Takeaways from Last Week – February 24, 2014

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Jadeveon Clowney speaks at the Combine on Saturday

Discussion of the possibility of the Atlanta Falcons trading up made headlines this past weekend following general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s press conference on Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. And of course the dots are being connected to the possibility that South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is the primary target.

But I’m going to pump the brakes on getting too “icky-balooky” over Dimitroff’s revelation. Because frankly, it wasn’t much of one. Dimitroff said nothing in his presser that he hasn’t said leading up to the past two drafts. The only real difference is that Dimitroff made these comments not in April but in February at the Combine, a place where a record number of media members have gathered. Of course it’s going to create headlines and generate buzz when you have such a magnified media presence.

It’s no different than the revelation that Clowney is interested in being a Falcon. Of course he is as Clowney should be interested in any team that is going to take him very high in the draft.

Does this mean that a Clowney-Atlanta marriage is one made in heaven? Perhaps, but there is still a long way to go in the draft process before we reach that fateful evening on May 8.

I indeed hope the Falcons find a way to get Clowney, as he is a once in a generation sort of prospect. I can recall three times in the past where I have been exuberant about a Falcons draft selection. The first was in 2001 when the team’s move to trade up for Michael Vick was first announced. The second came when the team selected Matt Ryan in 2008. And the third was when the team traded up for Julio Jones in 2011. While I didn’t initially approve of that trade, Jones’ talent was to a degree that had me excited about the potential he could bring to the team.

But it is that Jones trade that has me currently hesitant about another move to climb the boards to get Clowney. Unfortunately, when revisiting the Jones trade, there is a tendency to draw a line in the sand with people on either side suggesting that it was all good or alternatively all bad for the Falcons. It’s much more complicated than that, with both costs and benefits to the trade.

I have little doubt that the Falcons would not have achieved the highs of 2012 without making the move to acquire Jones. But at the same time, I don’t think the lows of 2013 would have been quite as bad in the absence of the trade either.

Jones Adds Explosion to Offense, But Not Enough

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Julio Jones is a big play waiting to happen

Jones gave the Falcons offense something that was lacking since 2008 when Michael Turner rushed for 1,699 yards: a special quality. The Falcons finally excelled at something in 2012. In 2008, it was the Turner-led rushing attack that was their special quality. In 2012, it was Jones headlining one of the league’s most efficient passing attacks. However, at least by several advanced metrics such as Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the 2012 Falcons offense wasn’t significantly more productive than the previous two seasons’ offenses. Instead, the truly special element that Jones brought to the table in 2012 wasn’t the efficiency, it was explosiveness.

The Falcons completed nine passes of 20 or more yards in their two-game playoff run in 2012, a rate of 11.7 percent when factoring their 77 pass attempts. That was a significant bump (56 percent) from their regular season rate of 7.5 percent. Five of those big plays came from Jones.

In fact, the Falcons generated as many big pass plays in the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers (six) as they did when in their first three playoff games from 2008-11 against the Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay Packers and New York Giants combined. They had more big plays in their two 2012 playoff games than they had combined in their final five regular season games of that season.

What the Falcons offense looked like in that two-game stint was likely the goal that the Falcons were envisioning when they move up to get Jones. Unfortunately, outside those two games the Falcons have looked anything but explosive.

Falcons Big Play Passing Rankings

Ranking of the Falcons in NFL in terms of 20+ yd plays (2008-13)
Year20+ PlaysPass Att.Pct. Rank

The table above shows the Falcons big play pass production since 2008 and their ranking league-wide. Outside the 2008 season where the Falcons were largely able to take advantage of a play-action passing attack due to Turner’s ground success, they have struggled to generate explosive plays on a consistent basis.

Since Jones’ arrival in Atlanta in 2011, the Falcons have been overly reliant on him alone to provide the big plays rather than a system of offense that can survive without him. This was exposed in 2013 when Jones went down with injury and the Falcons offense became one of the least explosive offenses in the league. Wasn’t the entire point of making the trade to get Jones was to become more explosive? Well, judging by the lack of explosiveness the Falcons have shown outside the 2012 playoffs, that mission has ended in failure.

The error the Falcons made in that regard was thinking that one player would make the team explosive. That clearly has not been the case, with the belief that it requires a system of offense and multiple players to make a team explosive.

Alternative to Jones Package in 2011 Not That Bad

You can also make a compelling argument that another reason why the Jones trade hurt the Falcons is because it had a direct, negative impact on the offensive line. In his book, The War Room, author Michael Holley indicates that the Falcons were targeting Gabe Carimi with their top pick in 2011 if they hadn’t decided to move up to get Jones. Carimi is now a Falcon, after three injury-marred and lackluster seasons in the NFL. Carimi’s career path certainly was negatively affected by the dislocated knee he suffered in his second NFL game. There’s every reason to believe that if he was a Falcon, such an injury would have never occurred.

