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Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Last Week – July 21, 2014

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

Falcons will be essentially the Julio Jones Show in 2014

The Atlanta Falcons begin training camp later this week, signaling that the NFL offseason is over. While there are still 46 days until the regular season kicks off, it now feels like football is finally right around the corner.

One of the best things about the NFL is the unpredictability of every season. Of the three major American sports, it is the most unpredictable from year to year.

Which brings me to the Falcons and what will happen in 2014. A lot can happen, which again reflects the uncertainty surrounding all 32 NFL teams. While I feel like there is a very large spectrum representing what can happen this year, the 2014 Falcons season could fall anywhere on that spectrum.

The worst-case scenario appears to be a Falcons season similar to the one we just suffered through in 2013. In that scenario, injuries continue to plague the team and/or many of the young players expected to step up this season do not do so.

But the best-case scenario likely sees the Falcons earning a playoff berth, most likely as a wildcard team. While I’d like to believe that the Falcons can win the NFC South, the rest of the division appears too tough for this team to reach that level.

And that’s because, while I think the Falcons can be good, I don’t expect them to be great. This is not a team like that 2012 team that has the potential to be special.

Yes, it’s true this team is stronger in a number of areas than that 2012 team. The offensive line play should be stronger this year with the addition of right guard Jon Asamoah.

While an addition like Jake Matthews will almost certainly upgrade the Falcons front from a year ago, I’m not sure it’s fair to expect Matthews to come in right away and be better than Tyson Clabo was in 2012. That year was by no means the best season Clabo had in a Falcon uniform, but he still played at a fairly high level for a large chunk of the year. That would be a tall order for a rookie tackle like Matthews.

But it’s those types of the things that have me considering what are the biggest keys to success for the Falcons 2014 season.

The aforementioned play of the offensive line is certainly one, but the biggest key has to be the health of Julio Jones.

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Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Last Week – July 14, 2014

July 14th, 2014 No comments
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Ryan

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was snubbed from the NFL’s annual player-voted top 100 list. Ryan ranked 17th on the list a year ago following a career-best season in 2012. But after a dismal season from the Falcons in 2013, Ryan fell completely off the list. It marks the second time in three seasons that Ryan has not been elected by his peers as one of the league’s best 100 players.

As I wrote a year ago, I’ve never been a big fan of the top 100 because I think there is a clear bias in the voting. The fact that Ryan failed to be listed indicates one of those biases, which penalizes good players on bad teams. Exactly half of the players voted on the list played on one of the dozen playoff teams in 2013.

Several positions are poorly represented, indicating another bias. Last year, only six offensive linemen made the list. This year, that number increased to 10, but that still is far too few given the importance of impact blockers. There is still too much of a bias towards “fantasy” players, with 43 of the top 100 being either quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers or tight ends.

The simple fact that Ryan has only made the Top 100 list once in the past three years is very indicative of the lack of respect. Joe Flacco played very poorly last year, yet was voted 58th. We can say that is due to the Super Bowl bias. Simply put, because Flacco has a ring, he’s probably going to be grandfathered onto the list most years. After ranking 43rd in 2013, Eli Manning fell off the list entirely this year. So presumably if Flacco is once again terrible in 2014, then he might find his way off the list. But despite the widespread belief that Ryan is superior to Flacco as a quarterback, the Ravens team success allows Flacco to be among the top 60 players, while Ryan cannot crack the top 100.

But I can forgive that Super Bowl bias somewhat even though I disagree with it. But the one quarterback ranked ahead of Ryan that I struggle to grasp is Detroit’s Matt Stafford. Stafford has been voted onto the top 100 list for three consecutive years, and I’m just curious what his peers are seeing that the rest of us aren’t. Yes, Stafford has a rocket arm, one of the strongest in the league. But besides that, there isn’t much else to like about his game.

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Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Last Week – July 7, 2014

July 7th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Harry Douglas

The NFC South is expected to be one of the more competitive divisions in all of the football this season. But that is nothing new.

It’s a division so competitive, that no team in its 12-year existence has ever won the division in consecutive years. And I doubt that streak is broken in 2014.

The Carolina Panthers won the division in 2013, being carried by one of the league’s premier defenses and their ability to win a bunch of close games. After losing their two opening games last year by one score, the Panthers won all five one-score games in the second half of the season.

That ability to win close games is often the difference between whether or not you can win the division or not. The Panthers and Atlanta Falcons have benefited from it the most in the years where they have managed to win the division. In years where the Panthers won the NFC South (2003, 2008 and 2013), they have posted a combined 19-6 record in one-score games. The Falcons record is 20-6 in their three division-winning seasons (2004, 2010 and 2012).

