For five seasons the Atlanta Falcons’ tight end position was one of the league’s best due to the presence of Tony Gonzalez, but now entering 2014 could have possibly morphed into one of the league’s weakest units.
There are unanswered questions heading into training camp at this position, centering mostly on whether Levine Toilolo is ready to take over for Gonzalez.
Toilolo was drafted in the fourth round of last year’s draft and tabbed as the heir apparent to Gonzalez. However, despite the team’s youth movement at most other positions in the second half of 2013, the Falcons never saw fit to really get Toilolo on the field. It raises questions about the level of confidence the team should have in the young tight end.
No one expects Toilolo to come close to filling Gonzalez’s shoes, but that doesn’t mean that expectations are low. Toilolo is currently penciled atop the Falcons depth chart at tight end, and thus should still at least act accordingly.
Toilolo won’t be one of the top starting tight ends in the league in 2014, but should at least look competent. And whether he can achieve that remains to be seen. The hope is that Toilolo eventually develops into a player similar to Marcedes Lewis, who Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter had in Jacksonville. Lewis has good size and is known mainly as one of the top blocking tight ends in the league, but is also an occasional playmaker and red-zone threat.
Toilolo has the tools to be that sort of player, but it might take some time before that sort of ability comes forth. It should be noted that Lewis got off to a slow start in his pro career. Toilolo will need a very strong preseason, something he lacked last summer, to allay any concerns about his immediate starting potential.
The Falcons announced their initial eight-man practice squad this afternoon. Seven of the players were released by the Falcons within the past week, including fullback Patrick DiMarco, quarterback Seth Doege, wide receivers Darius Johnson and James Rodgers, cornerback Jordan Mabin, guard Phillipkeith Manley, and defensive tackle Adam Replogle. The eighth member of the unit will be tight end Mickey Shuler, most recently with the Arizona Cardinals.
All the players except Doege were released by the Falcons yesterday in the team’s final cutdowns. Doege was a part of the team’s cutdown to 75 players last week. Doege, Johnson, and Replogle were undrafted rookies signed by the Falcons this past spring. Rodgers and Manley both will have their second stints on the team’s practice squad. DiMarco and Mabin were players added to the roster this summer that managed to impress enough in camp to stick around.
The Falcons mark the sixth team Shuler will play for since being a seventh round choice of the Minnesota Vikings in 2010 out of Penn State. He was cut by the Vikings during his first training camp, and then was picked up by the Miami Dolphins where he finished the year. The Dolphins cut him the following summer, and then he was added to the Vikings’ practice squad for a month before being elevated to their active roster. He was cut again by the Vikings last summer, and finished the season on the practice squad of the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders brought him back with a future contract this past January, but he would not make it through OTAs and was waived in May. The Bills claimed him, but he was waived again on the eve of training camp on July 27. The Arizona Cardinals then claimed him, but he was cut on Tuesday by the Cardinals. For his career, Shuler has appeared in 6 games, including a pair of starts, all with the Dolphins in 2010. He caught a pair of passes for 44 yards combined that season. Shuler is actually named after his father, who was an All-Pro tight end predominantly with the New York Jets in the 1980s.
He is predominantly known for his blocking ability. You can click here to read a scouting report of Shuler from the 2010 draft.