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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 10 Jonathan Babineaux

July 21st, 2014 Comments off
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 Comments off

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 Comments off

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.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 13 Sam Baker

July 20th, 2014 Comments off

Fernando Medina-US PRESSWIRE

Sam Baker

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 13th-ranked player: offensive tackle Sam Baker.

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

Total Score: 67/100

Last year’s rank: 15
Player Grade: 62/100
Teams he is starter: 22 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 5 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +2
Positional Bonus: +4

2014 will mark a very important season for Sam Baker’s career. After six mostly impressive seasons with the Falcons, Baker is up against the wall.

Throughout the first four years of his career, Baker battled injuries and inconsistency. But the Falcons continued to show faith in their 2008 first-round pick.

Baker managed to have a breakthrough season at the right time, in a contract year in 2012. That landed him a $41 million contract the following offseason, but Baker rewarded the Falcons’ loyalty with another injury-plagued and poor 2013 season.

Now, Baker will have to bounce back and play at a level comparable to his 2012 level or else face the proposition of finding a new team with Falcons rookie Jake Matthews looking over his shoulder.

Baker carries a cap hit of $7.3 million in 2015, which is pretty pricey for an underachieving left tackle, especially if you have a potential upgrade already on the roster in Matthews. The Falcons would have to eat $9.2 million in dead money if they release him next year, seemingly protecting Baker for another year. However, if the Falcons opted to cut Baker as a post-June 1st release, they would only have to take on $2.8 million in dead money meaning the team could reap $4.5 million in savings.

That’s a pretty big carrot to dangle in front of the Falcons, and thus it’s paramount that Baker plays well in 2014. Frankly considering Baker’s history, his play is going to have to be outstanding to merit being kept on given those potential cap savings.

Injuries have been a big part of Baker’s inconsistency, but it has also hurt Baker that he has never been an ideal fit in the team’s blocking scheme over the years. The Falcons have primarily been a man-blocking team that relied on their individual blockers to create space and push in the run game. Baker spent the entirety of his collegiate career at Southern California playing in a zone-blocking scheme, where it was movement that was there to create space.

Baker struggled with the man-blocking system for the first four years of his career, but things started to click in 2012. It’s possible that with additions like Matthews and Asamoah the Falcons could feature a bit more zone-blocking this year, as that style could benefit them as well. If so, then Baker has an opportunity to stop being the liability in the run game that he was his first four years with the team.

But more importantly, Baker’s status will depend heavily on his ability in pass protection. As the team’s left tackle and quarterback Matt Ryan’s blindside protector, those have been his primary duties. Providing hope that Baker could be improved there is the fact that he did a solid job containing the likes of Greg Hardy in the Falcons Week 9 loss to the Carolina Panthers last season.

Basically Baker needs to have several games at that level this year to maintain his hold on a roster spot. It’s not just his future in Atlanta that is at jeopardy, but also his future in the league. An injury-prone, underachieving left tackle that has only played left tackle in the NFL is not that valuable a commodity elsewhere, except on teams that are bottom feeders.

Baker is capable of stepping up his play, but it’s just a matter of will he actually do so. If his body of work over the past six years are what we are judging by, then there isn’t much room for optimism.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 14 Jake Matthews

July 20th, 2014 Comments off

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Matthews

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 14th-ranked player: offensive tackle Jake Matthews.

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

Total Score: 65/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 57/100
Teams he is starter: 21 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 2 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +5
Positional Bonus: +4

Matthews is the shining gem of the Falcons 2014 draft class and will have plenty of expectations on him, not only for this season but his career in Atlanta.

As the son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, arguably one of the great offensive linemen to ever play in the NFL, Jake is no stranger to expectations. Bruce played 19 seasons at guard, tackle and center and was voted to the Pro Bowl 14 times.

Frankly, if Jake is able to achieve half of those accomplishments, he’ll go down as one of the best Falcon blockers in team history.

But in many cases, we might be getting a bit ahead of ourselves with projecting Matthews’ career path. While there is no doubt that Matthews is a talented prospect, he’s also by no means a slam dunk to be a successful NFL player.

An area where Matthews will have to improve upon is his strength. While Matthews has some of the more polished footwork and technique I’ve seen over the past decade in a collegiate tackle, those things can only take you so far in the NFL. Being able to use your upper body and hands are just as important at the pro level due to the skill of edge-rushers he’ll face.

Matthews is pegged to be the team’s long-term left tackle, but at the outset he’ll be playing right tackle for the Falcons. It’s not really a question of whether he’ll win the job, since it’s already his, but how well he’ll handle the job as a rookie.

He’ll have some early tests in the regular season, which matchups against Cameron Jordan, Carlos Dunlap, Lamarr Houston and Elvis Dumervil. Later in the season, he could be facing the likes of Julius Peppers and Charles Johnson.

Thus, Matthews will have several opportunities to sink or swim. And while expectations are high, they should not be so high that people expect Matthews to come in right away and be great. That is a possibility but unlikely. As nearly all rookies suffer from, Matthews will likely have his ups and downs. How that balances out will be the thing to watch during Matthews’ rookie season.