Since the division’s creation beginning with the 2002 season, the Falcons have played in the greatest amount of one-score games (100) within the four-team group and also have the best winning percentage (56.5 percent). No team has benefited more from their ability to win close games than the Falcons under head coach Mike Smith.

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Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Last Week – June 30, 2014

June 30th, 2014 No comments
Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

Darius Johnson could be a factor in Atlanta’s future

The Atlanta Falcons made a move this past week, signing wide receiver Courtney Roby. But Roby should instead be referred to as a special teams player, because that is what his role, if any, will be with the Falcons this season. Roby is basically a direct challenger for Drew Davis’ roster spot.

Davis has gotten by over the past few years on his ability as a special teams player. While Davis has made a handful of plays at the wide receiver position, he’s clearly shown to any that are paying attention that he is not a viable candidate to be a significant contributor on offense.

The most important skill that an NFL wide receiver can possess is the ability to separate from coverage. And the simple truth is that Davis has rarely done that in his few years with the Falcons. Most of his catches are the result of broken coverages rather than instances where he simply beat an opposing corner and made a play.

Frankly, that important skill-set has been missing from the majority of Falcons receivers over the years. In truth, only Roddy White and Julio Jones have possessed it in abundance. Michael Jenkins and Harry Douglas are decent at it, but by no means special in that regard. Both can do separate, but not on a consistent enough basis that makes them more than quality reserves.

Brian Finneran, Marty Booker, Eric Weems, Darius Johnson and Kevin Cone have also all struggled with this issue during the past six seasons. This issue isn’t helped by the fact that besides Jones, the Falcons have invested very little in terms of the draft in the wide receiver position. Since drafting Douglas in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft, the Falcons have drafted just two wide receivers since: Jones and Kerry Meier. That is a league low when the average NFL team has drafted roughly six (5.8 to be exact) wide receivers over the past six drafts.

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Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Last Week – June 23, 2014

June 23rd, 2014 No comments
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

T.J. Yates

The Atlanta Falcons made the somewhat bold move to trade for Houston Texans quarterback T.J. Yates earlier this week.

It’s a bold move in the sense that the Falcons saw a weakness on their team and went about addressing it. That weakness was their backup quarterback situation where Dominique Davis, Sean Renfree and Jeff Mathews sat behind starter Matt Ryan. Between the three of them, they only have one game and seven pass attempts’ worth of actual NFL experience.

If one was power-ranking the Falcons backup quarterback situation, it would have been in contention for dead last in the league with that of the Chicago Bears.

Following the departure of Josh McCown, who is now expected to start for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bears featured Jimmy Clausen, Jordan Palmer, David Fales and Jerrod Johnson behind starter Jay Cutler. The Bears signed Clausen earlier this month to add some much-needed experience. Clausen played poorly, but at least started 10 games as a rookie with the Carolina Panthers in 2010. Before his arrival, their sole experience came from Palmer, who attempted 15 passes over three years with the Cincinnati Bengals (2008-10).

Johnson was cut this week, as was Davis for the Falcons. Teams don’t often carry five quarterbacks on the roster, and it was clear that Yates’ arrival was going to push Davis out the door.

That’s unfortunate for Davis, who despite my frequent criticism of his skills, did have some potential to develop. Davis’ problems were that the same issues that plagued him during his days at East Carolina did not improve to a significant enough degree to merit the team’s continued investment. Davis’ accuracy and mechanics were erratic during his time in college and were the main reasons why teams passed on drafting him. Davis’ arm strength and athleticism were pluses, two things that helped him shine as an undrafted rookie during the 2012 preseason. But even then he showed the flashes of erratic play that hurt him in college.

In a sense, Yates is his polar opposite. Accuracy, footwork are two of Yates’ strengths, while arm strength is probably his biggest weakness. After the move to get Yates, I went back and looked at his limited play last season and in his playoff loss against the Baltimore Ravens in 2011 to see how much, if at all, Yates had really developed since his days at North Carolina.

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Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Last Week – June 16, 2014

June 16th, 2014 Comments off
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Weatherspoon

Once again, the Atlanta Falcons have lost linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to a major injury. This time it is for the rest of 2014 due to a torn Achilles heel which he suffered last Tuesday during practice.

There seems to be three presiding theories on what Weatherspoon’s impending absence will mean to the Falcons.

There’s the conservative theory that losing Spoon is not a huge loss. The presences of second-year linebackers in Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu will allow the Falcons defense to navigate the loss of its leader to a competent level.

