Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Last Week – July 14, 2014

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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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Matt Stafford

Following 2011 when Stafford threw for over  5,000 passing yards, I could understand why he ranked highly. That was an impressive achievement and the Lions were coming off a playoff berth and their first winning season in over a decade. Things were looking up for Stafford then, but in 2012 his play took a significant dip. And while he improved in 2013, it was not by any huge degree to suggest he was more than above average.

However, Stafford’s consistent election to the top 100 flies in the face of the biases mentioned previously. The Lions are a mediocre team and have been such for the majority of Stafford’s career. His record as a starter is 24-37 with only one playoff appearance and the Lions have won just 11 games combined in the past two seasons.

Stafford is a highly inconsistent passer because of very erratic mechanics. The primary reason why the Lions hired Jim Caldwell as their latest head coach was because of the belief that his experience as a quarterbacks coach could fix Stafford improve in those areas.

If Ryan was bumped in favor of Jay Cutler, that would make more sense to me. Cutler has been snubbed the past two years and is basically a better version of Stafford.

I won’t pretend that my confidence in Ryan did not take a significant hit this past season. There were too many missed throws and reads, particularly during the first half of the season when the Falcons wide receiver situation was salvageable. I thought Ryan played much too tentatively, afraid to air it out at times for fear of a turnover.

This has been a problem that has plagued Ryan throughout his career, but it was exasperated in 2013 thanks to the lack of weapons around him. In previous years, Ryan’s diffidence was a relatively minor obstacle given that he was very effective at distributing the ball to playmakers in Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez despite it. But with those playmakers removed as they were in 2013, Ryan needed take a little bit more on his shoulders to elevate the play of lesser receivers.

Now six years into Ryan’s career and I still see a player that is too hesitant to stick the ball into tight windows. Frankly, Ryan is the player that he is and it would be foolish of me to expect him to make drastic improvements in that area from this point forward.

That’s going to be an issue the Falcons are going to have to live with for the foreseeable future with Ryan, which appears to be several years due to the large chunk of change he netted last summer.

And thus the onus then goes to the coaching staff and particularly the front office in trying to find ways of overcoming that issue. It’s the major reason why I’m so critical of wide receiver Harry Douglas, because he is a poor fit for the type of quarterback that Ryan is.

Ryan’s tentativeness is far less palpable when he’s throwing to Jones, White or Gonzalez because he trusts that they can make the grab in traffic. That level of trust is nonexistent when it comes to Douglas and rightfully so. Douglas is not a very good receiver in traffic and it’s one of the reasons why Ryan has tended to shy away from throwing to Douglas in the past. For much of the 2013 season, Ryan had little choice other than Douglas.

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Harry Douglas

Similarly, Douglas is the player that he is. He can’t help that he’s a scrawny 183 pounds that makes it difficult for him to win in traffic against quality cornerbacks. One of the reasons why he plays so frequently in the slot is because he struggles to beat press coverage, something he faces a lot less in the middle of the field versus when he lines up outside.

But my beef isn’t with Douglas per se, rather it’s with the front office. Douglas is merely a symbol of a failure on the front office. It’s on the front office to find a receiver that better marries with the sort of quarterback that Ryan is. A wideout like Anquan Boldin is much better suited for Ryan’s playing style than Douglas is. Like Douglas, Boldin spends the bulk of his time in the slot but not because he’s limited as an outside receiver. It’s simply because he presents a mismatch given his physical  playing style against what are often undersized slot corners. There is a significant difference between the two, as Boldin is played inside so that his strengths are accentuated, while Douglas is played there to hide his flaws.

Now receivers like Boldin don’t exactly grow on trees and acquiring one is certainly easier said than done. But at least that should fit the template of the types of receivers the Falcons are trying to add to their team.

The smaller “quicker than fast” slot types like Douglas, Darius Johnson, Bernard Reedy and James Rodgers just don’t really cut it. In an ideal world, you’d probably only really have one of those players on your roster, two at most. Instead of signing undrafted free agent wide receivers that look and play similarly to Douglas, the Falcons should be adding receivers that look and play similarly to White and Jones.

