to replace Asamoah at right guard with Schwartz and the latter finished out the season there. Schwartz also got reps in Week 17 at right tackle when Eric Fisher went down with a groin injury.

Schwartz is looking for stability with a long-term deal from some team this offseason, whether that’s with the Chiefs or another. He obviously could find that in Atlanta, as well as a number of places that are looking for upgrades at their guard position.

A 6-6, 340-pound guard like Schwartz, noted for his effectiveness both as a run blocker and pass protector should be highly coveted by a number of teams. And that could lead to a bidding war for Schwartz if he manages to hit the open market, driving up his price.

While most don’t expect Schwartz to garner a deal on par with what the Tennessee Titans gave Andy Levitre last offseason (six years, $46.8 million), if multiple teams get involved in seeking Schwartz, it’s certain that he’ll make a lot more than the $665,000 he earned in 2013.

The Falcons should have the ability to spend this offseason, which means they should certainly be in the mix if money talks in regards to Schwartz.

Strengths:

  • Good size and strength to get consistent position and push as a run blocker
  • Has good feet for his size plus strength makes him effective in pass protection
  • Versatile and has started at three different positions (LG, RG, RT) in NFL

Weaknesses:

  • Lacks elite feet and athleticism which can lead to struggles against quicker interior rushers
  • Not as dominant a power blocker as size would merit
  • More of an inline blocker and not quite as effective when asked to block on the move or in space

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Takeaways from Last Week – March 3, 2014

March 3rd, 2014 1 comment
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Thomas Dimitroff addresses the media at the Combine

After hearing general manager Thomas Dimitroff on the Rich Eisen Podcast this past week, I’m thinking that the Atlanta Falcons may not be as intent on upgrading the pass rush as much as they are with other areas of their roster, including their offensive line. Most of their conversation centered on the value of the Combine and how teams assess the things they see or don’t see in Indianapolis in the final evaluations of things.

Here are some interesting excerpts with my commentary. Editor’s Note: Dimitroff’s initial excerpted comments were taken from the middle of his conversation with Eisen, while the latter one was taken from the end. But since they are related, I feel they work together in context.

Eisen: Let’s talk about your Falcons right now. For the lack of a better way to put it, what in the world happened with the Falcons last year?
Dimitroff: Oh wow. 4-12. You think about that, going from 13-3 to 4-12, what an incredible decline. We know that. Someone mentioned that it was an historical decline. I believe there were a number of things that were going on with our season and no one wants to complain about the injuries. Everyone’s dealt with injuries. Interestingly enough we were handling the injuries to a spot and then when Julio went down, we dropped into a pit that we weren’t able to pull ourselves out of. That was unfortunate, that was something that was disheartening to me because I thought our resiliency and our ability to do something like that was much stronger given the five, six, and seven-year talent that we had versus the earlier years when we had first and second-year guys. So that was tough. I’ve also said and I’ve said this publicly, I really believe that it was a mis-assessment and a misevaluation of the readiness of that offensive line to come together for Matt. Because in the end we still have stuff to do on our D-line. But if we’re not protecting the guy spinning the ball, to our point earlier, we’re not going to be a prolific offense and we’re not going to be an elite football team. So we didn’t protect him properly and Matt was not able to step up in the pocket and throw. I thought he did an admirable job dealing with what he had to. He was waylaid many, many times as you know. But he is such a fantastic leader. I’m happy with how he responded.

Eisen: So in reading into your comments about the Falcons…offensive line? I know I don’t want you to show your cards here, because obviously there are many weeks to go before this May draft. Offensive line? Would that be an easy concept to target what you’re looking at in the draft this year?
Dimitroff: You know I looked at many and we have looked at many positions and many opportunities to look at free agency. I’ve always said this, you know that: free agency, look at the draft, see where we can get the best value and the best football player. Again, no mystery that we need to fortify both fronts. That’s going to be important for us. So, you look at O-line, you look at D-line, you look at our linebackers. You can rush the passer as a linebacker as well. You can do certain things that can protect our offensive threat, i.e. Matt Ryan in many ways. But we know as well as anyone if you don’t have stoutness in front of a quarterback and you don’t provide the pocket, you have little chance of being successful in this league.

