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Ranking the Falcons 2014: Recapping the Top 40

July 23rd, 2014 No comments

In case you missed any of the ongoing series of articles ranking the Top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons in 2014:

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 4 Desmond Trufant

July 23rd, 2014 No comments

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Desmond Trufant

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with fourth-ranked player: cornerback Desmond Trufant.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 85/100

Last year’s rank: 18
Player Grade: 70/100
Teams he is starter: 32 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 19 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +4

Trufant was a player that I was not super high on when the Falcons drafted him with their top pick. While seeing him as a “solid” player, I never really suspected that he would be more than an above average to good corner, but certainly had no illusions that he’d step in and be great as a rookie.

Then his play last preseason did not exactly inspire me to change that opinion, and I expected Drew Brees to feast on him during the 2013 season-opener against the New Orleans Saints. That prediction proved wrong.

While Trufant did have his fair share of early struggles, at no point last year did he look out of his element. It was perhaps Trufant’s game against Vincent Jackson in Week 7 that most impressed me. While he got beat several times in that game, he never backed down at any point. It reminded me of Brent Grimes’ performance against Anquan Boldin in 2010. Up until that game I had never really bought into the Grimes “hype,” but despite giving up several big catches to a very physical Boldin, Grimes was always in position but just couldn’t make the play.

Soon thereafter, I became one of the biggest champions of Grimes and while I’m not sure I could say the same in regard to Trufant, he’s right on the brink. Trufant will get several more big tests early in 2014, with potential matchups against A.J. Green, Jackson and Brandon Marshall, all of whom are top 15 if not top 10 wide receivers in the NFL currently. And of course that could culminate in London in Week 8 against none other than Calvin Johnson.

So Trufant will be tested early and often, but if he picks up where he left off last year then there is every reason to believe he will prove himself as one of the league’s premier corners. Over the final six games last year, Trufant only blew three coverages (per Moneyball) despite being targeted 31 times (per Pro Football Focus). Comparatively speaking, over the first six games, Trufant blew nine coverages on 38 targets. It was visible on tape at the end of the season that quarterbacks were purposefully shying away from throwing at his side.

That’s the mark of a true No. 1 cornerback, which we’ve seen for stretches with Grimes and Asante Samuel before in Atlanta. I’m not quite ready to place Trufant on that level yet. But due to the tough matchups he’ll face this season, it may only take a few solid performances early on before I do put Trufant on that pedestal.

The main concern with Trufant is a “sophomore slump.” That may not mean that he plays poorly this year, but his performance this season could be more reminiscent of the player that he looked like through the first half of the season than he did in the latter half. It won’t mean that he won’t be a better player than he was then, but simply given the level of competition, it would only be reasonable that he could be a little more inconsistent to start 2014 than he was when he finished 2013. And another reason why sophomore slumps occur, is the much higher expectations that come after a strong rookie campaign. It may be that some will put Trufant on an even loftier pedestal than Grimes or Samuel, and those may be expectations he’s not prepared to live up to.

But regardless, it’s clear that Trufant has the ability and potential to be one of the best corners in the league. It’s only a matter of whether his play on the field will bear that out this season.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 5 William Moore

July 23rd, 2014 No comments

Josh D. Weiss-US PRESSWIRE

William Moore

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with fifth-ranked player: safety William Moore.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 82/100

Last year’s rank: 9
Player Grade: 69/100
Teams he is starter: 30 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 25 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +3

Moore gets a slight bump in the ratings thanks to the departures of Asante Samuel and Tony Gonzalez, coupled with the slips of Sean Weatherspoon, Jonathan Babineaux and Osi Umenyiora.

But expectations should be that Moore’s performance should improve from a year ago. Coming off a Pro Bowl year in 2012, Moore fell well short of that standard in 2013. He should be poised for a rebound year if he can get improved play at the free safety position from Dwight Lowery. If Lowery can be a stabilizing force in coverage and against the run, then it should allow Moore to get back to what he was best at in 2012: being aggressive.

