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Team Needs: Re-signing Hawley Key at Center

February 1st, 2014 Comments off

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Hawley

Unlike most of the positions along the offensive line, at center, the Atlanta Falcons can say that time healed some wounds in 2013.

That elixir came in the form of Joe Hawley, who assumed the starting spot at center in Week 11. While Hawley was by no means outstanding in that role, he proved to be an immediate upgrade over Peter Konz, who had struggled throughout 2013. Konz moved to right guard, where he did not fare any better.

Hawley is now an impending free agent, but one that the Falcons are likely to re-sign. His market isn’t expected to be huge given his limited experience at center. Prior to starting the final seven games in 2013 at the position, he had logged just three starts at center in three previous years in Atlanta, all coming as injury fill-in for Todd McClure in 2011.

Despite Hawley’s solid play at the position this past season, it doesn’t mean he’s entrenched there. His lack of experience makes him a somewhat unknown commodity moving forward. Essentially, his play in 2013 only gives him the leg up in any competition and means it should be considered his job to lose in 2014. But the Falcons shouldn’t be thinking that seven games is enough to give Hawley a lucrative, long-term deal, a mistake they’ve made too often in recent years based off limited sample sizes.

If the team does manage to successfully re-sign Hawley to a modest contract, it’s possible he could be in for a camp competition with Konz this summer. The chances of Konz returning to center increase if the Falcons are able to add a potential starter to replace him at right guard.

Were that to happen, it would be reasonable to believe that the competition between the two would likely produce a competent or possibly good long-term option. The team also has Harland Gunn on the roster, who has experience playing center and has a similar skillset as Hawley.

The Falcons could also opt to add other players this offseason, particularly if Hawley finds a way to depart via free agency. If that were to occur, adding a veteran on the open market would make the most sense given Konz has done little to merit the team’s optimism and faith.

Even if Hawley is retained, the team could still seek to bolster the position in the draft with a developmental player in the latter rounds.

But the key remains re-signing Hawley, as letting him walk would open up a can of worms. And given the team’s needs at other positions along the offensive line, that’s a can best left alone.

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Team Needs: Falcons Must Expand Options at Right Guard

February 1st, 2014 Comments off

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Garrett Reynolds and Peter Konz are on the outs

Unlike the offensive tackle position, it is not safe to say the Atlanta Falcons roster currently features both starters at guard. While left guard Justin Blalock is coming off arguably his best season and is a lock to return as a starter in 2014, right guard remains wide open.

Peter Konz and Garrett Reynolds split the majority of snaps there in 2013, neither performing at a high level. Reynolds started the season well, but as things wore on he became less effective. When Konz was benched at center in favor of Joe Hawley in Week 11, the bottom seemed to fall out for Reynolds, who logged significant reps in just two more games before finding a permanent seat on the bench. He was inactive for the Falcons final game of the year, a significant drop from being the team’s second-best blocker on opening day.

Reynolds’ star may have fallen so much that he may find himself unemployed this offseason. The Falcons could free up close to $1.4 million (per Over The Cap.com) in cap space by releasing Reynolds. Reynolds got his first opportunity to run away with the starting right guard position in 2011 and then again in 2012. But both years were marred by inconsistent play and injuries. Ostensibly, 2013 represented his third strike and the Falcons could opt to move on this offseason given the moderate cap savings.

Konz replaced Reynolds and got the majority of those reps at right guard down the stretch, but did little with them as he looked like a liability for much of it. By year’s end, I was ready to give up on Konz after just two seasons but it doesn’t appear the Falcons share that mindset.

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Team Needs: Falcons Tackles Could be Shuffled Around

January 31st, 2014 Comments off

 Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Questions surround Sam Baker’s future

The issue the Atlanta Falcons face in terms of their offensive tackle position isn’t necessarily about whether certain players will return, but rather what roles they might return in.

Although some had the foresight to question it, it’s become abundantly clear in hindsight that the contract the Falcons gave left tackle Sam Baker last March was a bad one. The team is faced with the scenario of paying him an option bonus which likely will lock him to being a Falcon for the next two seasons. While it’s possible the Falcons could decide to get out of the contract, it does not appear that is their plans, likely due to the significant cap penalties they would face over the next year or two. So it seems that Baker will return next season and open up the offseason as a starter. The only real question is whether that will be playing left tackle or another position.