It’s comments like these that make me think the Falcons using their top draft selection on a pass rusher is anything but a forgone conclusion. It’s very interesting that besides injuries, the first thing that Dimitroff mentioned in response to what went wrong with the Falcons in 2013 was offensive line play.

What that says is that the Falcons may see their pass protection as the bigger priority in regards to upgrading this offseason versus the pass rush. Now, that could manifest in a number of ways. But more than likely, it would appear that the team won’t simply settle on Gabe Carimi as the lone upgrade to the unit this offseason.

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Free Agent Focus: Charles Tillman

March 2nd, 2014 Comments off
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Charles Tillman

Next on my list of impending free agents that I want to take a deeper look at is Chicago Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman.

Tillman just turned 33 last weekend and is coming off a rough, injury-shortened season. But that advanced age coupled with his injury makes me believe that Tillman is going to be undervalued this offseason in free agency. It is similar to Charles Woodson a year ago, who missed nine games in 2012 at age 36. It led to Woodson garnering almost zero interest last offseason until the Oakland Raiders scooped him up at the end of May.

The Raiders were rewarded with the 28th-ranked safety in the league last season according to Pro Football Focus on a relatively modest one-year deal. I believe the odds are fairly good that a similar windfall could come for the team that signs Tillman.

It’s also interesting because there is talk that Tillman should move to safety at this point in his career, which centered around Woodson two years ago. Although I’m confident that Tillman will be able to make that transition and extend his NFL career a couple of seasons by doing so like Woodson has, I’m not sure that move is yet needed. Tillman has already indicated his reluctance to move to a new position.

He spent much of last season nursing knee and groin injuries, as he was unable to fully participate in a practice for the Bears between Weeks 2 and 9 last season. Then he tore his triceps once he managed to recover from those injuries, and finished the season on injured reserve.

The injuries definitely limited him. He gave up a couple of big plays when healthy to A.J. Green in the season opener, but also had a pair of interceptions in that game. He then battled injuries and got exposed quite a bit by the quicker Antonio Brown in Week 3. But once he was healthy again, he showcased his stuff against Calvin Johnson in Week 10.

Strengths:

  • Has good size and length, making him a very effective press corner
  • Physical run defender that will deliver hits and make open field tackles
  • Has a knack for creating turnovers with good ball skills

Weaknesses:

  • Diminished speed causes problems when defending the deep routes
  • Has a history of getting safety help over the top due to Bears defensive scheme
  • Durability is a concern due to advanced age

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Will Joe Hawley Be Hard to Re-Sign?

March 1st, 2014 Comments off
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Hawley

On Friday, ESPN’s Vaughn McClure wrote that he expects Atlanta Falcons center Joe Hawley to be a priority target to re-sign among the team’s impending free agents. Given the struggles of Peter Konz last year at the position, and Hawley’s expected to be a relatively cheap option for the team, it makes sense that bringing him back shouldn’tt be too difficult for the Falcons.

But last week, Tony Pauline of TFY Draft Insider cited sources at the Combine that indicated that the chances of Hawley’s return to Atlanta was considered “50-50.” That initial prognostication flies in the face of what McClure wrote, so which is it?

Unfortunately, Pauline did not go into detail exactly why the chances of Hawley returning could go either way. Whether that is due to him likely finding greener pastures elsewhere in the league or not being considered a priority by the Falcons, was not indicated. However, it probably refers to the latter since the former seems less likely.

Pro Football Focus rates Hawley as their seventh-best center among the impending free agents. Hawley played about 530 snaps this past season at center, mostly coming in the final seven games where he proved to be an upgrade over a disappointing Konz. He saw 230 snaps in 2011 at the position as an injury replacement for Todd McClure during the first four games. Hawley did wind up playing over 900 snaps that season, but the majority of the remainder came at right guard, a role he struggled in.

It means that Hawley in total in his career has less than 800 snaps played at center, which doesn’t even represent a full season’s worth of games. It’s hard to imagine an NFL team coveting a player that is as unproven, relatively speaking, as Hawley is at the position. His past playing right guard adds versatility, but considering that Hawley was a poor fit at the position makes that added value minimal.