Moore isn’t blessed with great coverage ability. In fact, under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons have gone out of their way to mask Moore’s coverage flaws by limiting the number of opportunities he’s matched up in man coverage against quality receivers and tight ends. This has put added stress on the free safety position to pick up the slack in coverage, which is why Lowery’s performance is important.

Instead, Moore excels as an enforcer against the run. He’s one of the hardest-hitting strong safeties in the league and has made his fair share of highlight-reel hits over the years. Many of those hits have also led to a number of forced fumbles over the years. His eight forced fumbles over the past four seasons is tied for the sixth-most among NFL defensive backs.

He’s also very opportunistic when he’s playing in coverage over the top, with a knack for intercepting tipped passes. In fact, nine of Moore’s 14 career interceptions have been as a result of tipped passes or overthrows.

Although already a defensive leader, Moore will take on a heavier burden this season given the injury to former collegiate teammate and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. Moore will have to find a balance between aggressiveness and discipline given a young, relatively unproven group of Falcons linebackers in front of him.

It’s an important year for Moore and how he performs could solidify him as one of the league’s premier safeties and be a critical factor in any Falcons defensive resurgence in 2014.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 6 Jon Asamoah

July 22nd, 2014 No comments

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Jon Asamoah

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with sixth-ranked player: offensive guard Jon Asamoah.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 82/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 70/100
Teams he is starter: 30 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 20 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +3
Positional Bonus: +3

Of the Falcons prominent offseason additions, Asamoah is the most talented. He has the potential to immediately step into the starting lineup at right guard and become the team’s best blocker.

Asamoah comes from Kansas City where he spent the past three seasons as one of the better guards in the league. He ranked among the top 21 among premium website Pro Football Focus’ grades in each of the past three years, with 2013 being his weakest thanks in part to injuries and changes in scheme.

Asamoah missed the 2013 season-opener with a calf injury, but came back to start the next nine games for the Chiefs and played well. Then a shoulder injury in Week 11 sidelined him for the following week, and his replacement, Geoff Schwartz, played well enough that the Chiefs’ coaching staff opted to go with the “hot hand” for the remainder of the season.

But here in Atlanta, the expectations are that a now healthy Asamoah should pick up where he left off and solidify a problem spot for the Falcons at right guard.

The Falcons have featured a revolving door of ineptitude at right guard since opting to let Harvey Dahl walk in 2011. Garrett Reynolds and Joe Hawley struggled at the position that year, followed by Reynolds and Peter Konz the past two years.

Asamoah certainly will be a stabilizing force over his predecessors, and hopefully that will have positive impacts on linemates beside him in Hawley at center and right tackle Jake Matthews. Asamoah certainly offers an upgrade in pass protection, which will definitely benefit quarterback Matt Ryan.

The only concern about Asamoah is in essence how good he will be this year. Asamoah shined in the zone-blocking scheme of Kansas City over the years, using his superior mobility and athleticism to open up creases for the likes of running back Jamaal Charles. However, the Chiefs under Andy Reid last season began to gear themselves more towards a power, man-blocking scheme. That was one of the reasons why the team swapped in Schwartz, who was a much better fit in that particuar style of blocking. But even with the changes the Chiefs still managed to run a large amount of zone-blocking runs, a larger percentage than the Falcons have traditionally run over the past six seasons.

It remains to be seen if the Falcons will adapt their blocking scheme to feature Asamoah’s strengths more. At 305 pounds, Asamoah is not especially cut out to be a pile-mover at the guard position, which is what Dahl was and what the team hoped Reynolds and Konz could develop into. Such an adaptation to the scheme may also benefit left tackle Sam Baker, as well as Hawley and Matthews, who are lighter players that aren’t known for their “road-grading” abilities. Coupled with the team’s running back personnel in Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman, quicker backs that need adequate spacing, several signs point to the Falcons utilizing more zone-blocking in 2014 and beyond. It’s just a matter of how much.