It’s likely that Baker will man the left tackle position once again in 2014. But it’s possible that dependent on what moves the Falcons make this offseason, he could be switching positions. Baker’s brief stint at right guard did not go well in 2011, making a possible switch to right tackle more doubtful. If that happens, then it will be due to the Falcons spending on a free agent or using a high pick on another left tackle. The latter seems more plausible of the two scenarios, since it’s doubtful the Falcons are willing to dole out another large contract that it would take to entice such a free agent to Atlanta given their investment in Baker. And drafting a tackle will depend on whether or not the Falcons like the premier prospects at the top of the draft, whether they are on the board on May 8, and if the Falcons can shore up other needs across the roster in free agency. All of which are unknown quantities to date, making it doubtful that is planned path moving forward.

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Team Needs: Falcons Need Upgrade of Size and Speed at Wide Receiver

January 30th, 2014 Comments off

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Harry Douglas

The Atlanta Falcons offense was limited in 2013 due to major injuries suffered at the wide receiver position. The Falcons two most prominent weapons in Julio Jones and Roddy White essentially played five games each this year. Jones played in the first five games before a foot injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. And White was nursing various injuries throughout the year and didn’t appear close to healthy until the final games of the year. That left the team without a true No. 1 weapon for the middle third of the year.

Harry Douglas did his best to try and fill those shoes, but it became abundantly clear throughout the 2013 season that the task was far too much for the six-year veteran. Douglas was able to put up very good production this past year, catching career-highs of 85 catches, 1,067 yards and 2 touchdowns, leading the team in the two former categories. However, a lot of Douglas’ production came at points in games where the outcome was already decided, resulting in “hollow” production. Dropped passes, inconsistency and turnovers seem to follow Douglas throughout the season. Roughly half (eight) of Matt Ryan’s 17 interceptions were initially targeted at Harry Douglas.

Douglas will likely return to his role as the third receiver in 2014 with the healthy returns of Jones and White. But in reality, Douglas is probably better suited to being the team’s fourth receiver. Jones has missed time prior to 2013 due to injuries, and while Douglas has been a capable short-term fill-in for him, the lack of long-term value was exposed this past year. Douglas simply doesn’t do any of the things that Jones provides to the offense. Very few receivers do, but the Falcons could at least attempt to find someone that is in the same area code as Jones.

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Team Needs: Toilolo Would Benefit from a Running Mate at Tight End

January 30th, 2014 Comments off
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Levine Toilolo

The Atlanta Falcons will be attempting to move on from the greatest tight end of all time this offseason in Tony Gonzalez, which is rife with challenges.

Obviously the team will struggle to replace the production that Gonzalez has given that position over the past five years, where he combined to catch 409 passes and 35 touchdowns, resulting in the Falcons losing roughly a quarter of their passing production.

While the return of a healthy Julio Jones, and retention of veterans Roddy White and Harry Douglas at wide receiver can help fill some of that void, it will likely lead to a net loss for the Falcons offense with Gonzalez’s departure. Backup Levine Toilolo got limited snaps during his rookie season and it will be a tall order for him to try and fill the void as the starter.

Toilolo during his days at Stanford shined in a two-tight end offense, where a combination of him and players like Zach Ertz and Coby Fleener would attack the seams in Stanford’s run-oriented, vertical offense. Toilolo’s height and length can make him an effective downfield threat because he can extend to catch high passes that most defenders cannot. That height also serves Toilolo well in the red zone, where he was underutilized as a target this past season. Toilolo was targeted six times this past season in the red zone, scoring a pair of touchdowns which was the highest percentage of touchdowns to targets on the Falcons. The underutilization becomes apparent when compared to White and Douglas, who scored just once on 26 combined targets in the red zone in 2013. But Toilolo is by no means a dynamic weapon, since he is more an outlet option than someone that can be the centerpiece of an offense much like Gonzalez was.

That is why the Falcons will need to bolster this position in some way this offseason, whether via the draft or free agency, or both. Chase Coffman is an impending unrestricted free agent and his return at this point is negligible. Coffman has had a few brief moments during his short stint with the Falcons, but essentially is a third tight end and should not be expected to carve out a significantly bigger role in 2014 than he currently has. Instead, the Falcons must turn to other options if they intend to try and fill some of the void left by Gonzalez.

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Team Needs: Fullback Has Diminished Value

January 30th, 2014 Comments off

The role of the fullback in the Atlanta Falcons offense has diminished over the years. But even in that diminished role, there are still unanswered questions that need to be solved in 2014.

