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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 1 Julio Jones

July 25th, 2014 No comments

Josh D. Weiss-US PRESSWIRE

Julio Jones

I’ve counted down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s finish with top-ranked player: wide receiver Julio Jones.

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

Total Score: 97/100

Last year’s rank: 2
Player Grade: 88/100
Teams he is starter: 28 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 32 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3

Jones’ status as the top player can be simply revealed by looking at his play over his 10 most recent games. In that span, he’s caught 74 passes for 1,022 yards and seven touchdowns. Extrapolated over 16 games that would equal a full season’s total of 118 catches for 1,635 yards and 11 touchdowns. Such a reception total would tie for the 10th most in an NFL season, and his yardage would be the 12th most.

The Falcons offense has morphed into a Jones-centric one. Once upon a time, running back Michael Turner was the driving force of the offense, but now Jones makes it go. Matt Ryan’s passer rating drops 16 points when Jones has not been on the field the past three seasons, something the Falcons felt wholeheartedly last season when Jones missed the final 11 games of the season.

That’s simply because the entire complexity of how teams defend the Falcons changes dependent on whether Jones is in or out of the lineup. Defenses have to respect the deep ball when Jones is on the field, and don’t when he’s not. He dictates coverage as he constantly draws safety help over the top, which has opened up opportunities for Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez underneath, where they work beautifully.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 2 Matt Ryan

July 24th, 2014 No comments

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Matt Ryan

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with second-ranked player: quarterback Matt Ryan.

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

Total Score: 91/100

Last year’s rank: 1
Player Grade: 84/100
Teams he is starter: 24 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 24 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +5

Ryan held the top spot last year and his slip in this year’s rankings had to do with so much happening in 2013 that exposed too many of his weaknesses.

Ryan has never been blessed with great arm strength and thus the vertical element of the team’s passing attack has always been limited. Like most quarterbacks not named Roethlisberger, Ryan also has a tendency to shy away from contact. Hitting him early and often can significantly quicken his trigger leading to a lot of checkdowns, making it even harder for the team to find the big passing plays necessary to excel. Ryan certainly took his fair share of heavy contact last year. Hopefully with the upgrades made on the right side of the offensive line with Jon Asamoah and Jake Matthews, it should eliminate that problem.

Last season it became clear by year’s end that Ryan was not the sort of quarterback that could significantly elevate the marginal receive talent he was given. Ryan is much more cerebral than someone that will fly by the seat of his pants. Unfortunately after wide receiver Julio Jones went down last year, the Falcons needed more of the latter style of play from their quarterback.

In 2012, Ryan acted as a distributor of the football, wheeling and dealing and letting his receivers: Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez make plays. In 2013, without that caliber of talent on the receiving end of his passes, the Falcons offense struggled to put points on the board.

Ryan had a great deal of trust in Gonzalez to win in traffic. Now the Falcons appear to be saddling him with Harry Douglas as his third option, a player that has routinely struggled to win in traffic. Newly added wide receiver Devin Hester was never a reliable receiving option in Chicago, and it’s unlikely that will change in Atlanta. And tight end Levine Toilolo is very unproven as a receiving option. Essentially, the Falcons still have a ways to go before Ryan’s supporting cast beyond Jones and White is worth writing home about.

Ryan’s main strengths are his intelligence, decision-making and ability to win before the snap at the line of scrimmage. Ryan can diagnose mismatches very well, and it’s why the Falcons offense is most effective when the team operates out of the no-huddle. It’s not a coincidence that in the middle of the season when injuries at wide receiver forced the team to scrap the no-huddle, Ryan struggled mightily. If Jones, White and Douglas remain healthy, the Falcons shouldn’t have any issue running the no-huddle this year. However, if one or more of them is injured, it remains to be seen if Hester, Toilolo and the rest of the receivers are ready to fill any void.

Ryan is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league and more than capable of bringing a Lombardi Trophy to Atlanta. If the Falcons want Ryan to excel at the highest levels, they need to do a much better job surrounding him with not just better, but the right kind of talent. He needs bigger, faster receivers and strong offensive line play. A stronger ground attack would also relieve much of the stress of Ryan having to carry the offense with his arm. That way if future injuries sap the team’s ability to run the no-huddle, the team can rely on the run game to keep the offense afloat.

While the Falcons have made several strides in these areas in 2014, they haven’t yet reached their full potential. Until they do, there’s going to continue to be a degree of disrespect directed Ryan’s way.

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Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 3 Roddy White

July 24th, 2014 No comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Roddy White

I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with third-ranked player: wide receiver Roddy White.

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

Total Score: 90/100

Last year’s rank: 4
Player Grade: 83/100
Teams he is starter: 32 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

The ink is barely dry on White’s new deal that has been promised since last fall. If the market value I dictated earlier this week is accurate, then it means technically the Falcons overpaid for White. But that may be a small burden to bear to make sure the best wide receiver in Falcons history never suits up for another NFL team.

White’s protege in Julio Jones is considered an elite receiver because he dictates opposing coverage on a consistent basis, something that no longer is the case with White. But that doesn’t mean that White still doesn’t have a ton of value for the Falcons.

Over the last few years, White has morphed into the classic definition of a possession receiver. His primary duty is to keep the offense on schedule and keep the chains rolling. It’s why he has the fifth-most receptions of 10 yards or less over the past six seasons in the NFL. White is still one of the best in the league at this due to his sharp route-running and physical playing style that helps him win at the line of scrimmage.

Those traits may become more important in 2014 due to the retirement of tight end Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez was a huge asset for the Falcons on third downs and in the red zone over the past five seasons. White was also a huge piece of that puzzle, and alongside Jones will have to take on the bulk of the offensive burden in Gonzalez’s wake.

White still manages to stretch the field from time to time, but he no longer displays the track speed that led to his selection in the first round of the 2005 draft. Most of his big plays over the past few seasons have come against nickel corners, safeties or linebackers. Ryan has done a good job of finding those mismatches and exploiting them. He may have a tougher time doing that this season since Gonzalez’s departure likely will force defense to pay more attention to White.

But nonetheless, White should endure in 2014 as he works to rebound from an injury-riddled 2013 campaign. Hindsight offers us that perhaps the Falcons would have been better able to salvage their season had they rested White’s high ankle sprain at the outset of 2013. White did not appear to be playing at his normal level until a 10-catch, 143-yard effort against the Buffalo Bills in Week 13. But White showed his trademark toughness in trying his best to gut through the injury through the first five weeks, but he was largely a decoy and the Falcons offense could not quite capture their 2012 magic without him at full strength.

While a healthy start to 2014 for White may not get the Falcons offense to their 2012 level, it certainly will bring them a few steps closer as the Falcons strive to quiet naysayers with a playoff-run this season.

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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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