The Atlanta Falcons made the somewhat bold move to trade for Houston Texans quarterback T.J. Yates earlier this week.
It’s a bold move in the sense that the Falcons saw a weakness on their team and went about addressing it. That weakness was their backup quarterback situation where Dominique Davis, Sean Renfree and Jeff Mathews sat behind starter Matt Ryan. Between the three of them, they only have one game and seven pass attempts’ worth of actual NFL experience.
If one was power-ranking the Falcons backup quarterback situation, it would have been in contention for dead last in the league with that of the Chicago Bears.
Following the departure of Josh McCown, who is now expected to start for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bears featured Jimmy Clausen, Jordan Palmer, David Fales and Jerrod Johnson behind starter Jay Cutler. The Bears signed Clausen earlier this month to add some much-needed experience. Clausen played poorly, but at least started 10 games as a rookie with the Carolina Panthers in 2010. Before his arrival, their sole experience came from Palmer, who attempted 15 passes over three years with the Cincinnati Bengals (2008-10).
Johnson was cut this week, as was Davis for the Falcons. Teams don’t often carry five quarterbacks on the roster, and it was clear that Yates’ arrival was going to push Davis out the door.
That’s unfortunate for Davis, who despite my frequent criticism of his skills, did have some potential to develop. Davis’ problems were that the same issues that plagued him during his days at East Carolina did not improve to a significant enough degree to merit the team’s continued investment. Davis’ accuracy and mechanics were erratic during his time in college and were the main reasons why teams passed on drafting him. Davis’ arm strength and athleticism were pluses, two things that helped him shine as an undrafted rookie during the 2012 preseason. But even then he showed the flashes of erratic play that hurt him in college.
In a sense, Yates is his polar opposite. Accuracy, footwork are two of Yates’ strengths, while arm strength is probably his biggest weakness. After the move to get Yates, I went back and looked at his limited play last season and in his playoff loss against the Baltimore Ravens in 2011 to see how much, if at all, Yates had really developed since his days at North Carolina.
What I saw was a player that could throw with good accuracy and anticipation, indicative of a relatively high I.Q., but lacked the arm strength to truly maximize his passing ability. Yates struggled with touch on his vertical throws and it led to some turnovers because he underthrew passes that allowed corners and safeties to make easy interceptions. While Yates is athletic and moves well within the pocket to avoid pressure and find throwing lanes, he struggles at times to reset his feet. That coupled with his subpar arm strength means that he’ll put even less on a throw when forced off his spot, and it again can lead to more underthrown balls that defenders can make plays on.
But given the areas where Yates is best in, it likely means he can be a much more effective “game manager” than Davis could. When you look at the Falcons three backup quarterbacks behind Ryan, that is what all project best to be. Renfree and Mathews are alumni of Duke and Cornell, respectively, two of the best academic institutions in the United States. You can’t play for those schools if you aren’t intelligent. Yates reportedly scored a 29 on his Wonderlic, which is by no means off the charts for a quarterback, but indicative of above average intelligence. For the record, Davis scored a 24 on his Wonderlic test, which is considered average for the position.
During Yates’ final year at North Carolina, the offense shifted to force Yates to have to make a lot of quicker, timing-based throws off three-step drops. Given his propensity for turnovers his first three years in school (37 interceptions versus 39 touchdowns), that sort of offense helped prevent him from making the mental errors he was prone to previously.
The Falcons will basically ask Yates to do the same in their offense.
He is by no means a savior for this team as far as the backup quarterback position goes. Yates will need a strong supporting cast if the Falcons intend to win games if faced with the possible absence of Ryan in the lineup. In Houston, he could hand the ball off to Arian Foster, throw to Andre Johnson and was also supported by one of the league’s top defenses in 2011 when he started seven games, including two in the playoffs.
If Yates is going to win in Atlanta, he’ll need a healthy Steven Jackson at running back, Julio Jones and Roddy White both at wide receiver and the Falcons defense playing a lot better than it did throughout 2013. In a game where Yates was the Falcons starting quarterback, it would greatly help their chances if they can create a couple of turnovers to give Yates a couple more possessions to put up points.
So expectations shouldn’t be too high on Yates. If one power-ranks the backup quarterbacks today in the aftermath of the Yates trade, the Falcons situation is still near the bottom of the league. But it’s potentially moved up a half-dozen spots out of the cellar.
It’s well known that most NFL teams don’t win with their backup quarterbacks. The last time the Falcons really had to face a time where they had a prolonged period with a backup quarterback in the lineup was in 2007. That year, the team began the season technically with their backup in Joey Harrington, who was supposed to play behind Michael Vick until the latter’s incarceration. But the team eventually pulled the plug on Harrington after six games and a 1-5 record. But Harrington’s replacement, Byron Leftwich, couldn’t stay healthy and when he was in the lineup, was far less effective. Eventually by year’s end, the Falcons turned to Chris Redman, who in comparison to his predecessors looked pretty good. Redman went on to start two more games in 2009 as an injury replacement for Ryan, both of which were losses for the Falcons.
