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Takeaways from Last Week – April 28, 2014

April 28th, 2014
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

I find myself in that group as I would very much like to get Clowney. Like Julio Jones, he will make watching Falcon games a lot more exciting and there is no limit to the amount of dynamic playmakers this team could utilize.

Clowney is exactly that, a dynamic playmaker. It’s a good bet that he’ll come to Atlanta and instantly be the best player on the defense. That both speaks to the talent level of Clowney, but also to the dearth of talent the Falcons have on that side of the ball, and on their team in general.

They are neither devoid of talent, nor flushed with it. Their top defensive playmakers include cornerback Desmond Trufant, safety William Moore and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, all of whom have Pro Bowl potential.

Defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters are rock-solid, and new additions along the defensive line in Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson will also be counted among their better players.

Safety Dwight Lowery is not a household name due to playing in obscurity in Jacksonville for the past three years, but he is another solid starter.

Linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu, along with cornerback Robert Alford each flashed potential as rookies in 2013.

This is not a shallow pool of talent to work with on defense as the Falcons move forward. If those aforementioned players live up to their potential coupled with throwing a player like Clowney into the mix could give the Falcons a pretty solid defense.

But it won’t be a top unit, at least if we’re measuring by the standards where other top NFC defenses such as the Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks or San Francisco 49ers currently stand.

Soliai and Jackson should go a long way to bolstering the run defense, an area of weakness under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. The Falcons have allowed opposing offenses to rush for 100 or more yards in 24 games over the past two seasons or 75 percent of regular season games. During the four years (2008-11) under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, they allowed opposing offenses to reach the 100-yard mark 34 times, or in 53 percent of games during that span.

That certainly doesn’t compare to the 49ers, who have allowed opposing teams over 100 rushing yards in 28 games over the past five seasons (35 percent) since Nolan departed. If the Falcons could return to that VanGorder level, it should go a long way to helping the defense.

Clowney Alone Won’t Make For Top Pass Rush

But improving the pass rush remains critical. And even a playmaker like Clowney can’t do it all by himself. He needs more help. Prolific pass rushes in the NFL always have multiple guys that can create pressure.

Teams like Carolina and St. Louis have prolific pairs of defensive ends in Charles Johnson with Greg Hardy and Robert Quinn with Chris Long, respectively. Buffalo has Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus anchoring their front. Those three teams ranked atop the leader boards this past season in terms of sacks. And a team like the Seahawks had Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons providing heat on opposing quarterbacks, and were also near the top. The 49ers’ pass rush has been at its best in recent years when Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks were all playing well.

The problem with trading for Clowney is it potentially prevents you from adding that second or third player. That is, if you believe the rumors surrounding the sort of compensation that it might require to get up to the first overall selection.

Look to Michael Vick For Vicinity of Trade Compensation

This past week, ESPN’s Ed Werder posited the price to swap with Houston would require Atlanta to send its first-round picks in 2014 and 2015, along with a second-round pick and another pick from this year’s draft.

This jibes with the trade that the New York Giants pulled off 10 years ago to move up from fourth overall to get Eli Manning, the first player taken in the 2004 draft. The Giants sent a pair of first-round picks along with third and fifth-round picks to the San Diego Chargers for Manning’s rights.

There is just no reason to think the Falcons won’t have to give up a high pick to move up that high in the draft. You can look at the 2001 trade where the Falcons swapped the fifth overall pick with the Chargers’ first overall selection.

As you may recall, to get the chance to draft quarterback Michael Vick the Falcons gave up their first-round (fifth overall) and third-round (67th overall) picks in 2011, and second-round pick in 2002 which turned out to be the 48th overall selection. They also dealt kick returner Tim Dwight as part of the trade, a former fourth-round pick.

However, Werder did indicate that the terms he suggested were negotiable. Perhaps there is some leeway where the Falcons could turn next year’s first-round pick into a second-round pick. Maybe this year’s second could be a third similar to the Vick deal.

That might be an overly optimistic best-case scenario for the team, and it would still be a hefty price to pay. But it would leave the Falcons with this year’s second (37th overall) and next year’s first-round picks.

