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Falcons Needs: Defensive Tackle

February 6th, 2013 Comments off

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Babineaux

The first decision the Falcons will have to make in regards to their defensive tackle position is whether or not to re-sign free agent Vance Walker. Walker has been a valuable role player for the Falcons over the years. For much of 2012, with Corey Peters out of the lineup due to injury, he was the team’s second best interior presence. He’s coming off his best season as a pass rusher, and has consistently been one of their best run defenders. But given their tight cap space, the team may not be able to afford a long-term deal that satisfies Walker. Coupled with the fact that the team has Travian Robertson and possibly Micanor Regis that could take his spot.

With Jonathan Babineaux spending much of his 2012 at defensive end rather than in the interior, the need some help inside. Especially considering that Babineaux, along with Peria Jerry and Corey Peters will all be hitting free agency following 2013. Given the likelihood that several (if not all) of those guys might not be on the team a year from now, the team will likely seek to draft a young defensive tackle that can join Robertson on the roster.

The Falcons also had issues with defending the run, so it’s likely the team could be looking for a wide-body especially if the team intends to move more towards a two-gap scheme. The Falcons featured a three defensive tackles-formation throughout the latter half of 2012, which could be potentially expanded into more two-gap concepts that are featured in the traditional 3-4 scheme. That scheme features a wide-body nose tackle that is responsible for securing both A gaps beside the opposing team’s center. While the Falcons have a few candidates already on the roster in Peters, Regis, and possibly Walker if retained, they might want to look into other options in free agency or the draft that have more experience there.

But the bigger issue facing the Falcons is improving their pass rush. Babineaux remains their best guy, but he’s beginning to slow down. Peters and Jerry, two players that were known for their disruptive abilities in college have not picked up the slack over the years. Robertson flashed quickness during the preseason to suggest he might have a future, but he’s still young and needs more time. So the Falcons could seek a pass rusher early in the draft to groom as a possible replacement for Babineaux in the near future. That player could also garner reps at defensive end similar to Babineaux, suggesting that the Falcons may be looking for a hybrid player that may be considered a 3-4 end by most. The best example of this type of player is Houston’s J.J. Watt. Now the Falcons won’t be able to find a player as good as Watt, but they could be happy with a poor man’s version of him. In Houston, Watt plays end in their base 3-man front, and then moves inside to tackle when they go to a 4-man look in their dime package (the Texans play very little nickel).

Mike Nolan’s scheme prefers versatility, and having such a presence on the defense capable of playing inside and outside, especially if they can get pressure at both positions, would be highly valuable. Such a player could supplant John Abraham at end on run downs, and then kick inside along with Babineaux on passing downs with Abe and Biermann likely lining up at end.

Falcons Needs: Defensive End

February 6th, 2013 Comments off

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Falcons may have big plans for Jonathan Massaquoi in 2013

Normally I would have followed up my needs assessment of the offensive line with a look at several of the offensive linemen that the Falcons could target. But due to the sheer amount of linemen I need to watch on film, I’m just going to skip ahead to other position needs and get to those free agents at a later date. So now it’s time to start to take a look at the Falcons needs on defense, beginning with the defensive ends.

The Falcons have their starters for next year already on the roster in John Abraham and Kroy Biermann. Abraham did not take to his new role in Mike Nolan’s defense as cleanly as hoped, but it would be an shock if he’s not retained. He is the Falcons best pass rusher by far. Biermann proved to be a valuable commodity in the team’s nickel subpackage that for much of the year became predominantly their base package due to his versatility. But the Falcons certainly need to upgrade their pass rush, as it was rarely affected the outcomes of games in 2012.

