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Takeaways from Last Week – June 17

June 17th, 2013
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Osi goes through drills during OTAs

This past week, I posted a scouting report and a breakdown of why Falcons new running back Steven Jackson will be a key player for the team this season. I think this week I’ll do the same for the team’s other big free agent acquisition: defensive end Osi Umenyiora.

But in watching more tape of Osi’s 2012 season with the New York Giants, I keep coming away confused. Not because Osi isn’t a good player, since he is. But I just can’t understand why the Falcons think adding him is an upgrade over former end John Abraham.

It’s not really a knock on Osi, but I think at best he’s a lateral move. Last year, Abraham finished the year with 8 sacks, 18.5 pressures, and 6.5 hits according to Moneyball, good enough for 33 “positive pass rushes” or PPRs. That’s a really solid number. But there was a drop-off in Abe’s production as the season wore on, where he was essentially a non-entity in terms of production over the final month. In the first half of the season he recorded 22 PPRs. In the third quarter of the season, that number was 8.5. In the final 4 games, it was just 2.

So in that sense I get why the Falcons cut Abe. For whatever reason, it was clear he had lost a step by the end of the year, regardless of the injury that occurred in Week 17. I made this statement after reviewing the Falcons Week 16 win over the Lions:

My hope is that John Abraham’s slip in production is because he’s saving himself for the playoffs, not because he’s hit some sort of wall and/or has not adapted well to playing with his hand off the ground as he’s done for most of the past 10 games. But if the Falcons are going to have a deep run, they are going to need him to step up.

The Falcons probably figure that Osi will give them steadier production over the course of the entire season. For Osi, a year where he gets 25-30 PPRs is a solid season. 35 or more would be a very good season, and anything about 40 is extremely good. I wouldn’t put money on him reaching the latter benchmark, but even at my most pessimistic in regards to Osi I still think he’s definitely capable of getting 25-plus.

The reason why I call it a lateral move is because I think the Falcons potentially face the same problem they did in 2012, which is not getting enough production from the rest of the players.

Biermann finished last year with 17.5 PPRs, 7 of which came over the final 4 games, where he stepped up to become the team’s top pass rusher with Abe in the cellar. Next was Babineaux with 14.5. The next three players were not defensive linemen: Weatherspoon (9), Stephen Nicholas (8), and William Moore (7). Vance Walker was our fourth best pass rusher up front with 6.5 PPRs. Ray Edwards and Corey Peters in shortened seasons each had 4 PPRs. Jerry had 3.5.

This is the problem in Atlanta, the supporting cast behind Abraham and Babineaux are weak. Biermann gets a lot of flak from the fanbase, but Biermann carries his weight much more than people give credit. People just have to accept that he’s not a guy that is going to dominate games. He’s a complementary pass rusher. In 2010, he had 14 PPRs. In 2011, he had 15.5. That’s really just the player he is, getting around 15 PPRs. He’s been consistently that for three years, there’s no reason to expect him to produce more at this point.

Babineaux is also a fairly known commodity. He had 13 PPRs in 13 games in 2010, and 15.5 in 2011. In what probably will be his final year, if the Falcons can get 12-15 PPRs from, that will be solid for him. I wish he was still the player that had 26 PPRs in 2009, but he’s not that player.

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Peters is a player that needs to step up in 2013

The issue is the Falcons need some of the other players to step up and become double-digit players.

Pressure is really on Corey Peters, who is in a contract year. His best season was 2011, where he had 10 PPRs. Broken down by quarter of the season that was: 2/4/2/2. This year that should be more like 4/4/4/4. He really needs to have a 12+ PPR season. Otherwise, I’m just not sure why the Falcons should bring him back. He’s a good run defender, but not a great one. And without having at least a double-digit PR season, then he’s not really an impact pass rusher. In three seasons and 41 games played, Peters has 18.5 PPRs. Biermann almost had that last year. The point is, without having a year where he doesn’t have 12-15 PPRs or really emerges as a monster run stopper, then he shouldn’t be a priority re-signing for the team.

But it’s not all on Peters’ shoulders. Other players need to step up. And I’m looking mainly at you Jonathan Massaquoi. Sidbury in 2011 had 8.5 PPRs. My hope is that Massaquoi can double that in 2013. If he does so and others step up their production, I think the Falcons have a chance to improve their pass rush. I’m not going to put much of any stock in the rookies Goodman and Maponga, nor Matthews and Robertson. If the four of them could combine for a dozen more PPRs that would be nice, but I’m not really expecting anyone to make that major leap this year.