Last season, we saw the top three tackles taken in the draft: Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson struggle early on. All three were playing right tackle in the pros after spending most of their college careers on the left side. The positive for Matthews is that he played right tackle for three years opposite Joeckel at Texas A&M, and thus his stint on the right side of the Falcons line should be like putting on an old shoe.

But it’s certainly possible that just like his predecessors, Matthews struggles initially in Atlanta. If he can manage to improve as the season wears on, then things are going to be right on track for his development.

Matthews forms a large piece of the Falcons’ puzzle when it comes to their revamping of the offensive line to try and protect quarterback Matt Ryan’s future. Ryan has blossomed into one of the league’s premier quarterbacks in recent years, which has also coincided with a significant downturn in play among the team’s offensive line. The hope is that the team can get even more from their quarterback if he can remain upright.

Matthews is the biggest part of that effort, and whether it’s at right tackle this year or left tackle in the years beyond, he’ll be that stabilizing force that can allow the team to better protect their $104 million asset.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 15 Dwight Lowery

July 20th, 2014 Comments off

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Lowery

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 15th-ranked player: safety Dwight Lowery.

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

Total Score: 64/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 57/100
Teams he is starter: 20 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 10 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 31 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +2
Positional Bonus: +3

When the Falcons signed Lowery in early April, he appeared to be an afterthought for the team’s offseason plan to upgrade the free safety position after releasing Thomas DeCould in March.

Given the team’s need to find a suitable starter, Lowery appeared as a consolation prize. But he may be anything but.

Lowery is potentially an upgrade over DeCoud and not just the version of the former Falcons safety who played so poorly in 2013, but also the version that went to the Pro Bowl in 2012.

Lowery is an upgrade in several areas, particularly as a tackler. While Lowery would never be confused with an enforcer in run support, he takes good angles and consistently wraps up.

More importantly, Lowery is also an upgrade in man coverage, which will be critical for success in Mike Nolan’s defense. Lowery began his career as a cornerback with the New York Jets in 2008, serving as their nickel corner until injuries forced him to move to safety in 2010. He was then traded to the Jacksonville Jaguars the following year, where he was quietly one of their better defensive players over the next two seasons.

The main knock on Lowery is durability. He’s missed time every season since his rookie year, none more than last year when a blindside hit from Golden Tate caused a concussion that forced him out for the rest of the season. That led to his release and he became a player that snuck through the cracks in the initial weeks of free agency.

But Lowery’s presence should become more of a stabilizing force beside strong safety William Moore, whose play is geared towards aggression. When Moore can be aggressive, he’s at his best. But it was hard for him to be so in 2013 with the Falcons due to the poor performance of DeCoud.

If Lowery can be the ball-hawking, assignment-sound sort of free safety that DeCoud was in 2012, then it will free up Moore to be able to make more plays.

Lowery is operating under a one-year deal with the Falcons, so he seemingly is only viewed as a stopgap. But that could turn into something greater if he has a successful season. While the Falcons are poised to develop 2014 third-round pick Dezmen Southward long-term, there’s no reason why a productive Lowery can’t be brought back for another year to compete with him. It will be similar to the team’s decision to keep Erik Coleman in 2010 after both Moore and DeCoud had earned the starting jobs.

If Lowery doesn’t perform up to task, then the Falcons can move on with Southward and/or another option. In the end, he’s a relatively low risk for the Falcons that hope can pay big dividends this season.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 16 Matt Bryant

July 19th, 2014 Comments off

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Bryant

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 16th-ranked player: kicker Matt Bryant.

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

Total Score: 61/100

Last year’s rank: 11
Player Grade: 60/100
Teams he is starter: 19 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 19 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 19 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +0
Positional Bonus: +2

Originally signed late in 2009 to replace the struggling Jason Elam, Bryant has been the epitome of consistency since joining the Falcons.

He has made 91 percent of his field goal tries in the Georgia Dome and has been outstanding in the clutch.

The only real issue concerning Bryant is age. At 39 years old, he’s reached the same age that Elam was during his final, disastrous season in Atlanta. And it’s only a matter of time before things go awry for Bryant as Father Time is undefeated.

But there’s no telling when that point will arrive. It could happen this year or it could happen three years from now.

This upcoming season marks the final year on Bryant’s current contract and it remains to be seen if he’ll continue playing beyond this year. But it’s probably a good bet that this will mark Bryant’s last season as a Falcon and the team will go with a younger option next season.

The hope is that Bryant can stave off Father Time for at least one more season and buy the Falcons a bit more time before they have to make a decision about the future of their kicking position.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 17 Joe Hawley

July 19th, 2014 Comments off

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Hawley

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 17th-ranked player: center Joe Hawley.

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

Total Score: 60/100

Last year’s rank: 26
Player Grade: 53/100
Teams he is starter: 11 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 10 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

No different than teammate Peter Konz, 2014 will mark a very important season in the career of Joe Hawley.

It will be his first legitimate opportunity to hold down the Falcons’ starting center spot after spending most of the past two years looking over Konz’s shoulder.