Both starters are signed through 2014, but the team probably will want an heir apparent under fold before then to succeed Abraham. Thus the Falcons will be looking for developmental talent in the draft more than likely. The ideal situation will be finding a young pass rusher in the draft that can make Abraham more of a part-time player and split reps with both ends. Due to the versatility of Nolan’s scheme, that will likely be a player that is comfortable playing both with his hand on the ground and off it. Abraham primarily played as a stand-up end with his hand off the ground. Biermann did both, but as a pass rusher mainly put his hand on the ground. When he stood up, Nolan often asked him to drop into coverage. The ideal player for the Falcons is someone that can do all three: rush like a linebacker, rush like an end, and also be fairly effective dropping into coverage. The prototype for this type of player would be Von Miller. An obviously, there are very few Von Millers that exist in the world, so the Falcons will probably be looking to settle for “Von Miller Lite.” A big part of the Falcons plan moving forward may rest in hoping that Jonathan Massaquoi develops into this type of player. But if they come across another player early in the draft that also fits this description, they should definitely pull the trigger.

The Falcons may seek free agent options as there will be a few that could come in and become immediately valuable starters. But given the failure that was Ray Edwards, the Falcons may be a bit hesitant to dive headlong into the free agent waters.

Another decision the Falcons will have to make is whether to re-sign Lawrence Sidbury, who will be an unrestricted free agent. Sidbury has flashed potential as a pass rusher, but his struggles against the run and his inability to perform on special teams have caused him to be inactive more often than not in his four-year Falcon career. While the Falcons do have nice backup options in Cliff Matthews and Massaquoi eagerly waiting for extended reps in 2013, it may be hard for the Falcons to justify letting a good pass rusher like Sidbury walk given their issues in that area. It may all boil down to price tag. If Sidbury is willing to accept a short-term deal that commits a minimal amount of guaranteed money, then the Falcons probably will be willing to keep him. If not, then he’ll likely be able to find greener pastures elsewhere.

Given the likelihood that the Falcons will add a pass rusher early in the draft, it means that they may not ultimately miss Sidbury as five ends certainly should suffice. Especially if the Falcons continue to rotate defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux at left end as they often did in the latter half of 2012.

Falcons Needs: Offensive Tackle

February 5th, 2013 Comments off

The big question here is going to revolve around Sam Baker and whether or not the free agent left tackle will be back in Atlanta in 2013.

Baker had a solid 2012 season, good enough to merit the team bringing him back. But it will likely only come at the right price. The team drafted Lamar Holmes in the third round of last year’s draft for a reason, mainly as insurance in case Baker struggled in 2012. Will Svitek is also a free agent and coming off his triceps injury won’t command large dollars on the open market. If Baker’s camp wants too much money, then the Falcons will have no problems turning to either Holmes and/or Svitek at the position.

But it’s probably not going to come to that. The Falcons brass showed a lot of loyalty and faith in Baker when many others did not (i.e. most of the fan base including myself), and it’s likely he’ll be amenable to whatever terms the Falcons come to. Atlanta won’t lowball him by any means, but the market could possibly dictate him making quite a bit of money if he shops himself around similar to Kevin Shaffer when he left Atlanta in 2006. While there are a number of high profile free agents that could hit the market such as Jake Long, Branden Albert, and Ryan Clady, most if not all of those guys will likely receive the franchise tag. That could potentially leave Baker among the better candidates of a diminished group of free agents, thus driving up his price tag.

Svitek won’t be a slam dunk to return as he could rejoin former Falcons offensive line coach Paul Boudreau in St. Louis, potentially earning an opportunity to start which is something he won’t get in Atlanta if Baker is re-signed. But at the end of the day, the Falcons will likely re-sign one of the pair of free agents.

If not, then Holmes becomes the likeliest candidate to open 2013 as the team’s starting left tackle. And more than likely the team will look for an insurance policy via free agency that can add depth and compete there. Tyson Clabo is locked in at right tackle, and Mike Johnson represents a capable reserve behind him, but is probably a more natural guard than tackle. That’s not the type of guy you want starting sixteen games at left tackle.

It’s doubtful the Falcons seek draft options come April due to the presence of Holmes. It would be possible early if a good tackle prospect were to fall in Round 1, but that rarely happens. They could add a backup later in the draft, but that would likely only happen if Baker walks and the team wants to move Johnson back to guard.