Bradie Ewing has had two injury-riddled seasons in his brief NFL career. After missing his entire rookie season in 2012 with a knee injury, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the team’s second game of 2013. Ewing needs to show that he can come back strong and make it through an entire season healthy. If he can, then he’ll answer one of two question marks surrounding him: durability.

The other question centers on just how good a player Ewing can be. He showed some promise this past summer in the preseason before being injured. But in his absence over the past two years, the Falcons have gotten decent production at fullback from Mike Cox in 2012 and again Patrick DiMarco this past season. Ewing, being a fifth round draft choice, needs to prove not only that he can stay healthy but also that he can be an upgrade over either player.

Otherwise, it is indicative of the diminished value this position has taken over the years. As noted previously in discussion of the team’s need at running back, the Falcons may be looking to beef up their ground game in future years. And this season will be pivotal for Ewing to showcase he’s capable of helping them in that regard. If not, then the team will need to start looking elsewhere in 2015.

Because the team is likely going to give Ewing the opportunity to prove he’s capable of filling that niche, it is unlikely that the Falcons will make any major additions to the roster at this position. With DiMarco also still under contract, the team has a viable option in case Ewing struggles or re-injures himself. Outside adding an undrafted free agent or two that can compete in training camp and push DiMarco for the reserve spot, it’s doubtful the Falcons pay serious attention to this position. Also, the presence of Jason Snelling on the roster gives them added depth. However, Snelling’s status may be up in the air for 2014 and thus the Falcons could lose a versatile backup if they choose to make him a cap casualty this spring.

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Team Needs: Fresh Legs Could Improve Falcons at Running Back

January 28th, 2014 Comments off
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Jason Snelling may be the most expendable back on the roster

Running back, a position that once was a veritable strength for the Atlanta Falcons, has now fallen on hard times and has been one of the more unremarkable groups on the roster.

Over recent seasons the Falcons have relied much too heavily on older, declining running backs due to the greater emphasis the team has had on the passing game. Essentially the team seeks players that complement their passing game, as opposed to a player that can be the centerpiece of an offense much like Michael Turner was when he first arrived in Atlanta in 2008.

Current incumbent starter Steven Jackson embodies that mentality. While Jackson is the rare sort of runner that has managed to avoid the menacing clutches of Father Time, he no longer is a back that can carry an offense. And the value that Jackson brought in the passing game in 2013 wasn’t great given too many breakdowns in pass protection and dropped passes.

The goal of the Falcons when they signed Jackson as a free agent a year ago was to get an upgrade over the version of Turner that played in 2012, a version which was on its last legs. And the Falcons can proudly say that mission was accomplished. Despite missing several games at the start of the season, Jackson showed over the final two months of 2013 that he was a much more adept lead back than Turner. And it gives the team some optimism that Jackson could be poised for an even stronger 2014 if he can remain healthy and get improved blocking along the offensive line.

But in reality, the Falcons goal with adding Jackson was about as low as one gets. The 2012 version of Turner was among the league’s least effective starting running backs and the Falcons were arguably the worst rushing attack in the league that season. One analogy would be to compare it to the Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback version, which was arguably the worst in the league in recent years with failed draft pick Blaine Gabbert as the starter. Chad Henne is a better option than Gabbert, but he’s by no means a good option.

Essentially, the Falcons new goal should become to find not just a better option but a good one. Jackson, at this point in his career, is not that.

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Team Needs: Falcons Take Risk Without a Backup Quarterback

January 27th, 2014 Comments off

If polled, a majority Atlanta Falcons fans would probably tell you that it was by some miracle that quarterback Matt Ryan made it through the entire 2013 season healthy. According to Advanced NFL Stats, Ryan was hit 90 times, the fifth most allowed of any team in the NFL this past season. That was up from 83 hits he suffered in 2012 over 18 games, and continued the now six-year trend of ever-increasing punishment suffered by Ryan. When Ryan first arrived in Atlanta in 2008, he was hit just 43 times, which was the second lowest number allowed in the league that season. In the time since, Ryan has been put on the turf more with each subsequent season.

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Dominique Davis and Matt Ryan

The time when a quarterback takes a hit that prompts an injury is essentially random. That’s illustrated by the fact that Ryan managed to absorb 90 hits during the course of the 2013 season without being forced to leave the field, while Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo injured his ribs upon taking his first hit of the season in Week 1. But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that the more shots you take, the more exposed you are to injury.

