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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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Takeaways from Last Week – May 5, 2014

May 5th, 2014 Comments off
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Clowney, Clowney, Clowney, Clowney

Only a few more days until the 2014 NFL Draft and the wait is agonizing.

The draft was moved back two weeks this year due to the fact that Radio City Music Hall, the draft’s permanent home since 2006, was hosting an Easter celebration the weekend that the draft normally happens. That show was subsequently cancelled.

But I heard a year ago on Rich Eisen’s podcast that a May draft has always been the goal of the NFL because it will better mesh with sweeps weeks to bolster ratings and subsequently advertising dollars.

Will the draft move back to late April next year? Who knows? The fact that the league is mulling over expanding the draft to four days from three indicates that fan feedback isn’t what is driving their decision making. Almost no one likes the extra two weeks of waiting and the idea of a four-day format just sounds exhausting.

The three-day format is already long enough. While the opening night is exciting, any fervor is dramatically reduced by the time the third day rolls around and you’re about a round or two into the draft.

Adding another day would be akin to pulling teeth by the time the seventh round rolls around on either Saturday or Sunday.

But again, feedback isn’t driving the bus. Fans and media personalities can moan and decry a four-day May draft, but it’s not going to stop them from watching. It’s certainly not going to stop me.

I can’t remember the last time I did not watch the entirety of the draft from start to finish. I just can’t get enough of it.

This year will probably be the first time in many years where I won’t thanks to my sister-in-law graduating from grad school this Saturday. That will consume much of my afternoon. But if I had a choice about supporting her or just mindlessly watching as players I’ve never heard of get drafted in the fifth round on Saturday, I’d choose the latter.

Ultimately, until fans are willing to turn off their television sets when it comes to the draft, there is going to be no incentive for the league itself to not keeping going down this path. Eventually, the draft could be in June and last a full seven days, one per round, and it would still likely be the highest-rated television event for that week.

But I can’t wait for Thursday and Friday night this week as the 2014 NFL Draft will finally be upon us. I’ve gotten fatigue in writing about what the Falcons will do week after week, and most of it involving the decision to trade up for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

Will the best defensive prospect in years wind up a Falcon? That has been the big question of the offseason, and it seems that everything they’ve done so far will be easily eclipsed if the answer is yes.

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Takeaways from Last Week – April 28, 2014

April 28th, 2014 Comments off
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Ed Werder kicked off a firestorm this past week

The buzz this past week centered around whether the Atlanta Falcons would trade up for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

This isn’t anything new if you’ve been around the Falcons for the past few months. Clowney has been on the tip of every Falcon fan’s tongue since November when it was clear the team would finish the year with a poor and subsequently a high first-round draft pick. Would it be high enough for the team to get Clowney? That question fractured the fan base into two groups: the tankers and the anti-tankers. The former group wanted the Falcons to lose as many games as possible to secure the highest possible draft pick, while the latter group wanted to see their beloved Falcons scrap it out and finish the 2013 season as strongly as possible.

Two guesses as to which group I fell into.

But now the media is a few months late to the party. I first began writing about trading up for Clowney during February’s Combine. But soon afterward, things went by the wayside and the Falcons went back to where they’ve been for most of the franchise’s existence: obscurity and irrelevance.

But now that rumors that the Houston Texans are keen on moving back from their No. 1 overall selection, the Falcons are now thrust back into the limelight. Given the team’s recent history for bold draft-day moves, their open admiration of Clowney, it makes perfect sense to link them as the likeliest trade partner for the Texans.

And now we find the fan base once again fractured into two groups: those that want the Falcons to do whatever is necessary to get a talent like Clowney, and those wishing the avoid Clowney like the plague. We’ll call them traders and anti-traders.

However, that’s probably an over-generalization. Instead, the majority of Falcons fans would probably be very interested in acquiring Clowney, but are cautious about the amount of compensation a trade with the Texans or any other team at the top of the draft the Falcons would require.

Clowney Adds Significant Talent to Falcons Defense Read more…

Takeaways from Last Week – April 21, 2014

April 21st, 2014 2 comments
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Khalil Mack could be a trade target for Falcons

As indicated last week, looming questions surround the Atlanta Falcons and their potential to make a trade in this year’s draft. Most of those questions center around the team’s rumored desire to move up at the top of the first round. But there is also a good possibility that the Falcons decide to maneuver later in the draft.