Falcons Needs: Interior Offensive Line

February 5th, 2013 Comments off

The interior of the Falcons offensive line could definitely use an upgrade, but it’s possible that the Falcons may opt not to invest significantly at this position.

Center Todd McClure and guard Garrett Reynolds are the team’s lone free agents at the position. While McClure seems set to try and play one more year in the NFL, it remains to be seen if that place is Atlanta. The Falcons have invested draft picks in both Joe Hawley and Peter Konz for a reason, with the intent of succeeding McClure. Given that 2013 will be the final year of Hawley’s contract, it seems that now is the time to determine whether or not he is going to stick long-term in Atlanta.

Because the team may want to give Hawley an opportunity to start at center and earn a long-term contract a year from now, it may mean that Peter Konz will return to start at right guard next year. The Falcons will have to determine whether they consider Konz a better candidate at that position versus a free agent or draft pick. Konz struggled throughout much of the 2012 season but played relatively well in the playoffs, potentially giving the team some hope that he could make significant improvement next year. If that proves to be the case, then the Falcons will likely only be looking for a backup to bolster depth and to compete in camp as opposed to a starter that will supplant Konz.

But if the Falcons do decide to sign/draft someone to be the starter, it will then likely move Konz to center so that he and Hawley compete for that vacant position.

The Falcons will need to decide what to do with Garrett Reynolds. While Reynolds was a serviceable starter this year before he was injured, he has not played well enough to stick in the starting lineup, and thus will likely be viewed as a backup going forward. If he’s willing to stay in Atlanta for the modest price of a reserve then he should be back. If not, then it will mean the team will probably add a veteran or draft pick to replace him. While youngsters like Phillipkeith Manley, Jacques McClendon, and Harland Gunn will be expected to compete for reserve roles next year, it would be a tall order to ask any of them to be a play away from being the Falcons starter at right guard, especially considering how much turnover has been there recently. Only once in the last four years did the opening day starter at right guard end the year in that same position. It’s possible the Falcons could move Mike Johnson back to guard, but that may be dependent on what moves if any the Falcons make at the tackle position. If Sam Baker is re-signed, it increases the chances that Johnson could be competing for a starting guard spot next year. If not, then the Falcons may need him more as a depth option at tackle than they do at guard.

Justin Blalock is coming off a subpar season at left guard, but due to the big contract the team gave him in 2011, he’s not going anywhere.

Falcons FA Focus: Tight End

February 4th, 2013 Comments off
Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

Martellus Bennett

The Falcons have a definite and obvious need at tight end. Even if they are able to convince Tony Gonzalez to return for one more season, they need to put together a plan of succession for when he does eventually retire.

More than likely, the Falcons will probably prefer to target a young tight end in the draft that can grow and develop in this offense. But they will have options in free agency to look for more immediate solutions.

Obviously, the biggest free agent on the Falcons radar will be Gonzalez himself. If the Falcons are lucky, they will get an answer from Gonzalez in the coming month to indicate whether he will return to the team or not. But that would be a quick turn-around for a player that all indicators said at the end of the year was prepared to move on. More than likely, if Gonzalez does get that itch to return it’ll be much closer to the start of training camp in the summer before the Falcons receive that word.

That means that probably for the bulk of the free agent signing period, the Falcons must operate under the assumption that Gonzalez is departing. And thus they will be looking at other options.

As mentioned in discussing the Falcons need at the position, the Falcons offense prefers a more traditional (or Y) tight end as opposed to the flex or H-back player. The Falcons did not use a ton of two-tight end sets last year under Dirk Koetter as they had in previous years under Mike Mularkey. That wasn’t the case really in Jacksonville with Koetter, who made ample use of the two tight formations to bolster the Jaguars ground attack. One of the reasons why the Falcons did not utilize it much in 2012 was because of how much they threw the ball and their usage of three-wide sets. If the Falcons return to a more balanced offense in 2013, then there could be more opportunities for two tight end sets.