This theory makes sense given Worrilow and Bartu had to perform the same task a year ago as undrafted rookies. They certainly will be better prepared to fill Spoon’s shoes with a full year under their belts.

But it still does not adequately encompass the loss of Spoon on the field. Which creates the second theory: that Spoon’s absence will have a dramatic negative effect on the team’s defense in 2014.

That is also somewhat fair given the simple fact that neither Worrilow and Bartu are Sean Weatherspoon.

Falcons Have a Leadership Void That Needs to be Filled

Weatherspoon was the defensive leader for a reason. That being that he is one of the team’s best players on the field and has a natural outgoing personality that makes him capable of adopting a leadership role. Neither Worrilow nor Bartu are of Spoon’s talent level on the field, and while Worrilow especially, has shown solid leadership traits, he is not the defensive leader.

Leadership in the National Football League often comes simply from the fact that you’re the best player on the field. Leaders are supposed to rally the troops and when the team needs it and have to be the guys to step up in the face of adversity. Simply put, you can’t lead from the bench.

That being said, it would be more advantageous for the Falcons if Desmond Trufant was the second-year player that stepped up and took on a leadership role in Spoon’s absence versus either Worrilow or Bartu. Trufant was the team’s best defender a year ago and he’ll need to have possibly an even better second season to follow up. Other players like William Moore, Jonathan Babineaux, Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi will also have to step up in the locker room as well as produce on the field.

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Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Last Week – June 9, 2014

June 9th, 2014 Comments off
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Smith

It is June and this is usually the dead time in the NFL’s offseason, and often is the time when I become the most pessimistic in my outlook on my favorite football team, the Atlanta Falcons.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Once the NFL Draft is done, there is a sizable gap of downtime before the start of training camps in late July. Typically there is a couple of weeks of continued offseason fervor as rookies and veterans come together to work out in mini-camps and offseason team activities (OTAs) in earnest.

But usually once June hits, most of the buzz on the incoming draft class and the first looks at the veterans dies down and there’s basically six to eight weeks of waiting. It’s really the only time of year where coverage of the NFL takes a back seat to NBA playoffs, NHL playoffs, Major League Baseball, and other sports in America. Football takes a break, and this period from early June to late July is the true offseason of the league.

I myself also took a bit of a break last week. One of my relatives passed at the end of May and I was traveling to go to their funeral last weekend. That did not allow me much time to contemplate the Falcons to any degree worth writing my normal takeaways column to be published on Monday.

And I decided to take a bit of a break over the rest of the week to decompress before getting back to the grind this week.

It’s going to be an interesting summer because it’s the first time since 2008 that there is really any strain of real pessimism within the fan base. It’s a relatively foreign feeling when considering the Mike Smith Era overall. The Falcons streak of five consecutive winning seasons was snapped last year to the tune of a 4-12 record.

This offseason, the Falcons wound up with a high draft pick and serious questions about their ability to compete for a playoff spot in 2014. This offseason became one that is all too familiar for long-time Falcon fans like myself.

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Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Last Week – May 26, 2014

May 26th, 2014 Comments off
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Ra’Shede Hageman

Last week, I discussed some of the reasons why I liked the Atlanta Falcons’ selection of Jake Matthews with their top pick in the 2014 NFL draft. This week, I believe it’s only fair if I talk a little more in-depth about the next Falcons selection, defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman.

I consider “defensive lineman” to be Hageman’s position because I’m not sure exactly how the Falcons will use him. And that is what gives me some of the trepidation about his ability to immediately translate as an impact player in Atlanta.

If my scouting report on Hageman wasn’t clear, it’s not that I doubt his impact potential. Hageman could be one of the more dominant defensive linemen in the NFL if he fully reaches that potential. But I think that belief also creates problems for him in the form of  lofty expectations.

I remember back in 2007 when expectations followed Jamaal Anderson to Atlanta. And yes, I apologizing for invoking that very painful memory for you.

Personally I had not seen Anderson play at Arkansas, because the period between 2005 and 2007 were years that I had cut back on watching college football due to focusing on and handling team needs and free agency for the draft website, The Huddle Report.

But after watching one of those ESPN’s SportsCenter the week of the draft and seeing the Atlanta Journal-Constution’s Terrence Moore say that the Falcons the Falcons were going to select Anderson with the eighth overall pick, my reaction was, “Who?”

That offseason, most of what I had been hearing were three names for the Falcons with the eighth overall selection: running back Adrian Peterson, safety LaRon Landry and defensive tackle Amobi Okoye. My heart was set on Peterson, but felt Landry was a worthwhile consolation prize.

