Levine Toilolo’s summer could shape tight end group
The Falcons got a huge break when sixteen-year veteran Tony Gonzalez opted not to hang up the cleats for good and give it one more go in Atlanta. Gonzalez entered the 2012 season leaving the door open for a 5% chance that he might return in 2013. The Falcons will get no such sliver of hope for 2014, as he is adamant that this year will be his last in the NFL. But the Falcons hope to take full advantage of the last hurrah of Gonzo by getting him to the Super Bowl.
Gonzalez’s status could potentially earn him a pass for much of training camp, but that won’t be the case. But the Falcons probably will probably minimize how much of a workload he does this summer. That should open up opportunities for his reserves, where all of the competition will come.
The absence of Gonzalez throughout the off-season allowed the team to get a long look at Chase Coffman, who is the incumbent. Coffman is a capable receiver, but has struggled to stick in the pros due to lackluster blocking. For him to retain his spot as the top backup behind Gonzalez, will likely mean that he’ll have to show the Falcons that he is competent as a blocker. If not, then the spot will be ripe for the taking from another.
Tommy Gallarda is in a prime position to take that spot. He is considered the team’s most polished blocker, and prior to suffering a season-ending shoulder injury last November was effective in that role. But he won’t be the only blocker that will be taking reps this summer.
The player the Falcons really want to see emerge as Gonzalez’s top backup will be rookie fourth round pick Levine Toilolo. Toilolo performed primarily as a blocker over the past two seasons at Stanford. He has excellent size and speed that the Falcons will hope to develop in the future. But first and foremost to earn reps in 2013, he’ll need to hit the ground running as a blocker. He possesses good tools and potential there, but he can be inconsistent at times and not as physical as you’d like. Coffman’s chances of making the roster increase if Toilolo proves to be a capable blocker, as the Falcons probably won’t seek to have redundant players with him and Gallarda.
Also in the mix will be Colin Cloherty, a late offseason addition. Cloherty played for Koetter in Jacksonville in 2011. Like Coffman, he’s more of a receiver than blocker, albeit a bit more undersized. He can push Coffman for the potential H-back role. Helping Cloherty is the fact that he proved to be an adept cover man on special teams during his limited opportunities. If he can shine there this summer, that may be a better avenue to making the final 53-man roster than anything he could do offensively.
Andrew Szczerba sits currently as a dark horse, but he was impressive last summer for the Dallas Cowboys. And his size, strength, and potential as a blocker does give him a legitimate opportunity to earn a roster spot. He just seems unlikely at this point to leap frog both Gallarda and Toilolo in that regard to win a spot, but stranger things have happened in Falcons training camps in the past.
A remote possibility also exists that the Falcons aren’t quite done at this position if things don’t break their way by the end of camp. Between the four of them, all of the tight ends not named Tony Gonzalez have combined for just 10 career catches in the NFL. Particularly if Toilolo has a lackluster preseason, the Falcons might explore adding veteran options at the end of summer to shore up the No. 2 spot. What limited snaps the second tight end is likely to get in 2013 will be primarily be as a blocker. And if the Falcons are unhappy with the progress of the young guys, they could seek options elsewhere.