If there is one asset that Hawley possesses that other teams may want, it is youth. He is only 25, when most of the other free agent centers around the league are 28 or above. However, age isn’t as big a negative with centers as it can be at other positions in free agency, since centers tend to have the longest careers of anybody on the offensive line. McClure retired just after his 36th birthday and impending free agent Brad Meester of the Jacksonville Jaguars is hanging it up just before he turns 37 this offseason. Such longevity would mean that if Hawley is good enough, he could wind up playing a decade or more as a starter with the Falcons or another team. But it also means that team’s don’t have to avoid a free agent on the wrong side of 30 because such a player could still play several years for them. However, there are enough good centers that will be free agents that are on the right side of the 30: Alex Mack, Brian De La Puente, Evan Dietrich-Smith and Ryan Wendell to name several. And all have more experience than Hawley playing the position.

Those factors are why I think it’s more likely that Pauline’s source refers to the idea that the Falcons may not be completely sold on bringing Hawley back as the reason why his return is only given a 50 percent chance of occurring.

If that is the case, then I’m not sure why the Falcons have come to that conclusion.

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Free Agent Focus: T.J. Ward

February 24th, 2014 Comments off
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

T.J. Ward

With news that the Buffalo Bills plan to place the franchise tag on Jairus Byrd, T.J. Ward of the Cleveland Browns becomes the consensus top safety potentially available in free agency come March.

The Atlanta Falcons are a team that could be in the market for a safety if they decide to dump free safety Thomas DeCoud before the start of the league year on March 11. DeCoud is set to have $2.25 million of his $4.2 million 2014 base salary become guaranteed on March 15, which could prompt the Falcons to dump him and target a player like Ward to replace him.

Ward played mostly strong safety the past few years with the Cleveland Browns. With the introduction of defensive coordinator Ray Horton this past year, he saw a lot more time playing up in the box where he was essentially used as a sub-package linebacker. In previous years, he spent a bit more time on the back-end playing in more Cover-2 looks.

The Browns have plenty of cap space to re-sign Ward, and may also opt to franchise tag him if need be. He’ll be competing for that distinction alongside center Alex Mack. Both players are ones that the Browns strive to re-sign.

But if Ward manages to hit the open market, NFL teams are going to find a steady, reliable safety that can do multiple things. He missed half of the 2011 season with a sprained foot. He was well on his way to being one of the highest-rated safeties in the league that year by Pro Football Focus, rating as their 13th-best safety. He’s rebounded the past two years to earn top six safety grades from PFF.

Strengths:

  • Good speed and range to make plays in zone coverage
  • Has a good nose for the ball in run support and comfortable playing in the box
  • Able to cover tight ends and does a good job keeping things in front of him
  • Steady all-around safety that can blitz off the edge

Weaknesses:

  • Undersized and will miss some tackles due to being overpowered
  • Will tackle too high at times and doesn’t consistently break down and wrap up
  • Lacks top speed or hips to be left on an island in coverage
  • Doesn’t make a ton of big plays

How He Fits in Atlanta…

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Takeaways from Last Week – February 24, 2014

February 24th, 2014 Comments off
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Jadeveon Clowney speaks at the Combine on Saturday

Discussion of the possibility of the Atlanta Falcons trading up made headlines this past weekend following general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s press conference on Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. And of course the dots are being connected to the possibility that South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is the primary target.

But I’m going to pump the brakes on getting too “icky-balooky” over Dimitroff’s revelation. Because frankly, it wasn’t much of one. Dimitroff said nothing in his presser that he hasn’t said leading up to the past two drafts. The only real difference is that Dimitroff made these comments not in April but in February at the Combine, a place where a record number of media members have gathered. Of course it’s going to create headlines and generate buzz when you have such a magnified media presence.

It’s no different than the revelation that Clowney is interested in being a Falcon. Of course he is as Clowney should be interested in any team that is going to take him very high in the draft.

Does this mean that a Clowney-Atlanta marriage is one made in heaven? Perhaps, but there is still a long way to go in the draft process before we reach that fateful evening on May 8.