The Falcons would be smart to try and steal a page from division rival, the New Orleans Saints. The Saints essentially have three archetypes at the wide receiver position under head coach Sean Payton:

  1. The Marques Colston type
  2. The Lance Moore type
  3. The Devery Henderson type

These are the three types of receivers that have found the most success in the Saints offense since Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006.

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Marques Colston

Colston is a big receiver that wins in traffic versus being a burner. Colston’s lack of speed is somewhat minimized due to the fact that he spends the brunt of his time playing in the slot. Colston essentially acts as a chain-mover in the Saints offense, similar to how Gonzalez and White have functioned for the Falcons in recent years. In 2012, the Saints used a fourth-round pick on Nick  Toon because he has a similar skillset to Colston. Toon, who stands 6’2″ isn’t blessed with Colston’s rare 6’4″ frame, but also makes up for a lack of ideal vertical speed with strong hands and the ability to win in traffic. In 6’6″ 2014 undrafted rookie Brandon Coleman, the Saints potentially have another one of this type.

With Moore, the Saints had a small, quicker slot-type similar to Douglas. Moore has been a versatile playmaker for Payton over the years, and his abilities likely is the main reason why the team has targeted Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks in the past two drafts. Like Moore, both have the sort of builds that are ideally suited for playing in the slot, but the Saints have made it a habit of moving Moore, Stills and presumably Cooks around to create mismatches both inside and outside.

Henderson has always been a complementary option. While guys like Colston and Moore have worked the middle of the field, the primary value of Henderson has been to stretch a defense on the outside. Henderson did this well for several years in New Orleans until he was supplanted by Robert Meachem in this role. Both Henderson and Meachem have been plagued by inconsistency throughout their careers, but the one thing they consistently do well is get vertical. That’s the same sort of player that the Saints potentially have in Joseph Morgan.

This trio of archetypes complement each other and the Falcons could certainly learn from that by creating their own archetypal wide receivers.

The Julio Jones archetype that will be difficult to fill because very few receivers possess his rare size and athleticism. But it’s even harder to find those players when you’re unwilling to invest in the position. As mentioned in a previous column, the Falcons are at the bottom of the league when it comes to investing draft picks in their wide receiver corps. You need guys that have size and speed to fill that archetype instead of the sorts of players the Falcons typically target which are either too small or too slow (e.g. Kerry Meier). And there’s obviously a premium on those types of receivers, but if you hit on one, it is well worth the investment.

Then there is the Roddy White archetype, which is reminiscent of players like Colston and Boldin in that they are primarily chain movers. In White, the Falcons have a player that can line up both inside and outside and be a guy that is primarily a possession receiver, but also generate the vertical plays on occasion. Like Colston and Boldin, moving White primarily into the slot could create significant matchup problems for opposing defenses.

The third archetype should be a player similar to Henderson/Meachem in a guy that can line up outside and stretch the field. The Falcons were sorely missing that element from their 2013 team once Jones went down with injury. Such a vertical threat would complement the skill sets of both Jones and White much better than Douglas does. Such a player could pull safety help away from Jones and/or White, making them much more potent. If not and opposing defenses continue to pay too much attention to Jones or White, then a vertical threat could make them pay. Someone that has the size to win in traffic and the speed to get behind a defense is going to be a much more viable target for Ryan and add more to the Falcons offense than Douglas has or can.

The player currently on the Falcons roster that most closely resembles this last archetype is Devin Hester. But the Falcons seem poised to have Hester be more of a complementary weapon and return threat than a regular fixture in their offense. And frankly, Hester showed that in Chicago he’s not the type that should be lining up at wide receiver 40 or more times per game and expect consistent production. Hester may resemble the third archetype more so than any other receiver on the roster, but he’s still not that guy.

We’re at a point in the calendar year where the chances that the Falcons will add such a receiver before the start of the season are nil. But I can still hold out hope that 2015 will be the year that the front office finally comes to its senses and begins to target receivers with the potential to really blossom in this offense and help allow Ryan to live up to his lofty contract.

If that happens, then I think Ryan will stand a much better chance of earning the respect of his peers and be considered one of the best quarterbacks in the league, so that next year around this time I won’t be complaining about his snubbing on a dubious top 100 list.

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Aaron Freeman
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