The main role that the Falcons new tight end will have is helping move the chains on third downs, something that Gonzalez was extremely good at doing. So the Falcons will be looking for a set of reliable hands. The Falcons may also want to expand their passing game a bit more with a tight end that can stretch the vertical seam. That can open up greater opportunities for receivers like Julio Jones and Roddy White on the outside. Mainly because a tight end that can get vertical challenges defenses with their coverages. Do they want to leave their safety in the middle of the field to deal with the tight end or do they want to give their corners on the outside help when going up against Jones and White? This is basically what role Antonio Gates functions in San Diego, and has been effective over the years opening up opportunities for players like Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd on the outside. When defenses try to account for Gates, Jackson and Floyd get more one on one opportunities that they can exploit. If they try to help out their corners, then it leaves Gates to wreak havoc over the middle of the field. The Falcons offense wasn’t overly explosive last year, ranking 29th in terms of passing plays of 20 or more yards. Adding a tight end that can generate big plays down the field could work wonders in improving this aspect of their offense.

Looking over the prospective group of free agents, there are several players with starting experience and solid production hitting the market. Starters including Martellus Bennett (Giants), Dallas Clark (Buccaneers), Jared Cook (Titans), Fred Davis (Redskins), Anthony Fasano (Dolphins), Dustin Keller (Jets), Brandon Myers (Raiders), and Ben Watson (Browns).

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Falcons Needs: Tight End

February 4th, 2013 Comments off

After looking at the needs at wide receiver, it’s time to look at the other key position in the Falcons passing game which is tight end. Some of this is a rehashing of a previous article.

This position will be a big question mark for the team going forward due to expected retirement of Tony Gonzalez. The Falcons will certainly leave the door open for Gonzalez’s return in 2013, but they will likely proceed with the expectation that he won’t be back. And even if he does return, the still must operate under the assumption that 2013 will be his final year and need to put a plan in place that will give them options for the future.

The Falcons need to find a starter at this position since they don’t have any viable candidates already on the roster. Chase Coffman, Michael Palmer, and Tommy Gallarda all fit the bill as backups, but none has shown enough to think that they are ready to step into the mantle as a potential starting option for the Falcons in 2013. Palmer is a restricted free agent and likely will be re-signed. Both Coffman and Gallarda are under contract for 2013, but neither will be guaranteed a roster spot. More than likely, all three will be competing for at most two roster spots next year.

That means the Falcons will need to make at least one major addition here this off-season, either via free agency or the draft. They will have some options on the open market, as there are plenty of solid starting-caliber tight ends. But if the Falcons are looking for a more permanent solution, the draft is probably the best avenue.

The Falcons may also opt to look to bolster this position with two possible players as opposed to one to try and fill Gonzalez’s gigantic shoes. Other teams have had a lot of success finding those in recent drafts (e.g. Indianapolis, Baltimore, and New England), but it could involve both a mix of free agency and the draft in Atlanta.

The Falcons are looking for a tight end that is comfortable playing with his hand on the ground, as Gonzalez has been and what Dirk Koetter has principally utilized in his offense over the years. That is becoming less en vogue in the college game because of the proliferation of the spread offense which often utilizes tight ends as oversized slot receivers. The ideal candidate will be also someone that can help challenge downfield, as that was one of the few areas of weakness for Gonzalez. But more importantly, the Falcons will want a tight end that can fill Gonzo’s shoes on third downs. Gonzalez was one of the best in that role as well as in the redzone. While players like Julio Jones and Roddy White coupled with a hopefully improved ground attack can help alleviate their redzone issues, the Falcons will want to find someone that can move the chains on third down.