The Falcons currently hold the sixth and 37th overall picks in the first two rounds of the draft. Frankly, I would be very surprised if we’re looking back on the first two days of the draft come May 10 and see that they retained both of those picks. It seems probable that the Falcons could move out of one or both spots.

First, let’s once again discuss the Falcons draft-day trade scenarios with the former pick in the first round.

The Falcons need a pass-rusher to try improve the league’s worst third-down defense and marginally better pass rush. It would be ludicrous to think the team does not believe that the most pressing need is adding someone that can line up at either outside linebacker or defensive end and put heat on the quarterback.

Much of the speculation centers on the team’s possible desire to move up for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. And I think those rumors have legs. Clowney is clearly the best pass-rusher in this class and from a historical standpoint, matches up with anybody that has come out over the past decade or more. That is an intriguing option for the Falcons, and one that will require careful consideration when we get to the opening night of the draft on May 8.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m starting to believe that trading up for Clowney is unlikely. It’s a definite possibility, but in the end I think it’s going to come down to price tag. If the Falcons can jump up from the sixth overall selection into the top 3 picks of the draft without giving up an arm and a leg, then it’s worthwhile. Last week, I outlined a trade that had the Falcons giving up this year’s first, second and fourth-round picks, along with possibly a second-round pick next year to move up to get Clowney. Whether that meets the definition of an “arm and leg” is up for interpretation, but it’s certainly at least an arm.

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Takeaways from Last Week – April 14, 2014

April 14th, 2014 Comments off

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Jadeveon Clowney

It certainly is not the first time it’s been discussed and probably won’t be the last since we still have three-plus weeks to go until the 2014 NFL Draft.

But the biggest question of the Atlanta Falcons’ offseason isn’t whether they are going to be toughened up, but whether or not they are going to pull the trigger and trade for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

And as I wrote back in February, the answer comes down to whether the Falcons feel that they are one potentially dominant pass-rusher away from being back in the Super Bowl hunt versus their desire to plug a number of holes.

But by moving up for Clowney, there is no doubt that the Falcons will suffer some negative consequences in some way, which will be losing the potential to fill multiple roster spots rather than solidifying one.

Ultimately the key to making the Clowney trade worthwhile may not be about what he would bring to the team. From my eyes, Clowney is the “safest” player in this draft.

There is no such thing as a truly safe prospect, as that word connotes a guarantee of success. One just has to look at past “slam dunks” such as Robert Gallery, Trent Richardson or Aaron Curry to know that every draft pick is some form of a gamble.

But Clowney is of such a singular talent, the chances that he busts is pretty low. Certainly not impossible, but low. But there is no guarantee that he will become the dominant player that many expect him to be. Mario Williams is an example of a very good NFL player, but he’s not a dominator. Per premium website Pro Football Focus, only twice in the past six years has he graded out among the top 10 at his position group, either 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker, as far as their pass-rush grades go. That’s the same number of times that Ray Edwards has in that span.

I’m not suggesting that Williams and Edwards are on the same level with that statement, just indicating that Williams is not on a level with players like John Abraham, DeMarcus Ware or Cameron Wake in that they consistently dominate over multiple seasons.

Clowney could have a long, productive career and not be the transcendent player that he’s expected to be. Or he could completely blow away all expectations and achieve greatness. And that’s the gamble of the draft.

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Takeaways from Last Week – April 7, 2014

April 7th, 2014 1 comment
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Babineaux

Last year, I wrote about my efforts to grade past drafts. And given that it’s almost been a year to the day since I posted that initial breakdown, it’s time to give you an update.

The conventional wisdom says you have to wait at least three years to judge a draft. I tend to think that five years gives you a much more accurate picture. Take for instance a player like Jonathan Babineaux, who did not do much in his first three seasons as an Atlanta Falcon.

Babineaux was predominantly a rotation player. But in 2008, his fourth season, when the Falcons cut Grady Jackson midway through the year, Babineaux filled in ably and started to show flashes of why he was a second-round pick in 2005. But it was really in 2009 that Babs really came into his own and become one of the premier defensive tackles in the league. And in the years since, Babineaux hasn’t be quite as good a player as he was in 2009 but he’s been much better than the mediocre player he seemed to look through his first three and a half years.

In the end, the pick of Babineaux is one of the better ones the Falcons have made over the past decade. That would not have seemed the case had we made the cut-off three years.

The way in which I grade drafts is a simple grading system that assigns every player picked an A, B, C, D or F grade based off their entire five-year body of work. I’ve given examples with current Falcon players.