If individuals can step up, coupled with Mike Nolan’s ability to scheme, the Falcons pass rush stands a chance to be decent. I don’t expect them to be formidable, but not a glaring weakness as it has been defensively the past few years.

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One of the more interesting players to watch this year will be fullback Bradie Ewing. Of all the new projected starters, he’s probably getting the least amount of pub.

Part of that is because of the position he plays. The fullback position is a dying position in the league. Due to more teams using 3 wideouts and the increasing usage of the 2-TE set, teams have often sacrificed the need or desire to have a fullback. The Falcons may quickly become one of those teams.

Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE

Bradie Ewing

This is one of the reasons why I wasn’t a fan of the Ewing pick. When you look around the league, most teams are in “plug and play” mindset when it comes to the fullback position. A lot of players that never got near the position of lead blocker during their college days function as that now. Traditionally teams will convert an undersized tight end or H-back (e.g. Evan Rodriguez, James Casey, Jed Collins) or oversized running back (e.g. Mike Tolbert, John Kuhn, Greg Jones). But now you see former college wide receivers (Marcel Reece, Will Johnson), quarterbacks (Michael Robinson), defensive linemen (Corey McIntyre, Bruce Miller, and Erik Lorig), and linebackers (Spencer Larsen, Brit Miller, Darrel Young) now suiting up as many teams’ fullback. I don’t think teams really need to draft fullbacks at this juncture, unless he’s a “special” player. I have the same opinion on drafting kickers and punters. Ewing while the consensus top fullback in the 2012 draft class, would not have stood out in the 2011 class which included players like Henry Hynoski (Giants), Stanley Havili (Colts), Anthony Sherman (Chiefs), Bruce Miller (49ers), and Owen Marecic (Browns).

Jason Snelling has proven that he can be a solid lead blocker when he’s been asked to fill in over the years. People often talk about Ewing’s ability to produce in the passing game. And while he’s no slouch there, is he going to be a bigger contributor than a player like Reece (104 catches in past 3 years) or Casey (52 catches the past two years)? If you’re a team that wants a productive pass-catching fullback, then you’re probably better off drafting one of those undersized TEs or finding a bulked up receiver like Delanie Walker to try and convert to the position.

And ultimately if you’re like most teams and really only need a player for 15-20 snaps per game, does it require investing a draft pick in a true fullback? Wouldn’t it make more sense to use that pick on a player that you believe could play 30-40 or more snaps on offense/defense? Previously when the Falcons were a run-based offense with Michael Turner, having a premium lead blocker like Ovie Mughelli made a ton of sense. Facts are that the Falcons running game hasn’t been right ever since Ovie got hurt at the start of the 2011 season. Coincidence? Probably not. But since the Falcons are no longer that team, did they need to invest even just a fifth round pick in Ewing?

It’s why I am curious to see what sort of season Ewing has this year. I’m fully aware I probably don’t have fair standards for Ewing to live up to. But I hope he has an impactful first year with the Falcons. I also won’t deny my very pro-Ovie bias as well. For those that read my game reviews last year, you were probably aware of my near-weekly Mike Cox musings that usually went along the lines of “Mike Cox is no Ovie Mughelli, but he’s playing fairly well.”

I hope this year’s reviews will include many similar sentences about Ewing. And I certainly think Ewing is capable of doing that. But it’s going to be curious what Ewing’s role is going to be in the future.

If Levine Toilolo can step in and be a productive second tight end for the Falcons this year, that’s going to mean less snaps for Ewing. And because of my pessimism over whether Toilolo can be the man on his own, I think the Falcons are going to have to invest in another tight end in the near future. And if that’s the case, then Ewing’s reps won’t increase as time wears on.

And it’s nothing personal against Ewing. He can’t help that the Falcons weren’t thinking long-term when they selected him in the fifth round of the 2012 draft. All he can do is do the best job he’s capable of with whatever opportunity is afforded him. And I think he’ll be a solid, albeit unspectacular contributor as a lead blocker and also add value on special teams coverage. If he does that, he’ll earn my respect. If he does more, and actually reminds me of Ovie in his prime, then he’ll have much more from me. I’ll pound the table for him just as I did for the previous No. 34.

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