Had Carimi been selected and the Jones trade never happened, it’s reasonable to assume that Tyson Clabo would have been the player the Falcons would have let walk in 2011 free agency rather than Harvey Dahl. Thus retaining the fallen domino that potentially solidifies the Falcons interior line for the past two years, particularly the problematic right guard position.

But more importantly, the Falcons still would have been in a position to get a really good receiver later in the draft. Torrey Smith was selected by the Baltimore Ravens with the 58th overall pick, one slot before the Falcons would have picked had they not given up that pick in the Jones trade. The Falcons could have gotten nervous about whether Smith would make it to the 59th pick, and thus moved their fifth-round pick (158th overall) to move up a few slots to get him. That fifth-round pick would later be dealt as part of the team’s move to get Jacquizz Rodgers.

The team still could have landed Akeem Dent in the third round, and then drafted Rodgers in the fourth round instead of waiting until the fifth. And also hung onto a seventh-round pick that was part of that trade up for Rodgers and picked another potential body.

Jones Trade Hurt Falcons Offensive Line

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David DeCastro was widely hailed as the top guard in 2012

In 2012, without the Jones trade, the Falcons would still have had a first-round pick. And with that pick, it’s only logical to assume the Falcons would have selected an offensive lineman since the team’s top two selections wound up being offensive linemen with the trade. There were potentially three options with the 22nd overall pick as three of the next four players picked in 2012 were offensive linemen: tackle Riley Reiff, guard David DeCastro and guard Kevin Zeitler. All three players would represent upgrades on the Falcons’ current offensive line.

Reiff sat the bench in Detroit as a rookie, but Pro Football Focus graded him as the 17th best left tackle in the league this past year. That compares to Sam Baker, who in his best season in 2012 graded out as the 18th best left tackle, suggesting that Reiff is already in his second season as good a player as Baker has ever been in five seasons.

Zeitler had an excellent rookie season with the Cincinnati Bengals, being the 12th highest-rated guard in the league per Pro Football Focus. He fell to 28th this past year, but that was only slightly below the Falcons best blocker in Justin Blalock, who graded out at 24th.

DeCastro missed his rookie season with an injury, but came back strong this past year by earning PFF’s 14th highest guard grade.

If the Falcons are successful in addressing their offensive line need in the first round of the draft, it leaves them free to not select Peter Konz in the second round with the 55th overall pick. Linebacker Lavonte David (58th), cornerback Casey Hayward (62nd) and Dwayne Allen (64th) were subsequent selections that turned into good players.

Whether it’s Reiff replacing Baker and preventing the Falcons from wasting $41 million or being a potential replacement for a possibly underachieving Carimi at right tackle, or DeCastro/Zeitler upgrading the right guard position vacated by Dahl, it’s very clear that the presence of any one of those first-round picks would have made the Falcons offensive line better in 2013. It’s hard to say that they would have been good, but certainly several degrees better. That coupled with having a still promising No. 2 receiver in Torrey Smith, there’s every reason to believe that in an alternative universe where the Jones trade didn’t happen, the Falcons could be in a slightly better position heading into 2014. It’s pure speculation on my part of course, but it’s why reexamining the trade isn’t all one way or the other.

It illustrates the idea that Torrey Smith coupled with one of those offensive linemen is potentially a bigger addition to the Falcons roster than Jones was alone. And that doesn’t even factor in the fourth-round pick we lost in 2012 which could have been used on any number of good players. It is weighing the difference between getting one excellent player at a single position versus getting lesser, but still good players at multiple positions. What helps a team more? I’d argue in the Falcons case, it’s the latter.

And the reason for that argument is because the Falcons aren’t one player away from anything. They weren’t one dynamic receiver away from being an explosive offense, just like they aren’t one dominant defender away from being a top-ranked defense. Current top defenses like Seattle, San Francisco and Carolina, nor past ones like Baltimore or Pittsburgh aren’t predicated on one great player, but rather multiple good players. Thus my fear with a Clowney trade is that we will lose the picks that can get said multitude.

Active Free Agency Could Make Clowney Trade Worthwhile

I’m not completely against a Clowney trade, but it has to be for the right price. And my personal take is that giving up Top 75 picks would be too high a price for the Falcons to pay. The Falcons have three of those picks in this year’s draft, and hopefully two next year if one assumes that 2014 success will push them later in the draft order for their third-round selection.