A – An elite or near-elite player. Mike Lombardi would call these players “blue chips.” They are players that are among the very best at their respective positions. Example: Matt Ryan.

B – Lombardi would call these “red chip” players. They are universally considered to be among the better players at their position and definite impact players. Typically these are guys are perennial Pro Bowlers. Example: Roddy White.

C – Solid starters or a premier role player (e.g. Darren Sproles). They are fairly entrenched as starters in the league and should be able to start on a significant percentage of NFL teams besides their own. Examples: Sam Baker.

D – Backups or low-level starters. These are typically role players, but may also be starters that are considered underwhelming or expendable. Examples: Harry Douglas.

F – They are out of the league.

Last year, I posted the numbers for 2007 and 2008 draft classes, as well as a preliminary look at the 2009 draft class.

The eery thing was that the 2007 and 2008 draft classes were remarkably similar in terms of the amount of talent that entered the league. And while initially the 2009 class looked different, that doesn’t necessarily appear to be the case now that we’ve finished the fifth year of that class. Here’s how the three draft classes break down:

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Takeaways from Last Week – March 31, 2014

March 31st, 2014 Comments off
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Robert McClain

The Atlanta Falcons had a pretty quiet week with no signings or real moves to speak of in free agency. The only move that came down the pipe was that cornerback Robert McClain re-signed with the team.

Losing McClain to restricted free agency was unlikely to happen, but the fact that he got his name on the dotted line is a positive for the Falcons.

McClain is the incumbent nickel cornerback, but could face stiff competition from incoming free agent Javier Arenas. Both McClain and Arenas lack the size to play outside and thus have specialized at playing in the slot. Both are essentially under one-year deals with the likelihood that the player that emerges by year’s end as the preferred option inside will get a long-term deal in 2015. And the player that does not, may be asked to seek opportunities elsewhere.

It’s potentially a make or break year for McClain. However, I personally believe that McClain staying at nickel cornerback may not be in his or the team’s best interests moving forward. McClain is a player that I think could make a successful conversion to free safety if the Falcons were so inclined to give him that opportunity.

McClain lacks ideal size for a safety, but has a thicker frame than your typical cornerback as he weighs 195 pounds on a 5’9″ frame. He would be among the smallest starting safeties in the league, but not too much smaller in size than others including Seattle’s Earl Thomas (5’10″ 202), New Orleans’ Jairus Byrd (5’10″ 203) and New England’s Devin McCourty (5’10″ 195). In fact, both Byrd and McCourty predominantly played cornerback in college. McCourty started his career at cornerback with great promise as a rookie in 2010, but struggled in his sophomore season. He then began playing more safety in 2012 before fully converting to the position in 2013.

McClain’s career in Atlanta has followed a similar path in which he was on the rise after a breakout 2012 campaign as the nickel corner, but followed it up with a lackluster effort in 2013. If McClain were allowed to bulk up this offseason, potentially adding 8-10 pounds, there would be little difference in size between him and some of the better safeties in the league like Thomas, Byrd and McCourty.

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Takeaways from Last Week – March 24, 2014

March 24th, 2014 Comments off
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Devin Hester is an Intriguing Addition in Atlanta

If I’m being honest, I like the idea of Devin Hester in an Atlanta Falcons uniform moreso than the reality.

The idea of Hester donning the black and red is giving the Falcons a legitimate playmaker on special teams, something it has lacked since the heyday of Allen Rossum nearly a decade ago. Yes, Eric Weems was my guy but his abilities as a returner was analogous to a chain-moving wide receiver as opposed to an explosive playmaker.

Hester is not quite as explosive on kickoffs as he is on punts. But anything he can contribute in the former area will be an upgrade over what the Falcons have featured the past few years. Between Weems and Jacquizz Rodgers, the Falcons have just two kickoff returns of 40 or more yards the past three seasons. Hester has nine such big-play returns in that span.

But it’s really the punts where Hester is going to impact. Partially because there’s the potential that a new rule change could further marginalize kickoffs, but also because the Falcons have had a dearth of playmaking ability on punt returns.

Weems had a single punt return of 40 or more yards in both 2010 and 2011. Those represent the only two such big punt returns since Rossum left the team after 2006. That year also coincides with the start of Hester’s NFL career with the Chicago Bears, and he’s had 19 such 40-plus yard punt returns over the past eight seasons. He’s had 11 over the past four years.