The league puts a premium on pass-rushers, and they tend to go off the board quickly. If the Falcons were trying to get a second guy that can be the complement to Clowney as a pass-rusher, they’d almost certainly need to use one of those remaining high picks to find him.

Falcons Defense May Not Be Talent-Laden…Yet

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Massaquoi is one of the better pieces on defense, but remains a question mark

While the Falcons already have some young defenders with potential, they are far from proven options.

Robert Alford was plagued by inconsistency as a rookie, and he was considered fairly raw when he entered the league. Alford could have a good year in 2014, or he could have a mediocre one. What if Robert McClain, Javier Arenas or Josh Wilson are underwhelming in the nickel role? The Falcons will need to go back into the well at cornerback in 2015 and the higher the pick the more likely they are to get an immediate contributor.

At linebacker, Worrilow showed outstanding instincts as a rookie, but he still has a lot of growth to do as an interior run stuffer and is not a great coverage linebacker. Weatherspoon is in the final year of his deal and what happens if he only plays in five games due to more injuries? Are the Falcons going to be inclined to give him a long-term contract? To replace a player with Weatherspoon’s talent level, it will likely require a first or second-round pick.

Up front, Soliai, Jackson, Babineaux, and Peters are ostensibly role players. Soliai and Jackson are good run defenders, but very limited as pass-rushers. Babineaux and Peters are more well-rounded, but they too are better at defending the run. If Clowney is drawing double teams, the Falcons will still be heavily reliant on other defensive linemen to win their one-on-one blocks. This was exactly how it was when John Abraham played for the Falcons, and year after year, the Falcons other defensive linemen including Kroy Biermann were unable to win with any consistency. The team’s top sack-artist in 2013, Osi Umenyiora, disappeared for large stretches of most games and was practically an afterthought despite recording a decent 7.5 sacks.

Which brings in the next great hope: Jonathan Massaquoi. Massaquoi’s play was at a level comparable to Umenyiora last year. He has the ability to take that next step and become a good complementary rusher to Clowney. But there was a point in the not-too-distant past where Biermann was expected to make that same stride opposite Abraham. Biermann did not, and if the Falcons are smart they will learn from past mistakes and not assume anything about Massaquoi’s future.

This sort of evaluation may seem overly harsh or negative, but it’s the reality of the NFL. Teams have to look at their own players with a great deal of extra scrutiny. And especially a Falcons organization that has seen a large number of young players fall flat on their faces e.g. Chevis Jackson, Lawrence Sidbury, Peria Jerry, Peter Konz, Akeem Dent, and Chris Owens. Assuming that any young player is going to step up is the height of insanity at this point.

Offense Also Faces Talent Question Marks in Future

And this isn’t even considering the potential holes on the offensive side of the ball. There, the team needs to find a replacement for Steven Jackson. That is expected come in the middle rounds of this year’s draft, but it may require a higher pick in future years if the rookie underperforms.

Tight end is another question mark. Toilolo has ability, but quarterback Matt Ryan has grown accustomed to having an elite tight end the past five seasons in Tony Gonzalez. And the team may find itself looking to upgrade that position with someone that brings them that Gonzalez-esque ability, which is not ever going to be Toilolo.

The team has made strides with pickups on the offensive line, but it’s still a unit in flux. The entire left side could be replaced since Sam Baker, Justin Blalock and Joe Hawley all need to have productive years to be assured of keeping their jobs beyond this season. Lamar Holmes is at a crossroads of his career. Down one path he could improve and become a serviceable, solid starter and the other leads into J’Marcus Webb-like obscurity.

Retaining high picks in next year’s can potentially help solve some of those issues that have yet to arise. Many may not ever arise, but some certainly will. Even the best teams have multiple holes to fill and weaknesses to shore up.

But as I’ve stated before, the Falcons may simply look at a talent like Clowney and think he’s too good to pass up and he’s the exception rather than the rule.

That’s fine, but I remain skeptical, but that is also nothing new.

