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Takeaways from Last Week – June 10

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan is on the verge of making himself a lot of money. He showed significant improvement last year, as statistically he ranked highly in a number of advanced metrics.

Unfortunately for Ryan, the pressure on him is only likely to increase, particularly from the fan base.

But I honestly don’t expect Ryan to put together a better season than he did in 2012. Looking at advanced metrics such as expected points added (EPA) by Advanced NFL Stats, the Falcons three receivers graded very highly last season. Roddy White’s EPA of 71.2 was the fourth highest in the league during the regular season behind only Calvin Johnson (107.3), Demaryius Thomas (85.9), and Andre Johnson (83.4). Julio Jones ranked 8th with a EPA of 64.2 last year, and Tony Gonzalez was the top-ranked tight end with an EPA of 59.7. Among all receivers (tight ends included), that would have ranked 12th, ahead of receivers like Dez Bryant, Michael Crabtree, Jordy Nelson, and Brandon Marshall.

That’s a rare combination. There were three other teams that have three receivers ranked in the Top 32: the Patriots, Cowboys, and Broncos. But when you average their ranking, the Falcons finished with an average rank of 8th for their Big Three, while the Broncos (13.7), Patriots (18.7), and Cowboys (22.0) were well behind the Falcons.

The point is to suggest that 2012 likely represents a statistical peak for the Falcons top wideouts and quarterback. A repeat performance in 2013 would be welcomed, but not likely. The last time I think a team had that caliber of performance was in 2008 with the Arizona Cardinals, as Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, and Anquan Boldin all ranked in the Top 13 that year in terms of EPA. The following season, all three ranked between spots 35th and 41st among wide receivers. In 2008, Kurt Warner’s EPA was 6th highest in the league but slipped to 14th the following year.

Thus why it’s probably a shame the Falcons didn’t take advantage of that production and ride it all the way to the Super Bowl. They got close, but it’s likely there will be a step back in 2013 for the passing attack.

And if the Falcons expect to have a repeat of the 2012 season and make a deep run in the playoffs, they are probably going to be much more reliant on the other aspects of the team to step up. But outside the secondary, the Falcons really got minimal production from the rest of their roster last year. Their running game was among the worst in the league. They couldn’t sack the quarterback and they couldn’t stop the run, putting them near the bottom of the league in those areas as well. Their offensive line was average at best for the majority of the season.

Ryan and the receivers essentially carried the team last year. And I hope many fans won’t get down on him or them if that doesn’t happen again this year or in future years. But the focus and scrutiny often falls on the quarterback, especially if he makes over $100 million.

I just hope for Ryan’s sake, that after he gets his new contract he won’t be held to an impossible standard by all parties.

One way the Falcons could get more out of Ryan this year is by expanding the no-huddle. With Chip Kelly now in the NFL bringing his high-tempo offense to the league, that could be how the Falcons expand their no-huddle. Tempo is highly effective. The Patriots led the league with number of plays last year, averaging 74.4 plays per game. The Falcons ranked 14th in the league, averaging 63.8 plays per game. The Broncos picked up their pace at the end of last season, averaging over 75 plays per game over the final month. If the Falcons can reach a point where they can regularly run such high-tempo offense, it could get more production from their passing attack.

Last year, there were only three games where the Falcons had over 70 offensive plays: Redskins (81), the first Saints game (71), and the Cardinals (71).

The benefits of the no-huddle are no secret. It’s harder for defenses to scheme against them, and if you can operate efficiently at break-neck speed, it becomes even harder for them. Thus why I believe it’s going to be the in thing to do in the very near future around the league. The Falcons should be able to run the ball more than they did a year ago, but earlier in games if they can run the “speed no-huddle” they could catch teams off guard. And if the Falcons adopt this in 2013, it means that they’ll be ahead of the curve on a lot of teams. The Patriots, Broncos, and seemingly Eagles are already there. But that puts Atlanta in the position to get ahead of the remaining 28 teams in the NFL. Ryan isn’t the most physically blessed quarterback. But the one strength that he has which potentially outshines others is what he has between the ears. The exact same can be and has been said of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. And I think the Falcons would be very smart to maximize that ability by increasing tempo and becoming more of a “fast break” offense. And when you have one of the most dynamic weapons on the outside by the name of Quintorris Lopez, makes things a bit easier.

***

The New Orleans Saints had a fascinating 2012 season. Their season essentially was broken when they got off to their 0-4 start. Those losses largely came as a result of their defense’s inability to get stops. Their two losses to Kansas City and Green Bay were due largely to them blowing fourth quarter leads. Their defense early in the season was in the running for one of the worst statistical units of all-time.

Steve Spagnuolo was a major failure for them as a defensive coordinator. And it’s funny how it seemed like the Falcons defensive coordinator job was down to him or Mike Nolan. Well the Saints clearly got the short end of the stick.

I think Sean Payton’s suspension had a lot to do with Spag’s failure. The fact that there was no clear leader in the locker room and on the sideline probably makes a defensive coordinator’s job of installing a brand new defense a lot harder.