I indeed hope the Falcons find a way to get Clowney, as he is a once in a generation sort of prospect. I can recall three times in the past where I have been exuberant about a Falcons draft selection. The first was in 2001 when the team’s move to trade up for Michael Vick was first announced. The second came when the team selected Matt Ryan in 2008. And the third was when the team traded up for Julio Jones in 2011. While I didn’t initially approve of that trade, Jones’ talent was to a degree that had me excited about the potential he could bring to the team.

But it is that Jones trade that has me currently hesitant about another move to climb the boards to get Clowney. Unfortunately, when revisiting the Jones trade, there is a tendency to draw a line in the sand with people on either side suggesting that it was all good or alternatively all bad for the Falcons. It’s much more complicated than that, with both costs and benefits to the trade.

I have little doubt that the Falcons would not have achieved the highs of 2012 without making the move to acquire Jones. But at the same time, I don’t think the lows of 2013 would have been quite as bad in the absence of the trade either.

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Free Agent Focus: Michael Johnson

February 16th, 2014 1 comment

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Johnson

Over the coming days and weeks leading up to free agency, I want to look at some of the top free agents that will be available that could be linked to the Atlanta Falcons.

I want to start out with Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, where rumors emerged during Senior Bowl week that he was on the Falcons’ radar. Johnson played his college ball in Atlanta at Georgia Tech and signing with the Falcons would represent a homecoming for him.

He’s been a regular starter for the Bengals since midway through his second season (2010). He only started five games in 2011, losing snaps to Frostee Rucker on run downs, but he still logged the second-most snaps of any defensive lineman that season behind only Geno Atkins.

Johnson has grown a lot over his time in Cincinnati, beginning his career as a talented, but raw third-round pick in 2009. He’s steadily improved each year, and having just turned 27, he has developed into a solid, all-around defensive end.

Johnson is coming off a down year in terms of his sack production. After tallying 11.5 sacks in a breakout 2012 campaign, his total fell to 3.5 in 2013. But per Pro Football Focus, he saw an increase in his combined hits and hurries, improving from 42 to 58. But Johnson has not consistently shown he’s a sack artist throughout his career, suggesting that 2012 was the outlier rather than the norm. Over the past 55 games where he’s logged starter’s reps, Johnson has tallied a total of 23 sacks, which extrapolates to about 6.5 for every 16 games.

Strengths:

  • Has a good first step to provide effective speed rush off the edge
  • Athletic with long arms and ideal frame and build for NFL DE
  • Can play with his hand off the ground, as well as drop into coverage vs. TEs
  • Can make plays against the run, particularly when working in pursuit

Weaknesses:

  • Lacks elite speed to be an effective edge rusher against top-level OTs
  • Limited array of effective pass rush moves. Bull rush is largely ineffective and tends to overly rely on speed and first-step quickness
  • Despite athleticism, not overly comfortable or natural when working in space
  • Can get pushed around at the point of attack when playing the run

How He Fits in Atlanta…

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Takeaways from Last Week – February 10, 2014

February 10th, 2014 Comments off
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Tony Gonzalez points to the fans in his final game in Atlanta

You think like a fan, not like a man.

And I’m referring to the portion of the Atlanta Falcons fanbase that became critical of tight end Tony Gonzalez in light of the excerpts from Seth Wickersham’s article that appeared in this week’s ESPN the Magazine.

That article shed a light on the frustration that Gonzalez felt during the course of the Falcons 2013 season. It was supposed to be a year where the team was in contention for the Super Bowl. Instead, it became a year in which the Falcons were contending to be the worst team in the NFL.

Any man (or woman) would be frustrated in that scenario. Nothing Gonzalez expressed in Wickersham’s article was any more negative than what I myself have vocalized about the Falcons this year, or heard a litany of other fans say. Thus, being upset with Gonzalez probably makes you a hypocrite.

Gonzalez came out of retirement to win a Super Bowl, not for the glory of the Atlanta Falcons. And his venting over not being able to win that Super Bowl doesn’t make him a villain, but simply a human like the rest of us.

Frankly the only negative thing I can say about Wickersham’s piece is mistaking Jarrett Bush for Morgan Burnett.

