Atlanta Falcons training camp has begun. And all the prognostications and analysis that has occurred over the past six months of the NFL offseason are basically thrown out the window at this point as things will soon be decided on the field.
It’s one of the reasons why football is great because of its unpredictably. As I noted last week, it’s one of the most unpredictable of the major American sports. And it’s for that reason, what I do is somewhat meaningless.
Like so many others, for the past six months I have made a bunch of educated guesses as to what I thought the Falcons would do this offseason, in the draft, and ultimately how that would lead to a successful or unsuccessful 2014 season.
What will ultimately happen this season is completely beyond me. If I knew, then I’d get on the first plane to Las Vegas and bet it all.
There are always several surprises in not just the regular season, but in training camp. There is always a player or two that winds up making the Falcons roster that I’m fairly dumbfounded as to why it happened. There’s always a promising prospect that doesn’t make the cut which disappoints me. There’s always a player that I had exceedingly low expectations on entering the summer, but manages to blow those out of the water. And then there’s the opposite, a player that disappoints greatly during the summer months. It all adds up to an eclectic mix that will eventually make up the Falcons 2014 roster.
One of the things that typically emerge during the initial days of camp reports and observations is how promising much of the new blood added to roster in the offseason is looking.
For instance, one can make the argument that after cornerback Desmond Trufant the best player on the Falcons defense last year was defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. And it’s very possible that he may hold that title going into 2014. But you probably won’t hear very much about Babineaux this summer during camp practices because he’s old news. Unless Babineaux is schooling one of the young kids like Malliciah Goodman or Ra’Shede Hageman on the intricacies of the position, there won’t be a lot of buzz surrounding him. Yet given that he’s the best player up front, he probably is a player that practices the best as well.
But nobody wants to hear how Babineaux still looks solid in the various camp reports you’ll find over the next several weeks. It’s more about how those young guys like Goodman and Hageman are looking and likely to contribute significantly in 2014.
So pardon my cynicism, but that’s the nature of the beast. People tend to get caught up in what is shiny and new rather than what appears old hat.
I think it’s why the impact of rookie players is generally vastly overrated by most analysts. Over the years of studying draft history, I’ve learned how few rookie players really do manage to impact in the NFL and thus have adjusted my expectations accordingly. Generally speaking, it’s okay to get a little hyped over a first or second-round pick. But players selected after that, you might need to pump the brakes on.
It’s not simply because the Falcons are not particularly stellar at drafting players after the second round. That could certainly be the case, but it’s really a low percentage of players league-wide taken after the first 75 or so slots in the draft that turn into good NFL players.
When you look at a player like Trufant last year, he’s an aberration based on his impact. With NFL bloodlines and a first-round pedigree, he’s the relatively rare NFL prospect that isn’t overwhelmed with the transition to league.
Most NFL rookies are. Not only are they undergoing a transition in the sport of football, but they’re undergoing a transition in life. Moving to a new city and finding a place to live on top of trying to learn as much as they can about new offensive and defensive schemes that can often be much more complex than anything they did in college is a lot to deal with. They have to deal with a bunch of new teammates and coaches and finding their place within the locker room. Many are going to have a lot more money in their pockets and free time on their hand outside the insulated environment of a college campus.
That’s a lot to handle for a 22 or 23-year old player, which is put on top of the actual on-field learning that they need to undergo is dramatic.
It’s why it’s hard to be overly optimistic about any individual rookie’s impact his first year in the league. There are obviously some players that do make that impact. Trufant, Tyrann Mathieu, Kiko Alonso, Sheldon Richardson, Kyle Long, Star Lotulelei and Eddie Lacy are a few rookies last season that didn’t seem to struggle through that initial transition period. It’s not to say each didn’t have their share of struggles last year, but for the most part their performances were on par with the norm you could expect out of a veteran player that had been in the league for a few years.
I can’t lie, that was unexpected on my part from Trufant. Just another example of why my educated guessing didn’t appear so educated last year.
You look at this year’s Falcons draft class, and you sort of expect something similar from top pick Jake Matthews. Like Trufant, Matthews has NFL bloodlines which should help make the transition smoother. He has an entire family full of individuals who have made the transition to the pros, and thus the culture shock that comes with being a newbie in the NFL should be a lot less.
And Matthews certainly has first-round pedigree as one of the highest-rated players in this past May’s draft class. Relative to most rookies, he should have a much higher impact but that doesn’t mean he’ll be the second coming of Jonathan Ogden right away. Matthews will likely have the ups and downs typically associated with rookie players, particularly blockers. Against top competition, he’ll likely get schooled from time to time and against lesser competition he should be able to hold his own.