Obviously, the best way to protect Ryan is to improve the blocking up front. But the Falcons as an organization aren’t just tasked with protecting Ryan to the best of their abilities, but also protecting themselves by solidifying their depth at quarterback. Even if the team dramatically decreases the number of hits Ryan takes next season, any one of those shots could be the one that puts him out of the game for an extended period of time.

As it stands, Dominique Davis and Sean Renfree are the team’s lone backup quarterbacks. Davis showed promise as an undrafted rookie in 2012, but showed little progress in his second training camp. Renfree struggled after missing much of the offseason recovering from a chest injury, and then promptly suffered a shoulder injury at the end of the summer which forced him to miss the entire season. That is now three major injuries that Renfree has suffered to his throwing arm in the 12 months: elbow, torn pectoral and now shoulder. One of my major concerns with Renfree when I scouted him last year was his durability. Coupled with a subpar first preseason, it doesn’t bode well for him developing into the sort of competent backup quarterback the Falcons need.

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Takeaways from Last Week – January 27

January 27th, 2014 Comments off
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame’s Zack Martin was one of the bright spots of the Senior Bowl

This past week represented a big one for the Atlanta Falcons, as they are fresh off coaching the North team in the Senior Bowl, the premiere college all-star game, in Mobile, Alabama on Saturday.

As mentioned in last week’s column, direct access to the Senior Bowl players should help the Falcons get a leg up on their evaluations of individual prospects for the upcoming 2014 NFL Draft.

You have probably heard or will be hearing a lot about particular players the Falcons may have liked while spending time down in Mobile last week, but in reality it’s really inconsequential for the time being. At least from my perspective, it won’t be worth paying attention to until we get into March and April when the Falcons start traveling to pro days and working out individual players where any Senior Bowl connections will be significant.

I suspect the Falcons will be looking hard at several of the players they coached in the Senior on the second and third days of the draft. As noted a week ago, the Falcons have historically gone heavy on Senior Bowl players in the first round of the draft, but that doesn’t seem likely this May. Simply because there were no real prospects that merit as high a selection as the No. 6 overall pick. Perhaps Notre Dame’s Zack Martin will piggyback a strong Senior Bowl week and tear up the combine similarly to Eric Fisher did a year ago, prompting his rise from the latter portion of Round One to the No. 1 overall pick. But I doubt it, since Martin will struggle to overcome his subpar stature and short arms to climb into the top 10 picks. Perhaps if teams like Buffalo or Detroit, who pick ninth and tenth respectively this May, see him as an elite guard prospect he might be able to climb that high. But if the Falcons are looking to take Martin with their first pick, it almost certainly will necessitate a trade back.

It does seem that the Falcons are open to such a move. Although it’s very easy to say you’re open to a move in January, as I’m sure all 32 NFL teams are open to trading up or back at this point in the calendar. It’s still very early in the process and would be silly for any team to be eliminating options by saying they are against trading at this point in time.

Whether the Falcons should trade back remains to be seen. I’ve been contacted by many Falcon fans that seem to be of the mindset of “Jadeveon Clowney or Bust,” meaning that unless Clowney is there at No. 6 or the Falcons try to move up to get him, their next best strategy would be to trade back in the draft.

Firstly, I think it’s far too early to start to pigeon-hole yourself for one prospect or the other. A lot of things can and will happen between now and May 8 that can affect that opinion. And secondly, I think it’s overlooking two potentially excellent prospects in Matt Kalil Jake Matthews and Von Miller Khalil Mack.

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Takeaways from Divisional Playoff Round 2013

January 13th, 2014 Comments off
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

A player like Jadeveon Clowney could revitalize the entire Falcons team

If the Atlanta Falcons want to improve their chances of winning games in January, they must improve their defense.

Everyone knows the Falcons sport one of the better home-field advantages in the NFL today. The Falcons have the sixth best winning percentage of any team in the past six seasons (including postseason games) in their home stadium.

It’s then obviously to their advantage if they are able to get a top seed in the playoffs and be able to host opponents in the Georgia Dome come January. But what happens if adversity strikes as it did this past season, and the team is unable to rack up all those regular season wins to get a high seed?

And given an already tough NFC South might have gotten tougher with Lovie Smith becoming the new head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the chances have increased that the Falcons may have to “settle” for more wildcard playoff berths in future seasons. And thus defense becomes their best asset if the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome are no longer part of the equation.

History Shows Strong Link between Road Playoff Success and Defense

All one has to do is look over the past several years at teams that have managed to win multiple playoff games on the road and you see a commonality among them: good defense.

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