I recommend picking up a copy of the magazine and reading it if you can. If not, Gonzalez went on CBS Radio with Doug Gottlieb on Friday and expressed the same sentiments during that interview.

Now if you read or listen and still come away upset with Gonzalez, then so be it. But the issue probably isn’t Gonzalez, it’s probably you.

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Team Needs: Falcons Will Decide DeCoud’s Future at Safety

February 8th, 2014 Comments off

The safety position for the Atlanta Falcons is potentially in flux this offseason as the team has a decision to make in determining whether or not to keep starting free safety Thomas DeCoud.

That decision will need to be made by March 15, as that is the day in which $2.25 million of his $4.2 million base salary becomes fully guaranteed. If that day comes to fruition, the team will lock in DeCoud for one more season as the starter and hope he bounces back to the form he showed in 2012 when he made the Pro Bowl with a team-leading six interceptions. But it doesn’t seem likely given that in the majority of his five seasons as the team’s starting free safety, DeCoud has rarely risen above mediocrity. And he’s also coming off a 2013 campaign that was by far the worst of his career. Instead, the Falcons could opt to cut ties with DeCoud and free up $3 million in cap space for 2014 (per Over The Cap).

Factoring into that decision will likely be the Falcons’ determination on whether they can find a better replacement this offseason. As it currently sits, the team is unlikely to find that upgrade already on the roster. Rookie Zeke Motta replaced an injured DeCoud for two games this past year and struggled. He looked a step slow in coverage, a no-no for any potential starter at free safety. Fellow 2013 draft pick Kemal Ishmael appeared in only a handful of games solely on a special teams, a role he may be ideally suited for. But it’s unlikely the team would give a serious nod to an untested player like him.

Thus if the Falcons are going to find an upgrade, it will have to be either in free agency or the draft. There should be plenty of options in free agency with some promising younger players as well as older veterans that could solidify the position. Given the Falcons are likely to go young at cornerback, it might be smart to add a more experienced hand at safety. But the team could easily decide that the youth trend should continue on the back-end of the secondary as well and look for a draft pick to try and solidify the position long-term.

Team Needs: Falcons Need Size and Experienced Depth at Cornerback

February 7th, 2014 1 comment

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Alford (23) and Desmond Trufant (21)

The recent release of Asante Samuel has created a hole at cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons when there wasn’t one before. That hole should be filled with a veteran corner that can upgrade the unit with some much-needed size.

As the team sits today, only two cornerbacks are under contract: Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, both entering their second seasons. Well, technically Jordan Mabin and Saeed Lee are both also under contract, although neither are expected to figure significantly into the team’s plans in 2014. Mabin and Lee probably can only be expected to compete for the fifth cornerback spot, indicating that the Falcons will need to add at least two more cornerbacks this offseason.

One of those spots almost certainly will go to impending restricted free agent Robert McClain. McClain is a valuable reserve due to his ability to play in the slot, as well as the fact that he played well as a punt returner late last season. McClain also is the team’s most accomplished cornerback in terms of run support, an area where both Trufant and Alford were inconsistent during their rookie seasons.

But in terms of pass coverage, Trufant certainly was far from inconsistent. By year’s end, his play had become the steadiest of anybody on the defensive roster. Alford had his fair share of ups and downs, but showed enough promise that the team is confident that he can enter 2014 penciled in as Samuel’s replacement in the starting lineup.

The Falcons might opt to keep Dominique Franks, an unrestricted free agent, as the fourth cornerback. However, the team should be able to find a better option than Franks this offseason. While Franks has shown the ability to play in the dime sub package in the past, he would be an inferior option to McClain in such a role, and also is a very limited contributor on special teams. Franks has flashed ability in the past as a reserve on defense, showing the capability that he is at least competent there. That makes his primary value only worthwhile in the event of an injury to one of the starters, where he’d likely be promoted to the nickel role.

Such an injury is likely given the Falcons history, as the team has not had two corners start all 16 games in the same season since Ray Buchanan and Ashley Ambrose did in 2001. If that trend continues, then it’s imperative the team attempt to upgrade their depth in 2014.

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