But the expectations for the rest of the Falcons 2014 draft class probably should be taken from the remainder of the 2013 class after Trufant. Because let’s face it, if the Falcons hadn’t finished 4-12 last year, most of their 2013 class would be completely unknown to us.
The most popular narrative is that 2013 second-round pick Robert Alford got on the field last year because Asante Samuel was struggling so mightily. That may be the most popular way of putting it, but certainly not the most accurate. Alford played because the team was so bad. There’s simply no chance that had the Falcons record been 6-6 instead of 3-9 heading into the final month, Alford would’ve supplanted Samuel in the starting lineup.
Malliciah Goodman is another good example. Over the first five weeks of the season, Goodman averaged about 10.6 defensive snaps per game, with a significant amount coming in “garbage time” against the St. Louis Rams when the Falcons had a comfortable second-half lead. Over the final 11 games however, Goodman’s playing time increased to 28 snaps per game. That increase in playing time was a direct result of the team’s youth movement after they quickly realized during their bye week that the playoffs were likely out of the equation.
Had Goodman kept up the rate of playing time he earned through the first five games for the remainder of the season, his workload would have been similar to that of Cliff Matthews, who averaged 12.3 snaps per game over the course of 2013. And as blunt as it may sound, many of you reading this probably forgot that the Falcons had a second player on the roster with the last name Matthews.
Stansly Maponga played one snap in the first five games of the season, but played 130 over the final 11. Zeke Motta played 33 snaps over the first 13 weeks before an injury to safety Thomas DeCoud forced him into the lineup.
If last year’s rookies owe most of their reps to the team’s struggles, what will that say about this year’s draft class if a similar correlation holds up? If the Falcons are expected to rebound this season, should there be heavy expectations on this year’s crop of rookies to be major contributors?
For me at least, it’s hard to say yes to that question. In the case of Jake Matthews, as long as he’s healthy, he’s going to play. But the rest of the group it is hard to be sure of. Yes they will play, but how much?
Take second-round pick Ra’Shede Hageman, who will certainly be a part of the team’s rotation, but how big a part? I don’t personally see it as big as others. With more proven players like Babineaux, Tyson Jackson, and Goodman ahead of him on the depth chart, it’s not going to be a ton of reps to go around. And that doesn’t factor in Paul Soliai and Corey Peters as well. Not counting edge-rushers, Hageman appears to be the sixth player in the rotation. And last year’s fifth man in the rotation was Travian Robertson, who played just 79 snaps.
Now I think Hageman will certainly play more than that this year, but I don’t see him getting a lot more reps than Goodman did last year. Roughly 20-25 snaps per game seems like a good upper limit to Hageman’s workload assuming things like injuries and poor play don’t mount up elsewhere.
The Falcons rotation last year wasn’t that deep up front. It was basically a four-man group of Babineaux, Peters, Goodman and Peria Jerry. Matthews and Robertson played enough to give those guys the occasional breather, but the Falcons put far too much on the plate of Babineaux especially in 2013. There was absolutely no reason why a 32-year old defensive tackle like Babineaux should be playing in 87 percent of the defensive snaps.
This year, additions like Hageman should allow them to feature a six-man rotation along the defensive line. With his addition along with Jackson, Soliai and the improved play of Goodman, there should be a dramatic decrease in Babineaux’s workload. And that should make Babineaux into a more effective player. Hageman making Babineaux into a better player is something I’d be a little bit more willing to put stock into than necessarily Hageman himself being an impactful rookie. At least not anymore than Goodman was a year ago.
Third-round pick Dezmen Southward is probably on the Zeke Motta track, which is not getting a ton of playing time unless there’s an injury. But there’s a pretty good possibility that there will be an injury at safety this year given that starters Dwight Lowery and William Moore aren’t exactly known for having the best durability.
If Southward earns that playing time, I think similar to Motta he’s going to struggle. Motta’s struggles were mostly physical because he didn’t have great speed or range to be reliably in position in coverage. Southward shouldn’t have those issues since his range is probably his best trait. But he’s still raw in learning the things that a free safety in Mike Nolan’s scheme is going to be asked to do. It’s one of the reasons why I think the Falcons should sign a veteran safety, just as an insurance policy.
The one player that is hardest to predict his impact is fourth-round running back Devonta Freeman.