Falcons FA Focus: Wide Receiver

February 1st, 2013 Comments off
Chris Faytok/THE STAR-LEDGER via US PRESSWIRE

Ramses Barden

The Falcons have a need at wide receiver in order to bolster their depth. They could opt to do this via the draft or free agency, or possibly both. Given their needs elsewhere, it’s likely if they choose to draft this position it may have to wait until the third day of the draft. That wouldn’t be terrible given players such as Mike Williams, Antonio Brown, Denarius Moore, Cecil Shorts, Chris Givens, and Jacoby Ford have all been taken in Rounds four through seven since the draft moved to the 3-day format in 2010. But for every Antonio Brown there is more than a half dozen receivers like the Falcons very own Tim Toone and Kerry Meier that have made very limited contributions in the NFL.

That is why if the Falcons want to upgrade their wide receiver depth, it may be smarter to sign a veteran in free agency rather than hoping they stumble upon the next Brown or Shorts. But that is by no means a sure thing either as wide receivers are notorious for fizzling out when teams try to dip into the free agent pool.

The Falcons already have three good receivers in Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Harry Douglas. While there is room to upgrade over Douglas, the simple fact is that it would take a significant signing to think a player is going to come in and supplant Douglas as the team’s new No. 3 receiver, requiring a significant investment of money. And given the Falcons have already invested a good amount of money in their current trio (roughly $75 million), it doesn’t seem like they will be looking to spend a bunch of money.

Another issue that brings up is that any fourth receiver is likely going to have to play on special teams, specifically in coverage which has been the case every year that Mike Smith has been here. The perfect receiver is someone that can not only help take the top off a defense on the outside, but also isn’t afraid to run full speed downfield as a gunner on punt coverage or kickoffs. That is a fairly specific job description, and probably eliminates a large number of players from the Falcons’ potential list of candidates.

In terms of taking the top off a defense, a name that immediately jumps to the top of the free agentt list is Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace. But Wallace is seeking a huge contract, and certainly won’t be on the Falcons radar. Brian Hartline (Dolphins) is another prospective free agent that has made a name going down the field, but his expected price tag also will probably be too rich for the Falcons.

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Falcons Needs: Wide Receiver

February 1st, 2013 Comments off

The quarterback, running back, and fullback positions have already been discussed, making it time to move on to the second to last of the offensive skill positions: wide receiver. It would be a tough argument to suggest that the Falcons don’t feature the league’s premier pair of wide receivers in Julio Jones and Roddy White. Both players are coming off spectacular 2012 seasons and both are under contract at least through the 2014 season. So it’s conceivable that the Falcons can boast the premier duo for at least two more seasons.

But the Falcons depth at wide receiver is questionable and may need to be addressed. The team re-signed Harry Douglas last off-season to a four-year deal. While Douglas is a capable reserve that will make plays from time to time, he’s not the caliber of receiver that is a consistent option from week to week. Douglas fills his particularly niche ably, but he doesn’t really possess a skillset that extends outside the niche. That niche consists mainly of a slot receiver that does his best work on the short and intermediate routes. When Douglas is asked to go vertical or play on the outside, he essentially becomes a fairly middling option for the team. It would behoove the Falcons to find a player that is complementary to Douglas that does fit that outside/vertical mold. Such a player could allow the Falcons to make more use of either Jones or White in the slot, something that has proven effective over the past two years. And in the event of an injury to either starter it would still give the team a good explosive option downfield that will prevent the team from resorting to the dink and dunk style that has limited them in the past. Not to mention the likely departure of Tony Gonzalez also means that the Falcons may have to rely on multiple options to fill that void.

The Falcons could opt to find this player in free agency or the draft. Neither avenue seems to be a better option than the other. Free agency probably will cost a bit more, but you certainly are getting a more proven commodity that can contribute immediately. If the Falcons opt to draft someone, the value there is the potential that cheaper player can potentially develop into a starter in 2015 or beyond. Roddy White will be 33 when his contract expires at the end of 2014, and typically receivers of his caliber can produce as starters up to around age 35 or 36. So while he may still have something left in the tank, by 2015 one can expect to see diminishing returns. Thus it behooves the Falcons that if possible, they can start to groom his eventual replacement sooner rather than later. Another benefit of signing a free agent is the potential that player could challenge or surpass Douglas on the depth chart and thus represent a clear and immediate upgrade to the spot. On the other hand with a rookie, you run the risk that the player makes little to no contribution in his first year, and the possibility that he never does.