Skepticism Is the Natural State of a Falcon Fan

Skepticism is inherent to any long-time Falcon fan. If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve had the displeasure of watching losing season after losing season and bad draft after bad draft. That skepticism comes with the territory of supporting a team that for much of its history could have been considered among the most poorly run franchises in all of professional American sports.

Skepticism followed the selection of quarterback Matt Ryan in 2008, and he is arguably the best draft pick in franchise history. Now, I can gloat that I was among the minority of people that were promoting the Ryan selection months in advance.

But I haven’t found myself always on the right side of history. I was very critical of the trade to get Julio Jones initially, and I’ve now backed off that notion. I still believe that there were some negative aspects of that trade which led to many of the struggles that occurred in 2013, but for the most part I’m willing to admit I was wrong and that there has been more good than bad involving that trade.

And even if not, Jones is so good and fun to watch that it’s hard to have any negative thoughts when evaluating anything that has to do with him.

My wish is that if the Falcons pull off this trade to get Clowney, whether that’s with the Texans or with another team at the top of the draft, that the end result is the same.

***

A Few Thoughts on Donald Sterling

Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling

Speaking of poorly run franchises, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is in scalding hot water.

Normally, I don’t broach topics that aren’t football or Falcon-related in this weekly column, but I feel that this issue is worth weighing in out.

If you were living under a rock over this past weekend, you might not have heard about Sterling’s racially-charged statements that were recorded and subsequently revealed on TMZ and Deadspin.

I won’t repeat them here, but I think they are worth listening if not for anything but sheer morbid curiosity. TMZ’s audio clip is nearly ten minutes, and Deadspin provides an additional five minutes.

Sterling made the comments to his girlfriend, V. Stiviano during an argument over some Instagram posts. Stiviano also happens to be of Mexican and African-American descent.

I myself count among those of African-American descent, and Sterling’s comments both confuse and intrigue me.

The confusion stems from exactly where Sterling stands on race. He seemed very judgmental and negative towards Stiviano “putting out there” that she associates with black people on her Instagram account. Yet, in the audio he expressed personal admiration for Magic Johnson, whose photo with Stiviano seemed to be the catalyst for the argument.

Sterling seemed to be about how things appeared or were perceived and my intrigue lay in his efforts to express his perception of “culture” and “society.”

Per Sterling, that culture and society saw black people as “less than” and Stiviano, by publicly associated with them, would subsequently be perceived as similarly. Sterling referenced how black Jews in Israel were treated versus white ones. The intrigue stems from Sterling’s descriptions of the culture, which I perceive to be alive and well even in modern America.

Race relations in the United States has made incredible progress over the past few decades. If you could time travel to a half-century ago, your mind would be blown with how things were as compared to how they are now. My parents were born in Virginia in the early 1950s, grew up during segregation and when they reached high school and college was when integration slowly started to trickle in. But their parents were born and grew up in a time where black people were expected to know and accept “their place.”

We’ve made huge progress since then, but we still have a long way to go. Sterling commented that certain groups of people think about other groups a certain way, and it will always be that way. I don’t believe that, but I do certainly think we are a few generations from where prejudice and bigotry are gone.

I was never raised to be hateful towards other people, but was taught at a young age that I could easily be the target of hate. And if I ever have a child, I think I would be irresponsible as a parent to not tell them the same.

As for Sterling, there will be those that call for his resignation or being compelled to sell the team. Others will try to organize boycotts of Clipper games.

Any such plans or actions are irrelevant to me. I’m not a Clipper fan or season-ticket holder, so any efforts of me to boycott something I don’t already support is pointless. And if Sterling retains ownership of the Clippers, it won’t really affect my life in any way. I’ll watch the exact same number of Clipper games I watched this past season: zero.

I’m sure the NBA will level the largest fine they’ve ever handed out to an owner (I believe $500,000 currently holds the mark) and a long-term suspension. There will almost certainly be pressure for Sterling to sell a significant stake in the team, which will allow others to become the face of the organization and spend significant time and money in damage control and community outreaches over the next several years.

As for Sterling, he’s going to be just fine. He’s worth nearly $2 billion dollars. He’ll just be another extremely rich racist. He certainly hasn’t been the first and probably won’t be the last.

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