If Freeman slides into Jason Snelling’s vacated role, then his playing time isn’t going to be significant. Outside games where he was serving as a replacement for an injured Steven Jackson, Snelling averaged 10.1 offensive snaps per game. And even that number is inflated by the 45 snaps he received in the final two games last season thanks to Jacquizz Rodgers suffering a concussion. Take those away, and Snelling’s workload dips to 6.6 offensive snaps per game.
It’s certainly possible that Freeman’s workload in 2014 isn’t much higher. But that likely depends on Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers both remaining healthy and playing at a high enough level that any efforts to get Freeman on the field are an afterthought. That could come if Jackson has a season reminiscient of his days in St. Louis and rushes for over 1,000 yards, and Rodgers has a spike in production that sees him average well above four yards per carry. But those outcomes probably aren’t likely given how both Jackson and Quizz have played in recent years.
The question on the minds of many is whether Freeman will leapfrog Rodgers on the depth chart and force the latter into the Snelling role. Even if you discount the five games where Quizz was the primary runner with Jackson out of the lineup, he still averaged 23.3 snaps in his other 10 appearances.
Freeman certainly has an opportunity to eat in Quizz’s reps. Whether he fully supplants him remains to be seen. While Freeman is a very good pass protector relative to most college running backs, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll immediately be a capable pass protector in the pros. There’s usually a learning curve and frankly his pass-protection skills compared to Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Hill are irrelevant at this point. Instead, if he’s going to garner serious reps in those situations, he has to be on a level similar to Rodgers and Jackson. And particularly compared to Rodgers, that won’t be an easy task for Freeman to achieve.
I think a safer bet than Freeman completely supplanting Quizz is that the two of them will likely have close to a 50-50 split of all the snaps that Jackson does not take. Last season, that was about 30 per game between Rodgers and Snelling in games where Jackson was healthy.
For both Quizz and Snelling, over 70 percent of their snaps in each of the past two seasons have come in passing situations. So if you’re wondering what Freeman’s offensive impact will be this year, it’ll likely be in the passing game. He’ll get opportunities as a runner, but probably not a ton unless there is an injury to Jackson or Freeman is very effective with the few carries he’s given to garner more. As to that latter point, I’m just not that convinced.
I think Freeman is getting the same treatment I mentioned earlier, which is people being enamored with the new, shiny toy. I don’t think he’s that dissimilar from Quizz, although to hear it from many, their career projections couldn’t be any more different. I don’t see the night and day difference between the two.
But again, this is where prognistication can become meaningless. Perhaps Freeman is indeed the second coming of Ray Rice as a running back. And if he is, then I of course will become his biggest champion simply because we share the same last name. He’ll have an open invitation to the family reunion.
There’s certainly been a recent push for fourth-round linebacker Prince Shembo to have a significant impact as a rookie as of late. He’s involved in a competition with Joplo Bartu for the starting spot beside Paul Worrilow. And unlike Rodgers and Freeman, I do think there’s more of a night and day difference between Bartu and Shembo as players.
But I think we’ll continue to see Shembo get a push from the coaching staff and training camp observers over the coming weeks because he is a better fit for the “toughening up” of the defense. With his larger frame and more physical playing style, he is probably a better fit inside than Bartu is. But Bartu is still a better player since he’s rangier and more athletic and should deliver more of what the team lost when Sean Weatherspoon went down with a season-ending injury.
But regardless, Shembo should find some sort role this year. I personally think it’s likely to be mainly as a special teams player with an occasional look on defense similar to Stephen Nicholas last season.
As for the rest of the 2014 Falcons draft class, none are assured of even making the roster. And if they do, any impact that they have might be exclusive to special teams. Cornerback Ricardo Allen will at best be the fifth corner on the depth, a role held by Dominique Franks last year. Franks only saw 13 snaps on defense in 2013.
Marquis Spruill will be hard-pressed to earn reps if Worrilow, Bartu and Shembo are ahead of him, not to mention veterans like Tim Dobbins or Angerer. The same goes for Yawin Smallwood if he manages to stick. They might not see a single snap on defense should they make the cut.
However, in the case of fellow linebacker Tyler Starr, he has an outside shot of doing a bit more damage this year. With the report that Kroy Biermann will be given time off every third day in training camp as he recovers from a torn Achilles tendon, it could give Starr more opportunities than the other rookie linebackers. And since Starr is expected to be Biermann’s primary backup at strong-side linebacker, he’s only an injury away from being on the field. Obviously, if all things go well this season, then Starr will be relegated to special teams.
And that’s sort of the story of the entire 2014 Falcons draft class. The better a season the Falcons have in 2014, the less overall impact one can expect from their draft class.