The only real issue is that the Falcons are catching Hester on the downward slope of his career. He was able to see his production rebound last year in 2013 by concentrating fully on his duties as a returner as opposed to also moonlighting as a wide receiver. But he’s a far cry from the player that he was just a few years back when he had a combined five punt return touchdowns over the 2010-11 seasons.

But as I’ve illustrated, he still represents a clear upgrade over what the Falcons have featured in recent years.

The other aspect of the idea of Hester that I like is his potential impact on offense. He’s probably not going to be a major element of the Falcons passing attack, but I do think he does represent a potential upgrade over Harry Douglas as the team’s third option.

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Takeaways From Last Week – March 17, 2014

March 17th, 2014 2 comments
John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Tyson Jackson

It’s not fun being so negative.

Which makes my negative reaction to the Atlanta Falcons initial free-agent moves doubly worse.

Are the Falcons a better team after signing guard Jon Asamoah, defensive tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson? Aboslutely.

Are they a significantly better team? No, not really.

At least not in some areas. Sure, they beefed up the run defense. But was the run defense that huge a need? Perhaps it’s selective memory, but outside Bobby Rainey’s Week 11 romp, I don’t recall that many instances where I felt like the defense getting the ball run down their throat.

I do remember the Falcons getting run on and run on a lot, but it never felt like it was something “out of control” to the degree to prompt swift and decisive action at the outset of the free-agent market. I think a lot of the poor run defense had more to do with the fact that they were so young at linebacker, coupled with shoddy tackling in the secondary. It seemed more like long runs were killing the Falcons, evidenced by the 28 runs of 15 or more yards they gave up last season, which was tied for the fourth-highest total allowed in the league.

Not to suggest that upgrading the run defense shouldn’t have been a priority for the Falcons, just not the priority.

I try not to be the guy that acts like the “armchair GM” that all his decisions are the right decisions. I’m very aware that I’m often wrong about things, and that there are several methods to the madness that is building successful NFL teams.

So when looking at the Falcons’ moves, I always try to see them from the team’s perspective. And if I can follow their logic and thinking, then I can usually accept, if not approve their decision-making.

So from the team’s perspective, it’s very clear they wanted to upgrade both lines. They re-signed two offensive lineman in Joe Hawley and Mike Johnson and added Asamoah. They went after defensive linemen by re-upping Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux while adding Soliai and Jackson.

It’s clear that the focus was on the interior of both lines, to add beef and “toughen up” the unit just like they had indicated was their plan all along. I mentioned Soliai as a potential target back in February, albeit with the expectation that he’d be a relatively cheap addition.

So on the face of things, I cannot fault the Falcons. In fact, I applaud them. They correctly identified the two biggest weaknesses of the team in both lines and addressed them with upgrades.

But once you go beyond that superficial layer, things start to fall apart.

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Takeaways from Last Week – March 10, 2014

March 10th, 2014 Comments off
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Jon Asamoah

This weekend the NFL instituted it’s second “legal tampering” signing period, allowing free agents to begin negotiating with prospective teams before the official free agency period starts on Tuesday afternoon, March 11.

Already the Atlanta Falcons have been linked to a number of potential free agents, including guard Jon Asamoah, safety Mike Mitchell, and cornerback Champ Bailey.

But the Asamoah linkage seems strongest with multiple outside sources indicating that the Falcons interest in Asamoah is high.

While I like Asamoah quite a bit as a player, I’m not sure that he is a good fit in Atlanta. But apparently it seems like I’m in the minority in that regards.

As for Caplan’s assessment, I would have to respectfully disagree. Asamoah is a player that ideally fits in a zone-heavy blocking scheme because he’s very athletic, but not overly powerful.

The Falcons have incorporated more zone-blocking into their ground attack under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter the past two years, but still primarily a man-blocking team.

The Falcons have made an effort to emphasize size with their line acquisitions in recent years, evidenced by additions like Terren Jones, Lamar Holmes, Phillipkeith Manley and Peter Konz the past few years since Koetter joined the team. If you’re trying to be an offense that features a lot of zone-blocking, targeting plus-sized linemen, many of whom weigh in excess of 330 pounds is largely counterintuitive.

And the lines that Mike Tice and Wade Harman coached in Chicago and Baltimore respectively emphasized size and/or man-blocking.

Could the team’s interest in Asamoah suggest a shift in their blocking? Perhaps, but more than likely the answer is no.

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