I believe the only likely scenario where the Falcons could move up for Clowney without giving up such premium picks is to move up from pick number six to four, rather than into the top three. And that would likely require the St. Louis Rams to have already moved down and already netted a bevy of picks from the Cleveland Browns, thus making them less inclined to try and fleece the Falcons for maximum value in a subsequent trade.

Will Clowney make it that far? Who knows. Although the possibility definitely exists if three quarterbacks go off the board in the first three picks. At this point in the process that remains a possibility, but far from a certainty.

Another element that would make the Clowney trade worthwhile is if the Falcons are aggressive in free agency. If the Falcons are forced to give up premium draft picks to move up for Clowney, they can supplement theses losses by adding quality free agents. That has been something of a problem for the Falcons over the years as the last worthwhile offseason signing made by the team was arguably Turner in 2008. Since then, major free agent signings like Mike Peterson, Dunta Robinson, Ray Edwards, Lofa Tatupu, Vince Manuwai, Osi Umenyiora and Steven Jackson have netted the team mixed results at best.

If the Falcons intend to give up second or third-round picks this year or next to move up for Clowney, then they have to sign free agents this offseason that give them comparable value. Those free agents will have to create the multitude of players this team needs to fill its hole.

Falcons Have Cap Space to Work With

The positive is that the Falcons should have plenty of cap space to do some freewheeling in free agency. The latest reports indicate that the 2014 salary cap is set at $132 million. Per Over the Cap, the Falcons are projected to carry roughly $3.2 million in cap space from 2013 to 2014, making their de facto cap limit to be around $135 million this year. The Falcons are expected to receive a $7 million cap credit thanks to the retirement of Tony Gonzalez, and could free up $3 million in additional space by cutting safety Thomas DeCoud. Those moves would subsequently put the Falcons at around $107 million in 2014 expenditures, resulting in cap space around $28 million.

That’s more than enough money to attract a number of top-level free agents to Atlanta if the team is willing to go after them. But there remains a big question this offseason: how aggressive with the Falcons be come March 11 when free agency begins?

Based off Arthur Blank’s comments six weeks ago about selective use of free agency, the indication appears to be not very aggressive. That would fit in how the Falcons have approached most of their offseasons since Dimitroff and Mike Smith’s arrivals in 2008. But how much stock can we put in the owner’s comments made well before final team evaluations had been done? Especially now that the team has made substantial changes to their front office personnel with the recent hirings of Billy Devaney and Russ Bolinger to add to Scott Pioli, Dimitroff and Lionel Vital.

Also, the Falcons are coming off a 4-12 season. In past years, their selective usage of free agency was somewhat justified because the team was always coming off a winning season. The last time the Falcons were coming off a season this bad was in Dimitroff’s first year, where they signed seven players in the first week of free agency to multi-year deals, including Turner, Erik Coleman, Ben Hartsock and Von Hutchins.

The Falcons have consistently made moves in the first 48-72 hours of free agency in the years since, but have been content to make little headway in the days and weeks following. They get in with an initial move for players such as Peterson, Robinson, Edwards or Jackson, and then get out. Will such a calculated, but limited approach work in 2013?

Why Trade Up for Clowney, When You Can Take Khalil Mack?

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Khalil Mack could be worthwhile alternative to Clowney

Again, if the plan is to move up for Clowney, then I don’t believe so. If the plan is not to move up for Clowney, then the Falcons usual approach could suffice. It ultimately comes down to whether or not the Falcons fall in love with Clowney in the same way they did Jones in 2011.

Similar to Jones, Clowney has otherworldly talent. But unlike Jones, Clowney comes with many more questions about his commitment and work ethic. While Alabama head coach Nick Saban has always been effusive when it comes to praising Jones’ work habits and commitment to excellence, Clowney’s head coach has been relatively reticent.

Does that mean the Falcons shouldn’t draft Clowney? No, but it should just give the team pause when considering mortgaging a sizable amount of their future for a player that might not be “all in.”

Especially when a player like Khalil Mack is potentially available that doesn’t require as much push from outside forces. Like Jones, Mack appears to be a self-starter and won’t require micromanagement like some fear Clowney needs. After all, Mack wore number 46 at Buffalo because he felt slighted by a video game.

Mack isn’t in the same class as Clowney as a player or prospect. But Mack and another high pick(s), whatever it would take to trade up, is worth more than Clowney is alone.

The Falcons weren’t necessarily mistaken by trading up for Jones, but there were consequences to that move as I have outlined above. And the team needs to learn from that experience and strive to get better.

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com

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