Hawley stepped in over the final seven games of 2013 as the team’s starting center after the Falcons grew tired of Konz’s poor play. While Hawley wasn’t great, he played mostly well and was one of the few blockers that left positive feelings from his performance in 2013.

The goal will be for Hawley to pick up where he left off (although not exactly where he left off) from a year ago and continue solid to strong play in 2014.

It’s one thing to be an upgrade over one of the league’s worst centers for seven games, and it’s another to show that you can play at a relatively high level for a full slate of 16 games.

Hawley re-signed with the Falcons this past offseason on a two-year contract. And if he doesn’t play well this year, it will be harder for the Falcons to justify his return in 2015 with a cap hit of $4 million. It’s not an exorbitant figure, but it’s a lot more than a team would prefer to pay for a starting center who is not producing.

Years ago when Justin Tuck labeled the Falcons offensive line a bunch of dirt bags, it was likely Hawley that was the primary cause of that reputation.

With a penchant for playing beyond the whistle, Hawley has shown that he’s an able run blocker, but needs to solidify his pass protection.

Hawley turns 26 in October, and potentially could have a long career ahead of him if he can elevate his play to that next level.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 18 Paul Worrilow

July 19th, 2014 Comments off

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Worrilow

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 18th-ranked player: linebacker Paul Worrilow.

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

Total Score: 60/100

Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 56/100
Teams he is starter: 18 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 31 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

Worrilow certainly qualifies as the player that made the biggest leap in this year’s rankings considering his humble origins as an undrafted free agent last year. Expected to be a camp body last summer, Worrilow is now going to be counted upon to be a key difference-maker in the Falcons defense.

That has been largely brought on by the recent season-ending injury to fellow linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. But even before Weatherspoon went down, Worrilow was expected to be a big part of the team’s defensive resurgence in 2014.

Worrilow impressed last summer and coupled with the shoddy play of Akeem Dent, made a swift and prompt move into the starting lineup at middle linebacker.

One of the reasons why Worrilow was so impressive as a rookie was his natural feel for the game and instincts. He certainly showed a better knack for diagnosing plays and being in proper position than Dent, who had more than two years worth of NFL experience on him.

But there were still several times last season where Worrilow looked and played like a rookie. Yet, the Falcons remain optimistic that many of those issues can be ironed out.

Not blessed with great size and strength, Worrilow has bulked up this offseason to improve his tackling.

Another area where he’ll need to improve is in coverage. Last season, he wasn’t asked to play a ton of man coverage and there will be more opportunities this year. And it’s a question of whether Worrilow or opposing teams will take advantage of those increased opportunities.

Worrilow has the potential to grow into one of the better inside linebackers in the league, and should be helped by the beef the Falcons have provided in front of him that should better shield him from blockers and take advantage of those instincts to make plays.

As a second-year player, Worrilow is going to be asked to be the stabilizing force for the middle of the Falcons defense. He’s certainly capable of being that player, but it’s now going to have to be displayed on the field. Had Weatherspoon been aligned beside him, it would have made Worrilow’s job easier. But in the face of adversity, some plays will rise while others will fall. In the case of Worrilow, he now has to be the former.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 19 Steven Jackson

July 19th, 2014 Comments off

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Steven Jackson

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 19th-ranked player: running back Steven Jackson.

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

Total Score: 59/100

Last year’s rank: 13
Player Grade: 59/100
Teams he is starter: 12 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 9 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +0
Positional Bonus: +3

Jackson has spent the bulk of his career as one of the league’s most consistent running backs. That consistency coupled with his durability were two of the main reasons why the Falcons were attracted by Jackson last offseason as their most notable free-agent signing.

But durability became a problem in 2013 as Jackson suffered a hamstring injury against his former team, the St. Louis Rams, in Week 2. He missed the next four games and then spent a few more games shaking off the rust before the Falcons started to see the player they had paid for.

However, Jackson still did not quite live up to the billing.

Coupled with a prolific passing attack, the Falcons intended to have Jackson finish games for them with his hard-running style and toughness to salt away leads. However, due to the injuries suffered at the wide receiver position, those plans were nixed early in the year. In the second half of 2013, Jackson wound up being asked to be the guy that drives the metaphorical bus for the Falcons offense.

Last season, Jackson was not capable of being that sort of player and really hasn’t been since 2011.

However, it certainly did not help Jackson’s cause that the Falcons offensive line was so porous, coupled with a defense that could not get enough stops to build leads.

And while time won’t rewind for Jackson, the hope is that improvements made in both those areas will give Jackson more opportunities to shine in 2014.

Jackson’s durability will also be very important for the team this year. He’s currently the only running back on the roster that has shown he’s capable of getting the tough, interior yards that are necessary in the NFL. So while there is certainly a decline in Jackson’s play in recent years, his value to the Falcons may have only increased.

Jackson will need to showcase that value this year due to the probability that it may be his last season in Atlanta. While signed through 2015, it’s going to be increasingly harder for the Falcons to justify keeping Jackson, who will be 32 next year and costing the team nearly $5 million in cap space.

And the only way that could be justified is if Jackson eclipses 1,000 yards and is every bit the player the team envisioned when they signed him. But even then, that may not be enough.

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