If the Falcons make that switch in blocking scheme then it’s likely that Asamoah will have equal if not greater success in Atlanta as he did in Kansas City. If not, then it shouldn’t lead to Asamoah struggling since he should still be able to impact in pass protection, but it could make him a less effective all-around player and fail to meet the lofty expectations that his high ranking merits.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 7 Sean Weatherspoon

July 22nd, 2014 No comments

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Weatherspoon

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with seventh-ranked player: linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 78/100

Last year’s rank: 6
Player Grade: 64/100
Teams he is starter: 29 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 17 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

Despite the fact that Weatherspoon will not play this season, he still ranks among the team’s best players. While his production has dipped under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, he still has been the team’s most impactful linebacker.

The big concern with Spoon has always been his durability. Over the course of his four-year career, he’s missed a third of the team’s defensive snaps, most of which came during 2010 and 2013.

Weatherspoon possesses top-level traits which is why the Falcons drafted him in the first round in 2010. His speed and range are excellent, allowing him to cover sideline-to-sideline to make plays in pursuit. His closing burst on the ball is solid and his instincts are good. While possessing the athleticism and hips to match up in coverage, Spoon has struggled from time to time in that regard. His match ups against running back Darren Sproles have been one-sided in the past, usually in Sproles’ favor. He’s also been inconsistent when asked to cover tight ends in recent years, not reliably playing up to his athleticism.

All that said, Spoon’s future in Atlanta is in doubt. This year was going to be a make or break year for him, to show he can stay healthy and prove that he was a good fit in Nolan’s scheme. He possesses more of the classic traits for a 4-3 weak-side linebacker, which is where he excelled in 2011 in then defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s theme. That season he received the fifth-highest grade from premium website Pro Football Focus among 4-3 outside linebackers.

While his fit in Nolan’s multiple hybrid scheme was not poor, it was more or less like a oval peg being fit into a round hole. Taking on blockers at the point of attack was another weakness of Weatherspoon’s, however additions like nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson should have helped mitigate that to a certain extent this season.

This season marks the final year on Spoon’s rookie contract, and the Falcons will have to make a decision on his future next offseason. What that decision is remains to be seen. At this point, the best-case scenario is likely a modest, one-year “prove it” deal where Spoon can earn a long-term deal in 2016 if he plays up to expectations in 2015. Spoon’s cause will certainly be helped if linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu struggle this year in his absence. However, if either or both play well, it might prompt the Falcons to move on from Spoon next spring.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 8 Justin Blalock

July 21st, 2014 No comments
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Blalock

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 8th-ranked player: offensive guard Justin Blalock.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 78/100

Last year’s rank: 10
Player Grade: 69/100
Teams he is starter: 29 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 18 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +3

Blalock’s ranking increased simply from the fact that he is coming off one of the better seasons he’s had in a Falcon uniform. Blalock’s solid 2013 season probably looks better in comparison considering many of the other Falcons blockers were especially bad. But Blalock’s play in 2013 was an uptick in his play over at least the two previous seasons, where he struggled to make an impact.

At least in the early going of the season, Blalock was one of the few Falcons blockers playing at a high level. His production dipped a bit over the final month of the season, when the blocking as a whole took a significant step back. Blalock only generated one key block over the final four games, after tallying 9.5 in the previous 12. He also gave up 3.5 of his total 4.5 sacks allowed in the final fives games of the 2013 season. There were also five hurries allowed in the final three games, with 8.5 total for the season.

But Blalock should be expected to bounce back this year and play at a level comparable to his play through the first three-quarters of 2013. He should be helped by a healthy return of left tackle Sam Baker, as well as the fact that the team should have an upgrade at right guard in Jon Asamoah. Typically, NFL teams slide their protections the left, leading the center to help out the left guard moreso than the right one. With Asamoah being capable of being left on an island at right guard, that should allow Blalock more help on his side.