But it got me thinking about just how effective are teams with backup quarterbacks. So I went back to 2007 and every year since, to see what teams’ records were in games that backups started. I considered the starter to be the quarterback that opened the season with each respective team. Here are the collective records of backup quarterbacks in each of the past seven NFL seasons:
NFL Backup QB Starting Records (2007-13)
The win percentage of teams with backups over the past seven seasons works out to be just south of six wins if projected over a full 16-game season. Over the past three years, it’s been a little worse, averaging about 5.5 wins with backups. So at least it appears that teams are a little less effective starting backups than they were seven years ago.
Perhaps that is an indicator that there are less quality quarterbacks in the league now as opposed to then, and thus why it was even more important for the Falcons to address that obvious weakness.
There just really isn’t an excuse anymore for teams to have their seasons tank because they don’t have a viable backup. It’s perfectly acceptable if the team has a backup and comes to discover that said backup isn’t nearly as good as they thought they were. That will happen from time to time.
It occurred in 2003 when the Falcons first lost Vick for an extended period and his backup in Doug Johnson fell flat on his face. A more recent example, and interestingly enough it occurred with the Bears, came in 2011 when Caleb Hanie was horrific in four starts after an injury to Cutler.
So it’s certainly possible that if Yates does manage to get on the field, he too could struggle like Johnson and Hanie. But even if that occurs, the Falcons do deserve some credit for at least trying with Yates.
Not all moves work out, but if you at least make the attempt, you’ll get points from me. In the case of acquiring Yates, it’s a decent attempt to get better at the position. In the case of signing wide receiver Brian Robiskie a year ago, such credit cannot be given.
For some, they wonder why I would put so much negative emphasis on that move. But this subject of attempting to get better is exactly why.
A year ago when Julio Jones went down for the season, the Falcons were faced with a very stark reality. One that meant that team’s ability to stretch defenses was going to be severely limited because they lacked other candidates that could really challenge defenses. Sure, players like Harry Douglas and Roddy White will make the occasional downfield play, but they don’t do so to a significant enough degree to force defenses to adjust to it.
Something that many underrate is how much just the mere fear of a player doing something can be effective weapon for an offense. A defense has to respect the deep ball when Jones is on the field. By respecting the deep ball, it potentially creates opportunities for the tight end in the middle of the field as a pass catcher and the running back on the ground as a rusher by essentially forcing one safety to sit back. Robiskie was not a deep threat as he would have been better described as big and slow.
It’s not really that Robiskie did not work out for the Falcons that bothers me. It’s the fact that the Falcons completely whiffed on what they needed at the time, which was a player that could at least present the semblance of a vertical threat so that there was just a chance that defenses would have to think twice about using their safety to double Tony Gonzalez or stack the box to defend against Steven Jackson and the rushing attack.
My frustration over the move only increased when Robiskie sat inactive on the roster for six weeks before the team parted ways. Why did it take so long for the Falcons to realize that they made a mistake? For lack of a better word, it just showed the team’s blatant ignorance of what was a major problem with the roster.
The main reason I like the Yates trade for the Falcons is because at least in this instance, the team has learned from its previous mistake. Now, I could probably wax poetic about the team’s still questionable lack of a deep threat behind Jones but I can at least say signing Devin Hester is an attempt. Perhaps not the best attempt since Hester’s production as a vertical threat isn’t substantially better than Douglas’ over the years, but it’s still an attempt nonetheless.
Deep Receiving: Hester vs. DouglasCharting 20+ yard pass attempts from 2008-13. Data courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
The other side of the trade sent linebacker Akeem Dent to the Texans in exchange for Yates. And that also showed the team realizing a mistake and correcting it, although it may not have come quick enough. Dent, a questionable pick at the time of his selection, spent three marginal years in Atlanta.
One wonders if not for the emergence of undrafted rookie Paul Worrilow last year, what that situation at middle linebacker would look like. And before you give too much credit for the Falcons’ powers-that-be for discovering Worrilow, I must remind you that he was an undrafted free agent. That means his becoming a Falcon was his choice, not necessarily theirs. Yes, they get credit for identifying him as a player worth signing, but ultimately he could have just as easily wound up playing for another team.
Essentially the Falcons got lucky with a find like Worrilow. Otherwise, this offseason could have been one where they continued to wait for Dent to emerge. Although I suspect if that Worrilow hadn’t wound up in Atlanta, the opening day of 2014 free agency might have also included a headline like “Karlos Dansby signs with Falcons.”