I never really gave Anderson much thought before Moore’s proclamation. I knew the Falcons needed another pass-rusher to team with John Abraham due to the departure of long-time leader Patrick Kerney that offseason. But I guess I figured that we could target an end in a later round where pass-rushers like LaMarr Woodley and Charles Johnson could be found rather than using it on our top pick for someone that throughout the process I hadn’t been hearing a ton about.

But we got Anderson and I can still recall all the message boards and online, post-draft stories touting Anderson’s potential to be a double-digit sack artist with comparable skillset to Mario Williams. And despite knowing little about Anderson, I bought into the hype.

But I decided to start watching college football again that fall, so that I could never be blindsided by a pick again. Because despite the post-draft, summer hype, what occurred with Anderson during the fall was tough to stomach.

It was like his pass-rush ability never existed. He was just so slow and so poor at fighting off blocks.

Again, I did not see Anderson play at Arkansas. I can only really guess to what he looked like, but I see similar red flags with Hageman.

Comparison of Hageman and Anderson Not Meant As Knock

Does that mean that I think Hageman will be a bust? No.

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Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – May 19, 2014

May 19th, 2014 Comments off
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Matthews

I really like the Jake Matthews pick.

I’m optimistic that he’s going to be one of those foundation players for the Atlanta Falcons offense for years to come. The team’s offense will be known primarily by quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and Matthews.

The Falcons are going to need Matthews to hit the ground running as far as his transition to the NFL goes. There is a leadership void in regards to their offensive line thanks to the recent departures of center Todd McClure and offensive tackle Tyson Clabo, and Matthews will be counted upon to fill some of that void in the coming years.

And whether or not he can fill that void will depend on him playing well, and doing so relatively soon.

I have a great deal of optimism that Matthews will be a Falcon for a very long time, assuming he can stay healthy, similar to McClure, who played 14 years with the team.

Like Other Quality Tackles, Matthews Could Fly Under Radar

As I said in my scouting report of Matthews, I’m not convinced he’ll be one of the premier offensive tackles in the league but I do believe he’ll settle himself to become one of the better ones.

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Takeaways from 2014 NFL Draft – May 12, 2014

May 12th, 2014 1 comment
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Falcons 2014 Top Selection: Jake Matthews

Normally I write my weekly takeaways column on Sunday afternoon or evening with the intention of it being posted first thing Monday morning around 8:00 a.m. This week, that was no the case.

That’s partly to blame for the fact that it was Mother Day’s weekend, and instead of doing all the things I normally would have done on a Sunday afternoon/evening to get this weekly column posted, I decided to spend time with my mother, who had driven four hors from Virginia to North Carolina to witness my sister-in-law’s graduation from grad school. In the interest of being a good son, my mother took precedent over this column.

Secondly, I had not watched all of the Atlanta Falcons 2014 draft picks play yet. And the column after the draft is the one devoted to my thoughts on whether I believe the Falcons’ draft was a good one or not.

Because unlike most people, I try to be informed before giving my opinions. If you want to know my take on any of the Falcons undrafted free agents, I don’t have one because I haven’t seen any of them play. Until I do, which will be in the first preseason game, my opinion on them will remain largely non-existent.

I was born in 1983, so I spent a significant portion existing in a world without the internet. That was a world where people couldn’t post their opinions, thoughts or insights with the click of a button on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or in Yahoo! News comments.

Back in those times, the only people that were given a platform to express opinions were people that had earned that right to be called experts in their give fields. There was a filter, and it was one that you had to work hard to break through.

The idea that Courtney Love could be involved in finding a missing plane in that time was laughable at best. Instead of social media, people expressed their opinions to companions and family members in their respective living rooms, kitchen dinner tables or bars.

But that age doesn’t exist anymore, and now people are free to give their opinions with no filter. Today, everything is thrown at the wall, and it’s only a matter of what sticks.

Why am I telling you this? Because one of the things I find fascinating is how everybody, including those least informed, will give their opinions on the draft. Besides watching a YouTube highlight clip and reading a bunch of online scouting reports, most people aren’t informed about most of these players with their own eyes.

It often leads to people have overly optimistic expectations about a particular draft prospect, or overly pessimistic ones. There is no longer a middle ground. And people should know that most things fall into that middle area.

I’m saying all this because I believe it will take time to see how these draft prospects develop. Patience is really the key, and while it won’t stop me from having an opinion today, I’m at least aware of the fact that what my opinion today is relatively meaningless in the big picture. That big picture will be determined by where the Falcons 2014 draft picks are three to five years from now.

What will this column will entail from this point is my best guess on where those players will be at that point. While that guess is an educated one based off informed analysis from watching these guys play a handful of collegiate games, it is still a guess nonetheless.

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