Read more…

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 9 Matt Bosher

July 21st, 2014 No comments
Josh D. Weiss-US PRESSWIRE

Matt Bosher

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 9th-ranked player: punter Matt Bosher.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 75/100

Last year’s rank: 17
Player Grade: 67/100
Teams he is starter: 23 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 23 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 23 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +5
Positional Bonus: +2

Why does Bosher rank so highly? Well, firstly he’s a really good punter. And my scoring system (linked above) doesn’t negatively effect a really good player at a low-value position like punter as other rankings might. Such a player is always going to be rated higher than an average player at a high-value position.

And secondly, I repeat that Bosher is a really good punter.

For much of his 2011 rookie season, Bosher drew considerable criticism from me for poor play. If there’s any player on the Falcons team that you’re retroactively making the argument was hurt most by the 2011 lockout, it was probably Bosher. For most of the first half of that season, he was the worst punter in the league. But by year’s end, his play had started to reach adequate levels, and hasn’t look back ever since.

Now entering his fourth year in league, Bosher is one of the premier young punters. He’s one of a handful of punters that also kick off for their respective teams. Per Pro Football Focus, Bosher had the third-lowest percentage of kickoffs returned by opposing teams, meaning that he can consistently boot touchbacks and keep teams from starting drives beyond their own 20-yard line.

He also graded among PFF’s top five punters and shined particularly with getting hang time in open field punts. His strong leg is able to help flip field position, but he can also control that booming leg with good hangtime. More often that not, breakdowns on the Falcons punt team over the past two years have been due to poor coverage or poor blocking leading to two punts blocked last season.

Bosher is still growing as a player, but he’s morphed himself into one of the team’s best players. It’s a good bet that among the 2011 draft picks, he’ll be the first one to earn a contract extension, even before wide receiver Julio Jones.

And if you needed a third reason for Bosher’s high ranking, then just go back and watch highlights of his performance against the New York Jets.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 10 Jonathan Babineaux

July 21st, 2014 No comments
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Babineaux

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 10th-ranked player: defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 74/100

Last year’s rank: 7
Player Grade: 67/100
Teams he is starter: 29 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 14 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +0
Positional Bonus: +3

While his salary may have been eclipsed by the likes of Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson this offseason, Babineaux still remains the team’s best defensive linemen. He’s only player up front that is a steady every-down player, meaning can make plays both against the run and the pass.

The issue for Babineaux is that his play has declined each year since his breakout season in 2009. Each year, there appear to be less and less games where Babineaux’s impact along the line of scrimmage is clear. In 2012, he had that sort of impact in roughly half the games played. A year ago, that figure was virtually cut in half.

One of the possible reasons for that is simply the natural decline that comes with age. Babineaux turns 33 in October, and typically it’s around age 31 or 32 when plays of his ilk start to decline. That ilk is penetrating tackles that rely on getting upfield and being disruptive in the backfield.

But another reason for that is due to the sheer number of reps he was forced to play last year. Per premium website Pro Football Focus, Babineaux played in 87 percent of the Falcons’ defensive snaps last season. That is way too much for a player at this point in his career. That number hopefully can be reduced to under 60 percent in 2014.

Another promising thing is that Babineaux’s new three-year contract should keep him in Atlanta for the remainder of his career. None of his cap hits become prohibitive, with the highest being $3.67 million in 2015, which is still lower than any of the cap hits he’s had over the past five seasons since signing an extension in 2008. That means that as long as his production is up to par, Babineaux should have a spot on the Falcons roster.

Keeping that production up to par will require help from a stronger rotation, which the Falcons have seemingly added with the additions of Soliai and Jackson, as well as drafting Ra’Shede Hageman. Malliciah Goodman will also be a heavy factor in the mix as well. The Falcons don’t really have an excuse to overuse Babineaux in 2014, which should mean that his production could rebound back to 2012 levels if Father Time hasn’t taken too much of a toll.

Babineaux is an important piece in the Mike Nolan defense. Playing a mix of five-technique defensive end and three-technique defensive tackle, Babineaux is a versatile player that has proven to be disruptive at either spot. The latter position is probably his most natural, where Babineaux should earn more opportunities particularly if players like Hageman and Goodman can earn significant snaps as five-technique ends.