The key for the Saints in 2013 is going to be if new DC Rob Ryan can get their defense to a competent level. Because in truth, had their defense just been your run of the mill bad defense as opposed to one that was one of the worst ever, they likely would have had a much different (and better) season. We definitely know that their offense would have been better had Payton been patrolling the sidelines since he was their play-caller for the past seven years.

So with Payton back, their offense will likely make a step up in 2013. It all boils down to their defense. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of defense Ryan installs. It appears that they will not be a strict 3-4 or 4-3, but try to steal a page from Nolan and others and mix in both.

Ryan is seen as a failure from his days in Dallas, but I do think he got a bit of a raw deal. The Cowboys lost Sean Lee early in the year. And if you weren’t aware, Lee was in the midst of having an MVP-caliber season before he was injured. And I also believe that Ryan and the Cowboys were hanging their hat on their secondary being really strong last year. It wasn’t. Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne could easily improve this year and have the type of season that was expected of them last year.

The Saints made some interesting additions this off-season. Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro should upgrade their coverage, but I’m not sure any of their corners are the caliber of either Carr or Claiborne. And if those guys couldn’t really succeed under Ryan, I’m not sure I’d put much stock in Lewis, Jabari Greer, or Patrick Robinson.

But again, they won’t need those players to be great. They just need them to be competent and the Saints offense will be able to carry them to a bunch of wins and a potential playoff spot.

***

The NFL needs a developmental league. NFL Europe closed its doors back in 2007. Since then the United Football League emerged. I think their long-term marketing strategy was to eventually succeed to a level where the NFL would purchase them and convert them into a developmental league. That failed.

The problem is that the NFL has continually lost money on developmental leagues. I think part of the reasons for that is because they are playing in the spring, and the appetite for football isn’t as strong then. The lesser quality in product also doesn’t help put butts in the seats.

But I believe the regardless of the monetary losses, the game will greatly benefit from a developmental spring league. It will not only allow players to get extra reps in the hopes that one turns into another Brian Finneran, Tyson Clabo, or Brent Grimes (all of them succeeded across the pond), but should also give greater opportunities for coaches and officials.

Using that league as a way to get African-American assistants greater opportunities might be the best strategy for the league to try and fix the issue they have with their Rooney Rule.

It will also give the league a testing ground if they ever try to pull the shenanigans with the replacement refs. Having a separate group of officials that can do pro games will give them greater flexibility if the owners opt to get greedy again and short-change the officials union.

I think the best manner of implementing it will be to pick 8 to 12 cities, preferably larger markets that don’t already have an NFL franchise. I just can’t see the population of a city that can watch an NFL team in the fall, even a bad one, is going to shell out money for a second-tier spring football team. So places like Orlando, Sacramento, Portland, Hartford, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Birmingham, Las Vegas, etc. would be pretty good target cities.

Just like NFL Europe, teams will be allowed to allocate a certain number of players. If you had an 8-team league that would each have about 60 players, that would make for about 480 players. If every NFL team allocated 8 players, then half the league would be players from NFL teams. More than likely they would probably be players that were on their respective teams’ practice squad. But you could also put players like Dominique Davis who just need reps a greater opportunity. Also a player like Phillip Manley, who allegedly is out of shape, wouldn’t be if he was actually playing in the spring rather than sitting around eating cheeseburgers (allegedly).

Would the league lose money? Yeah, probably. Even if you had a team in a football-starved community, are they going to be put 50,000 butts in the seats for a dozen or so games? No.

But with the NFL subsidizing things, I think they could be OK. But long-term, I think the key for a league like this having success is getting better talent. The only way I could think of that happening is having this developmental league as a backdoor for top collegiate athletes. Take the players that often get bounced from school and enter the supplemental draft, now could instead go to this league.

I also think you could have a rule where players two years removed from their high school graduation could also enter the league, rather than the three it requires to enter the NFL Draft. The key with that is that you’d have to keep salaries down so that college players aren’t leaving school left and right. Practice squad players in the NFL make a little less than $6,000 a week. And I think all players in this developmental league should get paid no more than that.

But if you’re one of those college players that are only in school so that you can get drafted, but are just going through the motions. At the end of your sophomore year, you could declare for this developmental league, sign that one-year contract and get paid for your services, and then use that as an avenue to get into the league once that season is over come June.

Imagine a scenario where a player like Jadaveon Clowney opted to go into this developmental league. He tears it up for two or three months, and then when the spring season is over he becomes a free agent and there’s a bidding war for his services. Something and someone like that would definitely put butts in the seats.

Okay, that idea is probably a pipe-dream. As the NFL would never do anything to undermine the draft which each year is become more of a television event.

But it’s just one idea of trying to solve the problem of upgrading the talent in the league. Because ultimately I think that would be what would hold any developmental league from making money. Americans won’t be compelled even with low ticket prices if the product doesn’t hold up.

But in the short-term, the benefits of getting better players for the fall product would outweigh that issue. That only people that don’t benefit from the developmental league are the owners of the respective teams.

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Author: Aaron Freeman

Aaron is the founder of FalcFans.com.

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