Kevin Cone, Drew Davis, and Kerry Meier all will also be in camp next summer as all three are signed through 2013. All three players have flashed ability to provide depth for the team, but not to a degree that suggests any are ready to be significant options in the Falcons passing game next year. All three players’ primary value to the Falcons is on special teams, but again due to the potential departure of Gonzalez, there is room for guys to start contributing offensively. Cone possesses a skillset that probably best fits what the Falcons might be looking for in a fourth option due to his size and vertical speed, but he has struggled with consistency and catching the ball in his short time in Atlanta. Davis possesses good quickness suggesting his potential may lie in the slot, but he is still unpolished. Meier is a big target with good hands, but has marginal speed and quickness to suggest he poses much of a threat to NFL defenses. James Rodgers, Tim Toone, and Marcus Jackson will also be in camp next year. And while they have developmental potential, the Falcons probably can’t expect to get anything more out of them that they didn’t get out of Cone, Davis, or Meier this past year.

Now, I doubt this position will be a high priority for the Falcons. They may not consider it a need at all. They certainly did not a year ago. Last year, they brought 11 receivers to training camp, and currently 9 wideouts are under contract for the team. They may just bet that between the half dozen guys not named Sharod, Harold, and Quintorris, competition will be enough to get more from this position group. Personally, I’m not sure if that’s a good bet.

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 FA Focus: Running Back

January 31st, 2013 Comments off
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

DeAngelo Williams

As noted when discussing the Falcons needs at the running back position, it is likely that the team will opt to go for a young back in the draft rather than free agency. If the Falcons are looking for a guy that can fill the mantle as the team’s feature back and sustain the team’s ground attack with a heavy workload, there will be better options come April in the draft than in the free agent market in March. But if the Falcons prefer someone that can split reps with Rodgers and Snelling to form more of a three-man committee system, they should have plenty of options in free agency.

The biggest names to hit the free agent market will likely be Steven Jackson (Rams) and Reggie Bush (Dolphins). Jackson is fast approaching the end of his career, as retirement talk has been broached. Jackson still has a bit left in the tank, but similar to the likely departing Michael Turner, he is a shell of the runner he once was. The value that Jackson brings is that he’s a veteran that is comfortable in the passing game, and still has retained some quickness and burst, certainly more than Turner. He would represent an upgrade, but not a significant one. The other downside of signing Jackson is the likelihood it’s probably only a one-year stopgap which would mean the Falcons would need to hope that Jacquizz Rodgers emerges as a viable lead back candidate in 2013 or be right back searching for someone else come 2014.

Bush is a big name due to his former high draft status and high profile in New Orleans for years, not particularly because he’s a blessed runner. Bush still has excellent quickness and speed to make the big plays. But in two years in Miami, he proved that he is not quite capable of being a lead back, and should return to the duties he held in New Orleans which was primarily a situational runner that provides value in the passing game. Besides his home-run potential, Bush at this point in his career doesn’t bring much more to the table than Rodgers.

Another free agent is Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall. But Mendenhall’s injury history, off-field issues, character, coupled with limited value in the passing game likely will keep him firmly off Atlanta’s radar.

Restricted free agent Chris Ivory (Saints) could draw attention. He’ll likely receive a second-round tender from the Saints, which may be a steep price to pay for him. Ivory has similar tools as Jason Snelling, except his superior footwork, balance, and burst probably make him a better candidate to be a lead back. But he’s limited in the passing game, which is the main reason why he has yet to flourish in New Orleans despite being consistently productive whenever he does get reps. While Ivory has some upside due to his youth, giving the division rival Saints a second round pick for his services seems too high especially given the fact that the Falcons could use that pick on a more well-rounded player in the draft.

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