Ideally, Babineaux’s primary role will come on third downs when the Falcons will likely employ a four-man front. That way, Babineaux’s quick burst upfield can be saved for passing situations with Hageman and Goodman taking the brunt of the snaps in running situations. That would be the best way to utilize Babineaux and save him wear and tear this season.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 11 Paul Soliai

July 21st, 2014 No comments

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Soliai

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 11th-ranked player: defensive tackle Paul Soliai.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 69/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 63/100
Teams he is starter: 22 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 14 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 31 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +3

While Soliai is a two-down player, the simple reality in the NFL is that every team needs a couple of players like that. Certain players that can be really effective against the run, something that Soliai is capable of being. It’s why Soliai could find a role with 31 other NFL teams and could start on roughly two-thirds of NFL teams because most teams still employ base personnel that is geared towards defending the run.

For the record however, I’d also like to state that I think the 3-4 nose tackle is one of the more overrated positions, at least in terms of overall value in today’s NFL. Many people believe that the 3-4 nose tackle is the essential piece to making a good 3-4 defense, but history clearly disagrees with that. While nose tackles like Vince Wilfork and Casey Hampton were great on past top New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers defenses, respectively, it was instead ends like Richard Seymour and Aaron Smith that really were the lynchpins to both of those defenses’ successes. The same holds true today, with top 3-4 defenses usually having a dominant end (e.g. J.J. Watt, Justin Smith, Calais Campbell, Muhammad Wilkerson, etc.) rather than a dominant nose tackle (e.g. Earl Mitchell, Isaac Sopoaga, Dan Williams, Damon Harrison, etc.).

There certainly was a time when the conventional wisdom that having a good nose tackle was true, but that wisdom stems from an era of the NFL where running the ball was still the norm. In today’s NFL, most teams pull their nose tackles off the field in passing situations, which are also now the majority of plays, thus decreasing their value.

It was one of the main reasons why I wasn’t too thrilled when the Falcons elected to give Soliai a $33 million contract this offseason. While Soliai is probably one of the premier nose tackles in the league, that might not be saying as much given the aforementioned decreasing value of the position. Most NFL teams are plugging and playing with middle and late-round talent.

However, Soliai will help the Falcons beef up their run support and will be primarily tasked with keeping blockers off inside linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu. While that might not be as valuable as it was say a decade ago, it still holds value especially playing in a division where teams like Carolina and Tampa Bay operate run-based offenses.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 12 Corey Peters

July 20th, 2014 No comments

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Corey Peters

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 12th-ranked player: defensive tackle Corey Peters.

To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.

Total Score: 68/100

Last year’s rank: 14
Player Grade: 59/100
Teams he is starter: 23 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 12 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 31 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +2
Positional Bonus: +3

Peters’ ranking is high based on the possibility that he’s fully healthy in 2014, which recent discussions indicate may be the case.

He suffered a torn Achilles tendon at the end of last season, an injury that has been one that took 18 months to recover. While players were able to return in less time, they did not appear to look close to their former selves until after that 18-month deadline.

However recent breakthroughs in medical science have the conventional wisdom all twisted. Falcons linebacker Kroy Biermann suffered the same injury last September and has shown no limitations thus far this offseason. Former Falcon cornerback Brent Grimes suffered the same injury a year prior, and was no worse for wear last season with the Miami Dolphins.

How such an Achilles injury effects a massive body like Peters however could be different. New England’s Vince Wilfork and Dallas’ Tyrone Crawford are defensive linemen that suffered the same injury last season as well. Former New York Jet defensive end Ropati Pitoitua missed all of 2010 with a torn Achilles, but came back in 2011 and picked up where he left off.

So there is certainly reason to be optimistic for Peters in the immediate future. If Peters manages to pick up where he left off, he could be considered the team’s best defensive lineman.

Read more…

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