But Dent exemplifies a period of mediocrity as far as the team’s personnel moves go. The release of guard Garrett Reynolds earlier this offseason was the final stamp on the subpar returns on the Falcons’ 2009 draft class.
While the 2010 class still remains viable, it could take a severe hit following this year. With Dominique Franks, Kerry Meier and Shann Schillinger already gone from the draft class, the Falcons could be looking back five years later and not see a single pick on the roster since there’s a chance each of the team’s top four selections might not be back in 2015.
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, defensive tackle Corey Peters and guard Mike Johnson are all in contract years. Weatherspoon’s recent injury puts his Falcon career in jeopardy since it might be difficult for the Falcons to pay a player as injury prone as he has been.
The New York Giants gave oft-injured linebacker Jon Beason a three-year deal this offseason, but like Weatherspoon, he’s already suffered a major injury this offseason, which puts his 2014 in jeopardy. The Dallas Cowboys gave middle linebacker Sean Lee a large seven-year deal last summer and he’ll miss 2014 after only playing 11 games a year ago.
It just indicates that paying injury prone linebackers like Weatherspoon just doesn’t seem to go in the team’s favor as of recently. It seems like the best hope for him next offseason may be signing a one-year “prove it” deal similar to oft-injured Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin.
Peters might be out the door because of the team’s investment in Paul Soliai. There is the risk that Peters begins the 2014 season on the Physically-Unable-to-Perform list and if he does not have a strong finish to 2014, he could be playing elsewhere.
Johnson is competing for a reserve position along the offensive line this summer. It’s one that I think he will win, but that is by no means a guarantee. And even if he does stick on the roster, that does not mean he will be back next year.
2010 fourth-round pick Joe Hawley appears the safe, but he is anything but. As explained earlier this offseason, Hawley needs to perform well this year to keep his job beyond 2014. While Hawley was solid in seven starts last year, he had his issues and bouts of inconsistency. And there’s certainly a possibility that his next 16 starts more closely resemble the downs rather than the ups.
Now of course it could also go the complete opposite way as well. Weatherspoon could be more like Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis and return even stronger than ever in 2015. Peters could pick up where he left off in 2013 and earn himself the long-term deal next year that he hoped for this past spring. Johnson could potentially be pegged as the heir apparent to Justin Blalock at left guard if the latter should depart in another year or two. And Hawley could follow up with an even stronger 2014 season and find himself entrenched at center for nearly a decade like predecessor Todd McClure.
But just as the Falcons 2010 draft class could go either way, so could the 2011 and 2012 draft classes. Dent came from a 2011 class that produced Jones, but when a punter like Matt Bosher is the next best pick, it’s not the best sign. Running back Jacquizz Rodgers could be pushed out by 2014 rookie Devonta Freeman next year and that 2011 class could start to look a lot shakier. That’s usually what happens when you trade away premium picks.
The 2012 class is in rough shape with the top two selections, Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes, currently holding down reserve spots with no strong indications that they will ever regain starting spots. Holmes is the front-runner to replace Sam Baker as a starter when 2014 top pick Jake Matthews eventually takes over at left tackle. Holmes should then slide into the vacated right tackle position, but he’ll face competition from Ryan Schraeder. One could argue that Schraeder, with his play over the final month of 2013, was to Holmes last year what Worrilow was to Dent.
But it all lays the foundation that if the Falcons truly want to get back into Super Bowl contention, most of these question marks will have to go a certain way, the right way. The team can’t be in a position next year or anytime really where they are looking at another Dent: a relatively high pick that failed to work out.
The team can’t start fresh by trying to replace Weatherspoon and Peters next year. They’ve put in too much time and patience with both players to not eventually get a return on those investments. Among blockers like Johnson, Hawley, Konz and Holmes, at least two are going to have to emerge as capable starters this year or next. A player like Rodgers can’t be marginalized by the addition of Freeman and instead the team is going to have to find a way to maximize both players’ production moving forward.
And the same applies to the 2013 and 2014 draft classes. Cornerback Desmond Trufant can’t be a one-year wonder, and across from him, Robert Alford has to be a capable starter and not just a quality nickel. While tight end Levine Toilolo and defensive end Malliciah Goodman shouldn’t be expected to be top starters, they need to be at least capable role players. Toilolo may not be the next Tony Gonzalez, but it will greatly help the Falcons if he at least becomes the next Marcedes Lewis. Goodman hopefully can reach a level similar to Tyson Jackson, where he’s considered one of the better run-defending 3-4 defensive ends in the league.
The Falcons will be also greatly helped if 2014 picks in Matthews and defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman become Pro Bowl-caliber players. Freeman can’t be just a third-down back, and Dezmen Southward also needs to be an impact starter at safety.
If those things occur, then any potential for the Falcons to revert back to the conference title game form of 2012 should occur pretty quickly.